Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park has until now been one of the unsung heroes of British history. Most have heard of Winston Churchill and General Montgomery (“Monty’), whose leadership examples contribute powerfully to the story of the Second World War. Yet few other than historians and aficionados of that conflict know much, if anything, about Keith Park, even though his leadership and contribution played a decisive part in the Battle of Britain. Today, on the 70th anniversary of what is regarded as the pivotal day of the aerial battle in the summer of 1940, commemorated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’, a 9ft bronze statue of Sir Keith was unveiled in a ceremony in London, attended by the current head of the RAF and 14 of the 80 surviving fighter pilots from that battle.
Sir Keith Park commanded No. 11 Group Fighter Command, responsible for the fighter defence of London and southeast England. His pilots and ground crew would bear the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks on Britain in the summer of 1940. A quiet, unassuming New Zealander, Park was the tactical genius who deployed his scarce pilot and aircraft resources to optimal effect at a time when Britain’s future balanced on a knife-edge. He was revered by his pilots, who respected his quiet but resolute leadership. We now know that Hitler and his Luftwaffe were not successful in paving the way for an invasion of Britain but, at the time, the outcome depended on decisions Park made, sometimes by the minute and the hour, under immense pressure and uncertainty. One of the top Allied air aces of the War, Johnnie Johnson, said of Park; “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon” and Lord Tedder, Chief of the Air Staff, said after the War; “If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgment and his skill, did to save not only this country but the world.”
The reason why Park’s example is important is that he epitomises those leaders whose actions speak louder than words. We hear a lot about charisma and leadership but sometimes forget that “leadership” is also about judgement, resolution and effectiveness under the sort of pressure that would destroy those whose claim to “leadership” rests mainly on charisma or persona. Leadership is primarily about what leaders actually do, not how they posture. How many times do we see previously un-trumpeted leaders emerge in adversity as the real leaders, while other more ‘obvious’ ones fall by the wayside?
Despite Park’s leadership example and record, he was replaced at 11 Group shortly after the Battle in a coup largely orchestrated by Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had commanded the less strategically important No.12 Group covering the Midlands. Leigh Mallory was a manipulative self-publicist, envious of Park’s greater ostensible profile at 11 Group and had clashed with him over tactics during the Battle of Britain. Leigh-Mallory now championed a grand alternative strategy involving high profile offensive sweeps into France using large numbers of fighters, designed to engage and destroy German aircraft in bulk. Its effectiveness proved poor: in 1941 alone, RAF losses exceeded 500 pilots, equating to four aircraft lost for each German aircraft destroyed, with little effect on ground targets. Nevertheless, Leigh-Mallory’s gift for self-promotion and his greater apparent charisma ensured he stayed in the limelight until he died in an air crash in late 1944.
Yet, look at the “quiet leader”, Sir Keith Park: calm judgement, resolve and skill – what better characteristics for a leader in a crisis? Who would you want answering the ‘red phone’ in the halls of power at 3 am?