Ack Ack Command

Anti-Aircraft Command Patch
The Badge of Anti-Aircraft Command

At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, operational command of all the country’s air defences were under command of A.O.C.-in-C. (Air Officer Commander in Chief) of RAF Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. The anti-aircraft forces were integrated with Fighter Command and operational control was in the hands of Dowding who had an excellent working relationship with the head of Ack Ack Command, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Pile. This relationship could be put down to Dowding’s knowledge of artillery, as he had started his military career as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and later the Royal Air Force.

Ack Ack Command was formed on 1st April 1939 and consisted of seven anti-aircraft divisions by the start of the war. General Sir Frederick Pile was General Officer Commanding Ack Ack Command for the duration of the war. Ack Ack Command was responsible for all aspects of the ground war against the Luftwaffe using heavy guns, light guns, rockets and searchlights. To crew all this equipment General Pile had to call upon more personnel than the Royal Artillery. At its height Ack Ack Command numbered over 350,000 personnel made up of the RA, RE, ATS, RM and the Home Guard.

However, at end of July 1940, Ack Ack Command had only a half of the heavy and less than a third of the light anti-aircraft guns considered essential. It was desirable to protect aircraft factories, airfields, ports, naval bases and industrial areas, but priority had to be given to the first of these. When the Germans switched their assault onto London, many guns had to be moved immediately to its defence. Despite the problems, anti-aircraft guns shot down approximately 300 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain.

Searchlights, which were operated with the gun defences, were active against German raids which flew over Britain on most nights from the beginning of June onwards. They were more plentiful than guns, nearly 4,000 being available towards the approved total of 4,128. In daylight, the crews had the important function of reporting air activity to the gun operations rooms.

Raids still continued after the Battle of Britain but not on the scale as in September 1940. Gun results steadily improved and during some combined training with the Americans, it became obvious how good the SCR 584 radar was, particularly with its M9 director. This equipment was to enable the gunners to win the Battle of the Flying Bomb towards the later stages of the war.

In September 1942, General Pile changed the composition of Ack Ack Command, dropping the number of the male full time strength by 51,000, increasing the female strength by 32,200 and making up the difference by using more part time Home Guard. At the same time he changed the structure of the command by eliminating the AA Corps and Divisions and replacing them with seven AA groups mirroring Fighter Command's Group Structure.

By January 1944, the gunners' figures were as good as, and often better than, those of the RAF. In February 1944, Roderick Hills, C-in-C Fighter Command, reported that the ratio of German losses were the same as before but the guns were accounting for the larger proportion of them. With the advent of flying bombs, it was essential to redeploy guns but, the Command and Control System meant that such moves could not always be made because of RAF priorities. General Pile insisted that guns must be the answer to these weapons, but under the circumstances then prevailing, they never got the chance to prove the point and the RAF were not really on terms with the menace. Churchill said "All right, from next Monday, for a week, General Pile is to have a free hand".

It was decided to form a compact gun belt all the way along the Coast from Beachy Head to Dover. 3000 yards deep and firing 10000 yards out to sea, leaving the fighters to intercept over the Channel and giving them room to intercept behind the guns. Over this gun belt fighters were not to fly below 9000 feet and the guns were to have freedom up to 6000 feet.

The guns in this belt would ail be 3.7-inch static, power controlled guns which had a fast rate of traverse. This meant inventing and constructing portable platforms for these guns, which were usually set in concrete. It also meant the interchange of mobile guns for static guns from other areas. 441 static guns were uprooted and moved with all their stores, 265 by road and the rest by rail. Eight thousand tons of material for the portable platforms was also moved. These moves were completed in three days!

From then on the tide of battle turned. The scale of success increased steadily and without question. As the armies on the continent moved forward, the V1 launch sites also moved. To keep pace the gun belt moved eastward. By 23rd August 1944, the gunners had destroyed 1,550 flying bombs. Furthermore, 142 flying bombs had been destroyed by fighters at night, using a system perfected with searchlight cooperation.

At the end of March 1945, the war as it affected Ack Ack Command was over. Their score for the whole of the war was 1,972 flying bombs destroyed; 627 enemy aircraft destroyed; 237 enemy aircraft probably destroyed, and 422 enemy aircraft damaged in varying degrees. If another 2,000 flying bombs had reached London we would have heard a lot about it, but nothing at all seems to have been said about those that didn’t.

More information about Ack Ack Command from 1918 to 1945 can been found in the book Ack Ack by General Sir Frederick Pile, GOC in C, AA Command, 1939-1945.

Thanks to A.W. Jenkyn for an article in the September 2003 Amesbury Parish Magazine where most of the information came from.