8.8-cm FlaK 18 and Flak 36 Part II

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88 cm FlaK 18 and Flak 36 Part II

France also adopted 88s abandoned once the Germans had left France, sending numbers of FlaK guns to be used in their post-war Indo-China campaigns along with an array of ex-Second World War (and even First World War) artillery relics, including former Japanese artillery pieces. The French 88s had nothing to do with air defence once they got to Indo-China as the local opposition did not have any aircraft assets, so the guns were employed in the direct- or indirect-fire artillery role. As such they were probably the last 88s to take part in a full-scale, live shooting war.

Other nations adopted the 88 as a long-term measure, one of them being Finland. By 1945 that nation had accumulated numerous types of anti-aircraft gun but they regarded the ninety FlaK 37s they had acquired during 1943 and 1944 as the best in their inventory. The guns emplaced around various Finnish cities were retained until 1969 as air-defence weapons (the last personnel assigned to them were trained during 1967) and even then their service careers continued. The guns were passed to the Coast Artillery arm where they soldiered on until the end of the twentieth century. At first they were installed as mobile, low-trajectory coast-defence weapons but gradually they were relegated to training duties and eventually to simply firing during exercises to conserve ammunition that would otherwise have been fired by more modern weapons, a role an ever-decreasing number of 88s is still performing to this day. Many guns are still held in storage as reserve weapons, although their possible utility as such seems more unlikely as the years progress. Ammunition for these guns was manufactured locally by the concern that, after several name changes, became Patria Vammas.

Perhaps the most involved user nation of the 88 after 1945 was Spain. By 1945 the numbers of FlaK 18 and 36 guns sent to Spain, in attempts to keep Spain’s General Franco at least sympathetic to the Germany cause, had reached 140. An additional ploy to keep Spain on the German side was to offer manufacturing licences for various German weapon designs, among them being the 8.8cm FlaK 18. Licence negotiations commenced as early as May 1941 but it took time to establish the required manufacturing facilities, not the least difficulty being obtaining the necessary raw materials and machine tools at a time when Europe was at war.

One attempt was made to boost the all-round performance of the FT-44 by the development of a 72-calibre barrel placed on a suitably modified FT-44 mounting. The Pieza de 88/72 remained a prototype.

Another attempt to boost the FT-44’s performance came with the development of a 70mm sub-calibre projectile developed by the Centro de Estudios Técnocos de Materiales Especiales (CETME). When fired this saboted sub-calibre projectile had a muzzle velocity of 1,050m/s, resulting in a maximum ceiling of 13,500m compared to the 10,600m of a conventional projectile. The sub-projectile weighed 5.4kg on firing, reducing to 4.6kg after the sabots had fallen away. The high-explosive payload weighed 490g.

Another project that did not leave the prototype hardware stage was the Pieza de 88/56 mm ‘Galileo’, an attempt to adapt the power-laying system of the Bofors 40/70 anti-aircraft gun to allow the rapid on-carriage laying of the FT-44. The fire-control system, based on an Italian Officine Galileo design, enabled a single layer to aim and fire the gun using a joystick control arrangement that actuated electro-hydraulic powered controls to achieve rapid barrel movements in both elevation and traverse. With the prototype, aiming relied on a simple cartwheel sight, although the barrel could be pointed towards a potential target by a No. 3 Mark 7 search radar. No doubt some form of reflex sight coupled to a computerised predictor unit would have eventually replaced the ‘iron’ cartwheel sight. While such a control system may have had numerous advantages for a more responsive automatic gun such as the Bofors 40/70, its employment on a non-automatic gun such as the FT-44 was more questionable. A single prototype was converted to the Galileo configuration but it did not progress very far.

By the late 1960s the air-defence value of the FT-44 against modern high-speed aircraft was becoming debatable so they were gradually withdrawn and placed in reserve storage. Beginning in 1972, some conversions were made to allow FT-44 carriages to be utilised as missile launchers for a coast-defence guided missile based on a scaled-down Hawk air-defence missile, the main modification being the replacement of the barrel and its associated subcomponents by two short lengths of missile launcher rail to launch two missiles. Although hardware examples of the missile system were produced, the project was terminated.

By the early 1990s the remaining FT-44s were gradually being sold off to film companies and military equipment enthusiasts, many ending up as gate guardians at locations all around the world. Many of the 88s to be seen today will be revealed as Spanish FT-44s.

Any account relating to the German 88s must make mention of why, even now, the gun is still regarded in what are almost legendary terms. Numerous accolades continue to be showered upon the reputation of the 88, usually along the lines of ‘The Most Famous Gun of the Second World War’, ‘Germany’s Secret Weapon’ and so on, but it is hoped that the descriptions and accounts given in these pages will have revealed that the 88 was, in gun design and ballistic terms, nothing very special for its time.

This somewhat bland statement does not intend to denigrate the fearful effect the 88 had on many battles between 1940 and 1945. As has been described, in its heyday the armour-penetration capabilities of the 88 were prodigious, while its effect on Allied bomber crews was such that it grew to be understandably respected by them as well. Yet the simple fact remains that the 88 was only one anti-aircraft gun among many others of the same design generation. Other contemporary anti-aircraft guns could match or excel its all-round performance relating in terms of muzzle velocity, projectile weight, operational ceilings and so forth. Where they could not match the 88 was in its tactical handling and mobility, topics that will be dealt with below.

One of the reasons for the 88’s continuing fame is connected with approach rather than anything else. To the Allies an anti-aircraft gun was an anti-aircraft gun and nothing else. Both the Allied guns mentioned above had been designed to shoot at aircraft and with nothing else in mind. The entire design approach had therefore been to make the guns as effective in that role as could be achieved. That entailed all manner of technical accessories, such as powered carriage drives, powered rammers, fuse-setting machines, stable firing platforms and even ammunition-handling devices. The end result was that both the Allied guns mentioned above emerged as suitable for little other than their intended role, that of anti-aircraft guns.

Not surprisingly this dedicated-role approach extended to the Allied gunners who had to utilise the guns in action. They employed their guns for what they were designed for, namely shooting at aircraft. They were not equipped, trained or inclined to use their cherished guns for any other purpose. Consequently, both the British and US Armies retained their anti-aircraft guns to defend their rear areas and important-point targets likely to attract the attention of enemy aircraft. The mere thought of towing their bulky guns into forward areas to engage land targets was quite simply not an option. Dragging towed loads the size of a 3.7in gun or 90mm M1 across open battlefields within visual and artillery range of the enemy was something most gunners would not care to think about. Only rarely were Allied anti-aircraft guns employed in a ground-to-ground firing role and that was mainly confined to adding their fire to the ‘pepper pot’ indirect artillery barrages conducted during the latter stages of the 1944–1945 land campaigns in north-east Europe when no airborne targets were likely to appear. One notable exception occurred as early as May 1940 when a single 3.7in anti-aircraft battery destroyed four German tanks approaching the Channel port of Boulogne. This isolated incident seems to have gone unnoticed at the time, no doubt due to other more pressing events in progress and the fact that the battery itself became a casualty of the action.

It should not be overlooked that the Germans started the Second World War with the same set of conceptions as the Allies. While their participation in the Spanish Civil War may have provided them with many insights into the nature of modern warfare, the deployment of their FlaK guns in Spain remained firmly in Luftwaffe hands and, being air-minded, their prime remit was to provide air defence. They did observe the Spanish Nationalist forces employing their 88s (and many other types of artillery weapon) in the direct-fire role against armoured vehicles and field fortifications but only rarely did the German ‘volunteers’ indulge in such practices, and then only in emergencies – they belonged to an air arm, not land combat forces. But they did report their direct-firing observations back to Berlin, where the reports were duly noted. A few adventurous staff officers then decided to take matters further and carry out numerous field trials of their own, usually with the fortified defences of the French Maginot Line in mind.

It was at this point that the German and Allied philosophies diverged. The German approach to war was entirely pragmatic and flexible. When British and French tanks were encountered during the Battle for France in mid-1940 the German method of engaging the enemy armour was to utilise whatever was to hand, from mortars to field artillery pieces, together with light and heavy FlaK guns, including the 88. The effectiveness of the 88 against heavily armoured British and French tanks was soon appreciated and from then onwards the 88 was regarded as a dual-purpose weapon. But this role change could not have been successfully achieved without the seemingly inherent tactical flexibility of German soldiers and their ready acceptance of new challenges and change. Despite the numerous tales of iron discipline and strict adherence to orders relating to the German soldier, usually promulgated by Allied propaganda, the truth was often very different. German combat personnel, including those of the Luftwaffe, were encouraged to use their personal initiative and improvisation to the full in whatever tactical circumstances they found themselves. Thus if an improvised combat ploy or unusual approach to a tactical situation was demonstrated to be effective, it was often adopted, broadcast and employed until its utility either vanished or could be improved upon.

Thus it was with the hasty deployment of a line of 88s during the Arras fighting in 1940, a deployment that ultimately formalised and drove home the effectiveness of the 88 against tanks. From then onwards the 88 was frequently used in the anti-armour role, despite the shortcomings of the gun for the task. As described elsewhere, the 88 was too high, bulky, heavy and difficult to hide, all important drawbacks for the anti-tank role, but that did not bother the Germans. They simply adopted the fact that firing their 88s against tanks was effective, even at long ranges. Recognising that their other specialised anti-tank guns had become inadequate, details such as weapon handling, concealment and tactical deployment relating to the 88 were worked out and converted into standard operational techniques. Only rarely did the Allies display a similar flexibility of approach towards similar tactical challenges, hence their adherence to utilising their anti-aircraft guns simply as anti-aircraft guns – and nothing else.

At one stage during 1941 the British in North Africa did indeed follow a path similar to the German adoption of the anti-armour 88 but it was with their 25-pounder gun-howitzers. These field pieces were pressed into the anti-tank role in North Africa for the same reason that the Germans turned to their 88. The standard British anti-tank gun, the 2-pounder with a calibre of 40mm, had demonstrated that it was virtually useless against the latest generation of tanks. As there was apparently nothing else to hand, according to the contemporary way of thinking, the 25-pounder had to assume a role for which it had never been intended. The 3.7in anti-aircraft guns guarding the Suez Canal and other rear areas were not even considered as potential anti-tank weapons.

While the 25-pounder may have had a calibre almost identical to that of the German 88 (namely 87.6mm), being a gun-howitzer it had a much lower maximum muzzle velocity (only 518m/s) and had to rely on firing high-explosive projectiles only until a solid-shot, armour-piercing equivalent could be hurriedly developed and issued.

There was also the problem of range. Tank targets had to approach to ranges of less than 900m for the British (and Commonwealth) gunners to be sure of a hit and significant resultant damage. Gunners therefore had to stand their ground until their targets came into effective range which, in the open deserts of North Africa, exposed them to hostile long-range tank-gun and machine-gun fire, usually resulting in guns and their crews being knocked out of action before they could usefully open fire. In addition the 25-pounder’s times in and out of action were dangerously long and not helped by the prime mover, the lightly armoured Quad tractor, being notoriously prone to catching fire when hit. During 1941 casualties among guns and gunners were horrendous but the crews persisted in their anti-armour role for if a 25-pounder (11.34kg) high-explosive projectile did strike a tank the results could be devastating. One saving grace for the 25-pounders was the circular firing platform that formed one of the main design features of the piece. Once the carriage wheels were on the platform one member of the gun crew could lift the trail and introduce rapid traverse movements of up to 360° with ease, enabling the barrels to be pointed towards new targets within seconds. The ordeals of the 25-pounder crews lasted into 1942 before the replacement for the 2-pounder, namely the 6-pounder anti-tank gun, arrived in sufficient numbers to allow the 25-pounders to reassume their primary role.

Comparisons between the 88 and the 25-pounder may be invidious as they were very different artillery weapons, yet they pressed home the reasons why the German 88 proved to be such a relative success, while the 25-pounder anti-tank era proved to be an expensive improvisation that many gunners of the time did not wish to experience again

There was another reason for the fame of the 88 and it arose from an incorrect initial premise. All the early participants in what became the Second World War commenced operations with some accepted ideas regarding armoured warfare that turned out to be erroneous, most of them relating to vehicle armour, its penetration and their main armament. In 1939 tanks on all sides were still relatively lightly armoured (apart from a few specialised infantry support vehicles) and their gun calibres were too small. Generally speaking, all sides developed tank armour and anti-tank guns that could be effective only against what they themselves possessed. If a nation’s tank was proof against the fire of the nation’s standard anti-tank gun that was deemed acceptable and the tank itself did not need to arm itself with anything heavier in the main armament line. Combat experience was to demonstrate the hazards of this approach, the ultimate recognition only occurring when German anti-tank gunners watched their carefully aimed projectiles bouncing off British and French tank armour in 1940. The most numerous German tank gun of that period was still the same ineffectual 37mm gun as used by the German anti-tank gunners. (In 1940 nearly all American tanks carried a similar 37mm main gun.)

That the 88 was to have such a dramatic influence on the tussle between tank armour and anti-tank guns should therefore now come as not too much of a surprise. The firepower, projectile weight and combat range of the 88 made a tremendous impact on all who had to undergo the experience, but that experience was on such a lethal scale that terms of ‘secret weapon’ or ‘wonder weapon’ began to be bandied about, not only in soldiers’ conversations but in media accounts that attempted to disguise the reasons why the 88 was having such an impression. The fact was that the British, French and, to a marginally lesser extent, the Germans had badly underestimated the basic requirements of armoured combat-vehicle design.

Any successful combat vehicle still has to display three basic and balanced design factors, namely firepower, protection and mobility. Ignoring or neglecting any one (or more) of these factors results in an unsatisfactory solution to providing a viable combat vehicle. For instance, the British focused heavily on mobility and tended to neglect firepower and (in most cases) protection, relying on mobility alone for a degree of protection, such as with their Cruiser tank series. When they did emphasise protection, as with their infantry support tanks, firepower was neglected, while the same vehicles proceeded only at the speed of a marching soldier.

Even if they were way ahead in tank tactics, the Germans were little better off in tank-design terms in 1939, but they did manage to stay just one step ahead in almost every aspect of tank technology until 1945. Compared to their Allied counterparts, German tanks were seemingly always better armed, better protected and more mobile throughout the war years, the heavy Tiger I and Tiger II being notable exceptions as they lacked mobility. The Allies lauding the 88 as a ‘wonder weapon’ helped in some degree to disguise that fact. In the process they completely overlooked the corresponding reality that British and American tank designers were just as inherently capable of turning out similar combat vehicles and guns had they utilised a concentrated, ruthlessly determined approach similar to that of their German counterparts, an approach that free-thinking civilians in uniform could never adopt.

When the war ended in 1945 the 88 was still a potent weapon, while the arrival of the specialised tank and anti-tank 88s only served to prolong the ‘wonder weapon’ identity. So good was their all-round performance that 88s served on for years with many nations after 1945 – but so did the British 3.7in Anti-Aircraft Gun and the American 90mm Gun M1A1.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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