The Eighty Eight: ‘Anti-Aircraft, Anti-Tank and Anti-Social’

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The most famous artillery piece fielded by any combatant during WWII is undoubtedly the German 8.8cm Flak gun.(1) The reputability of this gun’s all round performance started during the Spanish civil war, continued through the early war years and during Operation Barbarossa, and became especially legendary as an AT gun in North Africa against the British 8th Army. ‘Anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-social’ and ‘flak, pak and not nice’ is how the British Army described the 88mm Flak. It was an accurate description of the gun that the Allies referred to simply as ‘the eighty-eight (88)’ when they were’t swearing! The 88’s reputation was exemplified by a cartoon which appeared during the war in Stars and Stripes. It portrayed a US intelligence officer interrogating prisoners and reassuring a nearby GI ‘Don’t worry; if I find the one wot invented the 88, I’ll let you know’.

In post-war literature it has become common to attribute the 88’s performance on its apparent technological superiority. It is commonly stated that the 88 was successful because “the German forces had plenty of them at a time when the Allies had little or nothing comparable; it was this fortunate circumstance that gave rise to all the legends”.(2) Is this true, or was the 88’s success due to other reasons?

The Principal Allied and German Heavy AA Guns Used During WWII

Subtleties in the 88’s Design

The Real Reason for the 88’s Success

(1) The standard German flak guns in this category were the 8.8cm FlaK 18, 36 and 37. The 8.8cm FlaK 37 was not used for ground combat as it was fitted with a more sophisticated data transmission system for AA work only. This meant the Flak 37 was normally used for AA defense against high altitude bombers in the west.
 (2) E.g. I. V. Hogg, German Artillery of WWII, Greenhill Books, London, p. 162.

The Principal Allied and German Heavy AA Guns Used During WWII

The principal heavy flak guns available to the Allied (including Soviet) forces during WWII, are shown in the table below, along with some key performance criteria.

Allied and German Principal Heavy AA Guns During WWII**
Weapon Name
or Designation
Country Muzzle Vel
Weight in
Action, kg
Weight of
AA Shell, kg
Ceiling, m
Range, m
76mm M1938* USSR 815 4 300 6.5 8 500 14 500 Entered Service 1938/39
85mm M1939* USSR 800 4 330 9.2 8 400 15 500 Entered Service 1939/40
90mm M1 USA 823 8 620 10.6 10 300 17 830 Entered Service 1940
3.7inch MK1 (94mm)^ UK 792 9 317 12.7 9 750 18 835 Entered Service 1938
88mm Flak 18/36/37 Germany 820 4 986 9.4 8 000 14 815 Entered Service 1933
* Soviet figures for effective ceiling and ground range appear high based on momentum and kinetic energy calculations using muzzle velocity and shell mass, so caution should be used with these figures.
^ Figures for mobile version , static version weighed 10 047 kg.
** Source: Purnell's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Modern Weapons and Warfare, Phoebus Publishing, London, 1980, pp. 159, 714, 1036, and 1275, and Sharp, C, C., Soviet Artillery Corps, Divisions and Brigades 1941-1945, Soviet Order of Battle World War II Volume 6, Nafziger 1995, p. 13.

It is immediately apparent from this data that in fact from 1940 onwards the Commonwealth, US and Soviet forces all possessed excellent AA guns of similar or even superior capability to the 8.8cm Flak. The Soviet 85mm M1939 was comparable to the 8.8cm Flak, while the British 3.7 inch Mk1 and American 90mm M1 were actually superior in performance. In addition all these weapons were produced in the thousands and there were plenty of them available from 1940 onwards. For example, by June 1941 the Soviet PVO forces had already received 3 329 85mm AA guns.(3)

Thus the statement that ‘the 88’s success was attributable to the Allies having nothing comparable in similar numbers’, on its own and out of context, is misleading at best because it implies the 88’s success was simply due to a technological advantage enjoyed by the German forces. The question is therefore, why did none of these Allied or Soviet weapons gain anything like the same combat reputation as the ‘88’? The answer lies in subtleties of the 88’s design, but far more importantly in the way the weapon was used tactically by the Germans. We will examine these separately here.

(3) D.M. Glantz, Stumbling Colossus, University press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 1998, p. 171.

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Subtleties in the 88’s Design

The 88’s design possessed subtleties which are not apparent from overall performance figures, and that lent the weapon to be used offensively and defensively in ground combat. These included a suitable light weight and mobile carriage design, the ability to depress the gun below zero degrees, armour-piercing ammunition and excellent direct fire optical gun-sights.

High Rate of Fire
The 8.8cm Flak 18 had a single tube L/56 barrel within a jacket. It also employed an ingenious semi-automatic breach mechanism which was opened and closed by spring power, tensioned as the gun recoiled, which enabled an average crew to fire around 15 rounds per minute. A well trained crew could achieve a rate of fire of around 20 rounds per minute. For AA work the 9.4kg Sprgr round was used.

Mobile Carriage Design with Low Depression Angles
The carriage was a cruciform platform carried on two two-wheeled limbers (the Sonderanhanger 201) that could be removed after lowering the platform by hand winches. Four outriggers (two unfolding) were then used to give stability. The cruciform platform (the kreuzlafette) enabled 360deg traverse, 85deg elevation for AA and artillery work, and -3deg depression for AT or other ground work. The gun could also be fired whilst on its traveling bogies, but this was not recommended for long periods for stress reasons. The gun was however quiet often used in this mode, especially if the gun was being used offensively. In addition the weight of the 88 in action was only 54% and 58% of the British 3.7 inch Mk1 and the US 90mm M1 AA guns respectively, which made it much handier in action.

Good as the 8.8cm Flak 18 was, it was decided that a few modifications were desirable to improve operations and simplify manufacture. This led to the 8.8cm Flak 36 and 37. The platform was modified so that the front and rear outrigger sections were identical, each with a barrel support so the gun could be towed facing in either direction. At the same time the front and rear limbers were made identical so they could be hooked up to either end. This meant the gun did not need to be specially stowed in a traveling position and greatly shortened the time into and out of action.

Rapid Barrel Changes
AA guns tend to wear out barrels faster than other artillery due to the number of rounds used. In addition gun-barrel wear is generally more rapid near the chamber of the gun or the first part of the rifling. Replacing this section only means the whole barrel does not need replacing. The 8.8cm Flak 36/37’s barrel was made in three sections held together by an enveloping outer sleeve. When wear occurred in a particular barrel section, only that worn out section needed to be replaced instead of the whole barrel.

Development of the 88’s Anti-Tank Capability
As far back as the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1939, German officers started to see the potential of the 88 in an anti-tank role.(4) After the experiences in Spain, proper direct fire optical sights and dedicated armour piercing ammunition were developed. The Zielfernrohr 20 telescopic gun sight wasn’t any old gun sight or range finder: it was amongst the best optical gun sight systems in the world at that time, and remained so for most of WWII.(5) When these optics were coupled with the 88’s very high degree of repeatable accuracy, it meant a reasonable gunner in a combat situation had approximately a 19% chance (per round) of hitting a tank out to 3 000 meters.(6)

The standard AP round developed was the 10.2kg Pzgr 39 with which the 8.8cm Flak could penetrate 105mm of 30 degree sloped armour at 1 000 meters. Thus the seeds were sown for what became the most famous, and one of the most feared, anti-tank guns of WWII.

(4) General Ludwig Ritter von Eimannsberger saw the potential of the 88 in ground combat in 1937. There followed a series of publications such as “Deutsche Kampfen in Spanien” explaining how heavy AA guns could be used in the AT role. J. Norris, M. Fuller, 88mm FlaK 18/36/37/41 and PaK 43 1936-45, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002, pp. 7 and 8.
(5) For AA work the Flakzielfernrohr 20 telescopic site was rarely used. Most often AA fire was aimed using the Ubertragung 30 predictor firing system. 
(6) The figure drops to 50% at 2000 metres, and 93% at 1000metres. These ‘accuracy’ figures are for the 88 in a Tiger I tank, determined by test firing on the practice range. The 88 Flak was the same gun, used the same ammunition, and in practice was at least as good. The figures are for Pzgr 39 AP ammunition, simulated combat situation, target size 2m high and 2.5m wide, stationary target, and range to target determined. T. Jentz, H Doyle, P. Sarson, Tiger I Heavy Tank 1942-1945, Osprey Military, London, 1993, p. 17, table 3. Also T. L. Jentz, Germany’s Tiger Tanks, Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, p. 10, table 7.1.2.

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The Real Reason for the 88’s Success

Despite the 88s excellent all round design, none of the features (above) represented great feats of engineering, and all were easily and quickly reproducible on the Allied weapons. The Allied heavy flak guns were still easily comparable.

The principal reason for the 88’s success was that the Germans (and to a lesser extent the Soviets) had identified AA weapons as potentially lethal weapons for ground combat. In WWII, only the German Army and Luftwaffe flak troops developed the use of AA weapons against ground targets to the point where it was the tactical norm. The Soviet, US and Commonwealth ground forces expected to run into German flak guns almost whenever they launched a ground attack and often even when defending against a German attack.

The Germans became aware early on that the nature of AA weapons, and the type of crews needed to man them, made them very suited to anti-tank work. AA guns were high muzzle velocity, high rate of fire weapons which need better than average optical gun sights. They had to be mobile to keep up with and protect other arms. They needed to track a target very rapidly, establish its range rapidly and shoot it down rapidly. To fulfill these functions, AA gun crews needed to be trained better than most and be able to respond rapidly to changing tactical situations. It turns out these are also all ideal attributes for destroying tanks and other vehicles. It therefore made perfect sense to make sure flak guns had optical sites for ground as well as air combat, could depress and traverse the gun onto ground targets, and had ammunition specifically designed for ground targets; especially tanks.

Perhaps most important was to train AA personnel to simultaneously think and operate in an anti-air, anti-tank and anti-personnel way. This meant they were not just responsible for air defence but had to integrate with other arms for all round defence and attack. These are all factors that enhance overall combat proficiency.

An example of the Allied inability to realise the tactical potential of heavy flak in ground combat is the Commonwealth forces in North Africa in June 1941. During Operation Battleaxe from 15th to 18th June 1941 the Commonwealth forces are known to have lost 92 AFVs including 82 tanks to the I./Flak-Regiment 33, a Luftwaffe mixed flak battalion with 12 88s.(7) The only other heavy flak battalion available to Rommel through 1941 was the identical I./Flak-Regiment 18. By the end of 1941 these two Luftwaffe flak battalions (authorised a total of 24 88s) had destroyed 264 tanks and 42 aircraft.(8) During this period the Allied forces had over three times as many 3.7inch AA guns available as the Axis forces had 88s, yet the German and Italian tank crews probably never even got to see one.(9)

(7) T. L. Jentz. Tank Combat in North Africa: February 1941-June 1941, Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 1998, pp. 187 and 188.
(8) E. B. Westermann, Flak: German Anti Aircraft Defences, 1914-1945, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2001, p. 121.
(9) J. Norris, M. Fuller, 88mm FlaK 18/36/37/41 and PaK 43 1936-45, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002, p. 21.

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