Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

German Artillery

Personnel of the 1st Canadian Corps examining a German 88 mm anti-tank gun captured during the breaking of the Adolf Hitler Line near Pontecorvo, Italy, 19 May 1944.

Personnel of the 1st Canadian Corps examining a German 88 mm anti-tank gun captured during the breaking of the Adolf Hitler Line near Pontecorvo, Italy, 19 May 1944.
Photo by Frederick G. Whitcombe. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-168704.

The most celebrated gun in Normandy was the multi-purpose German 88-mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun. Although its contemporaries, such as the British 17-pounder anti-tank (AT) gun, compared well, the 88 developed a legendary status due to its versatility-it could also be used as a high-velocity field gun-and the fact that the Germans had large quantities available while Allied AT weapons of similar quality were relatively few in number.

The first 88s entered service in 1933 as the 88-mm Flak 18, an anti-aircraft (AA) gun. Early models had a single-tube barrel inside their jacket. Because AA guns wear out faster, later designs (the Flak 36 and 37) had a 3-piece barrel (chamber, centre, and muzzle). The advantages of this sort of design were that higher-quality steel could be used economically, in the chamber area where the gun was subject to the highest stress, and because the barrel wears out faster in the first section of the rifling, that part could be replaced while the rest of the gun continued in use. This newer design was put into production in 1936.

The 88’s AT capabilities were discovered during the Spanish Civil War, and it was in this role that the gun took on its mythic proportions. When fitted into the Tiger tanks encountered by the Western Allies in Normandy, the Germans had a vast superiority in fire power over the Shermans and Churchills, which mounted 75-mm guns. The difference was so great that the Tigers could destroy Allied tanks at 2000 yards or more, while the Sherman’s gun had to be within 500-600 yards, and sometimes even then it failed to penetrate the German armour. The 88 was used in self-propelled as well as towed versions. A final design, the 88-mm Flak 41, was produced later in the war and improved on the earlier versions. It had a somewhat longer gun, 90-degree maximum elevation, 360-degree traverse on a turntable mounting that also gave it a lower silhouette than pedestal mounts, and increased ceiling and ground range. It could fire 20 rounds per minute at 1000m/second (3281 feet/second).

88-mm Flak 18, 36, and 37
Weight with breech mechanism 4985 kg
Total weight in action 4930 mm
Calibre 88 mm
Rifling one turn in 38 calibres increasing to one in 30 (1/40 increasing to 1/30 in Flak 36 and Flak 37)
Breech horizontal semi-automatic sliding block
Elevation -3° to +85°
Traverse 720°
Rate of fire 15 rounds per minute
Weight of Projectile 9.5 kg
Muzzle velocity 820 metres/second
Penetration at 1000 m (30° impact) 105 mm
Maximum range 14,815 m
Maximum ceiling (anti-aircraft) 9,900 m
Effective ceiling 8,000 m

The German Army placed a high reliance on mortars. As the British official historian, L.F. Ellis, states, “In the latter stages of the war German interest in conventional field and medium artillery seems to have been on the wane. Instead they were setting more store by mortars and nebelwerfers, of which they had large numbers in Normandy.” (L.F. Ellis, Victory in the West Volume I, The Battle of Normandy, Appendix IV, “Notes on the Organization and Equipment of the Allied Armed Forces”, pp. 521-551). It was estimated that upwards of 70% of all 21st Army Group infantry casualties in Normandy up to July 1944 were caused by mortars, which were particularly troublesome because of their high rates of fire, as well as the silent approach of the bomb. German infantry divisions used two main types:

Calibre 81 mm 120 mm
Projectile weight 3.4 kg 15.9 kg
Range 2400 m 5500 m
French civilians look at six barrelled mortar "Moaning Minnie" at Fleury-sur-Orne, Normandy, 20 July 1944.

French civilians look at six barrelled mortar “Moaning Minnie” at Fleury-sur-Orne, Normandy, 20 July 1944.
Photo by George A. Cooper. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132855.

First-person accounts of the fighting in Northwest Europe almost always mention two very successful German weapons: the 88-mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun and the Nebelwerfer. Often referred to as a “Moaning Minnie” because of the unnerving screeching noise it produced, the Nebelwerfer was a multi-barrelled (between 5 and 10) mortar projector. Originally intended for use with smoke canisters, it was adapted to accept three sizes of rocket-type projectiles. The 150 mm projectile weighed 35 kg and had a range of 6700 m, the 210 mm fired a 112 kg projectile 7800 m, and the 300 mm projectile weighed 125 kg with a range of 4500 yards. Nebelwerfers and mortars were used in large numbers, especially in Normandy. German HQ troops had five regiments of 60 to 70 Nebelwerfers each, and most were permanently located opposite the 21 Army Group sector.

Calibre 150 mm 210 mm 300 mm
Projectile weight 35 kg 112 kg 125 kg
Range 6700 m 7800 m 4500 m

In addition to the physical damage they could cause, Nebelwerfers also had a significant psychological effect on the soldiers against whom they were used, which the Germans tried to use to their advantage. In The Guns of Normandy, George Blackburn relates an episode in which members of his Field Artillery regiment “capture” a Nebelwerfer intact and with projectiles. Deciding to put the weapon with which they have been often harassed by the enemy to their use for a change, they received a shock after firing an initial salvo. The Germans had registered the location of the abandoned mortar and waited until it was put into action, at which time they returned fire and killed a number of Canadian gunners.