Tag Archives: Keith Park

RAF in the desert

The RAF had begun to build up its strength in the desert just after the Battle of Britain and just in time for the first offensive in 1940. When it opened, the RAF had about 220 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just two full squadrons of Hurricanes (hardly enough to establish air superiority).

In mid 1941, the RAF’s newly appointed AOC-in-C Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, sat down with Auchinleck (Montgomery’s predecessor) to work out how the RAF and the Army should work together to defeat a common enemy. The RAF would bomb ports to disrupt supply lines and attack the lines of communication behind the battlefield. Casting pre-war RAF doctrine aside, it was also agreed that the army would receive air support directly on the battlefield (Bungay 104-107).

Disruption of supply lines was critical to winning the Battle. Fighting at desert war has been likened to a battle at sea- where the actual territory counts for nothing (waves of a salty ocean or windswept, featureless sands), and advancement cannot be made without machines (ships or tanks…). In this hostile environment, survival meant supplies. In theory, a mobile infantry unit needed 350 tons of supplies a day, including water, i.e. about 10,000 tons a month (Bungay 44).

Tedder re-organised his Command, turning his forward group into Air Headquarters, Western Desert, which soon became known as the Desert Air Force. In July, the Desert Air Force also got a new commander in the form of the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Connigham, who was known as ‘Mary’ (a corruption of ‘Maori’).

The British desperately needed Spitfires to stem their fighter losses in 1942, but they did not arrive. Keith Park acidly observed:

“Early in 1942, Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had 75 fighter squadrons in England, carrying out massive sweeps over France, as compared with only 52 squadrons when the Luftwaffe was at its full strength during the Battle of Britain. When the C-in-C Middle East asked for Spitfires for Malta,Fighter Command refused…when as few as five Spitfire squadrons could have saved Malta from the terrible blitz of spring 1942. This all arose from the mania of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory for Big Fighter Wings.”

Douglas intended to tie down the Luftwaffe and force it to withdraw fighters from Russia, but instead pointlessly lost many pilots and planes over France. The only Luftwaffe units ever to be withdrawn from Russia were sent to the Middle East because of the RAF’s activities in Malta and the desert. The Desert Air Force had to wait until May 1942 before it got it first operational squadron of Spitfires.

Following the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was eventually driven back into the a strip of land between an outcrop of hills and the Tunisian coast. The battle for North Africa did not end until May 1943.

One of the lessons Rommel was to take from Alamein to his later role as commander of the German defences in Normandy was the significance of air power. During the battle, the Allies had flown 11,586 sorties and had lost 97 aircraft. The Axis air forces had managed to put up 3,000 sorties an lost about 84 aircraft. The Desert Air Force hounded the retreat until it ran out of targets, but the Luftwaffe was unable to have any impact on the pursuers (Bungay 196-98).

The importance of Malta

Spitfire bound for Malta


“Either, sir, we get the Spitfires here within days, not weeks, or we’re done. That’s it.”
Sqn/Ldr Stan Turner to AOC Sir Hugh Lloyd about the situation on Malta

The outcome of land fighting was determined by a supply war, in which the main front was the Mediterranean Sea. Control of the convey routes over the sea, the three main ports and the supply lines linking the ports to the front were crucial for success in North Africa.  Control of these channels required air supremacy; this demanded the island of Malta.

Malta was a significant military and naval fortress, being the only Allied base between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. It was a linchpin in the British Empire overseas—a vital way station along Britain’s lifeline, through Egypt and the Suez Canal to India and the Far East. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of Axis forces in North Africa, recognised its importance quickly. In May 1941, he warned that “Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa.”

The Axis resolved to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied shipping supplying the island. It was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica flew a total of 3,000 bombing raids over a period of two years in an effort to destroy RAF defences and the ports. Success would have made possible a combined German—Italian amphibious landing (Operation Herkules). Despite strong urgings from Rommel, it was never carried out. In the end, Allied convoys were able to supply and reinforce Malta, while the RAF defended its airspace, though at great cost in material and lives.

Keith Park arrived in Malta in  July 1942 as AOC.  He brought his Battle of Britain experience to bear and within weeks he was able to turn the tide for the besieged island. With plenty of Spitfires to operate, Park sought to intercept the enemy and break up his formations before the bombers reached the island. Up until this point, the Spitfires had fought defensively. They scrambled and headed south to gain height, then turned around to engage the enemy over the island. . Using three squadrons, Park asked the first to engage the escorting fighters by ‘bouncing them’ out of the sun. The second would strike at the close escort, or, if unescorted, the bombers themselves. The third was to attack the bombers head-on.

The impact of Park’s methods was instant. His Forward Interception Plan, issued officially on 25 July 1942, forced the Axis to abandon daylight raids within six days.

However, without adequate aviation fuel, ammunition and other vital supplies, the might of the Spitfires would soon be silenced. Operation Pedestal took place in August 1942; this epic attempt to run some 80 ships past bombers, minefields and u-boats has gone down in military history as one of the most important British victories of the Second World War – though at a cost of more than 400 lives.

Many of the attacks were against the SS Ohio, an American oil tanker essential to the mission’s success. Waves of bombers targeted her and the Ohio was finally torpedoed on 12 August before then being caught by two more bombs the following day.  Although crippled, she did not sink immediately, giving the forces one last chance to bring her in. HMS Ledbury, working with other warships, came alongside. With sheer determination, the ships succeeded in propping up the Ohio and towing her into port before she could be hit again. Her vital cargo was offloaded and the Allies defense of Malta continued.

Rommel’s position became critical. He was starved of his supplies while the British reinforced their lines in Egypt, prior to the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In December 1942, air and sea forces operating from Malta went over to the offensive. By May 1943, they had sunk 230 Axis ships in 164 days, the highest Allied sinking rate of the war. The Allied victory in Malta opened the door for the the eventual Allied success in North Africa.

Holding course

Looking back at the original post, where I define our objective as understanding more about the unspoken history of our Grandfather’s role in the War, we seem to have strayed a rather long way off topic.

To use a flying analogy (sorry), I’d like to think that we are circling over the target rather than veering hopelessly off course.

Before I could start to really think about Grandpa, we needed to gather more context. How could we understand his circumstances without first gaining a broader understanding of the wider picture?

The Battle of Britain marks the first major air-engagement for England and was a logical starting point. As previously noted, to gather the widest view, we’ve been looking at histories, biographies, visiting airfields etc.

This early effort has started to build up the knowledge base, but it then opened up a new question: how does one record history?

If I was a history academic, this question would have been exposed and dealt with during an undergraduate degree (thanks to all those post-modernists), but as an amateur, it’s a troubling matter.

How do you get to the core meaning of any event? Surely facts alone can’t tell a story (look, for example at Westhampnett at War. It gives a list of Squadrons who were based there, but the meaning of the book comes from the long letter of a veteran written many decades later).

This tension is well-represented by Park and Leigh-Mallory. Park, unrecorded in the official history of the Battle, had a bronze statue unveiled in his honour 70 years later. Leigh-Mallory, celebrated and promoted in his short life-time now stands as a political climber who misplayed his hand.

The challenge will come in both interpreting the information we find and in transcribing the facts into our own history.

Leigh-Mallory: going down in history

Before leaving the topic of Keith Park (although I am sure we will come back to Park as his later role in the War will intersect more specifically with our story), I want to spend a moment considering his successor.

As previously noted, Park was quickly and quietly removed from his command of 11 Group shortly after the Battle of Britain. It’s worth remembering that the Battle of Britain was a short, sharp episode which covers a specific period (the late summer and autumn of 1940). Germany’s failure to gain air supremacy over the UK contributed to their decision to abort an amphibious invasion and was one of the major turning points in the War.

Park fought an intensely defensive battle. He instructed his fighters to attack the incoming bombers and resisted attempts to be drawn into dog fights. He preserved his fire power and used it where it was needed most- against the bombers who could destroy their airfields. He and Dowding combined sharp military tactics with modern ingenuity and capitalised on German mistakes (such as their failure to understand the importance of the radar network).

Why then, was Park not recognised in his time? The Battle was clearly a success as the invasion had been prevented.

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory replaced Park as Air Officer Commanding of 11 Group.

Leigh-Mallory was educated at Cambridge where he met Arthur Tedder, the future Marshal of the Royal Air Force. He passed his Bachelor of Law degree and had applied to the Inner Temple in London to become a barrister when, in 1914, war broke out. Already one catches a glimpse of the old boys’ network- an Oxbridge education and youthful friendships with the right people.

Leigh-Mallory served as a Royal Flying Corps pilot and squadron commander during the First World War. Remaining in the newly formed RAF after the war, Leigh-Mallory served in a variety of staff and training appointments throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

During the pre-Second World War build-up, he was AOC No. 12 Group  and then took the helm of 11 Group, where he assumed responsibility for the defence of London.

In 1942 he became the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command before being selected in 1943 to be the C-in-C of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, which made him the air commander for the Allied Invasion of Normandy.

During the Battle of Britain, Leigh-Mallory disagreed with Park and Dowding’s tactical decisions. Rather than scrambling small flights of interceptors, he and flying ace Douglas Bader pushed the ‘Big Wing’. The tactic involved meeting incoming Luftwaffe bombing raids in strength with a wing-sized formation of three to five squadrons. In the Battle, this tactic was employed by the Duxford Wing, under Bader’s command.

Although Leigh-Mallory and Bader claimed it was a great success, post-war analysis suggests the actual number of German aircraft shot down by the wings was probably a fraction of those claimed. However, their own losses were less- suggesting that there was some safety in numbers.

It was easier to interrogate the wing’s effectiveness after the War, when it was possible to study German logs and authenticate the claims of the pilots.

It’s not surprising that it was so well-received at the time. It was a dramatic vision- a triumphant force streaming across the skies in a wall of fury, designed to demoralise as much as destroy the Luftwaffe. It was bold in its vision and was led by a hero  (Bader was a talented pilot and flew despite losing both of his legs in an earlier crash).

This solves the first riddle: why was Leigh-Mallory so celebrated at the time? Perhaps it is simply because the idea that he was selling gripped the imagination of senior military figures and the news-hungry public. It wasn’t really possible to fully and dispassionately understand its effectiveness until long after the Battle had been fought. Coupled with his excellent political connections, it’s not surprising that he received his promotion and Park was scrubbed from the official history.

But, I wonder if there is another facet to the story that’s worth considering…

In August 1944, with the Battle of Normandy almost over, Leigh-Mallory was appointed Air Commander-in-Chief of South East Asia Command (SEAC). But before he could take up his post he was killed en route to Burma when the aircraft he was travelling in crashed into the French Alps.  All on board were killed. The subsequent Court of Inquiry found that the accident was a consequence of bad weather and might have been avoided if Leigh-Mallory had not insisted that the flight proceed in such poor conditions against the advice of his air-crew.

He was one of the most senior British officers and the most senior RAF officer to be killed in the Second World War.

With a final twist of fate, Leigh-Mallory’s replacement at SEAC was Sir Keith Park.

Leigh-Mallory, in not surviving the War, was not there to shape the fluid and developing history around the Battle. He left few papers and his wife died alongside him. The paucity of information meant that his story was frozen in the heat of War, without any chance to relive, understand or explain the story.

Meeting them

One of my favourite stories about Park:

During the morning of 15 September Park received a visit from Churchill…

Churchill remembered Park walking up and down behind the map table, “watching with vigilant eye every move in the game…and only occasionally intervening with some decisive order, usually to reinforce a threatened area.”

Churchill now broke silence. “There appear to be many aircraft coming in”. As calmly, Park reassured him:

‘There’ll be someone there to meet them.”

Soon all his squadron were committed and Churchill heard him call Dowding to ask for three squadrons from 12 Group to be placed at his disposal in case of another attack. He noticed Park’s anxiety and and asked: “What reserves have we?”

“There are none” Park replied.

(Orange 109-110)

The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

After reading Bungay’s Most Dangerous Enemy, I was intrigued to discover more about Keith Park.

Park is painted as a brilliant tactician, who grasped the situation and made the correct decisions in the heat of battle. However, after the Battle, he lacked the political ability to capitalise on his military triumph and convert it into career gain. This, of course, only serves to further cast him in the role of a hero.

Shortly after the Battle of Britain he was relieved of his command of 11 Group and sent off to train pilots (he would return to front line action in the War, but more on that later).

Vincent Orange‘s substantial biography of Keith Park presents the facts and well-deserved tributes in a readable manner. He enjoyed unrestricted access to Park’s papers and as the first edition of the book was written in 1984, he was able to conduct many interviews with people who had known him.

Orange reveals a man whose energy and courage won him supreme praise from Churchill and the lasting respect of all who served under him.

Christchurch Press writes:

“Park emerges from this very thorough and scholarly biography not as The Great Man, but as a human being with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us: a man whose greatness is delineated alongside his more everyday qualities.”

Park wasn’t recognised in his time; the official record of the Battle doesn’t even mention his name. However, he has now taken up station as one of the War’s great leaders. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a campaign was launched to create a permanent monument to him

“Individuals can achieve so much in a single life, and we should never forget how each of us, everyday, can make a difference to the world around us. That is something that Park and his Pilots knew only too well.”

-Terry Smith at the unveiling of the statue of Sir Keith Park, Waterloo Place, London, 15 September 2010

So, a hero now but not then. Why? Did someone fail to see the triumph at the time, or does history start to re-write itself over the decades?


Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder, credited one man in particular for winning the Battle of Britain: Sir Keith Park.

Park was a New Zealander, drawn to Europe by the First World War. He served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front from 1915-1916. He saw warfare at its grimy, fearful worst as a lowly infantry man. He also forged the leadership skills that he would call on in the coming decade.

He recalled his Anzac Commander, Sir William Birdwood and tried to follow many of his precepts: attention to detail, regular tours of inspection, indifference to personal danger and the ability to relax without cheapening authority.

He transfered to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and was a highly accomplished pilot, ending the war as an ace.

He spent the inter-war years as a diplomat and served as a flight commander on No. 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before taking up duties as a squadron commander at the School of Technical Training.

As commander of 11 Group during the Battle of Britain, he was responsible for the air defence of London and South-East England. He combined his thorough understanding of aerial warfare with inspired tactical decisions.

Terry Smith, chairman of the Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign, writes: “While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour”.

Air Vice-Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon”.

Wave after wave of German bombing sorties met with stubborn resistance from the fighter squadrons under Park’s command and, by mid-September, it was clear that Britain’s defences had held and Hitler was forced to abandon the planned invasion of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “never… was so much owed by so many to so few”. It was Keith Park who led “the Few”.