One summer

Keith Park was one of the great heroes of World War II, yet years later, when Peter Robb came across the laconic New Zealander, his contributions had still to be truly recognised.

About 50 years ago my family was staying one summer in a weatherboard cottage on a hill that overlooked a small bay in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland. There was a tiny island beyond the bay and a reef covered with enormous mussels.

Beyond that was a larger island and further beyond was the second-largest island in the gulf, owned and farmed by a family my father had known as a boy. In the distance you could see the long smoky blue ridge of the Coromandel Peninsula stretching along the horizon.

There was a little beach below the cottage, and the rocks beyond the beach were covered with oysters that we gathered with impunity and ate in great numbers. A pohutukawa tree with a long rope to swing on overhung the water, and a clump of agapanthus grew over the bones of some missionaries killed and eaten a hundred years before.

Anchored in the bay was a slow and sturdy oceangoing boat with an enormous hold, and sometimes we took it out towards the peninsula and fished for snapper. On a good day we caught dozens. At the end of the fishing, a pod of festive dolphins would escort us home to the bay.

One afternoon, a sleek modern yacht dropped anchor below the cottage. Through binoculars, we watched three elderly men in shorts furl the sails and lower themselves into a dinghy and row toward the beach. We lost sight of them below the brow of the hill. They reappeared much closer, trudging in single file through the long grass towards the cottage. The yacht's skipper was our aunt's brother from Auckland. The second man was a trim, white-haired figure who directed the Auckland museum and studied Maori art.

The third was more athletic than the others and much taller. He had thick, floppy white hair and a white moustache, and he moved with the loping, elastic stride of the tennis player he turned out to be. He spent a long time talking with my younger sister, who was mad on tennis.

This reserved and amiable man had been in the Royal Air Force during the war, my father told me later. It was about 30 years before I learnt more about him, in a splendidly terse biography by a man called Vincent Orange.

The yacht had sailed from Auckland, and the tall man had grown up in that city. Keith Park was a geologist's son, born in a town on the peninsula across the water from our bay. Rudyard Kipling had visited Auckland - "last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart" - at the time of the empire's apogee in 1891, the year before our visitor was born.

As a boy, the tall man had sailed his father's dinghy on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour. He swam out to the foreign ships at anchor there and clambered aboard. On land he rode and hunted.

He was 22 when World War I started in Europe. He enlisted in the army and fought at Gallipoli and in the British artillery at the Somme. He was fascinated by the fragile early aircraft he saw and urged their use to reconnoitre battle positions. Blown off his horse by a German shell, the man who loved horses was in 1916 found unfit to ride, as an artillery officer was required to do. But he was not unfit to fly a primitive aeroplane.

Through cunning and persistence, he was discharged from a hospital in England and returned to France as a fighter and reconnaissance pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. As a squadron commander, he was supposed to order air attacks on the columns of German horses hauling weaponry and supplies to the front, an instruction he silently ignored.

By the war's end he had shot down between a dozen and 20 German aeroplanes. He was loved by his men for his scruples, his expertise, his daring. His laconic manner and his unassuming practical way of doing things found fewer friends in the upper layers of the British military order.

The moment the war ended, he married a woman he'd met on leave, an exuberant London socialite with wealth from railways in South America. He wanted to keep flying and stayed in the newly formed Royal Air Force. For the next 20 years he contemplated the future of air war and England's unfinished business with Germany.

He remained an outsider in England, although his wife, Dol, urged him into social tennis and dinner parties. She encouraged her antipodean loner to find relief sailing small boats off the southern coast of England.

He was posted to Egypt, and each morning in the dark he saddled up his horse and galloped east from Aboukir until he saw the sun rise over the desert. They sent him to South America as air attaché and he flew all over the continent. He flew all the planes he could, exulting in the new technology of flight. He saw that the sea would no longer defend England when war came again.

In 1926 he was in London on leave when a small group of RAF strategists ordered him to join them. Together they worked out Britain's model for air defence. But when Germany rearmed and war came 12 years after they finished their work, British strategy wasn't matched by a material reality of aircraft and equipment.

By late 1939 he was in operational charge of the air defence of south-eastern England, that crucial part of Britain closest to continental Europe with London at its centre. His operational headquarters were 15 metres underground at Uxbridge, just outside London's western perimeter.

The following northern spring, German forces had overrun France and nearly 400,000 British ground troops were trapped on its northern coast. Most of them were rescued from Dunkirk by a fleet of small English boats under air attack by the German Luftwaffe.

The British army's escape from Dunkirk was called a miracle. Air cover provided by Park's south-eastern command had enabled the miracle. Park himself, now nearly 50, overflew Dunkirk to observe and direct operations in his Hurricane fighter. The RAF lost more than 100 fighter planes in the retreat from Dunkirk. Britain had lost nearly 500 fighter planes altogether in France, and as many pilots. After the French surrender at the end of June, 1940, there were hardly more than 300 fighter planes left in Park's force to resist the Luftwaffe's air assault on England, ahead of a German invasion by sea.

These meagre forces were deployed with help from signals of approaching enemy aircraft caught on the newly invented radar, and from German Enigma machine ciphers decoded at Bletchley Park. Most of the summer of 1940 Park spent underground, studying the data to anticipate the targets of each new German attack as the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers appeared on radar.

The outnumbered British fliers made great efforts. They knew barges were being readied in the ports of occupied Europe to transport German troops to England. They knew the British army did not have resources to resist the Germans on land.

In the late afternoon of September 7, the Luftwaffe launched its first massive daylight attack on London with 300 bombers and 600 fighter planes. Park flew his Hurricane over the burning docks and warehouses and oil tanks along the Thames and saw the shattered houses.

It seemed a disaster, but for Park that afternoon brought relief. His tiny fighter force had been at its very limit under the targeted German raids on its airfields, but now he saw the Luftwaffe's change of tactic to massive attacks on London as a chance to rebuild and regroup his squadrons, and the battle's turning point.

Eight days later, Churchill and his wife Clementine made an unexpected early morning call on Park's underground headquarters. Churchill told Park they just happened to be passing nearby. He studied the operational maps. Radar reports were coming in of flights of enemy planes off the coast of France. It was the start of the Luftwaffe's biggest daylight raid on London, over the morning and afternoon of September 15.

Churchill watched Park making his moves to intercept the Germans, and later wrote that "all his arrangements ... had been brought to the highest perfection". At the time, he shared Park's anxiety. "What other reserves have we?" Churchill asked as wave after wave of German planes was sighted. "There are none," Park said.

The Luftwaffe was driven off. Two days later Hitler announced that the invasion of Britain was "postponed". A month later Enigma intelligence showed that German invasion planning had in fact intensified. Only in late October was the invasion confirmed off. On November 5, Churchill told the Commons that the danger of invasion had passed.

This was Hitler's first military defeat. It stopped Germany in the West, kept Britain in the war, allowed the entry of the United States and turned Hitler's strategic mind to a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. Launched in the summer of 1941, Hitler's Russian campaign was the folly which, at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives, lost Germany the war.

Keith Park remained an outsider in Britain, alien to its networks of class and family. Inside an air force command of aristocratic pretension, his very success as a war leader told against him. Jealousies were parlayed into strategic differences. After saving England from the Luftwaffe onslaught with a force a third the enemy's size, and just three weeks after Churchill's announcement in the Commons, Park was sacked from Fighter Command.

He never really got over this. They would need him again, and badly, before the war was over, and each new task they set him was brilliantly accomplished. In Malta he saved Britain's Mediterranean outpost from obliteration in 1942, and he cut the supply lines to the German armies in North Africa. In south-east Asia, with adequate resources at last, he triumphed.

But the very highest rewards for his service were always subtly denied him. In 1946, when the war was over, he returned to New Zealand and the civilian life he'd left to serve in the first war more than three decades before. It wasn't a bad choice. In Australia and South America he flogged British aircraft nobody much wanted. In New Zealand, he sailed, he rode, he flew and he played tennis as the son of a country that is, acre for acre, the most variously beautiful on the face of the planet. And he kept his own counsel.

Late in the piece, and mostly well after his death in 1975, some came to see this physically fearless and laconically elegant charmer as the man who in that summer of 1940 saved the West when all was nearly lost.

This story One summer first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.