Have we given this hero due credit?

Central Leader - - News -

An An­zac week­end is in­evitably a time for mem­o­ries. Ruf­fling through old avi­a­tion files adds to that ...

It was 1956. But looking back there was some­thing un­mis­take­able in his man­ner as the tall, lean ex-fighter pi­lot stood on the steps of the Auck­land War Memo­rial Mu­seum and watched a big team of helpers ease a Spit­fire up, step by step and in­side the big doors.

I re­mem­ber he joked with me about his height – 1.95 me­tres (6ft 5in) – be­ing a prob­lem that de­sign­ers of cock­pits hadn’t taken into ac­count.

But then when Regi­nald Mitchell drew up plans for his fa­mous Spit­fire, he hadn’t bar­gained on get­ting it up­stairs and through door­ways ei­ther.

There was too, a recog­nis­ably real feel­ing for that fighter as we watched. And that re­ac­tion went back a long way.

When Sir Keith Park com­manded fighter squadrons over Dunkirk and then in de­fence of Lon­don and south­ern Eng­land in the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, his pi­lots knew that he could “walk the walk just as well as he could talk the talk”.

Sir Keith was born in Thames in 1892, the son of a pro­fes­sor, a World War One in­fantry­man, he was at Gal­lipoli and trans­ferred to the Royal Ar­tillery in France un­til a wound on the Somme put his war in doubt. He was ruled “un­fit to ride a horse”.

So he joined the Royal Fly­ing Corps as a fighter pi­lot over the West­ern Front.

Years later he would laugh about how strange it was that al­though un­fit to ride he was deemed fit to fly.

“Tra­di­tion was very strong in those days of horse-drawn ar­tillery and an of­fi­cer and a gen­tle­man was ex­pected to ride into bat­tle on a charger.”

He went on to es­tab- lish his own tra­di­tion.

Fly­ing a Bris­tol fighter, he scored 20 vic­to­ries de­spite be­ing shot down twice – once by anti-air­craft fire and a sec­ond time by the Ger­man ace Kurt Unge­wit­ter.

He won the Mil­i­tary Cross and bar, Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

As a peace­time air­man, he was a fighter sta­tion com­man­der, rose to Air Vice Mar­shall and was one of Ge­orge VI’s four aides-de-camp rid­ing be­hind the king in his corona­tion pro­ces­sion. Back on a horse again.

At war again, in charge of or­gan­is­ing air cover in the Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion, he flew over the beach him­self, spot­ting en­emy po­si­tions and point­ing out en­emy po­si­tions to his pi­lots. Walk­ing the walk.

At nearly 50, he flew in his Hur­ri­cane over the last two Bri­tish ships to leave and was the last RAF pi­lot to turn back to Bri­tain.

Later, in his key de­fen­sive role as com­man­der of No 11 Fighter Group which de­fended Lon­don and the south of Eng­land against the air blitzkreig, he earned an ac­co­lade from Lord Ted­der, Chief of the Royal Air Force:

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

This re­ally was The Big Show, as the young fighter pi­lots called it.

Be­tween July and April, 1940, the RAF shot down 1652 Ger­man planes – and lost 1087 of their own.

With Hitler’s Luft­waffe re­pulsed, it seemed ob­vi­ous that ex­pe­ri­ence would take him on to com­mand the de­fence of Malta.

Typ­i­cally, he won again, send­ing his young fighter pi­lots out to in­ter­cept the Dorniers, Heinkels and ME109s over the Med.

In the process, like Lon­don, Malta was saved.

An­other chal­lenge. Pro­moted Al­lied Air Com­man­der-in-Chief, South East Asia, he per­fected tac­tics which meant jun­gle fight­ers got es­sen­tial sup­port and sup­plies through mon­soon and ground de­fen­sive fire.

Through­out his long ca­reer, he never missed a chance to ease his tall frame into a Hur­ri­cane cock­pit and head off where the action was.

Back in peace­time Auck­land, we were both log­i­cal spec­ta­tors as the Spit­fire moved into its new home, him more than me.

He was the dis­tin­guished fig­ure so revered in Lon­don, and now back home in re­tire­ment, who had ne­go­ti­ated the gift of the Spit­fire to the mu­seum.

I was sim­ply the avi­a­tion re­porter for the Auck­land Star, de­lighted to get so close to that fighter, one of those heroic sym­bols of my child­hood.

I was also con­scious that I was shar­ing the oc­ca­sion with a great New Zealan­der.

Looking back, I don’t be­lieve the com­mu­nity re­ally gave him the recog­ni­tion he de­served in those re­tire­ment years lead­ing up to his death at 82 in 1975.

Oh yes, the Mu­seum of Trans­port and Tech­nol­ogy was proud to put his name to a wing of its build­ings.

He had been voted on to Auck­land City Coun­cil, has a street named af­ter him and this and that, but all this was small beer lined up against his hard-won chest­ful of medals, his achieve­ments, and the Knight Grand Cross of the Or­der of the Bath he so richly de­served.

Re­cap­ping on his ca­reer, you can un­der­stand the English plan to put his statue on a plinth in Trafal­gar Square, recog­nis­ing the man Lord Ted­der said saved Bri­tain.

I re­mem­ber ask­ing him what the chances were of his name be­ing em­bla­zoned on this latemark Spit­fire, built in the year the war ended but never flown in action.

He shrugged those high alti­tude, lean shoul­ders and trot­ted out that he al­ready had a Bri­tish rail­way lo­co­mo­tive named af­ter him – ref­er­ences show him as only one of three men hon­oured in that rather dis­tinc­tive fash­ion, the oth­ers were Win­ston Churchill and Lord Beaver­brook.

Then he be­came quite be­mused at the oily liq­uid drip­ping from some­where on the Spit­fire.

I knew without ask­ing that his con­cern was for the wel­fare of the vet­eran fighter plane rather than the state of the mu­seum steps.

I thought some old re­flexes twitched when I told him about my flight in a dual train­ing ver­sion of the RNZAF’s then new Vam­pire jets – 620mph at 60 feet above coastal sand-hills. Seven Gs as we pulled out of a 10,000 foot high­speed dive.

I felt I knew, in the un­likely even­tu­al­ity of the Spit­fire ever com­ing down those steps and be­ing read­ied to scram­ble again, ex­actly who would be at the head of the queue to fly it.

Once a fighter pi­lot, al­ways a fighter pi­lot.

Even if we’ve never planned to put him on a New Zealand plinth. • Regi­nald Mitchell did not live to see his bril­liant de­sign’s great­est war tri­umphs.

He died of can­cer in 1937 at 42.

To con­tact Pat Booth email off­pat@snl.co.nz or write care of this news­pa­per. All replies are open for pub­li­ca­tion un­less marked Not For Pub­li­ca­tion.

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