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United Kingdom 1939 - 1940:

Anti-Aircraft Command (1940)


By May 1940, Anti-Aircraft Command had sent fourteen Territorial Army anti-aircraft regiments abroad to either France or Norway. All had to be brought up to strength in terms of men and equipment, only for many men and practically all equipment to be lost in the subsequent retreats and evacuations. Until August 1940, an anomaly existed of having some searchlight units as part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, whilst others were part of the Corps of Royal Engineers and some were still technically infantry units. In that month, all searchlight units were consolidated into the Royal Artillery.

The air offensive by the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) began with isolated, small-scale raids on convoys and channel ports. In June 1940, the focus switched to night-time raids, but then in July, the Luftwaffe reverted to day-time raids. From mid-August, the attention of the Luftwaffe switched to raids on R.A.F. airfields in South-East England, and the air battle now termed the Battle of Britain commenced.

The most intense period of enemy air attacks was between 24 August and 15 September 1940. Again, the main area affected was around London and the South East of England. Then, in September, the focus of activity changed to night time raids on industrial cities and towns, with London being the main target. This led to the redeployment of additional anti-aircraft resources to the 1 and 6 Anti-Aircraft Divisions. This night blitz was to continue for just over eight months. The night blitz continued unabated through October 1940. London was attacked on every night except two during the month. A major raid against Coventry on 14 October reduced the city centre to rubble and ash, destroying the cathedral.

In November 1940, five new anti-aircraft divisions were formed, namely:

8 Anti-Aircraft Division – Major General R. H. ALLEN – South West of England;
9 Anti-Aircraft Division – Major General D. PAIGE – South Midlands and South Wales;
10 Anti-Aircraft Division – Major General L. BROWNING – Humber estuary and Yorkshire;
11 Anti-Aircraft Division – Major General S. M. C. ARCHIBALD – West Midlands and Staffordshire;
12 Anti-Aircraft Division – Major General G. A. RICKARDS – West of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

At the same time, three corps headquarters were formed. These were:

I Anti-Aircraft Corps – H.Q. London;
II Anti-Aircraft Corps – H.Q. Hucknall;
III Anti-Aircraft Corps – H.Q. Edinburgh.

The ability of British industry to provide the necessary weapons and ammunition for the demands of Anti-Aircraft Command were frustratingly limited. By February 1941, only 1,486 heavy anti-aircraft guns (a shortfall of 60%), 929 light anti-aircraft guns (a shortfall of 78%), 6,369 rocket launchers and 4,519 searchlights had been delivered to the command. The majority of heavy anti-aircraft guns were on static mountings, and due to the shortage of the 40 mm Bofors guns, over 3,000 light machine guns were is use with the light anti-aircraft regiments.

In December 1940, Anti-Aircraft Command was short of 1,114 officers and 17,965 other ranks. This was out of a command strength of about 140,000 men. The establishment ceiling at this time was set at 330,000 soldiers, meaning the command was at about one-third strength.

On the positive side, technological advances were being made, in particular with the use of radar and radio control of the guns. A dedicated Anti-Aircraft Radar School was established at Petersham to train the soldiers in its use. In addition, tactical developments in the deployment and control of guns progressed, based upon the experiences of the command to date in the campaign.

One of the ground breaking initiatives in Anti-Aircraft Command was the introduction of women into mixed units in the British Army. This initiative proved successful, leading to the raising of several mixed sex anti-aircraft regiments in 1941 and 1942. Women were posted to searchlight units in 1942.

The next initiative was to use men of the Home Guard. The so called ‘Z’ Batteries comprised volunteers, but shift patterns had to be devised to provide continuous cover. By July 1943, some 136,050 men of the Home Guard had been recruited.

The Luftwaffe changed tactics to use fighter-bombers on ‘tip and run’ attacks on coastal towns. The first such raid was on Torquay in Devon on 27 March 1942. In the following two months, there were forty-one attacks on targets as dispersed as Eastbourne in Sussex and Salcombe in Devon. These attacks led to the deployment of more light anti-aircraft guns to these locations.

Then came the ‘Baedeker’ raids, the first one being on Exeter on 24 April 1942, named from the well-known tourist guide of the U.K.. The towns and cities attacked had no anti-aircraft defences, so were vulnerable. Parliament demanded action be taken, so new Gun Defence Areas (G.D.As) were established.

In September 1942, General PILE decided to restructure Anti-Aircraft Command. The reorganisation took effect from 1 October 1942, when the seven groups formed. These were:

1 Anti-Aircraft Group – London with H.Q. in London;
2 Anti-Aircraft Group – South, South East and East Anglia, with its H.Q. in London;
3 Anti-Aircraft Group – South West and South Wales, with H.Q. in Bristol;
4 Anti-Aircraft Group – North West and North Wales, with H.Q. in Preston;
5 Anti-Aircraft Group – East Midlands, Yorkshire and North East, with its H.Q. in Nottingham;
6 Anti-Aircraft Group – Scotland with its H.Q. based in Edinburgh;
7 Anti-Aircraft Group – Northern Ireland with its H.Q. based in Belfast.

In addition, the Orkney and Shetland Defences remained a separate command.

In 1942, the U.K. became aware of the German programme to develop ‘flying bombs’. The first V1 flew into England on 13 June 1944, just after D-Day. At the same time, Anti-Aircraft Command was giving up several anti-aircraft regiments to the 21 Army Group for the forthcoming invasion of France. The Headquarters 6 Anti-Aircraft Group moved from Scotland to the cover the Solent and Portsmouth Area. The 8 Anti-Aircraft Group was formed to cover Scotland and the north of England.

The response to the V1 flying bombs was given the name of the ‘Diver’ defences. The first and most severe phase of the V1 attacks was over by September 1944, as the Allied armies advanced into Belgium and the Netherlands. In November 1944, a new 9 Anti-Aircraft Group was formed to provide the Diver Defences for East Anglia and the eastern approaches to London. At about the same time, the 3, 4 and 7 Anti-Aircraft Groups were disbanded, with the areas covered by the 2 and 5 Anti-Aircraft Groups extended. September 1944 marked the arrival of the first V2 rockets, against which there was little of no defence available.

The end of hostilities in Europe led to a drastic reduction in the size of Anti-Aircraft Command as demobilisation took effect. With the reconstitution of the Territorial Army in 1947, an ambitious order of battle was created, with a small nucleus of the Regular Army and a large Territorial Army element. This proved to be impossible to fulfil. By 1950, there was a series of mergers of regiments, with a continued decline through the early 1950’s. Anti-Aircraft Command disbanded on 15 May 1955.

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