The 8,8cm Flak gun
From anti-aircraft to anti-tank gun

The early development

In the First World War the German Navy used, among their guns, the 8,8cm SK L/45 gun. Krupp en Rheinmetall built out of this, the 8,8cm K-Zugflak L/45 anti-aircraf gun (the Flak). At the Reichswehr it was known as the Flak 16 and saw service in the First World War. After the First World War it was by the Treaty of Versailles that it was conducted that Germany was no longer allowed to manufacture weapons in their own country. To surpass this rule, Krupp sent some technicians to Bofors in Sweden, between 1920 and 1930. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the technicians from Krupp returned to their homeland with the design of a new 8,8cm (or 88mm) anti-aircraft gun, the Flak 18. ‘Flak’ stood for FlugzeugAbwehrKanone. The barrel of the Flak 18 was stille constructed as one piece. But experieces done in the field would lead to improvements, and to the Flakk 36/37 with a new barrel. This was constructed of several segments so damaged pieces could be easy replaced. Another plus was that there was no special machinery necessary, and they could be produced in substantial numbers.

Directionequipment on an 8,8cm Flak 37

After a few changes, the first production cannon was named the 8,8cm Flak 36. More improvements led to the model 37. The best way to spot which Falk is Which of the two models is to look at the directionequipment, which are placed in boxes on a Flak 37, and were round on the Flak 36.

Directionequipment on an 8,8cm Flak 37

A well trained crew could shoot 15 shells of 9 kilo each to a height of 12 km within one minute. Until the end of the war, the Flak 36/37 and the Flak 18 variant were the basis of the German anti-aircraft units.

8,8cm Flak in Spain

In 1935, during the Spanish Civil War, the German Luftwaffe brought the Kondorlegion to Spain to gain experience with the new equipment and to test new tactics in the support of Franco. In Spain an 8,8cm Flak 18 with a smoother barrel was used. Here was discovered that it was not only a great anti-aircraft gun, but also a superb cannon for targets at ground level. It had a devastating effect on targets and moral, the last on both sides. In Germany a special direction finder and anti-tank ammunition was developed for the 8,8cm. But this sidestep was only for extra support when needed, because the standard anti-tank cannon, the 50mm PaK 38 was manufactured in plenty of numbers.

A 50mm PaK 38, the standard anti-tank cannon

Early in the Second World War, the PaK (Panzerabwehrkanone) 38 with armoured piercing shells had a penetration ability of 96 mm at a 1000 meters, enough for every British tank at that time.
But the 8,8cm proved itself in the west during the blitzkrieg of Europe. During a desperate attempt to break out of their predicament, 74 British tanks tried to escape on May 21, 1940 near Arras. The German 35mm was the only anti-tank gun around and was not sufficient enough. But with the assistance of 105mm artillery and 8,8cm’s the British were stopped. Not only vehicles were the targets for the 88’s, also stationary targets, like bunkers and casemats were shot at. From relative short distances some fortresses of the Maginot Line were fired upon with devastating effect.

An 8,8cm Flak 18 fires at the Maginot Line

8,8cm Flak in Africa

During the war in the desert in 1941, the anti-tank guns were scattered over great distances. To overcome the empty spaces between these guns, the Lufwaffe had 24 88’s Flak guns for the army to use. Because of their high profile, it had a two meter high protective plate, the gun was a prominent target. To protect the gun it was necessary to dig it in behind an earth wall.

An 8,8cm in action in North-Africa

The first shots in anger on ground targets in North-Africa came during the defense of Halfaya. A British tank, with armour of 80 mm in 1941, was an easy target for over 2200 meters, even under an angle 30°. At 2000 meter it could penetrate 90 mm. Over a distance of 1100 meters, the 8,8cm could handle 108 mm of steel, detonate a small charge that brought death to any tank and it’s crew.

A Flak 37 has a plane in sight
(notice the rings on the barrel, one for every downed aircraft)

Because at one time there were enough 8,8cm’s 8,8cm anti-aircraft guns with the Luftwaffe, spare ones were lent for anti-tank duties. In the field the anti-aircraft equipment was taken of, and the guns adapted for ground targets.
The success of the anti-tank roll of the 88’s, the Africa Corps was equiped with extra guns. During the battle of Alamein, the ‘Korps’ had 86 guns to use against the British troops.

A Flak 37 is preserved at the Omaha Beach Museum, Vierville-sur-Mer

When during the Russian campaign, the German troops came across the T-34 tank, a lot of the anti-tank guns proofed insufficient. Even the 50mm PAK 38 cannon was useless. Only ammo with a core of wolfram could penetrate the Russian armour. Unfortunately for Germany, this material was hard to come by. So once more they went to Krupp to produce a 75mm gun, and a special 8,8cm for the anti-tank roll. This would lead to the PAK 43. An advantage with this cannon was it’s ability to fire when it was on his wheels. For the 8,8cm Flak it was always necessary to placed it on it’s platform before it could go into action. Also, the profile of the PAK 43 was brought down to a height of 1.50 meter.

An 8,8cm PAK 43/41, Omaha Beach Museum

The taught behind the concept was to improve it’s action by extending the room for a larger shell. But during production problems came to light that required to adapt the undercarriage. The gun, the 8,8cm PAK 43/41 became struggle for the troops to handle in the Russian mud. But, nevertheless, the PAK 43/41 was a excellent weapon with a penetration of 168 mm from a distance of 1100 meters under an angle of 30°. As far as 3300 meters, the gun had more effect the 8,8cm Flak op 1100 meters! Despite it’s clumsiness in the field, it was a very deadly weapon from 160 to 3300 meters. It is known that at one time it killed six T-34 tanks in Russia from as far as 3900 meters! The 23 kilo heavy shell had one nasty habit, after every shot a black cloud of smoke was produced that with calm weather obscured the view for the next shot, and gave the enemy the position of the gun.

Different sorts, but only one size, 8,8cm
(a Flak 18 outside the (former) war museum at Falaise)

During the war, the 8,8cm PAK 43 cannon found it’s way in German tanks, like the Jagdpanther. Was gun firstly developed as a weapon of defense in the anti-aircraft roll, in the tank it became a tactic fast moving attack weapon. But the Allies had the armour on their tanks improved and also better anti-tank guns mounted like the British 17-pounder and the American 90mm. But the 8,8cm stayed to the end of the war a horror to the Allied crews in their tanks. During the battles around Caen the gun was terribly effective. Especially when ‘Operation Goodwood’ was launched on July 18, 1944. The German defense destroyed at least 220 British tanks, mainly with the 88’s.

A Flak training unit

The 88’s stayed in the frontline of the Flak air defense. In the progress of the war, the air defense became very accurate, thanks also to radar. In 1942, around 15.000 8,8cm guns were in the frontline of the German air defense. During 1944 3501 American planes fell victim to the anti aircraft fire. Another 600 were shot down by German fighters. In November, 1944, when Merseburg was attacked, 56 B-17’s were shot down or damaged by Flak alone.

Crewmember K6 places a grenade into the detonatersetting

The crew of a Flak unit consited of 10 men. The K1 wa the unit commander, the K2 the gunner (Seitenrichtkanonier), the K3 shoved the grenade into the breech. The K6 had the task to set the timer of the grenate by placing the head of the grenade into the detonatorsetting appartus, to the left of the Flak gun. The setting could be done by hand or electronically. When the grenade reached the desired height, it would explode into thousands pieces of schrapnell to a devastating effect tot aircraft at that height.

With the help of a Kommandogerät 36 (Kdo.36) a plane can be spotted

Their were several ways to hook up the Flak onto a target. A battery of a couple of Flak guns could be commanded through a central command post, for example with help from a radar and a stereoscopic Kommandogerät 36 and pointed electronically onto the target . The crew of the unit only had to set the detonator and push the grenade into the breech. Also the Flak gun could be getting commandos by telephone and pointed on the target by Kommandogerät 35.

A Flak 37 captured by American GI’s
(notice the panoramic telescope (Rundblickfernrohr) on top of the barrel,
used on various Flak guns to concentrade fire onto one point ('zero' setting))

Rheinmetall developed the Flak 41 as new concept 8,8cm gun. The barrel was positioned lower with a barrel of three pieces. But because of many problems wit hit, it was brought back to two pieces. Evenso, it was a Flak with many problems. But despite the problems, some 556 of the Flak 41 were produced.

A posed picture with Luftwaffe Flak crew

After the war a lot of the old 8,8cm’s found their way in the armies of the East-European nations. Some of these guns stayed operational until the sixties before the were replaced for Russian anti aircraft missiles.

After the battle, another British plane is added

Below are the decorations the Flak crews could earn. On the left the decoration de 'Flak-Kampfabzeichen der Luftwaffe’ for the successful crew that had shot down at enemy aircraft. Crews got points for every downed plane, and when the had 16 points, the decoration was handed out. Beside the decoration for a Luftwaffe crew, there was also one for the army, the 'Heeres-Flak-Abzeichen'. This one was only handed out to crews who had shot down aircraft, and not for groundtargets. Central of the decoration was a Flak gun placed.

The decorations for a successful Flak crew