The Mastermind behind Victory on Malta

 AVM Park is most famous for brilliantly commanding 11 Group during the Battle of Britain, but important as that was, it was not the end of Park's career. He also played a key role in the Battle of Malta. 

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 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 created 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 the 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. Park next landed in a job initially intended for Arthur 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. Park also 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 Fighter 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 of 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. Fortunately for Britain’s future, Dowding convinced the War Cabinet to stop sending pilots or aircraft to France before it was too late.

By mid-June, the Battle of France was over. 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. At the start of the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command possessed only 600 fighters whereas the German Luftwaffe could deploy 900 single-engine fighters and 300 twin-engine fighters to protect their fleet of 1,300 bombers. Yet Britain ultimately won. 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 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 decision about squadron rotations. Because new units, unfamiliar with the conditions were usually decimated within 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. A different commander making wrong calls on a daily basis could have rendered Great Britain indefensible. In short, even with the same pilots, ground crews and aircraft, the Battle of Britain could have been lost.

Following the dramatic victory over the Luftwaffe in 1940, Dowding was retired and Park posted to Training Command. Both men understandably felt they were being slighted despite their remarkable achievements and resented the treatment accorded them. In Dowding's case that was undoubtedly true and a sad commentary on the petty rivalries and intrigue within the Air Ministry. Park's posting is more ambiguous. Just like his squadrons, Park needed a rest -- whether he wanted one or not. Furthermore, his appointment to Training Command was fortuitous, as many here did not seem to grasp "there was a war on" and Park did much to shake-up the Command and improve procedures and results.

After a year at Training Command, Park was ready to move on and in January 1942 he was appointed commander of British air forces in Egypt, the main base for British operations in the Near East. From there, on July 8, he was sent to take over the defense of Malta.

The importance of Malta at this juncture cannot be overstated. In retrospect, the entire Near Eastern/North African theatre of war has come to look like a "side-show" of only marginal importance. Yet this popular view overlooks the key factors at stake and ignores the consequences of failure. At stake was access to Middle Eastern oil and control of the Suez control. The loss of either would have almost certainly doomed Allied victory, or caused the war to drag on much longer. Of secondary importance but nevertheless significant was the diversion of Luftwaffe resources to the Malta/North African theater; some of the Luftwaffe's best generals (eg Albert Kesselring), squadrons and pilots to the Mediterranean meant that they were not providing vitally needed air support on the Eastern Front.

Malta's role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier only 60 miles south of Sicily was both defensive and offensive. Malta's air assets were critical to conducting reconnaissance over the constricted waters between Sicily and Tunisia, providing the Royal Navy with vital information about Axis ship movements, without which even more ships and lives would have been lost. Malta's aircraft also provided as much air cover as possible -- and certainly, more than aircraft carriers could have done -- to Allied ships moving through the Mediterranean. But Malta-based aircraft also played an offensive role in cutting off supplies to General Rommel's North Africa Korps. Aircraft based in Malta delivered torpedo attacks against Axis shipping and bombing attacks against Italian and North African ports and airfields. Sunderlands engaged in anti-submarine warfare, and reconnaissance aircraft directed the Royal Naval surface ships to attacks on Axis merchant shipping, submarines and warships.

Park arrived on Malta at a time when the worst was arguably already over. Certainly, the days when the island's defenses consisted of four Gladiator bi-planes were long since gone. Spitfires had been arriving on Malta for four months, and Hurricanes had been operating from the island for roughly two years. Park replaced Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, who had been in command of Malta's air forces since 1 June, 1941. Pughe Lloyd’s background was command of a Wellington Squadron and a bomber station, but he had no familiarity with fighter tactics. Despite the deployment of Spitfires in March, the bombers were still getting through. The Royal Navy had withdrawn its capital ships and even written off Malta as a base for submarines. Too many Wellingtons were being destroyed on the ground to justify retaining them and Malta’s capacity to conduct offensive operations had almost been eliminated.

All this despite the fact that the fighter squadrons on the island were almost continually in action, with individual pilots flying three and four times a day, and often at night as well. They were doing so with inadequate food or accommodations. Most demoralizing of all, most fighter units were still equipped with Hurricanes, which did not have the firepower to bring down the bombers, and were too slow and had too low a ceiling to cope with Me109s. They still flew — taking terrible losses, but more aircraft were being destroyed or damaged on the ground than in combat. For example of the 46 Spitfires that arrived in March, eight were destroyed in combat, nine on the ground and 29 were rendered unserviceable within days of their arrival.

Furthermore, because Malta’s offensive and defensive capabilities had been eroded, vital supplies were no longer getting through. One convoy from Alexandria had been forced to turn back; another from Gibralter had managed to land just a fraction of the goods sent. The British governor on the island gave notice that without significant supplies of food and fuel, he would be forced to surrender. The deadline set for the deliver of sufficient supplies was September. Thus was born the most famous of all convoys of the Second World War: Operation Pedestal.

Park, meanwhile, was appalled to discover that less than 10% of incoming raids had been intercepted before reaching the island. He immediately adjusted the procedures to enable forward interceptions, that is scrambling the fighters earlier so they could gain height and attack the bombers before they reached the skies over Malta. He also assigned different squadrons to different roles, as in the Battle of Britain, with some sent specifically to take on the enemy's high escort, other the close escort and others the bombers. These new tactics were so successful they effectively brought an end to the daylight bombing raids on the island within a week of being introduced.

By September, Park's defenses were deemed sufficient to justify the return of bombers to the island for the conduct of offensive operations. Although the Axis made renewed attempts at offensive operations in the autumn of 1942, the RAF under Park was largely effective in fighting the enemy off. Meanwhile, Park extended the RAF's attacks all the way to Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily and Sardinia. 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. It was for his role in the defense of Malta, not his leadership in the Battle of Britain, that Keith Park was knighted in 1942.

By May 1943 the situation had changed and the Allies were on the offensive. Park had command of 600 aircraft (both fighters and bombers), three times the number he had had at his disposal on arrival. On 10 July 1943, the Allied invasion of Sicily began with strong air support from Malta directed from the control room there which Park had developed.

In January 1944, he was promoted to air marshal and given command of all British air forces in the Middle East. A year later he was appointed Air Commander-in-Chief in Southeast Asia, and he was in this position when the war ended.

Park 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. "Where Eagles Never Flew" was the the winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew



All novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. These include:



Riding the icy, moonlit sky --

They took the war to Hitler.

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent.

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved.

Buy in kindle or pre-order paperback.
 

MORAL FIBRE is the WINNER of a HEMINGWAY AWARD 2022 and was a FINALIST for a BOOK EXCELLENCE AWARD.

 

 


 Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


Find out more about all my aviation books at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html


 

 



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