The Deadly 88 — Was the German Flak 18/37 the best gun of World War II?

A German gun crew relaxes next to their 88 mm. The famous flak gun became one of the most feared anti-tank weapons of the Second World War, serving everywhere from the sands of North Africa to the snowy wastelands of the Russian front.

A German gun crew relaxes next to their 88 mm. The famous flak gun became one of the most feared anti-tank weapons of the Second World War, serving everywhere from the sands of North Africa to the snowy wastelands of the Russian front. Image courtesy the German Federal Archive.

Story Courtesy GermanWarMachine.com

IN DECEMBER 1940, the Allies chased the Italian army out of Egypt and back into Libya. Operation Compass was a brilliantly executed Blitzkrieg-style campaign spearheaded by the new British Matilda II tank.

Although not a particularly fast machine (its top speed was under 10 km/h), the Matilda’s 78 mm (3.1 inch) frontal armour was impervious to Italian anti-tank guns. Even Germany’s 37 mm and 50 mm anti-tank weapons couldn’t penetrate the exterior of the new 25-ton British fighting vehicle.

By the spring of 1941, the Allies were confident that the Matilda could still drive through Axis defenses. At the insistence of London, Archibald Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, devised a plan to break the German siege of the port of Tobruk. Operation Battleaxe relied on Matildas advancing west through the Halfaya Pass as supporting armoured units moved along the coast.

Ominously, an operation earlier in the year (codenamed Brevity) saw four Matildas shot up by German guns at long range. Unfortunately for British tank crews, the Afrika Korps was now using the Flak 18 88 mm anti-aircraft gun in an anti-tank role.

As Operation Battleaxe kicked off on June 15, 1941, Matildas advancing towards the Halfaya Pass were cut down with surgical precision by just five German 88s. Of the 18 Allied tanks put out of action on the first day of the offensive, 15 fell victim to Flak 18s.

A Flak 18 in action.

A Flak 18 in action. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

It also didn’t help the British that the combined German/Italian force holding Halfaya was led by a remarkable combat solder: Captain Wilhelm Bach. The decorated 49-year-old commander was a combat veteran having previously served in the First World War. He was wounded during the 1940 invasion of France and a year later, he still walked with a limp (he was the one officer in the Afrika Korps allowed to use a walking stick). Bach was rarely without a cigar in his mouth, even if unlit. Yet his command style was far from that of the stereotypical gruff Prussian martinet. In fact, he’d worked as a Lutheran pastor between the wars. He spoke softly and often encouraged his men with biblical passages. They adored him and called him “Papa Willi”.

Bach’s small force (about 900 men, 400 of them Germans from his own battalion of the 105th Infantry Regiment) performed with exemplary skill and resolve over the course of Battleaxe. Despite being cut off in the first 24 hours of the Allied assault, the unit fought on, even as their water ran out. After three days, a German counter attack linked up with them.

Originally designed as an anti-aircraft cannon, the 88 excelled at holing Allied tanks.

Originally designed as an anti-aircraft cannon, the 88 excelled at holing Allied tanks. Image courtesy the German Federal Archive.

It also didn’t help the Allies that their communications methods were totally amateurish. British troops transmitted over open radios using what they thought were cunning circumlocutions. The German listening posts instantly cracked the codes. The tank commander who radioed, “my horse has thrown a shoe,” to his superiors could not have made it more obvious to enemy intelligence that he had lost a track. Not surprisingly, Bach’s men at Halfaya had a pretty good idea not only that they were to be attacked, but from what direction.

Despite this, the key to Bach’s success was technological. The once-fearsome Matilda (six months before nicknamed the Queen of the Desert) was now a sitting duck for a well-sited 88. The tank’s main armament, the two-pounder (40 mm) gun, couldn’t fire high explosive shells. In fact, none of the Matildas destroyed in June 1941 troubled the gunners of the German 88s.

Cyril Joly in his excellent book Take These Men described the impact of an 88mm round on a British tank:

“As I spoke I saw the flame and smoke from the German’s gun. In the next instant, all was chaos. There was a clang of steel on the turret front and a blast of flame and smoke from the same place, which seemed to spread into the turret, where it was followed by another dull explosion. The shockwave, which followed, swept past me, singed my hands and face and left me breathless and dazed. I looked down into the turret. It was a shambles. The shot had penetrated the front just in front of King, the loader. It had twisted the machine-gun out of its mounting. It, or a jagged piece of the torn turret, had then hit the round that King had been holding ready – had set it on fire. The explosion had wrecked the wireless, tore King’s head and shoulders from the rest of his body and started a fire among the machine-gun boxes stowed on the floor.”

It’s possible to argue that later anti-tank guns, like the Sherman Firefly’s 17-pounder or the Soviet 100 mm Model 1944, were technically as good or even better than the German 88. Certainly, the Nazis themselves would later develop an even more effective anti-tank weapon, the PAK 43. But it’s hard to argue with the devastating effect that the 88 had in 1941 in the Western Desert, or the fact that it was the only weapon that German troops knew could stop the fearsome Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks when they encountered them during Operation Barbarossa. That famous battle opened just days after the 88s had crucified the British Matildas during Operation Battleaxe.

As a British tankman taken prisoner in June 1941 complained to his German captors: “In our opinion it’s unfair to use ‘flak’ against our tanks.”

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Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 7.49.28 PMYou can find more about the technical specs and history of the deadly 88 in a free “Rapid Read” ebook available on the German War Machine website: www.germanwarmachine.com. Follow them on Twitter @GermanWarM

 

10 comments for “The Deadly 88 — Was the German Flak 18/37 the best gun of World War II?

  1. Veritas
    19 December, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Its hard to argue that either the 17 pounder or the Russian 100mm was equal to the 88 for the following reasons:

    -German optics were unexcelled the entire war
    -German anti tank rounds were far superior in penetration than comparable shells of a similar caliber
    -the 88 was designed as a flak weapon to engage aircraft at high altittude. Engaging slow moving tanks at 3,000 yards meant a single gun could engage an entire squadron and possibly destroy the lot before the tanks could engage. You failed to mention the comparable rates of fire. Since the 88 was not restricted by a tuet or interior of an armored vehicle its rate of fire was significantly higher.

  2. Alex E
    21 December, 2014 at 6:35 am

    Interesting article, thanks. I believe that when the British first encountered 88s in the Western Desert they thought they were a revolutionary German secret weapon rather than a conventional gun employed in an unconventional role. It’s ironic that the gun is so renown because, on paper, the 88 was an awful AT gun design – it was far too heavy, bulky, high and hard to conceal compared to purpose-built AT guns. But stopping power like that is hard to argue with.

    • Miki
      14 April, 2015 at 12:24 pm

      Yes its was heavy & big but also british said themselfs that spotting an 88 in desert or anywhere else for that matter simply because of its effective range was like spotting needle in haystack….thats why 88 wreck havoc on enemy tanks/infantry everywere it was used…..allied had some good maybe even better aa guns but no side had like germans did multirole gun or as my friend said it “flak 88 is like nescaffe 3in1”.

  3. Gunner Green
    5 January, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Good comments from the two respondents above. Does either of them know whether there are any first-hand accounts of German 88 gunners talking about using the weapon in the anti-tank role? It looks a fearsome task to clamber up so high to take on Allied tanks.

  4. Paul
    1 August, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    It should also be noted that the Flak 18/36/37 wasn’t the only 88 design, there was also the PAK 43 a dedicated anti-tank gun.

  5. 29 August, 2015 at 11:46 am

    As far as I know the first use of the 88 Flak gun as a anti tank gun happened during the Spanish civil war with the condor legion.

    • 30 October, 2016 at 2:35 am

      The truly AMAZING thing about the 88mm FLAK 36 L/56 was that although they are credited with destroying 2,000 assorted vehicles in the Desert, ROMMEL only had TWENTY of them in total of which 12 were considered operational at any time.

      The British were shell shocked over the Battle of Colesco (1899 Boer War) and ever since then it was pounded into an Artillerist brain that one NEVER brings Artillery FORWARD. Well, Rommel never read the regulation. What he would do is have his PzKpfw III G’s & H’s pushing forward with his 88mm guns driving along the flanks. The moment Tanks were spotted, they’d stop and engage. The Ack Ack only took a handful of minutes to drop off the wheels,extend the legs and begin firing HOWEVER, it was possible to simply stop the Tractor and fire from the wheels (but it wasn’t recommended).

      It wasn’t a fair fight as the author suggested. British policy was that tankers killed tanks and artillery killed soldiers and never the two shall mix. Even if the British had FIREFLYS with17lbs (76.2 hyper-shot) guns, they would have been utterly be useless against an 88mm FLAK 36 L56 guns because with solid shot (on the move) it required PIN POINT Accuracy to knock out the gun & crew whereas a TANK represented a HUGE target. Matilda IIs were sitting ducks against the 88mm. That is why the British went GaGa over the mighty US M3 Grant/Lee tank—it had the mighty M3 gun a under license French Model 1897 75mm gun.

      FYI, US policy was just as short sighted—no AT rounds in the M3 Priests units or Shermans armed with 105mm guns.

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