1915 – The landing at Gallipoli. 1916 – The Battle of the Somme. 1940 – The Battle of Britain. 1942 – The Battle of Malta. 1945 – Burma’s liberation from Japan. If ever there was one story of an Anzac who encapsulates both World War I and World War II – whose report card reads like a ‘who’s who’ of battles – it is that of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park.
So it seems fitting that on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, we look at the life of a man whose military successes and accolades were largely unknown outside military circles until just a few years ago.
Born and bred in New Zealand (though his father was Scottish), Keith Park seemed destined to go into the military, being keen on guns and horses from a young age. At age 22 he was on his way to Gallipoli, as a lance bombardier with the 3rd Reinforcements. He was part of the landing on Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, serving with a howitzer battery. By July he’d been commissioned as a second lieutenant, then took the step of transferring to the British Army, serving with the Royal Field Artillery. In early 1916 his battery was sent to the Somme. There he suffered wounds which rendered him ‘unfit for service’ but actually brought him closer to his goal of joining the Royal Flying Corps. His subsequent skills in the air over France, as commander of his squadron, earned him a Military Cross, among other accolades.
Between the wars, Park’s star in the air force continued to rise, culminating in his appointment as air aide-de-camp to King George VI for 1937 – a senior honorary aide-de-camp appointment for air officers in the Royal Air Force.
As the Battle of Britain raged in the skies during 1940-41, Park commanded several RAF forces that helped turn the tide against the Luftwaffe onslaught. Such was his influence, that in 1947, Lord Tedder (the head of the Royal Air Force) said of Park: ‘If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don’t believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world’.
From there he contributed his strategic skills in Malta, and then in a joint operation with the US during Burma’s liberation from Japanese control. After the war Park returned to New Zealand, where he held public service positions, including chairman of the Auckland International Airport Committee. Park died in Auckland in 1975.
It took the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II for a statue of Park to be erected in London, with his descendants present as special guests. Then earlier this year, in April, a statue of Park was unveiled in his hometown of Thames, New Zealand. At last a man whose actions and skills had saved the lives of many across the world, has been recognised.
Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.