The German 88: The Most Famous Gun of the Second World War
by Terry Gander, Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, England, 2009, $39.99
In 1916, as aviation began to play a significant role on the battlefield, the opposing armies in World War I sought a weapon to counter airplanes and observation balloons. The German army’s selection of 88mm for a high-velocity anti-aircraft gun was based on a standard set by the navy, as the largest and heaviest fixed round a single loader could handle. The new Flugabwehrkanone, or anti-aircraft gun, remained under development when Germany surrendered in November 1918, but it would soon be revived.
In The German 88, Gander, a leading artillery and armored-vehicle authority, follows the efforts of Rheinmetall and Krupp to develop links abroad in the interwar years, such as Krupp’s collaboration with Bofors in 1921. The first result of that association was the 76.2mm Flak (an abbreviation of the weapon’s designation) Model 1927. This failed to impress the German army, which regarded the 75mm as too light to be effective, while the 105mm was considered too bulky and heavy to be handled comfortably by an individual. The most convenient intermediate caliber was 88mm, and when Sweden passed an edict restricting ownership of Swedish firms by overseas concerns, Krupp’s team returned to Essen to continue development at home.
The first examples of the 88mm gun —called the 8.8cm Flak 18 to mislead observers charged with enforcing the Versailles Treaty—were in the hands of Germany’s resurgent Wehrmacht by the end of 1933. Because the gun had a conventional one-piece barrel, it became too worn for practical use after firing about 900 rounds.
At that point, Rheinmetall at Düsseldorf took the lead with its 1936/37 model. It constructed the Rohr Aufbau 9 barrel, consisting of a jacket, a sleeve and an inner tube in three sections, the center section of which carried the forcing cone and the first part the rifling. Gander describes the multidimensional role this gun took on during the German crossing of the Meuse River, as a direct field gun against fortifications and British Matilda tanks in the Battle of Arras.
The author gives special attention to the ammunition, as that, not the gun, is the key to the weapon. Gander devotes even more space to the development of the 8.8cm Flak 43, the deadliest antitank weapon of World War II. As an artillery piece, installed in a Ferdinand self-propelled tank destroyer or in the turret of a Tiger II tank, the 88 was more than a match for any tank the Allies fielded, from the American M4 Sherman to the Soviet T-34/85.
Although it fails to mention the little-known use of 8.8cm Flak 18s by the Greek army, which had 24 of them and used them with success against Axis air attacks on Albania, Piraeus and Thessaloniki using British-supplied 87mm shells, overall The German 88 is an invaluable, comprehensive overview of one of the war’s most important weapons.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.