Keith Park

Sir Keith Park on his role in command of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, in the Battle of Britain: My daily task in 1940 was to outwit and out-live a greatly more numerous enemy Air Force flushed by many victories in Europe. In achieving that aim I was ordered to prevent the bombing of many vital targets spread over the south of England and upon which our war effort depended.

The German Air Force being stronger and the attacker had unfettered choice of time, place, height, and weather for three months of the Battle. As the GAF operated on a 200-mile front it meant that I had, on an average to twice daily have to judge which was its main attacking force and concentrate the maximum Fighter squadrons I had available at short notice onto attack on the Bombers before they reached a vital target. The head-on attack from below by a squadron of fighters was more devastating to massed bombers than the First World War tactics of fighters attacking from the rear in full view of escorting German fighters. We varied our fighter tactics as also did the GAF, but we kept one step ahead.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, I was at my HQ No. 11 Group so as to be ready to take charge of fighter operations for the usual morning and the mid-afternoon German bomber attacks. Then, as the squadrons were landing from first combat, I flew round visiting the most badly bombed aerodromes and also to visit the squadrons nearing their time for a withdrawal from the front-line for rest and re-training of new pilots.

Air Vice Marshal Keith Park commanded No. 11 Group in the Battle of Britain.

Some squadrons stayed fighting fit for over a month, like the Scottish and Polish squadrons. Others, who had lost their best leaders, began to crack up in less than two weeks. This was a daily concern of mine as we were so short of trained replacement squadrons, in rear areas of numbers 12 and 13 Fighter Groups. Thanks to Beaverbrook, who telephoned me nightly, I was never dangerously short of Hurricanes or Spitfires. The pity was that he was not also given the supply of trained fighter pilots instead of Air Staff or Air Ministry! Not till the Battle was nearly over in September 1940 did D.C.A.S. Air Minister Sholto-Douglas appear to realise the grave—no the critical—shortage of trained pilots in my squadrons in the front-line, also in Groups in rear areas of Fighter Command.

For many weeks I had been desperately short of pilots and kept reporting this daily to Lord Dowding who daily reported to Air Staff, Air Ministry. This shortage very nearly cost us the critical Battle of Britain. The very Air Staff responsible for this failure arranged, after the Battle had been won, for the Commander of Fighter Command and myself to appear in late October before the full Air Council—not to be thanked, but to be questioned as to why we did not try out certain minor tactics favoured by the Commander of a Fighter Group in a back area that had little fighting experience in 1940.

If I had time I could relate several other spheres in which D.C.A.S. and Air Ministry failed to meet the urgent needs of Fighter Command in 1940. When I was posted in December 1940 for a “rest” in Flying Training Command they were amazed to hear for the first time of a shortage of pilots in Fighter Command in 1940. The C-in-C Patterson swore he had never been told by Air Ministry. Moreover, when I took command of No. 23 Training Group, I found the advanced flying schools were working only two-thirds capacity on a peacetime routine complete with long week-ends Friday to Monday. Air Ministry records will show 23 Group’s increase in pilot output in 1941 long after the Battle of Britain, after Dowding had been displaced by Sholto-Douglas.

Because Air Chief Marshal Joubert, RAF (Ret) has criticized my tactical handling of fighter squadrons in the Battle of Britain, I am entitled to describe how the fighters were handled during those fateful four months. In July 1940 Fighter Command had a total of fifty fighter squadrons for the defence of Great Britain against the Luftwaffe, which had concentrated about 4,000 bombers and fighters in northwest Europe. Twenty-five of the RAF fighter squadrons were in my command, No. 11 Fighter Group, covering the southeast of England (and London). The remaining twenty-five squadrons were divided between three smaller fighter groups: No. 10 Fighter Group on my right covered the southwest of England, No. 12 Fighter Group in my rear covered the Midlands and North of England, and No. 13 Fighter Group covered Scotland.

As the bulk of the fighting was in No. 11 Group’s area, their squadrons became battle-weary and were regularly exchanged with squadrons in fighter groups in the rear. Owing to the shortage of fresh squadrons, my orders from Lord Dowding were not to call on the fighter groups on my flank or rear for reinforcements unless absolutely essential. However, I was sometimes forced to call for small reinforcements when all my squadrons had been sent forward to engage the main enemy raids before they could bomb a target. Many were the occasions I had nothing left to defend vital targets like Portsmouth or Southampton and fighter aerodromes. On scores of days I called on No. 10 Fighter Group on my right for a few squadrons to protect some vital target. Never on any occasion can I remember this group failing to send its squadrons promptly to the place requested, thus saving thousands of lives of civilians, also saving the Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth, also the port of Southampton and aircraft factories.

In view of Joubert’s published criticism of No. 11 Group, I have no option but to record the very unsatisfactory state of affairs in my left rear occupied by No. 12 Fighter Group throughout the Battle of Britain.

On a few dozen occasions when I had sent every available squadron of No. 11 Group to engage the main enemy attack as far forward as possible, I called on No. 12 Group to send a couple of squadrons to defend a fighter airfield or other vital targets which were threatened by out-flanking and smaller bomber raids. Instead of sending two squadrons quickly to protect the vital target, No. 12 Group delayed while they despatched a large Wing of four or five squadrons, who wasted valuable time taxiing and taking off, then climbing and assembling into mass formation in a back area before advancing south into the area of fighting. Consequently, they invariably arrived too late to prevent the enemy bombing his target.

On one occasion I asked for two squadrons to protect North Weald fighter aerodrome from an approaching raid, but no reinforcing squadrons arrived from No. 12 Group before this vital station was heavily bombed with loss of life and destruction of hangars, workshops, Operations Room, etc. On another occasion, No. 12 Group was asked to send a couple of squadrons to protect the fighter station at Hornchurch, but again no reinforcements arrived in time to prevent heavy bombing of this aerodrome. To continue the battle it was vitally important to defend the fighter bases.

No. 12 Group’s mass formations were nicknamed “BALBOs”, because they were so slow, cumbersome, and unreliable. Having failed to carry out the task requested, these Balbos went off on roving missions in No. 12 Group’s area and on occasions intercepted enemy bomber formations when retreating after having bombed London and having been engaged by No. 11 Group squadrons who had drawn off their escort and reduced the enemy’s ammunition and fuel supply. Sir Philip Joubert claims that No. 12 Group’s tactics were correct and economised in the lives of pilots, but I believe that if No. 11 Group had adopted similar “withholding” tactics, tens of thousands of Londoners and all our fighter bases in the south of England would have been destroyed by September 1940. In support of my contention, the Official Air Ministry account published in 1943 says—No. 12 Group was very successful in attacking the RETREATING enemy bomber formations, which had often been separated from their escort or broken up by anti-aircraft defence (and fighters of No. 11 Group).

When the Battle of Britain had been safely won, the Commander of No. 12 Group, aided and abetted by one or two armchair critics at the Air Ministry, including Sir Philip Joubert, claimed that No. 11 Group had used the wrong tactics in winning the Battle of Britain and that No. 12 Group could have done the job much better. But I can say after further experience as Commander of the Air Forces in Malta, then in the Middle East, and lastly on the Burma Front, that we could have lost the Battle of Britain if I had adopted the “withholding” tactics of No. 12 Group as advocated by Sir Philip Joubert.

The Air Ministry in 1942 selected me to take Command of Malta when it was being bombed three or four times daily by the Luftwaffe. In Malta I introduced the same “forward interception” policy that I used in the Battle of Britain, and without receiving one single reinforcement we put a stop to the Luftwaffe bombing within two weeks. During the second blitz of Malta, in 1942, I again used these tactics and my squadrons inflicted a decisive defeat on a more numerous German Air Force in Sicily.

I wonder how General Freyberg would have advanced along the north coast of Africa in 1942 if the 2nd New Zealand Division continually had to contend with a British Division on its left flank which failed to advance and capture its objective when ordered? I had to endure this grave handicap for four month and repeatedly reported the facts verbally and in writing to higher authority, but without result because the commander of No. 12 Group had the ear of the then Chief of Air Staff, Lord Newall, who early in the war retired from the Royal Air Force and was appointed a Governor General.

No. 10 Group was commanded by a famous South African pilot, Air Vice Marshal Sir Christopher Brand, the first man to fly from England to Johannesburg. His group did four times as much fighting as No. 12 Group, but never complained about my tactical handling of our fighter squadrons.

—Keith Park

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