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THE 8,8CM FLAK 37

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THE 8,8CM FLAK 37

By: David Rilley-Harris – Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

 

The Flak 88 on display at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH).

 

On display at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) you will find one example of an 8,8cm Flak 37 commonly referred to as the Flak 88. “Flak” is an abbreviation on the German word Flugabwehrkanone which literally translates to “aircraft-defence canon”. The weapon was developed by Germany in the 1930s and has its origin in the First World War (1914-1918) where the first guns of this calibre were used as anti-aircraft weapons. The Flak 88 is most famous for being the most feared German weapon of the Second World War where it was also used in a ground-to-ground role and could destroy tanks accurately from a superior range. The famous Second World War German tank, the Tiger I, was developed to make use of the Flak 88 as a tank gun. The gun was also later used in the Tiger II, the Elefant tank, and the Jagdpanther. These developments had followed unsuccessful attempts to adapt the Flak 88 into a self-propelled gun on the back of a truck or in the form of an armoured car. The example displayed in the DNMMH has six white kill rings painted on the barrel signifying six aircraft shot down during the Second World War. It was one of forty-five 88s which Germany gave to Norway in 1945 as a part of their war reparations payment. It was later returned to Germany and restored before being donated to the DNMMH.

 

The first 8,8cm calibre Flak weapons were produced in 1916 during the First World War. Germany created two designs both called the Geschutze 8,8cm Kw Flak. One of the designs was developed by the manufacturer Krupps of Essen, and the other by Rheinmetall-Borsig. They were mounted on trailers and were pulled by trucks. After the First World War Germany fell under severe arms restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Germany was not permitted to have an air force or anti-aircraft guns. To get around these restrictions, the weapons manufacturer, Krupp, sent its anti-aircraft gun designers to Sweden where they owned one third of the Swedish weapons manufacturer, Bofors.  At Bofors, the Krupp team designed a Flak 88 which could fire a 9,4kg shell and they took their design plans back to Germany in 1931. In Germany, they secretly built prototypes for testing and by the time Adolf Hitler announced that Germany would no longer respect the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the new Flak 88 was already set for general production which began in 1933. They called the first version the Model 18 (8,8cm Flak 18) so that it would appear they were producing a gun that was designed in the year before the Treaty of Versailles. Later models were the 36, 37, and the 41. The Model 18 saw great success in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) where it was proved to be effective not only as an anti-aircraft weapon but also in a ground-to-ground role. Experience in the Spanish Civil War is what led to the development of the Model 36, while the Model 37 included advances in the fire control systems. With a crew of eleven, a single Model 37 could fire one 9,4kg round every three seconds and penetrate 7cm of armour two kilometres away. Its maximum range was almost fifteen kilometres, and it could destroy aircraft almost ten kilometres above. When the Second World War began, the Flak 88 was the only German weapon which could pierce the front armour of the heaviest Allied tanks. As a testament to their effectiveness, Model 36s made one of their first appearances at the Battle of Sollum in June 1941 where they destroyed 123 of the 238 attacking British tanks. They had managed to destroy one tank for every twenty rounds fired. Britain had launched the attack as Operation Battle Axe with the intention of destroying Axis forces on the Egyptian frontier so that they could break through and relieve Tobruk which was under siege. The initial attack was launched with elements of the 11th Indian Brigade supported by twelve heavy Matilda tanks. It was believed at the time that Germany had no anti-tank weapons in the area which could pierce the Matilda’s 78mm front armour, but the new 88s destroyed eleven of the twelve Matildas. There were probably only five 88s in the initial contact.

 

An abandoned Flak 88 which was captured outside Tobruk during the Second World War (1939-1945).

 

The Model 37 was created primarily as an anti-aircraft weapon, but Rheinmetall-Borsig went on to produce the Model 41 to make full use of the gun’s multi-purpose potential. The Model 41 was first used in 1943 and employed a more versatile carriage and a longer, stronger barrel. Krupp developed a similar model of the 88 but focused more on the anti-tank role which led to that gun being named the Pak (anti-tank) 43. The models 18, 36, and 37 were relied upon the most with over 10 000 of the roughly 13 000 German heavy guns in service in 1944 being of those models. Overall, more than 20 000 of those models were produced for the Second World War with only 556 Model 41s being made. Flak 88s were used by Spain, Germany, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, the Slovak Republic, France, Greece, China, Brazil, Hungary, and North Vietnam. They saw combat in the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Second World War, and the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

 

The DNMMH keeps the Flak 88 on display as a reminder of the fearsome weapons we had to face in the Second World War, and of the sacrifices our soldiers made on the battlefield.

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