Although initially hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany rapidly developed a system of highly effective antiaircraft weapons. An early attempt, adopted in 1928, the 75mm FlaK 38 fired a 14-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. In the decade following World War I, Krupp arranged with the Swedish arms giant Bofors to allow its engineers to work secretly on new designs in Sweden. One of the most successful artillery pieces of all time came about as a result of that arrangement-the famous German Eighty-Eight. Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, combat experiences in the Spanish Civil War and early World War II proved the Eighty-Eight’s versatility in other applications. By war’s end, German designers had also adapted it to antitank, tank, and conventional field applications. The first test model was assembled in 1931, and after trials the new gun went into service in 1933 as the caliber 88mm FlaK 18. With a veteran crew it achieved a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The FlaK 18 fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 26,247 feet, and in a ground role it achieved a range of 9.2 miles.
Krupp engineers continued to improve the FlaK 18 and also redesigned it to ease its manufacture. The redesigned Eighty-Eight entered service in 1937 as the Flak 36 and saw considerable service with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Having proved the gun’s effectiveness as a ground weapon in Spain, Krupp again improved the Eighty-Eight, by adding ground sights and providing high-explosive shells for field use. Firing high-explosive and armor-piercing ammunition, the Eighty-Eight further proved itself against British armor in North Africa in 1941-1942. As the war progressed, it became increasingly necessary to increase German tank armament to match the heavy guns and armor of the new Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front. That necessity resulted in slight modifications to the basic Eighty-Eight design, which resulted in the Kwk 36 (Kampfwagen Kanone) and the Kwk 43, for use in Tiger tanks and self-propelled guns.
For all its many successes the 8.8cm FlaK 18 and 36 were not suited to the anti-tank role for four main reasons: the guns were high, bulky, heavy and difficult to hide. For ideal protection each gun required a great deal of effort to dig in and conceal as when pressed into action in the open the gun crews were highly vulnerable to in-coming small arms and artillery fire. Even the addition of a shield (some with hinged sides) could not protect the crew from artillery air bursts. The crews therefore had to become experts in getting their guns in and out of action in a minimum of time. In this they were helped by the introduction of the Sonderanhänger 202, which meant that the gun muzzle pointed away from the towing vehicle, towards the rear and facing the enemy.
Another problem encountered when attempting to utilise the 88 as an anti-armour weapon was that, in the normal course of events, the guns were unlikely to be anywhere near where they were needed. The normal location of any heavy anti-aircraft gun supporting field units would have been in rear areas to defend combat support and supply facilities rather than covering a combat area. If an 88 was to be deployed in the anti-armour role it made sense to select carefully and prepare a firing position well before action commenced, rather than rush to a position when an enemy threat developed. Many of the most emphatic 88 successes were from pre-selected ambush positions. The drawback to this pre-preparation was that once emplaced as anti-tank weapons the guns involved could not be available to fulfil their prime function of air defence. However, it was particularly noticeable on the Eastern Front that more 88s were employed as anti-armour weapons than for air defence.
Other shortcomings of the 88 in the anti-armour role included the fact that the gun itself was far from user-friendly. Designed for an anti-aircraft gun that was meant to be loaded with the barrel in an elevated position, the breech was high and awkward to load with the barrel in the horizontal position, the physical effort necessary to repeatedly raise and load a round weighing up to about 15kg to almost head height being considerable. The aimer was not well served either, for little thought had been given to the direct-fire role at the design stage so his position was awkward and far from comfortable. Perhaps the most unwieldy aspect of the gun was its all-round weight which made even limited handling tedious and strenuous for the crew.
The 88 had to be forced into the anti-armour role for the first time in 1940, when the Germans discovered the hard way that Allied tanks such as the British Matildas and the French Char B1 had armoured protection that the then-standard German anti-tank guns could not defeat. In 1940 the little 3.7cm PaK 35/36 proved to be inadequate against all but the lightest of the British and French armoured vehicles, while the larger calibre field artillery pieces lacked suitable armour-piercing ammunition. The pressing of 88s into the anti-armour role was, in 1940, very much a field improvisation, but the lesson was learned that the Germans had a potent anti-tank asset to eke out their anti-armour inventory until something better suited to the task could be developed and supplied. In addition, the 88 proved to be very useful against field fortifications and concrete bunkers.
It was in the North African deserts that the 88s came into their own. The generally flat and open terrain enabled the 88s to take full advantage of their prime combat asset, namely range. British tanks encountering emplaced 88s were frequently fired on at ranges far beyond those from which they could retaliate, while at ranges of 2,000m or more the relatively light-armoured protection of most of the Allied tanks then fielded could be penetrated. As an extra morale depressant the first intimation (and last) that an Allied tank crew often had of an encounter with an 88 was a high-velocity, base-fused, armour-piercing projectile exploding inside their vehicle.
Eventually the British Eighth Army abandoned their ‘cavalry charge’ tank-attack tactics and learned to be wary of German feints that drew their tanks on to carefully emplaced 88s. By then the German 88s were reaping a new crop of unsuspecting tanks in the Soviet Union and were later to gather a fresh harvest against the inexperienced (and over-confident) American armoured units that tried to defeat the Germans during the early battles of the 1942–1943 Tunisian campaign.
As well as being employed in the anti-armour role, the FlaK 18 and 36 were also deployed as indirect-fire field pieces on occasion. While this was rather a waste of their potential, their range was often useful to reach deep into assembly and supply areas with time-fused high-explosive projectiles. When this role was undertaken the fuse setter abandoned his machine and set the time fuses by hand with a setting key. The layer had a rather unenviable task as the dial sight involved in indirect artillery fire was mounted in a clamp on top of the recuperator cylinder. To gain access to the sight the layer had to clamber up and over the gun and expose himself to any counter-artillery fire that may have been directed against their position. The sight was also used to align the gun with the battery’s fire-control Kommandogerät once the guns had arrived at a new air-defence fire position.
After late 1943 the introduction of the 8.8cm PaK 43/41 and PaK 43 largely overcame the difficulties encountered by the earlier FlaK-based guns. Lower, well protected and relatively easy to conceal, as well as possessing a higher all-round ballistic performance, the new guns proved to be a great and immediate success, even if the bulk and weight of the ungainly PaK 43/41 was a disadvantage on occasion. Their one weakness was that, as far as the German ground forces were concerned, there were never enough of them.
The dedicated 88mm anti-tank guns were usually allocated to FestungsPaK Kompanies as part of a FestungsPaK Battalion, of which there were several in any Army Sector under the control of a local FestungsPaK Verband. This latter unit answered direct to the local Army Command.
War year users
During the Second World War 88s served with several user nations other than Germany. Between 1936 and 1945 it was felt necessary to hand out or sell 88s to various nations that were either allied to or sympathetic to Germany’s war aims, despite the ever-increasing need to equip the German armed forces with as many anti-aircraft guns as could be manufactured.
One of the very first transfers of 88s came with the sale of a batch of about eighteen 8.8cm FlaK 18s to Argentina. This was a commercial sale negotiated directly with Krupp AG, which delivered the guns to Buenos Aires in about 1938. Once in Argentina, the guns defended the national capital for many years up to and after 1945 but apparently never fired a shot in anger.
Another pre-1939 transfer involved the guns taken to Spain by the German Condor Legion of ‘volunteers’ fighting alongside the Nationalists during the civil war. They initially took with them four four-gun batteries of 8.8cm FlaK 18s and a fifth battery arrived soon after to form what became known as the FlaK Abteilung 88, or F/88. Contrary to general belief these German-held guns were retained primarily for the air-defence role and rarely fired at ground targets.
More 88s arrived for issue direct to the Spanish Nationalists as the war progressed. It was the Nationalists, always short of up-to-date artillery, who pioneered the use of the 88 against ground targets – German observers duly made note of the fact and reported back to Berlin accordingly. When the Germans left Spain in 1939 they left all their guns in Spain to be adopted as one of the mainstays of Spain’s air defences. By 1945 their numbers, including 88 examples of the FlaK 36, had grown to 140. More were to be added later.
Once Italy entered the war alongside Germany in 1941 it was found necessary to pass large amounts of German war materiel to their new combat ally since the equipment levels of the Italian armed forces were dangerously low and often of poor quality. This particularly applied to anti-aircraft guns for although the Italians already had a gun as good as the German 88 in production, they did not have enough of them and their ability to manufacture more was limited. The Italian gun was the Ansaldo Cannone da 90/53 CA, which was ordered into series production in 1939 but by mid-1943 only 539 had been delivered in static, towed, armoured vehicle and truck-borne forms. Once in service the guns were added to the array of somewhat ancient and varied guns already in the Italian anti-aircraft gun inventory and some were diverted to coast-defence duties. While numbers of Cannone da 90/53 CA did see field service in North Africa, the Germans saw fit to eke out their numbers by handing over a number of 88s to the Italians, who took them over as the Cannone da 88/56 CA modello 18-36. The exact number is not known but all remaining examples still in Italy reverted to German ownership after the Italian armistice of July 1943.
Once the German take-over of Czecho-Slovakia was completed during 1939 the new state of Slovakia came into being already aligned with Germany. The new state assumed their share of the old Czecho-Slovak military inventory, the heavy anti-aircraft gun park being largely made up of Škoda 8.35 cm kanon PL vzor 22/24 pieces from a previous design generation. As the Slovak Army was assigned to duties in support of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans decided to hand over 24 8.8cm FlaK 36 and 37 guns (along with a wide array of other military equipment), the first 4 of them arriving during March 1941, together with the first batches of what would become a total of 17,280 rounds of ammunition. By March 1944 the outstanding twenty guns, all of them /2 carriage static guns, had been added to the original four. Most of these guns were retained for home defence, and served on with the restored Czecho-Slovakian state after 1945.
Finland had a somewhat confusing war posture between 1939 and 1945, at times being allied with Germany and at other times being hostile. In 1941 Finland was on the side of Germany because of their desire to redress their defeat and loss of territory following the 1939–1940 Winter War with the Soviet Union. Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union gave Finland the opportunity to participate in what they termed their Continuation War. Over the years the Finnish air-defence arm had managed to accumulate a motley collection of anti-aircraft guns from all over Europe. During 1943 these were supplemented when the Finnish state purchased 18 towed 8.8cm FlaK 37 guns from Germany to equip 3 6-gun, anti-aircraft batteries defending Helsinki. These three batteries were controlled by three imported Kommandogerät 40 fire-control predictors, known locally as the Lambda.
A further seventy-two FlaK 37s were acquired during 1944, this time on /2 static mountings. Of these, 36 guns were assigned to the defence of Helsinki, with Kotka, Tampere and Turku each receiving 2 6-gun batteries. There was also a twelve-gun battery at Kaivopuisto, another part of the defences of Helsinki. All these guns served on until well after 1945. The Finns knew their guns as the 88mm: n ilmatorjuntakanuuna vuodelta 1937 mallia Rheinmetall-Borsig (ItK/37 RMB), for some reason allocating their provenance to Rheinmetall-Borsig (although reference has been found to an alternative RT).
Perhaps the most unusual end-users of the 88 during the war years were the Allies. By late 1944 the Allied land forces in Europe had advanced so far from their cross-Channel supply resources that front-line supply stocks often ran dangerously low during bad weather or when shortages of transport arose. Those supplies included artillery ammunition so it became a common expedient for front-line units to turn the considerable quantities of captured artillery equipments against their former owners and use up any available stocks of captured ammunition.
Both British and American batteries employed such measures, the US Army going as far as forming ‘Z Batteries’, specifically to utilise captured artillery and ammunition, within their field artillery battalions. At one stage, in November 1944, the US First Army’s 32nd Field Artillery Brigade created two provisional battalions that were fully equipped with captured German artillery equipments. Included in the captured haul were 8.8cm FlaK and PaK guns, 10.5cm and 15cm field howitzers and French 155mm GPF guns previously adopted by the Germans. This impressment of captured 88s by the Allies was a battlefield expedient that usually lasted only as long as the captured ammunition stocks lasted. However, as early as June 1943 the US Army did go to the extent of preparing and issuing a service manual for the 8.8cm FlaK 36 (TM E9-369A) following extensive technical studies carried out on equipments captured in Tunisia.
Once the Second World War was over most German 88s were either scrapped or relegated to being war trophies or museum pieces. Yet some European nations, having inherited heaps of weapons once the German armed forces had left the countries they had formerly occupied, decided to arm their newly emergent armed forces with German weapons, at least until something better could be obtained (usually via American military aid). These weapons included the 8.8cm FlaK 18/36/37 series – no PaK 43 series weapons seem to have been adopted by any nation after 1945, although many of their technical innovations were studied and often utilised.
Numerous nations fell into this category. This included Norway, which took over no less than 360 88s out of a total of 505 left behind when the Germans departed, the balance being mostly scrapped before the Allies decided that they might be useful to defend post-war Norway. The Luftwaffe had organised these guns into four FlaK Brigades headquartered at Oslo (173 guns), Stavanger (86 guns), Vaernes (86 guns) and Tromsø (158 guns). Some of the guns involved had a dual air-defence/coast-defence role and where possible the Norwegians simply took over the existing installations.
The Norwegian total of 360 guns included 141 towed FlaK 36, plus 15 in static installations. There were also 55 towed FlaK 37s and 139 static. These guns served on until the early 1950s when they began to be supplemented and then replaced in the air-defence role by numbers of American 90mm Gun M1A1 and M2s. Even then the 88s soldiered on because in 1957 125 88mm guns were transferred to the coast artillery. In this role they lasted only until the mid-1960s when they were withdrawn as part of a policy to limit Norwegian coast-artillery equipments to those with calibres of 105mm, 127mm and 150mm (all former German naval guns) to ease the training and logistic situation. Norway investigated the adoption of the 8.8cm PaK 43/41 (possibly for employment as a coast-defence gun) but it does not appear to have been accepted for their service.
Other post-war user nations included Yugoslavia, where some guns were assigned to coast defence installed in specially constructed concrete bunkers having overhead protection. Another post-1945 user was Czecho-Slovakia, which took in any remaining FlaK 41s in addition to the other FlaK models; all were eventually replaced by Soviet equipments. A few Yugoslav 88s reportedly survived to see limited action during the Balkan Troubles of the 1990s.
Fábrica de Trubia Mod 1944
An initial order for fifty-six guns was issued during 1941 but progress was at first slow. Orders for components and sub-assemblies were distributed to numerous contractors around Spain, the final assembly centre and prime contractor being the Fábrica de Trubia at Oviedo, from which came the designation of the Spanish 88s, namely FT-44, or Fábrica de Trubia Mod 1944 (the full designation was Cañón Antiaéreo de 88/56 millímetros modelo FT-44).
The FT-44 emerged as a hybrid model comprising the one-piece FlaK 18 pattern barrel, the Sonderanhänger 202 of the FlaK 36 and the fire-control data-transmission system of the FlaK 37. The first FT-44 appeared during June 1943 but it was not until 1946 that any degree of series production commenced and then only at a leisurely rate of about twelve a year. The production rate increased to twenty-four a year between 1948 and 1950 before settling back to twelve a year until 1955. Production then ceased for a while before a few more were completed by 1962, the final plan being to produce 250 complete equipments. This final total appears never to have been reached, a total of 226 being the more likely. In 1958 there were 204 FT-44s in service with the Spanish Army and land units of the Spanish Navy.