8.8cm FlaK 18 / FlaK 36 / FlaK 37 (German 88) Anti-Aircraft / Anti-Tank Gun
The FlaK 18 series was developed in secrecy by Germans in Sweden to escape the restrictions of the Versaille Treaty of 1919.
Authored By Martin Foray; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
After World War 1 concluded in the armistice of November of 1918, the German Empire was held largely to blame by the victorious powers. As such, in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed that restricted (at least on paper) the military power of Germany for the foreseeable future. The nation was limited to development and production of armored cars
, a small standing army of a hundred thousand strong and no armed aircraft
of any kind. This restriction also stemmed to the development of artillery weapons
as well as naval power
. However, the restrictions were proving to be more of a formality as the years progressed for the German war machine would be under new direction and lit by the fires of a new ambition. To abide by the limitations of the 1919 treaty, the Germans secretly began programs to help bolster her anemic army. One such development became a powerful field gun of 88mm caliber. Such was the secrecy behind its development that its engineers at Krupp sent a collection of experts to nearby Sweden to continue work on the weapon. This effectively allowed the engineers complete freedom to design and develop a capable battlefield weapon outside of the confines of the Versailles Treaty.
In conjunction with Swedish engineers at Bofors and utilizing secret German government funding, the Krupp team outputted a new 75mm weapon suitable for anti-aircraft work. However, German Army authorities were not sold on the idea of such a weapon and requested a more powerful, heavier alternative which resulted in the Bofors-Krupp of 88mm caliber in the early 1930s. After the requisite field evaluations, the 88mm gun was selected for serial production - as the "8.8cm FlaK 18" (known casually and simply as the "88") - to begin in 1933 out of Essen, Germany. Incidentally, development of the weapon coincided the Fascist Party's rise to dominance across German politics. Within time, their enigmatic leader, Adolf Hitler, would control every facet of the country and lead the nation to world war.
It proved common practice for any German military weapon developed in secrecy after the 1919 treaty to be designated simply as "Model 18" to not arouse suspicion. After full-scale war had found Europe, the Germans went back to marking the follow-up variants based on the year of their introduction.
At its core, the FlaK 18 was an impressive feat of engineering. The long single-piece barrel was set atop a complex gun mounting that contained all applicable elevation and traverse controls. The weapon was large and required no fewer than seven operators to function to its specifications. The most characteristic feature of this class of weapon was its cruciform base which was folded up during transport. Transport was further facilitated by the double-axle design that sported four road wheels. Not only did this allow the weapon to be transported by vehicle tow but it could also allow its crew to wheel the weapon into a new position (with some work of course). The gun barrel could be set to fire directly upwards or direct frontwards, engaging both aerial and ground targets with equal fervor.
Within time, a newer model appeared and this became known as the FlaK 36. The FlaK 36 was differentiated from her predecessor by its three-piece barrel assembly. This design revision was necessitated by the wearing down of the firing chamber barrel section in the previous model, requiring the entire assembly to be replaced. Instead, for the FlaK 36, only the worn out portion was actually replaced thanks to the sectioned barrel system.
The FlaK 37 was a further development of the FlaK 36 and included a revised fire control system for improved communications between the gun itself and the control systems used by the gunnery crew, resulting in improved performance and capabilities. The new model made for a dedicated stabilized static gun mount as oppose to the original's design which was intended for rough field usage.
Due to the closeness of each model's operational debut and their inherent construction, the FlaK 18, FlaK 36 and FlaK 37 were all in production and fielded alongside one another for the duration of the war. Additionally, there existed a high commonality of parts which led to some "mutt" configurations once in the field, these changes brought about by wear and tear on certain parts of her design and general field abuse or battle damage. The inherent flexibility of the weapon system also promoted its large scale use on railway flat cars for aerial defense and atop self-propelled tracked vehicles of various designs.
In service, the 8.8cm series of FlaK guns proved an excellent weapon but it became more well known for something other than its intended anti-aircraft specifications. She proved most feared and respected by the Allies after the discovery of her potency in the tank-killing role. The penetrating power and projectile size fired at distance maintained the high velocity to kill any Allied armor in the whole of the war. The "88" could slice through armor as far away as 1,800 meters. As such, the weapon became a favorite among German Army personnel and warplanners alike and proved a popular trophy when captured by the enemy, only to be placed back into service against her former master.
8.8cm FlaK guns were used in air defense of many major German regions, particularly Berlin but they could be found just about anywhere the army or Luftwaffe was in operation. As an anti-tank weapon, the type was towed into place by mover vehicles and used as a static deterrent. However, the elevation limitations of the barrel soon precluded its use as a short-ranged direct attack system to which 8.8cm FlaK crews began to rely on ranged firepower instead. Its sheer transit weight also worked against getting the FlaK system into areas of uneven terrain or soft ground. The weapon was also rather tall so concealment was an issue in terms of ambushes. Regardless, if the weapon could be fielded, it made a difference to Allied warplanners. The popularity of the weapon for the German Army, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine proved such that several factories under Reich control eventually outputted the type en mass to the point that it appeared in thousands of examples and was never replaced in service nor in production until the cessation of hostilities. Germany directly supplied the "88" to their allies in Italy. The American and British armies even reconstituted captured samples for interim defense once headway into Europe had stretched their supply lines enough to warrant protection for its advancing supply convoys and masses of troops and armor now forming in wait.
The Germans experimented with other uses for the dreaded "88". Beyond its mounting on railway cars and self-propelled vehicles, the type served as a direct tank weapon of the late-war heavy-class tank, the heavily armored "Tiger". Additional service saw them fitted as defensive coastal gun mounts to combat any enemy naval presence within range. Some light marine vessels were also mounted with "88s".
By 1944, there were some 10,000 "88" examples in circulation across every major front involving the armies of Germany. It was such a requested and potent weapon that every one in three gun barrel system made in German-controlled factories were of the "88" breed. In all, it is estimated that between 18,000 and 20,700 "88s" were produced before and during the war, making her one of the most important artillery pieces of the entire conflict.
The weapon, as with most other early-war German system - saw its "trial" debut in the 1936 Spanish Civil War. By the time of the German invasion of France in 1940, the weapon and its applicable tactics were perfected to an extent. The 8.8cm FlaK gun went on to see use throughout the North African Campaign, the West Front and the East Front until Germany's collapse in May of 1945. The "88" saw extended use after the war due its effectiveness and quantitative supply.