Berlin Flak Defences


Giant armored ammunition elevator vault beside 88mm gun and sweeping view of Berlin.

The mainstay of the city’s defences, however, was its flak crews. By 1943, there were around 100 batteries in and around the capital, each containing searchlight units, radio telemetry, and on average, between 16 and 24 individual artillery pieces. Though a variety of weapons were used, at the heart of each battery was the venerable 88mm gun, known as the acht-acht, or ‘eight-eight’. Developed during the First World War, and combat-tested during the Spanish Civil War, the ‘eight-eight’ was arguably the most famous artillery piece of the Second World War. With its distinctive outline of recoil tubes framing a long, tapering barrel, it saw action in every branch of the German military and in every theatre – from the high seas to the Russian steppe and the deserts of North Africa. Mounted on a tank chassis or pulled on a wheeled carriage, it would earn a fearsome reputation as a ‘tank-killer’, but it was designed to serve primarily as an anti-aircraft weapon.

Usually operated by a crew of eleven, the ‘eight-eight’ boasted a 360º traverse and could fire up to fifteen rounds per minute – one every four seconds. Its range, too, was impressive, reaching nearly 15 kilometres in the horizontal plane, and almost 10 kilometres when fully elevated. In its anti-aircraft role, it fired a 16-pound shrapnel shell, which could be timed to explode at a specific altitude, whereupon anything within around 200 metres of the detonation risked significant structural damage.

Hi Mitch,
would you please correct a mistake at this link?

“Usually operated by a crew of eleven, the ‘eight-eight’ boasted a 360º traverse and could fire up to fifteen rounds per minute – one every four seconds. Its range, too, was impressive, reaching nearly 15 kilometres in the horizontal plane, and almost 10 kilometres when fully elevated. In its anti-aircraft role, it fired a 16-pound shrapnel shell, which could be timed to explode at a specific altitude, whereupon anything within around 200 metres of the detonation risked significant structural damage.”

Basically the entire paragraph is crap
(1) 15 km horizontal range was non-impressive for a cannon of this size. 75 mm light field cannons did this easily.
(2) 200 m radius for structural damage is nonsense.
(3) ROF was 15-20 rpm
(4) Ceiling was better than 10,000 m
(5) The shell was 20 lbs heavy.
(6) Most importantly, it was simply no shrapnel shell (except very few late-war shells).
It was normal HE, with a head fuse (which would be unacceptable for shrapnel).
The mistake surely stems from the very widespread wrong use of the word “shrapnel” for HE.
Shrapnel has an explosive at the base which propels balls forward when fuzed. He has explosives in the entire internal space whcih breaks up the shell’s walls into fragments. It was a HE shell.

So would you please replace “shrapnel” by “high explosive”, “16-pound” by “20-pound”, “almost 10 kilometres” by “about 10 kilometres effectively” and delete the 200 m nonsense?

Best regards,

Given the sheer size of the capital’s air defences, the system required large numbers of personnel to operate the guns and searchlights. Though there was a core of trained cadres from the Luftwaffe, and some ancillary units – such as Italians and Soviet POWs – drafted in from elsewhere, many were so-called Luftwaffenhelfer or Flakhelfer – ‘flak helpers’ – fifteen- to sixteen-year-old boys, often plucked straight out of school and thrust into the front line of the air war. One of their number, Hans-Detlef Heller, described the composition of an average battery crew:

A gun detachment consisted of nine men: the gun commander and three layers, who aimed the gun and set the fuses in the shells; two soldiers to load and fire the weapon; and four people who brought up the ammunition. The layers were Luftwaffenhelfer. The loading and firing of the gun was done by proper soldiers. And the job of carrying the shells up from the bunker was done by Russian POWs.

These distinctions became increasingly elastic, especially as the war progressed, and by its later stages many a flak gun was being operated almost exclusively by young Luftwaffenhelfer and POWs. Training for the crews was rather perfunctory, consisting of little more than a couple of weeks practising on site with the battery that they would later serve. One of those called up to a flak battery recalled his first day on the job: ‘Since 8 o’clock this morning’, he wrote in his diary,

I am a Luftwaffenhelfer . . . a loader in battery No. 1, Flak Tower section 123 . . . We are all fifteen or sixteen years old, only the platoon leader, Corporal Ullrich, is an experienced artilleryman . . . He takes photos of us for our passes. In the afternoon the battery commander, Lieutenant Küttner, addresses us . . . [and] we receive our uniforms from the quartermaster . . . In the evening, we swear an oath to the Führer, Adolf Hitler and to Greater Germany. The swastika flutters in the breeze, as we gaze to the east and swear loyalty until death.

Such young men would form the backbone of the capital’s defences against air attack.

Beyond this offensive capacity, however, most of the emergency public building work begun in the autumn of 1940 had been defensive in nature, consisting of protective bunkers and shelters for the civilian population. The plans, which were contained in the so-called Sofortprogramm issued by Hitler on 10 October 1940, had been rather vague, stating merely that ‘protection measures’ were to be undertaken in those residential areas with insufficient provision of shelters, and that ongoing public works projects, such as road-building, were to be exploited for the creation of secure underground installations. However, in private meetings and briefings over that autumn, the sheer enormity of Hitler’s vision became clear. In Berlin alone, he declared, between 1,000 and 2,000 bunkers were to be built, each one capable of housing a minimum of 100 civilians. In addition, further bunkers were to be constructed for the use of the government’s ‘essential’ personnel, as well as for schools, museums and administrative buildings. Bunkers were also to be constructed for the capital’s hospitals, main railway stations, diplomatic buildings and large industrial concerns. Prominent hotels such as the Adlon and the Kaiserhof were to follow suit.

The Sofortprogramm lacked nothing in ambition. It identified some 92 cities and towns as potential targets and aimed to protect over 35 million civilians in more than 6,000 bunkers. In total, it was estimated that the programme would consume 200 million cubic metres of reinforced concrete, a figure that would correspond to around twenty years’ normal supply to the German construction industry. It would become the largest public works project in history.

The types of bunkers and shelters constructed under the Sofortprogramm spanned the spectrum. In Berlin, however, because of the sandy soil and the prohibitive cost of excavation, the majority of the bunkers built were Hochbunker, built above ground level, rather than below it. The ‘Railway Bunker’ close to the Friedrichstrasse Station in central Berlin was typical of this sort; standing over 18 metres tall with small windows set in bare concrete, it was faintly reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. Its five storeys were divided into more than a hundred rooms and were designed to offer shelter for up to 2,500 civilians, although the number using it in the later years of the war would be significantly greater.

To accommodate Hitler’s vision there were also a number of short cuts that could be taken. As in wartime London and Moscow, the platforms of the underground system provided a ready shelter for many Berliners. Yet in addition, a number of air raid shelters were also built into the network of tunnels, voids and shafts that are integral to underground and subway stations. The best example of this type of shelter – preserved to this day as a museum – is that at Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn Station to the north of the city. Accessed via the platform or through a door in the station concourse, the shelter is a ramshackle warren of different-sized rooms, with interconnecting stairwells and passageways. Due to its rather improvised construction, and the fact that it did not have the requisite thickness of concrete in the roof, the shelter could not technically be called a bunker, but its forty or so rooms gave protection for around 1,500 Berliners.

Some Nazi engineers were more imaginative still. The Achsenkreuz tunnel network constructed beneath the Tiergarten as part of Speer’s ‘Germania’ project provided a ready shelter for thousands of Berliners. Many more found refuge in the city’s gasometers, which were converted by the addition of reinforced walls, a three-metre thick concrete roof, ventilation equipment and an independent generator. Each one could safely house six thousand civilians spread across six floors.

The ambitious plans of the Sofortprogramm inevitably fell victim to the icy blast of reality. When the more pressing military need of the construction of the Atlantic Wall laid claim to Germany’s finite supply of concrete, the number of bunkers initially foreseen for Berlin was halved to one thousand; of these, just under half were actually constructed. As a result of such cuts, the official provision of space in purpose-built bunkers for civilians in Berlin never exceeded a total of 60,000 spaces, corresponding to only a tiny percentage of the population. It would be easy to imagine, therefore, that for the majority of Berliners the Sofortprogramm was rather a dead letter. But this was not the case.

1 thought on “Berlin Flak Defences

  1. The RMB 88 was also used in Helsinki during WW2, very effective and reliable. I do not totally agree with Sven about the details. The gun was very robust, it was used still 2004 to train coastal artillery reservists when the 76 mm training guns were worn out. Finns had time delay fuses and the the shrapnel idea is not totally wrong, we also added a piece of magnesium inside, the flash was not liked by Soviet pilots.The Finnish tactics was to shoot barrage, not single bombers, it was more effective to prevent them reaching the target. Defensive height 5 – 7 kms.Fire control: first optical and with analog calculator, later with Würzburg and Freya.


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