16 September 2010

His finest hour

SONY DSCToday is Battle of Britain Day – the 70th anniversary of the peak of the Luftwaffe’s attempts to batter the Royal Air Force into submission in preparation for Operation Sea Lion: the invasion of England.  On this day in 1940 the aerial conflict over south-eastern England reached its peak.  The continued failure of the Luftwaffe to break the British air defences, coupled with heavy German losses, soon convinced Hitler to turn eastwards and refocus his attentions on the invasion of Russia. 

This 70th anniversary was marked in London with the dedication of a permanent memorial to one of the Battle of Britain’s heroes – the unveiling of a statue of Sir Keith Park (1892-1975), a New Zealander who achieved greatness in the Royal Air Force and who made an enormous contribution to the defence of London and the south-east of England from the German aerial threat.

With many hundreds of enemy aircraft swarming to attack London, official statements indicated that while there were numerous RAF casualties, the Luftwaffe suffered disproportionate losses in its attacks on 15 September.  (These figures are as published and were exaggerated for propaganda purposes, but German losses were still substantial – perhaps 60 aircraft on 15 September).

The enemy delivered two major attacks on London during the day. Later smaller formations attacked both Portland and targets in the Southampton area.  Our fighters destroyed 176 enemy aircraft (124 bombers and 53 fighters) plus 41 probable and 72 damaged.  AA destroyed 7 enemy aircraft plus 4 probable.  Our casualties are 25 aircraft and 13 pilots killed or missing.

Examining the list of RAF casualties on 15 September gives a picture of the multinational nature of the Battle of Britain.  Of the seven RAF fatalities I found details of on this list, two were foreigners fighting for Britain:

Name Rank Nat Sqn Details
Georges Louis Joseph DOUTREPONT Plt Off Belgian 229 During dogfight, crashed into railway station at Staplehurst in Kent; presumed dead on impact.
Geoffrey Norman GAUNT Plt Off British 609 Aged 24.
Hugh Michael Standford LAMBERT Flt Lt British 25 Killed when Beaufighter R2067 crashed near Biggin Hill.
Gerald Archibald LANGLEY Plt Off British 41 Shot down and killed in combat with Me109s, crashing near Wick House, Bulphan, Upminster.
Ross SMITHER Flg Off Canadian 1 RCAF Shot down and killed by Me109s over Tunbridge Wells in Hurricane P3876.
Thomas Reginald TWEED Sgt British 56 Aged 26.
John Pile WYATT LAC British 25 Leading Aircraftman Wyatt was 32.

 

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One prominent foreigner serving in the Battle of Britain came to epitomise the stalwart and resilient defences that ultimately secured British airspace against a German invasion was the New Zealander, Sir Keith Park.  Leading Fighter Command’s 11 Group, which was responsible for the vital air defences of the capital and the south-east of England, Park coordinated the limited resources of the RAF to achieve air superiority over England against overwhelming odds. 

Park, who was born in Thames in 1892, served in the New Zealand Army at Gallipoli, then transferred to the British Army to serve on the Somme in 1916.  He later transferred once more to the Royal Flying Corps, becoming a highly successful fighter pilot on the Western Front in the remaining years of World War 1.  His military acumen and trustworthiness saw him entrusted with the hardest job in Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in World War 2.  The RAF quotes one of Park’s esteemed colleagues:

It has been said of him by one of the great fighter leaders of the Second World War, Air Vice-Marshal 'Johnnie' Johnson, that "he was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon". 

Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder, said of Park (quoted in NZNUK):

If ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I don't believe it is recognised how much this one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save not only this country, but the world.

After great heroism and substantial losses of life, the RAF turned the tide in the Battle of Britain.  Hitler’s decision, announced on 4 September 1940, to bomb London instead of defeating Fighter Command, ultimately let the RAF off the hook, and led to unsustainable losses for the Luftwaffe.  American author Stephen Budiansky writes in his 2004 book, Air Power:

It was a huge strategic blunder to take the pressure off Fighter Command - “Thank God!” was the reaction of 11 Group’s commander [Park] …  From September 7 to 15, the Luftwaffe lost 298 aircraft, 99 of them fighters, to Fighter Command’s loss of 120.  That marked the end of the Luftwaffe’s daylight attacks on Britain.

Today London offered up a special place in the heart of the city to honour Park and the sacrifices made by those who served alongside him.  Speakers included Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, RAF Chief of Air Staff, New Zealand Minister of Defence Hon Dr Wayne Mapp and British businessman Terry Smith, leader of the campaign to erect a statue in Park’s honour.  Both representatives of the Park family and some of the few remaining living Battle of Britain aircrews also attended, and musical accompaniment was provided by the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment.  Members of the exclusive Athenaeum Club, next to which the statue has been erected, observed with polite interest from their palatial balcony.  In the skies above Waterloo Place, a vintage Spitfire roared past, waggling its wings, and the curtain was drawn on a statue that will stand proudly in London for many years to come, reminding passers-by of the determination and dedication of a man from faraway New Zealand and the great service he provided to the British nation.    

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[Images, clockwise from top left: (1) Dignitaries, incl Sir Stephen Dalton (4th from L), Wayne Mapp (9th) and AVM Graham Lintott, Chief of Air Force (RNZAF) (far right); (2) The statue is unveiled; (3) Dignitaries and veterans pause for official photos; (4) Member of the Band of the RAF Regiment reflects during the dedication ceremony] 

Spitfire flypast:

See also:

Douglas Bader’s air combat report (15 September 1940)

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