New Zealanders in the battle
There were many New Zealanders among ‘the Few’ – Churchill’s grateful description of the airmen who took part in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Some proved adept at the difficult task of shooting down enemy planes. Al Deere, a Whanganui law clerk before joining the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1937, was already an ‘ace’ - unofficially credited with more than five victims - from his efforts in France. A member of 54 Squadron, he added significantly to his reputation during the Battle of Britain, shooting down another four enemy planes and having so many narrow escapes that he would entitle his memoirs Nine Lives.
Another New Zealander flying Spitfires with 54 Squadron, Colin Gray, had also joined the RAF in 1937. He was a brutally effective combat pilot, destroying 14 enemy planes during the battle and sharing in the destruction of two more. He would end the war as New Zealand’s highest-scoring fighter pilot, with at least 27 enemy aircraft destroyed and 22 probably destroyed or damaged.
Brian Carbury, serving with the Spitfire-equipped 603 Squadron, was another New Zealand ‘ace’. He shot down 15 German planes during the battle and shared in the destruction of one. With Gray, he was one of 17 pilots who claimed ten or more victims during the battle. On one day alone, 31 August, Carbury reported the destruction of five enemy planes in three encounters.
Some New Zealanders also made their mark in the battle against night raiders, a defensive effort at first hampered by inadequate equipment. Flying a Bristol Blenheim, Michael Herrick, a 19-year-old from Hastings, shot down three of the four German night bombers downed in September.
While the Kiwis serving with Fighter Command were most directly engaged with the enemy, many other New Zealanders played a part in the battle. Some manned the bombers that destroyed at least 10% of the German invasion craft and damaged ports and other facilities. Others served with Coastal Command or flew air-sea missions that rescued pilots who ditched in or bailed out over the Channel.
Keith Park’s role in the battle was crucial. In marshalling the scarce resources of his fighter group, and successfully employing tactics that allowed timely interception of the enemy forces, he excelled in the most significant wartime role ever undertaken by a New Zealander. His reputation has grown with historical assessment of the battle - reflected in the decision to place a statue of him in London’s Waterloo Place (unveiled on Battle of Britain Day 2010). But at the time he fell victim to the dispute over tactics and his rival Leigh-Mallory’s intriguing at the Air Ministry. Park was transferred to a training command in December 1940, although in July 1942 he became RAF commander of the strategically vital base of Malta.