Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Defender of London

Last week, on Battle of Britain Day, a statue of Sir Keith Park was unveiled in London, finally ensuring belated recognition for the man the Germans called ‘The Defender of London.’

Keith Rodney Park was born in Thames, on the North Island of New Zealand on 15th June 1892, the son of a Scottish geologist. He was educated at King’s College, Auckland and later Otago Boys’ High School, Dunedin, where he also served in the Cadet Force. He later joined the New Zealand Territorial Army in the Field Artillery but in 1911 at the age of 19, joined the Merchant Navy as a Purser.

On the outbreak of war in 1914, he left the Merchant Navy and joined his Artillery Battalion, serving at Gallipoli, going ashore at Anzac Cove in April 1915. In July of that year, he was advanced to Second Lieutenant and was involved in the attack on Suvla Bay in August 1915. At about this time, he took the unusual decision to transfer to the British Army, joining the Royal Horse Artillery. Park was evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916 and was both physically and mentally exhausted by the experience. However, the ANZAC commander, Sir William Birdwood had made a great impression on Park, who admired his leadership style and attention to detail.

After Gallipoli, Park’s battalion was shipped to France, where he took part in the Somme Offensive. It was here that Park first became aware of the value of the aeroplane, noting how German aircraft were used for reconnaissance purposes to spot Allied artillery positions. It was on 21st October 1916 that Park was wounded after having been blown off his horse. He was evacuated back to the UK and was pronounced ‘unfit for active service.’ After a period recuperating at Woolwich Barracks in London, he decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in December 1916.

In the RFC, Park learned to fly and became an instructor from March until June 1917, when he was posted to France and joined 48 Squadron flying the newly introduced Bristol Fighter. It was not long before he enjoyed success in shooting down two German aircraft and was awarded the Military Cross for this deed in August 1917 and promoted to Captain shortly afterwards, in September 1917. After a break from flying, he returned to France to command 48 Squadron in the rank of Major and by the war’s end, his final ‘tally’ was 5 destroyed and 14 shared. He had also been shot down himself twice during this period. The end of the war found Park physically exhausted but he found time to marry London socialite Dorothy Parish, forever known to Park as ‘Doll.’

The interwar period saw Park offered a permanent commission in the newly formed Royal Air Force as a Captain, which when the specialised RAF ranks were introduced in 1919 translated to Flight Lieutenant. He served as a flight commander in 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before being selected to attend the RAF Staff College in 1922. Following this, he commanded various RAF Stations and was an instructor before being promoted to the rank of Air Commodore and an appointment as Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) to Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding at Fighter Command in 1938.

This was the beginning of the partnership that was to reap such rewards during the Battle of Britain and which was also, due to petty jealousies within certain quarters of the service, to lead to both men’s dismissal shortly after the Battle had been won.

Promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal, Park was appointed to command 11 Group of Fighter Command in April 1940 and as such was responsible for the defence of London and the Southeast of England, during which his command bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks.

Keith Park was an astute commander who believed in deploying his squadrons carefully in pairs in order to meet the enemy well forward of their target rather than the ‘Big Wing’ tactics favoured by his fellow group commander, Trafford Leigh-Mallory at 12 Group. Leigh Mallory was somewhat jealous of Park’s command and wanted it himself, together with a share of the glory. It is fair to say that if Leigh Mallory’s tactics had been used by 11 Group during the Battle, then the outcome would have been disastrously different. These large formations took too long to organise, so that by the time they were ready, the target airfields of 11 Group would have been pulverised. Unfortunately, in the long run, Leigh Mallory had friends in the Air Ministry who ensured that Park and Dowding were removed just as the Battle had been won.

To sum up Park’s contribution to the Battle of Britain, I can do no better than to quote directly from Stephen Bungay’s excellent book, ‘The Most Dangerous Enemy:’

“Park’s performance was extraordinary. In the way in which he anticipated and countered every move of his opponent, it has many parallels with Wellington’s at Waterloo; but whereas Wellington sustained his concentration and bore the strain for some five hours, Park ran the Battle for five months. He consistently showed complete mastery of his weapon, of events and of his opponent. Even today, with hours of leisure to ponder decisions he took in minutes, and with full knowledge of hindsight and what was happening on the other side, it is difficult to find ways of improving on his conduct of operations.”

Following his removal from 11 Group in December 1940, Park was posted to Flying Training Command and gave this operation a thorough shake up before again being posted in July 1942 - this time to Malta, which at that time was an island under siege and being bombed day and night by the Luftwaffe. He again faced one of his old opponents in the form of Albert Kesselring and gave him another beating, using the same tactics that had served him so well during the Battle of Britain, using pairs of squadrons to intercept the enemy well forward. Within a fortnight of Park’s arrival, the bombing of Malta had stopped and by November, the first unmolested convoy reached the Island and the siege was over. From this time, Park took the offensive in supporting the Allied landings in Sicily, where the Allies established air superiority.

He served in Egypt for another spell but when his old rival Leigh Mallory was killed en route to taking up his position as Air Officer Commanding of South East Asia Command in 1944, Park was appointed in his stead and was a resounding success in this role, being present when Mountbatten accepted the formal Japanese surrender in September 1945.

He was retired from the RAF in 1946, when Arthur Tedder, the new Chief of the Air Staff informed him that there was no suitable position for him in the peacetime RAF. He went home to New Zealand with Doll, where he embarked on a career in civil aviation, before eventually passing away in 1975.

However, Tedder made amends when in 1947 he made a speech at the annual dinner of the New Zealand Society in London in which he said:

If ever 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 judgement and his skill, did not only to save this country, but the world.”

Praise indeed and justifiably so but perhaps the final word should go to a German appraisal of some of their opponents, obtained by the Air Ministry in 1944. Park, they said, was regarded as efficient with staff work but was also a courageous man of action. He had earned, they said, the title ‘The Defender of London.’

Never have truer words been spoken.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy – Stephen Bungay, Aurum Books 2000

Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL – Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001

Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of The Battle of Britain – Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008

The Narrow Margin – Derek Wood with Derek Dempster - Hutchinson 1961

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Battle of Britain Day, Buckingham Palace and Sgt Ray Holmes

Sunday, September 15th 1940 was a pivotal day in the Battle of Britain and saw the scene set for a German blow against London which was intended to exploit what their planners saw as the desperate state of RAF Fighter Command and to have a decisive effect on the morale of the British public as a prelude to a German invasion. A large formation of German bombers led by III Gruppe of KG76 under Alois Lindmayr had initiated this daylight raid but had been relentlessly attacked all the way from the Channel coast by the RAF's fighters. They had first been detected by the British radar at 1104 when forming up over France and the attacking fighters had first peeled away the escorting Bf109s and by 1207, when the formation was over Lewisham in southeast London, the Hurricanes of 257 and 504 Squadrons, of whom Sergeant Ray Holmes (pictured) was a member, had intercepted the bombers and joined the fray.

However, so well disciplined was Lindmayr's unit that despite all of the attacks, they still remained in formation except for one machine, piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe which had dropped out of the formation due to engine problems. Straggling behind the main formation, this aircraft, a Dornier Do17, became a particular target for the attacking fighters and at one point was being assailed on both sides by two aircraft from each of the attacking squadrons. With two of his crewmen already dead, Zehbe ordered the remaining two to bale out, set his aircraft onto auto-pilot and followed his men out. He landed in Kennington, near the Oval Cricket Ground and hanging by his parachute from some cables, was set upon by an angry mob, including several women armed with pokers and kitchen knives. Although this 'mob rule' behaviour cannot today be condoned, at the time, after a week of the Blitz, feelings were already running high amongst some Londoners. Zehbe was rescued by the Home Guard and driven away but died of his wounds shortly afterwards. In the meantime, his bomber flew on unmanned across Central London.

The remainder of the German formation completed their bombing run on the railway lines running between Clapham Junction and Battersea and turned for home at 1209, being assailed by British fighters on all sides. Apart from his own squadrons of 11 Group, Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, who was in command, had also called for assistance from the neighbouring 12 Group, whose commander, Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory was a leading advocate of the so-called 'Big Wing' system of defence against attacking formations. Park and Leigh-Mallory had disagreed vehemently in the past over tactics, with Park distrusting the 12 Group commander due to their non-appearance at crucial times during the battle. This was due to the time it took to assemble such large numbers of fighters in the air. On this occasion though, the German bombers of KG76 were under attack by vast numbers of Spitfires and Hurricanes. These were the fighters of the Duxford Wing commanded by Wing Commander Douglas Bader and there were so many of them attacking at one point that they had to break off for fear of collision with one another.

Robert Zehbe's damaged and now empty Dornier flew on alone but was still being attacked by five aircraft from three different squadrons, including the Hurricane of Sergeant Ray Holmes. However as Holmes lined up for his attack and pressed his gun-button, he was appalled to discover that nothing happened. He had run out of ammunition and not knowing that the bomber was unmanned and flying on auto-pilot, decided that he had to bring it down at all costs. He decided to ram the Dornier in an attempt to slice off it's tail, which he did, causing the bomber to go into an uncontrolled spin. The resulting g-forces caused the bomber's bomb load to be ejected, part of which fell on Buckingham Palace. The Dornier itself fell on Victoria Station, with parts of it falling on the station forecourt in Wilton Road. As for Ray Holmes's Hurricane, it too went into a spin and he baled out, landing on an apartment block close to the railway lines. His parachute caught on some guttering and he was suspended with his feet resting on a dustbin. His reception could not have been more different to Robert Zehbe's, for after cutting himself free, he kissed two pretty girls who had appeared in an adjacent garden and then took himself off to Chelsea Barracks for a celebratory drink in the mess before returning to his base at RAF Hendon later in the day.

Up above, the beleagured German fighters and bombers of the morning's attacks, including those of KG76 fought their way home. Only fifteen of Lindmayr's Dorniers now remained in formation and most of these were damaged to greater or lesser degrees. Six had been shot down and another four were straggling home out of formation in a damaged condition. They eventually made it back to their base in France without further loss.

During the remainder of the day, further attacks continued through the afternoon and into the night, with London being heavily attacked once darkness fell. Winston Churchill had spent the day at RAF Uxbridge watching the battle develop and at one point had asked Keith Park what reserves Fighter Command had in place, only to receive the reply "There are none sir."

However, as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that the RAF was gaining the upper hand and once darkness had fallen and the sirens sounded again over London, the British and World media were given statistics by the Air Ministry that the RAF had shot down 185 German aircraft. The Germans protested that the figures were wildly exaggerated although nobody listened. Privately, many of the British side - especially Dowding and Park - were angry that these figures had been released. They felt that 12 Group especially had overstated their claims - for example, Zehbe's Dornier, the one eventually brought down by Ray Holmes had been claimed by nine different pilots. This was not a deliberate overstatement but arose from the confusion of a fast and furious battle in which there was not time for squadron intelligence officers to accurately cross check and verify claims outside of their own squadrons. As Stephen Bungay points out in his excellent book 'The Most Dangerous Enemy' it is difficult enough for modern day researchers to ascertain this information, so was nigh on impossible to do it quickly in 1940. It was therefore hardly surprising that the 'kills' total for the day had been so exaggerated and in reality the actual German losses amounted to a total of 56 aircraft - 18 in the morning's engagements, 35 in the afternoon plus 2 reconnaissance aircraft and another in an evening raid over Portsmouth. This was obviously far fewer than the official claim but still represented a decisive victory for the RAF, who had lost 30 fighters but with ten of those pilots being saved. Much was also made in the press of the bombing of Buckingham Palace, even though in reality this was an accident which had only happened when the bomber spun into the ground following it's collision with Ray Holmes's Hurricane.

Back in France, the returning survivors from the Luftwaffe's raids were severely shaken. They had been led to believe by their own intelligence officers that the RAF was on it's last legs. Today they had seemed to be stronger than ever. This was due to the 'Big Wing' under Bader appearing over London. Although this tactic was dubious in terms of the time it took to assemble, from the psychological viewpoint of the Germans, it was devastating - to them, the RAF had more fighters than ever before.

This was September 15th 1940, a day seen in retrospect as the day when some of the senior Nazi echelons began to realise that an invasion of Britain was not a viable proposition and for that reason, it has been celebrated ever since as Battle of Britain Day.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Hutchinson 1961
Battle of Britain Day - Alfred Price, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990

Friday, 3 September 2010

Black Saturday and the first day of The Blitz

Saturday 7th September 1940 was a beautiful late summer's day, sunny with some haze but the sort of day that Londoners would try and make the most of because autumn was on it's way and with it, the threat coming from the now occupied continent across the English Channel. As always, most Londoners tried to get on with their lives. There was even football for those that were interested. Although the regular leagues had been abandoned on the outbreak of war a year ago, there was an emergency wartime league and on September 7th, West Ham were playing Spurs at Upton Park. At about 4.30pm, with Spurs winning 4-1, the sirens sounded and the referee, in accordance with standing instructions, blew his whistle and abandoned the match. As the crowds began to drift home, they could hear the sound of approaching aircraft.

This was the first time that London had been subject to a mass raid. London had first been bombed in this war on August 24th, when due to a navigational error a squadron had mistakenly dropped their bombs on the City of London instead of on Thameshaven. This error, was in part the reason why the Germans were coming back in force today. Churchill had ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin and although the damage and casualties caused by this incursion had been light, the loss of face amongst the Nazi leadership had been huge. After all, Goering had boasted that "No enemy aircraft shall fly over Reich territory" so with characteristic fury, Hitler had ordered the Luftwaffe to switch it's attacks from the RAF's airfields and the Channel convoys to London.

So it was on this sunny afternoon that the first wave of German bombers headed in from the Channel towards the Thames Estuary. Some dropped their bombs on the oil refineries at Thameshaven and re-stoked the fires already burning there but the vast majority of the force pressed on, following the Thames and heading towards London. Their targets were the docks north and south of the river, Woolwich Arsenal, Beckton Gasworks and the various power stations and industries strung out along either bank of this then busy artery. The bombs began to fall, not just on these targets but on the rows of houses and tenements that surrounded them. Vast areas of Poplar, Woolwich, Limehouse, Millwall, Stepney, Rotherhithe and many other areas soon became a raging inferno - none more so than the area surrounding the Surrey Docks, centre of London's timber trade, where over a million tons of hard and softwoods literally went up in smoke overnight. "Send all the bloody pumps you've got, the whole bloody World's on fire!" was the message sent out by Station Officer "Gerry" Knight of the London Fire Brigade to his controller when faced with this hellish scene at Quebec Yard. Twenty four hours later, Knight would be dead too - all that was found of him was his boots and some smouldering remains. This was truly a baptism of fire for the London Fire Brigade and most of all for the Auxiliaries. Most of these AFS men had had no experience of fighting any sort of fire, let alone anything on this scale and no amount of training could have prepared them for it.

Up above, the RAF were trying their hardest to tear into the daylight raiders and the Germans certainly didn't have everything their own way. Air Vice Marshall Leigh-Mallory's 'Big Wing' tactics had been the subject of much criticism from Keith Park and other senior RAF commanders but on this day, the Duxford Wing led by Douglas Bader in 242 Squadron had shot down several raiders, as had 303 Squadron, the Poles based at RAF Northolt, who had waded into a formation of forty Dorniers and shot down or badly damaged about a quarter of them.

But as darkness fell on this Saturday evening, the next waves of bombers were already heading in - more or less unhindered by the RAF as their night fighting capability at this time was negligable. Their task was easy, just aim for the already raging fires and drop their bombs. By midnight, the London Fire Brigade had nine fires raging in the capital that required a hundred pumps and there were several notices pinned to incidents stating that the fire was out of control. In these night raids 247 bombers dropped 330 tons of High Explosive Bombs and 440 incendiaries. Many areas, especially in the East End were reduced to rubble and in some cases wiped from the map. To add to the confusion, many thought that the invasion had come and the code word 'Cromwell' was issued at 8pm - this signified that the invasion had begun and many church bells were rung to announce this to the already terrified population. The Home Guard erected road blocks and patrolled the countryside around the south and south east of London with loaded rifles.

When dawn came and the all clear eventually sounded, there had been no invasion but over 430 Londoners were dead, 1,300 more seriously injured and vast swathes of the East End rendered uninhabitable. Three of London's main line railway termini - London Bridge, Waterloo and Victoria were out of commission and as Londoners picked their way through the rubble they would see the rescuers still hard at work and the Fire Brigade still tackling the many fires that were raging. This was London's first and last major daylight raid by the Luftwaffe - the price they had to pay for these operations was too high - but it was the first of 57 consecutive nights when the capital would be bombed and this period, known as the First Blitz or Night Blitz would last right through until May 10th/11th 1941 when Hitler would at last turn his attentions eastwards towards the Russians. In the meantime, a long winter and spring lay ahead for Londoners.

Published Sources:
Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1971
Carry on London! - Ritchie Calder, English Universities Press 1941
London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Hutchinson 1961
The London Blitz, A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After the Battle 1980
The Shelter of the Tubes - John Gregg, Capital Transport 2001
Unpublished Sources:
Author's family recollections