General Frederick Alfred Pile, 1884-1976

General Frederick Pile (1884-1976) served as the head of Antiaircraft Command for the entire duration of the Second World War, and played a major part in the defence against the London Blitz in 1940-41 and the campaign against the V-1 flying bomb in 1944-46.

General Frederick Pile, head of Antiaircraft Command
General Frederick Pile,
head of
Antiaircraft Command

Frederick Pile was born in Dublin in 1884, the son of the Lord Mayor of the city. He joined the Royal Artillery in 1904, and fought in France during the First World War, ending the war as a brevet lieutenant colonel and winner of the Military Cross and DSO. He joined the Tank Corps in 1923, before serving as assistant director of mechanization in the War Office. He was given a field command in 1932, taking command of the Canal Brigade, which had responsibility for the defence of the Suez Canal. He held this post until 1936, before returning to Britain to take command of the 1st Anti Aircraft Division in the Territorial Army.

In 1939 Lieutenant General Pile was given command of Antiaircraft Command, the post he would hold until the end of the war. The main problem facing him in 1939 and 1940 was a lack of guns - before the war the Chiefs of Staff had estimated that Britain needed 4,000 anti-aircraft guns, and that figure had doubled by 1940, but at the start of August 1940, just before the outbreak of the Battle of Britain Pile only had 2,000 guns at his disposal, and was only receiving 40 heavy guns per month.

Pile's new role meant that he had to work very closely with Hugh Dowding, the commander of Fighter Command. In theory Dowding had responsibility for all guns deployed in the defence of Great Britain, making him Pile's superior despite the two men being in different services. In practice Dowding described this arrangement as a 'convenient fiction' and praised Pile as a colleague. The two men had a good working relationship and Dowding believed that Pile's guns served four main functions: destroying or disabling enemy aircraft; disrupting the accuracy of enemy bombing; breaking up enemy formations thus making them more vulnerable to fighter attack and finally helping to pinpoint the location of enemy formations. Pile held Dowding in equally high regard, stating on 19 August that 'thanks to Sir Hugh Dowding an invasion of this country is not practical'.

Pile and Dowding dealt with the limited number of guns by concentrating them in a number of specific locations, most importantly the aircraft factories, which were protected by a quarter of the total number of heavy guns. At the same time the London barrage was weakened, as the city was not yet under attack.

This changed in September 1940, when the Germans moved from attacks on the RAF's airfields to a concerted day and night attack on London. At first the guns remained quiet, but it quickly became clear that a regular noisy night barrage was good for morale, and after three quiet nights the guns opened fire. In the second half of 1940 it also proved to be more effective than the RAF's limited number of night fighters - between June and December Pile's guns claimed 102 victories, while the night fighters only reached 35. Pile's command shouldered the main burden of the defence against the Blitz throughout the winter of 1940-41.

In the spring of 1941 the burden was unexpectedly lifted, as Hitler turned his attention east towards the Soviet Union. Most of the German bombers based in France and the Low Countries also moved east, and although intermittent raids continued over the next few years Pile's main problem in this period was coping with the gradual reduction in the number of personnel allocated to his command, from a peak in 1941 of 300,000. Part of his response was to adopt new technology, including batteries of unguided rocket launchers manned by the Home Guard and designed to fire salves of 96 rockets in front of enemy aircraft.

In the spring of 1944 Pile worked with Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill, commander Air Defence of Great Britain (then the name of Fighter Command) to produce a defensive plan to be used against the V-1 flying bomb. This plan, 'Overlord Diver', had three elements - first bomber attacks on the V-1 launch and supply sites, second three lines of fighter patrols beginning at the south coast, and third a belt of anti-aircraft guns located half-way between London and the south coast. 192 heavy and a similar number of light anti-aircraft guns were allocated to this belt, although Pile was soon campaigning to have the total increased to 376 heavy and 540 light guns. At first the fighters and the anti-aircraft guns rather got in each others way, and so it was decided to reorganise the system. The guns were moved to a strip of coast from Beachy Head to Dover, while the fighters operated over the sea and over Kent. The move was made on 17-19 July, and by the morning of 19 July 412 heavy and 572 light anti-aircraft guns, 168 Bofors guns and 416 20mm guns were ready in their new positions. This move was remarkably effective - before it was made the guns were only responsible for 16% of V-1s destroyed, but in the first week on the coast that figure moved up to 24% and in the second week of August it reached nearly 40%, with the guns claiming 120 of the 305 V-1s destroyed between 7-14 August. Part of the credit for the improvement must also go to the introduction of proximity fuses in the anti-aircraft shells.  

Pile was powerless against the V-2 rockets, although he did suggest a scheme in which salvoes of anti-aircraft shells were fired in front of incoming rockets in the hope of detonating them in mid-air. The chances of success were various estimated at 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000 but Pile never had enough notice of an incoming rocket to try the scheme out.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 February 2011), General Frederick Alfred Pile, 1884-1976, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_pile_frederick.html

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