Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 12, 2021

AVM Sir Keith Park -- The Man who could have lost the Battle of Britain

 While Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding forged the instruments for fighting the Battle of Britain, it was AVM Sir Keith Park who used the tools Dowding had given him to obtain victory. Park alone could not and did not win the Battle. Without the courage of the pilots and the dedication of the ground crews, the Battle of Britain would still have been lost. But all the courage and dedication in the world would not have been enough for victory, if Park had not used his resources so brilliantly. 

Keith Park was born in a small town in New Zealand in 1892, the son of Scottish immigrants. He grew up in New Zealand and started his adult life by joining the Union Steam Ship Company as a cadet purser. Already an enthusiastic hobby sailor, he seemed destined for a career at sea. WWI changed his fate. 

In December 1914, Park volunteered for the New Zealand army. He participated in the Gallipoli campaign as a corporal in the artillery. He was commissioned in July 2015 and on September 1 transferred to the British Army. As a second lieutenant in the horse artillery, he took part in the Battle of the Somme. In late October 1916, he was severely wounded by shell-fire and evacuated to England. After a short spell instructing at the Artillery Depot, his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, which he had been seeking for months, was granted and his flying career began. After learning to fly, he joined 48 Squadron in France in July 1917. By the end of the war, he was credited with twenty aerial victories and had been promoted to Major and appointed commanding officer of No 48 Squadron.

After the war, Park sought positions in New Zealand's fledgling aviation industry, but opportunities were few and competition stiff, so he remained in the UK and the RAF. He was one of the first men selected to attend the world's first air force staff college.  From 1923 to 1925, he served in Egypt, but in mid-1925 he was asked to join the staff of the newly create Air Defense of Great Britain (ADGB). The latter was the first attempt by the RAF to formulate doctrine for the air defence of the realm, coordinating the efforts of anti-aircraft, observer corps, searchlights and aircraft as well developing means of communication suitable to escalating speed of contemporary aircraft. The work of the ADGB staff laid the foundations on which Dowding later built Fighter Command. 

In November 1927, Park was allowed to leave this staff job for what many RAF officers consider the best job in the service: command of a squadron. Park was "given" No 111 (Fighter) Squadron stationed at Duxford and later Hornchurch. However, the interlude was typically short, and starting in March 1929, Park was back into a staff job, this time at the HQ of the Fighting Area based in Uxbridge. He returned to an operational job as Station Commander Northolt from January 1931 to August 1932, followed by a stint as Chief  Instructor for the Oxford University Squadron, an extremely prestigious post for a "Colonial." In all these assignments, Park endeavored to fly as often and as many different aircraft as possible, amassing nearly 1,000 hours flying time despite the peacetime conditions. 

From 1934 - 1936, Park was the British Air Attache in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in 1937 served as an Air Aide-de-Campe to His Majesty King George VI before being named Station Commander at the foreword fighter station Tangmere. A severe illness in April 1938, however, cut short this satisfying assignment and also caused the Air Ministry to re-think a planned assignment to Palestine. Because of his illness, the Air Ministry sent Arthur Harris, later famous as the wartime commander of Bomber Command, in Park’s stead, while Park landed in the job initially intended for Harris: Deputy to ACM Hugh Dowding at Fighter Command. It was May 1938.

As Dowding’s second-in-command, Park was responsible for developing fighter tactics. Park rapidly grasped the need to delegate tactical decisions to the station and even squadron level. He saw the role of Fighter Command as one of collecting and sharing information, ensuring inter-group reinforcement and providing broad strategic direction rather than attempting firm control over individual units. By September 1938, the possibility of war with Germany had become obvious to all but the most naïve. Park recognized that Fighter Command lacked squadrons and, above all, modern aircraft; only five squadrons were equipped with monoplane fighters, and advocated eloquently for funds to redress the shortcomings.  He also noted that radar and wireless communications were woefully inadequate, making an effective defense of Britain impossible without massive investment. Meanwhile, fighter tactics in the new environment were hotly debated.

Park recognized the need for exercises and was frustrated by Bomber Command’s lack of interest, which resulted in far too few bombers being committed to the exercises. Nevertheless, a number of weaknesses in Figter Command’s defensive tactics were identified and corrected. Park also developed the vitally important practice of first filtering “plots” (reports of hostile aircraft) before putting them on the operational map. This practice enabled duplicates and mistaken plots to be eliminated without confusing the “picture” presented to the controller. Another pressing issue was the allocation of squadrons to Groups (regions) and stations. Park successfully resisted attempts by the Commander of 12 Group to concentrate 29 of Fighter Command’s 41 squadrons in his own group, leaving only 12 for the defense of London.

In April 1940, Park was appointed commander of 11 Group, the Fighter Command unit responsible for the protection of the Southeast England from Southampton to Colchester. This area included such prime targets as the seat of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth) and the British capital. Park had not been in his position three weeks, when the Germans launched their major offensive in the West, rolling over Holland, Belgium and sweeping into France. Although the RAF had already deployed six squadrons to France at the start of the war, after the opening of the German offensive, pressure mounted for more and more RAF units to assist Britain’s allies on the Continent. Soon the RAF had deployed the equivalent of twelve squadrons to France, while four more were operating in theater from bases in England. Fortunately for Britain’s future, Dowding convinced the War Cabinet that no more pilots or aircraft could be spared if the defence of Great Britain was to be viable.

As the French army fell back and the German panzers advanced, Park and Fighter Command faced their first serious challenge. The British troops found themselves cut off on the Channel coast, and the Royal Navy launched a massive attempt to evacuate them off the continent and bring them back to England. The troops and vessels were crammed together within a small perimeter and during the embarkation process, they were both unprotected and immobile. The thus offered ideal targets to the Luftwaffe’s bombers, dive-bombers and strafing-fighters. Goering promised Hitler that his Luftwaffe would put an end to the British operation “Dynamo”.

Park and the fighters of his Group were charged with providing air protection for the evacuation. Yet, British single engine fighters of this period did not have the fuel range to remain in the skies over Dunkirk for more than a few minutes. Instead, Park attempted to use radar plots to direct his UK-based fighters to intercept and destroy the Luftwaffe’s bombers. While the RAF caused significant damage, it often engaged above cloud or at a distance from Dunkirk where their actions could not be witnessed by the troops being evacuated. Meanwhile, the bulk of the bombers were getting through. Thus, The British Army and Royal Navy suffered enormous losses during the tedious process of embarking nearly 340,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Many of the troops on the ground and their officers felt that the RAF had left them in the lurch. Throughout the war, Park encountered Army officers who blamed him for not doing enough at Dunkirk.

 y mid-June, as Churchill put it, the Battle of France was over, and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. In the four months that followed from mid-June to mid-October, the German Luftwaffe attempted to establish air superiority in the skies over Great Britain. It started the Battle with a marked superiority of force. Fighter Command possessed only 600 fighters; the German Luftwaffe could deplpoy 900 single-engined fighters and 300 twin-engined fighters to protect their fleet of 1,300 bombers.

The course of the Battle of Britain is widely recorded and is not the subject of this short essay. To summarize, although the RAF succeeded in destroying more German aircraft overall, the Luftwaffe fighters badly mauled the RAF. Massive increases in aircraft production enabled the RAF to replace lost fighters, but pilots could not be produced on assembly lines and casualty-rates in frontline squadrons — Park’s squadrons — rose to close to 70%. Young and inexperienced pilots were more likely to be shot down than experienced pilots, but by the end of the Battle, exhaustion was taking its toll on the experienced Flight and Squadron Leaders as well. The Battle of Britain was a very close-run battle that could easily have been lost.

Many factors contributed to victory: the courage and skill of the pilots, the dedication of the ground crews, the technological sophistication of the aircraft and the effective command-and-control system based on radar and radio communications. Too often forgotten is the leadership of AVM Park.

Park was not only making the day-to-day and minute-to-minute decisions about how many aircraft to deploy when and where, he was also making the critical decisions about squadron rotations. Because new units, unfamiliar with the conditions were usually decimated with in a short time after arrival and because experienced squadrons tended to have higher victory-to-loss ratios, rotating too many squadrons too soon would have been counter-productive. Yet even the best squadrons eventually became too exhausted and depleted to contribute to the war effort.

Park’s genius was in consistently meeting the Luftwaffe even as it changed tactics again and again. Over the four months of the Battle, the Luftwaffe altered the targets/objectives of its raids, starting with shipping and the Royal Navy, then focusing more on the radar chain, the airfields, aircraft factories and other war industries and finally on London. The Luftwaffe also experimented with a variety of types of raids: high and low altitude raids, large and small raids, diving bombing, and fighter-bombers.  It tried to overwhelm Parks defenses by attacking nearly  simultaneously in widely separated areas and by attacking the same targets repeatedly in successive raids. It sometimes provided massive fighter escorts for a few bombers and at other times sent over fighters on “sweeps” alone without bombers.

Whatever the Luftwaffe did, Park needed to respond within minutes. He did not have the luxury to “wait and see.” Contrary to what Park’s rival Leigh-Mallory claimed, it was not good enough to destroy the bombers after they had delivered their loads. Until the Luftwaffe started targeting London, the targets themselves were vital to Britain’s ability to repel an invasion. Had Leigh-Mallory’s tactics of assembling large gaggles of aircraft been employed, the result would have been more bomb damage to vital installations such as radar, aircraft factories, naval ships (needed to defend the Channel against invasion) and fighter airfields with their vital command and control functions and maintenance infrastructure.

In short, a different commander making wrong calls on a daily basis could have rendered Great Britain indefensible. Even with the same pilots, ground crews and aircraft, the Battle of Britain could have been lost. Another commander might have allowed pilots and aircraft to be destroyed on the ground by, for example, launching his entire force against a first raid, only for the Luftwaffe to catch them all refueling during a second. Another commander might have been over-hasty in rotating squadrons out and paid the price in lost pilots and lower kill-rates. Alternatively, another commander might have rotated squadrons too slowly, resulting in a collapse of front-line morale. Yet another commander still might have tried to hoard his fighters, avoiding confrontation with the Luftwaffe at the price of radar being knocked out, aircraft production interrupted or lamed, and the Royal Navy shattered. Undoubtedly, Park made mistakes too. No one is perfect and no one can make the right decisions all the time over four months of intense action. Yet Park was evidently right more often than he was wrong, or the Battle of Britain would have been lost.

That this was no fluke, is best demonstrated by Park’s subsequent career. In January 1942, after a year in Training Command (a critical albeit non-operational assignment), Park was commander of British air forces in Egypt, the main base for British operations in the Near East. On July 8, he was sent to take over the defense of Malta. Just two weeks after his arrival, Park launched an offensive that effectively brought an end to the daylight bombing raids on the island. At a time when Rommel was having things his way in the North African desert, Park’s defiance and successes were a major boost to British morale and duly lionized.

Park ended the war as Air Commander-in-Chief in Southeast Asia. He was highly respected and praised both publicly and privately. Over the course of his career he was awarded the DFC, MC and Bar, KBE and finally GCB. He retired with the rank of Air Chief Marshall in December 1946. Thereafter he was active in civil aviation in New Zealand. He died Feb. 6, 1975. 

Although Park has only a "cameo" role in "Where Eagles Never Flew," I attempt to do credit to his leadership through discussions and references on the part of other characters to his actions and leadership style. 

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding. Still, I don' think that either Parks or Dowding received the credit that was really their due.

    Thanks for reminding everyone, Professor.