Sir Keith Park, stands proud on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth
By Tony Rennell
Appeared in the Daily Mail 5 November 2009
The bloated, comic-opera commander of the Luftwaffe issued his order for what he called 'Eagle Day'. 'From Reichs marschall Goering to all units. Within a short period you will wipe the British air force from the sky. Heil Hitler.'
It was August 1940. The greatest threat to these shores in modern times was about to be unleashed.
There were plenty of men determined to resist - Winston Churchill, the prime minister, for one, and Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, whose squadrons of fighter planes and brave pilots would have to meet the menace.
But they delegated the day-by-day and hour-by-hour running of the Battle of Britain in its most vital sector - in the South-East of England and London - to a tall and lean, quiet and calm officer of New Zealand origins, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park.
In the coming weeks it was he who pitched his Spitfires and Hurricanes in against impossible odds, spreading his thin resources, disguising his weaknesses, going on the offensive when he could until the enemy was beaten off.
Yesterday, this unassuming hero received the public recognition he deserves as a statue of him was unveiled on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The 15ft glass-fibre statue, which will stay there for six months, is a fitting memorial to the man whose crucial role has been too often overlooked.
London Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled the statue and praised the efforts of campaigners who have fought to have the memorial installed.
A permanent bronze statue of Park will be erected in Waterloo Place in London on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain on September 15 next year.
Park was the son of a Scottish professor and English mother who had emigrated to New Zealand. He joined up at the outbreak of the Great War aged 22 only to be wounded and shipped back to Britain to recuperate. He married and settled here, joining the Royal Flying Corps and notching up no fewer than 14 kills.
Park and his 11 Group were later in the front line from the moment Hitler's forces stormed into France and forced the British army to the beaches of Dunkirk.
He gave what air cover he could to desperate men waiting to be evacuated, but sparingly - for which some soldiers never forgave him.
But Park knew the crucial battle lay ahead. By the time it came, with Eagle Day, Park had 22 squadrons and 350 aircraft, to face a Luftwaffe force ten times bigger.
The offensive began with a concerted effort to destroy RAF bases, bombard factories making aircraft and engage the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command in a war of attrition.
Within 14 days, Goering predicted, the RAF would no longer exist - and Britain would lie defenceless and open to invasion.
Messerschmitts, Junkers and Heinkels filled the skies over the French coast, swarming 'like termites in warm weather,' as one historian of the battle described it, before heading towards England.
From his headquarters in Uxbridge, Park plotted his moves, sent up some squadrons, kept those he could in reserve.
His pilots flew their planes in line abreast into the enemy formations, machine-gun fire spraying from their wings. Sometimes, if the German pilots held their course, these fearless young men rammed straight into the enemy.
Park knew the sums were against him. If he shot down 50 enemy aircraft but lost 20, eventually it would all be over. He ordered his pilots not to chase the departing enemy out over the sea. He could not afford to risk losing any more planes than necessary.
And, as the weary days turned into weeks, his tactics began to work. The airfields were not bombed to destruction, factories were still turning out planes, Goering's gamble was failing.
He had one more throw of the dice. A few stray bombs landed on the capital. British bombers hit Berlin in retaliation. An incensed Hitler issued new commands: London was to be flattened.
It was September 7 and Goering settled down on a collapsible seat on the cliffs at Cap Gris Nez near Calais to watch as the biggest air armada ever launched passed over him on its way to London.
Park sent 11 Group into action. His outnumbered squadrons hurled themselves at the Heinkel and Dornier bombers, sending many spiralling down in flames. In the end, it was a stand-off, a draw, but one thing was clear - Goering had been denied his victory.
A week later, the day was to be unquestionably Park's. It was a Sunday and Churchill had decided to make an unexpected call on the commander of 11 Group.
In his headquarters, they watched as another Luftwaffe battle fleet formed up, developing 'like germs under a microscope'. There were 200 bombers in three waves, with 400 fighters as escorts. London was again their target.
Park sent out his forces, first to drive off the fighter escorts, then to turn on the bombers. He had committed everything.
The fighting was stupendous but Park's young heroes were inspired. This was the day Goering had told the Führer that the RAF would be down to its last 50 Spitfires. Yet here they were in their hundreds.
The Battle of Britain was effectively won that day. Hitler abandoned his invasion of Britain and turned on the Soviet Union.
Park was the architect of the victory. 'If any one man won the Battle of Britain,' said Lord Tedder, later Marshal of the Royal Air Force, 'Park did. I do not believe it is realised what one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world.'
Copyright The Daily Mail 2009