Flak 88 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun WW2

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Flak 88 mm Gun

The German eighty-eight is probably the best known, even famous, artillery piece of World War II. It was not one gun, but a series of anti-aircraft guns officially called the 8.8 cm Flak 18, 36 or 37, and could also include newer and more powerful models, the Flak 41 and 43, although these were different weapons. Flak is a German short form of Fliegerabwehrkanone, meaning anti-aircraft gun, the original purpose of the eighty-eight. A number of versions were also produced for anti-tank use, referred to as PaK 88 (Panzerabwehrkanone, anti-tank gun). In informal German use, the guns were universally known as the Acht-acht, a contraction of Acht-komma-acht Zentimeter (8.8 cm = 88 mm).German 8.8 cm guns were used in anti-aircraft and anti-tank roles.

1 Background
2 Flak 18, 36 and 37
3 Flak 41
4 Weaknesses of the 88

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The rapidly improving performance of military aircraft, mainly their engines, meant that newer aircraft would fly at much higher altitudes and speeds than World War I aircraft. During the World War I, various adaptations of existing artillery pieces offered reasonable performance, but were not able to reach the altitudes of the new aircraft, nor could they put up enough rounds to be effective against craft that moved by them much more quickly. For many military planners, this meant that anti-aircraft artillery would be basically useless, and only limited development was carried out by most countries.

German planners appear to have been less convinced of this "fact", and decided instead to develop far more powerful purpose-designed weapons, with high enough muzzle velocity to guarantee high altitude ranges, and improvements to allow much higher rates of fire.However, after World War I Germany was forbidden from producing new weapons of almost every sort. For their new designs, the Krupp company partnered with Bofors in Sweden to develop the guns.

The original design that would lead to the 88 was in fact a 75 mm model. During the prototype phase, the army asked for a gun with considerably greater capability, and the 75 would not be able to meet the new requirements.

Flak 18, 36 and 37
The designers started over with another common German calibre, and the prototype 88's were first produced in 1928. These early models, the Flak 18, used a single-piece barrel with a length of 56 calibres, leading to the commonly-seen designation 88/L56.

The Flak 18 was mounted on a cross-shaped gun carriage that allowed fire in all directions, as opposed to split-trail designs, which allow fire to the front only. The two "side" members of the carriage could be quickly folded up, allowing the gun to be lifted onto two wheeled chassis for high-speed towing. The weight of the gun meant that only large vehicles could move it, and the Sd.Kfz.7 half-track became a popular partner. A simple "semi-automatic" loading system ejected fired shells, allowing it to be reloaded by operating a single handle and inserting a new shell. This resulted in excellent firing rates of 15 to 20 rounds a minute, perhaps double that of most weapons of the era.

Widespread production started with the Nazi rise to power in 1933, and the Flak 18 was available in small numbers when Germany joined the Spanish Civil War. It quickly proved to be the best anti-aircraft weapon then available. Further, the high muzzle velocity and large caliber made it an excellent long-range anti-vehicle weapon. However this experience also demonstrated a number of minor problems and potential improvements.

Many of these were rolled into the Flak 36, which included a two-piece barrel for easier replacement of worn liners, and included a new (and heavier) trailer that allowed it to be set up much more quickly, simply dropping the base while still mounted on the wheels. This made it much more useful to the troops during fast moving operations, the basic concept of the blitzkrieg.

The eighty-eight was used in two roles, one as a mobile heavy anti-aircraft battery, and also in a more static role for the defence of Germany. In this later role the guns were arranged into large batteries, directed by a single controller, and were moved only rarely. Changes for the Flak 36 improved mobility at the price of weight, so another set of modifications were made for this role, the Flak 37. The Flak 37 used a simpler and lighter trailer design, as might be expected, but also included additional instrumentation to allow the gun layers to more easily follow directions from the single director.

During the initial phases of the Battle of France, the eighty-eight was continually pressed into service against heavily armored French and British designs such as the Char B1bis and Matilda II, whose heavy frontal armour was impossible for most weapons to penetrate except at point-blank range.

Anti-tank usage became even more common during battles in North Africa and the Soviet Union.

The 88 was powerful enough to be able to penetrate over 150 mm of armour even at long ranges of 2 km or more. This meant that it was an unparalleled anti-tank weapon during the early war and still formidable against all but the heaviest tanks right up until 1945.

It was arguably most effective in the North African and Russian campaigns where the terrain was often flat and open, allowing the long-range performance of the 88 to be decisive.

Flak 36's were often modified with an armored shield for the gunners, although this provided only limited protection and the high profile of the gun made it easy to spot on the battlefield.

The success of the 88 mm as an anti-tank weapon led the Germans to develop tanks and tank destroyers mounting 88 mm guns, for instance the Tiger tank and the Nashorn tank destroyer. While the Nashorn used the new long 88/L71 gun of the FlaK 41, the Tiger I gun was based on the older, shorter 88/L56 FlaK 18 gun.

The parts of the various versions of the guns were interchangeable, and it was not uncommon for various parts to be "mixed and matched" on a particular example. In August of 1944, there were 10,704 Flak 18, 36 and 37 guns in service. Due to the increase in US and British bombing raids during 1943 and 44, the majority of these guns were used for anti-aircraft roles, now complemented with the formidable 12.8 cm Flak 41.

This led to complaints that, due to the apparent ineffectiveness of anti-aircraft defences as a whole, that the guns should be stripped from the air defense units and handed over to the army for anti-tank duties. However this politically unpopular move was never made.

Flak 41
As early as 1939 the Luftwaffe, now in charge of anti-aircraft defenses instead of the army, asked for newer weapons with even better performance. Rheinmetall responded with a new 88/L71 design whose improved muzzle velocity allowed it to reach altitudes of 15,000 m (48,000 ft), considerably greater than the older design's 10,600 m (32,000 ft). Improvements in reloading further raised the firing rate, with 20 to 25 rounds a minute being quoted. Two types of gun barrels were used, with three or four sections.

On the downside, the Flak 41 was a complex weapon. It was prone to problems with ammunition, and cases often jammed on extraction after firing. The first examples were used in Tunisia, but due to problems in service they were then used exclusively in Germany, where they could be properly maintained and serviced. Only 157 Flak 41 guns were in use as of August of 1944, and 318 in January of 1945.

A final adaptation let the Flak 41 be mounted on the Flak 37 carriage, known as the Flak 37/41. Only 13 were produced.

The Flak 41 gun was also used as a dedicated anti-tank gun, the PaK 43. This used a new split-trail carriage with the gun much closer to the ground, making it far easier to hide and harder to hit. It also came standard with a much stronger and more angled armor shield to provide better protection. The standard armament of the Tiger II tank was based on this gun but slightly modified. Both versions were able to penetrate about 200 mm of armor at 1000 m, letting it defeat any tank in the world.

Weaknesses of the 88
While the 88 mm gun was an extremely effective weapon, its legendary status obscures some important tactical weaknesses.

Firstly the 88 itself was a relatively rare occurrence on the battlefield. German forces were much more frequently equipped with 37 mm, 50 mm and 75 mm anti-tank guns and also adopted Flak guns of lower calibers for anti-tank use. Many eyewitness accounts, particularly by combatants, mis-identify smaller guns as being 88s - understandable in the circumstances.

Secondly the 88 was a very large weapon making tactical mobility and concealment difficult. In a situation where tank vs. anti-tank encounters were often decided by ambush and initiative this was a weakness. Furthermore, towards the end of the War allied air superiority was such that transport and concealment of towed artillery pieces became more difficult. At this stage infantry weapons like the panzerschreck and panzerfaust took the dominant role in German anti-tank doctrine.

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