Born: 5 April, 1920, in Moffat, Dumfriesshire. Died: 26 May, 2012, in Moffat, aged 92.
AS A meteorological officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at RAF Banff during the war, Irene Park helped steer RAF pilots safely to and from their German shipping targets in and around Norway. From her station at Boyndie airfield on the Moray Firth, her weather forecasts were crucial to the pilots of Mosquito and Beaufighter aircraft attacking German supply ships and U-boats.
But Park, nicknamed Sandy by friends and family, became best known after the war for her work on behalf of war veterans, including allied Polish pilots, and her tireless campaign to honour one of the RAF’s most famous pilots, a fellow native of Moffat, Lord Hugh Dowding.
Although Lord Dowding, as Air Chief Marshal to Winston Churchill, was head of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, his role was oft-neglected for years after the war. Irene Park fought tirelessly to see him honoured as an “architect of deliverance” for his leadership in the run-up to and during the Battle of Britain.
She launched a public appeal in the 1970s which led to the creation of the Dowding memorial in Moffat’s Station Park, where, into her late eighties, she organised an annual memorial service, including an RAF fly-past of Spitfires or Hurricanes.
Park was the driving force in turning the former St Ninian’s School in Moffat, which had once been the Dowding family home but was in danger of demolition, into Dowding House, sheltered housing for ex-RAF pilots or their families.
Recognising the problems of our Polish wartime allies, whose country had been taken over by the Soviets, she also made accommodation available for Poles in Moffat and maintained strong ties with the Polish community in Edinburgh. Down south, she successfully campaigned for Lord Dowding’s wartime headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory outside London, where he orchestrated the Battle of Britain, to be turned into a Battle of Britain Museum.
Mary Irene Park was born at Vicarlands on Moffat High Street, then in Dumfriesshire and now part of Dumfries and Galloway, on 5 April, 1920. She was the last of three children of Dr William Park, a GP who served as Provost of Moffat from 1934-47. Irene’s mother Ernestine was also deeply involved in local affairs as head of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS, now known as the WRVS). As an organist, Ernestine during the war set up a Polish Army Choir, made up of Polish soldiers fighting alongside the allies. The Polish connection would become a significant factor in Irene’s life.
Young Irene moved south to attend St Anne’s School, then for girls only, in Windermere in the heart of the Lake District. She attended the University of Edinburgh and, despite her wish to volunteer for the war effort, she instead heeded her father’s advice to complete her MA in 1941 before signing up for the WAAF later that year. There she found herself sorting out dead airmen’s belongings to return to their families, or making tea for pilots who made it back safely from their missions.
After training, she became a meteorological officer at RAF Banff Strike Wing, part of RAF Coastal Command at the newly-built Boyndie airfield and nearby RAF Dallachy, where, from 1944, the Strike Wing’s Group Captain was Max Aitken, son of the owner of the Daily Express, Lord Beaverbrook. Park told The Scotsman years later: “It was a horribly responsible job. The pilots trusted you. Just a few degrees out and it could be total disaster.”
Despite her efforts, 80 RAF aircrew out of RAF Banff died on duty. Each time, “a strange quiet comes over the whole station, unspoken sympathy, empathy and the deepest sense of sharing,” she recalled. Black humour helped ease the pain. “I remember one chap was killed over Germany and somebody said, ‘Well, at least he’ll have poisoned their crops’”.
Sharing a Nissen hut with 20 other WAAFs, she recalled that they heated their freezing beds using bricks they had left on the stove. She also recalled local police fining them ten shillings for riding their bikes at night without lights “even though there was a war going on”. She got engaged to an RAF pilot but he was shot down and killed over Italy during the closing stages of the war. She never married.
After the war, she trained in Oxford to be an occupational therapist (OT), with a particular interest in psychiatric patients, and worked in several hospitals in London, Scotland and Buxton, Derbyshire. In 1953, she and a female OT colleague decided to give up their jobs and travel across North America in a beaten-up car, covering 10,000 miles.
She wrote a book about their trip, Two Went West, published in 1956. Years later, in 2002 when she was in her eighties, she would publish the book Join the WAAF in ’41, about her wartime experiences. The book was largely based on letters which her mother had kept.
In 1955, she took up a new career in publishing, and commuted between Moffat and Edinburgh to work for Oliver & Boyd in Tweeddale Court off the Royal Mile until 1962, when she left to care for her mother in Moffat until the latter’s death the following year.
In 1995, she was awarded an MBE for her work on behalf of ex-servicemen and women. Among her other great interests was tennis. Her father had run the South of Scotland Lawn Tennis Championships in Moffat, possibly the second oldest in the UK after Wimbledon, and she herself became closely involved in the event, helping finance a new pavilion.
It seems appropriate that Irene “Sandy” Park died in Bankfoot House, a former hotel which she had personally campaigned to turn into a care home. She had been its long-time director. She spent the last 22 months of her life there.
Irene Park never married and her brother and sister predeceased her.
She is survived by her nieces Sheila, Jill and Daphne and their families, as well as her longtime friend Anne Murray.