The Second World War witnessed the use of a plethora of anti-aircraft systems, but only one has achieved general notoriety. Often known simply as the “88,” the German 88 mm Flak series did more than offer protection against air attack. The “88” demonstrated substantial usefulness against ground targets as well, and inspired some of the deadliest guns used on German armored units and in anti-tank units. It is one of the most significant artillery pieces of World War II.
Like much of the equipment used by the Germans in the early years of the war, the “88” was the result of secret development abroad in the interwar period. Technically, anti-aircraft guns were considered artillery, and artillery development and production was closely circumscribed by the Treaty of Versailles. In 1925, German military planners issued specifications for a gun capable of shooting down bombers at what was then their maximum altitude. The munitions firm of Krupp sent some of its developers to Sweden, which was politically neutral but economically tied to Germany. There they worked with their colleagues at the equally prestigious firm of Bofors.
Despite the pedigrees of these companies, the first effort was rejected. It fired 75 mm shells, which was common for light artillery. The German army deemed it too light, however, for their needs. At the distances involved, gunners could not hope for a direct hit. Instead, the sighting mechanism was used to estimate roughly where the planes would be by the time the shells reached them, and then the gunners would fire a series of shots somewhat ahead of this, hoping that one of their shots would catch the planes in its blast radius. Given this strategy, and anticipating the solidity of the heavy bombers being developed, the army wanted a more powerful shell.
In 1931, the team produced a satisfactory design based on an 88 mm shell. With an effective range exceeding 26,000 feet, this design met the army’s needs, and it was adopted as the 8.8 cm Flak 18. “Flak” is a standard German abbreviation for “Fliegerabwehrkanone,” which simply identifies it as an anti-aircraft gun. In popular use, it became more widely known by the size of its shell in millimeters, the 88. The first batches were already in production when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.
One important characteristic of the 88 was its dual-purpose nature. While planners might not have foreseen how well it would perform against ground targets, it was always meant to be capable of supplementing conventional artillery. With this in mind, it was designed to permit the gun to be lowered to three degrees below level. Its maximum elevation was 85 degrees, and the gun could swivel fully 360 degrees, giving the 88 a great deal of flexibility. Standard Flak ammunition consisted of High Explosive (HE) shells, but the 88 crews also received armor-piercing shells as well as combination shells.
This flexibility proved itself during the Spanish Civil War. It served admirably in both capacities, but its superiority as a tank killer was something of a surprise. It had a number of virtues to support this role. It could be readied for action in a short time, and offered simple but effective telescopic sighting for the acquisition of ground targets. It could maintain a rate of fire of up to fifteen rounds per minute. Most importantly, it fired a much larger shell than conventional anti-tank guns of the period, which not only made destruction of the target more likely, but also by far extended the range of the gun. Against ground targets, the range of the 88 exceeded 16,000 yards. By contrast, the dedicated anti-tank gun PaK 40, a 75 mm piece that would appear in 1941, had a range of little more than 2000 yards.
Experience in Spain proved quite useful for development purposes. During the last years before World War II began, a series of refinements were made to the 88, although none fully supplanted the original version. The 8.8 cm Flak 36 broke down the barrel into several sections, which simplified maintenance; the 8.8 cm Flak 37 altered the optics for the acquisition of aerial targets, and this version was mainly used in prepared emplacements. All three versions were identical in most respects, and parts from one could be used on another.
Another type was already being planned in 1939, but it proved much more difficult to resolve the technical challenges posed by this version. Adopted as the 8.8 cm Flak 41, it did not enter into active service until 1943, and even then, after poor performance in North Africa, it was relegated to a home defense role only. Arms designers also developed heavier guns, with 105 mm and 128 mm guns seeing eventual development, but these never replaced the three basic versions of the 88, which remained in production throughout the war. More than 10,000 were made.
The original form of the 88 was mounted on a wheeled limber that allowed it to be towed to a position like any other piece of artillery, there to have its base extended for a stable firing platform. Its value as an anti-tank gun proved itself repeatedly in France, North Africa and Russia. Its main flaw was its high profile, which made camouflage impractical and presented a larger target than dedicated anti-tank guns. In part, its range made up for these deficiencies, insofar as it could be fired from an exposed position and hope to hit its targets before those targets closed to a range that would permit return fire.
The main innovations concerning the 88 that carried on during the rest of the war concerned the means of deployment. Versions without the wheeled limber were made for purely defensive purposes, and these could be made more cheaply. Others were mounted on light armored vehicles or on train cars. Beyond these refinements, the 88 was produced in largely unchanged form throughout the war, and even afterwards, it continued in service in countries such as Spain and Yugoslavia.
While the 88 changed little during its service history, it inspired significant change in other weapons systems. Its success as an anti-tank gun called for emulation on other platforms. In 1942, Germany introduced its first heavy tank, the Tiger I, which carried a main gun firing 88 mm shells. In 1943, a dedicated anti-tank version of the gun was produced as the PaK 43, and shortly thereafter this gun was mounted on tank destroyers like the Nashorn, Elefant and Jagdpanther. Even at the end of the war, the 88 mm gun was powerful enough to defeat the armor of most Allied tanks at reasonable ranges.
Taken as a whole, the 88 mm Flak gun was a very successful weapon that met or exceeded all objectives. It was an effective anti-aircraft gun, and it was produced in sufficient numbers to perform this role well. It fully lived up to its dual-purpose role, standing out in particular for its stellar performance against enemy tanks. The 88 Flak guns were used as often in a ground support role as was practical, and by the middle of the war, they were imitated in the Panzer arm and in the anti-tank artillery with guns and vehicles that would mount some of the most ferocious resistance to the rising Allied tide.
Bishop, Chris. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Sterling, 2002
Halberstadt, Hans. The World’s Great Artillery: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Barnes & Noble, 2002
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
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