If you have been following American-style football and the National Football League lately (apologies to our brothers and sisters in Europe and the Antipodes), you can’t help but hear the drone of reporters and sports commentators discussing and blathering on about something called “Deflate-Gate”—the illegal deflation of game footballs by the New England Patriots during a recent playoff game. Every report, at some time or another, states that both quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick*, the Emperor Palpatine of professional football, are catching considerable “flak” over the incident. Flak!—they throw that word around like they know what it means but most of us really don’t know its original root meaning. In its metaphoric sense, it means running into harsh criticism for a bad decision, faux-pas, or unpopular policy. Few folks out there, except for us aerogeeks and lovers of the English language, actually know that they are using a metaphor at all. And few of us, even the lovers of the English language, know that the word is not actually English at all—but from German roots.
The word “flak”, this metaphor for difficulty moving forward through heavy criticism, originally comes from combining the key letters of “Flugzeugabwehrkanone”, the German word for Anti-Aircraft Artillery (FLugzeugAbwehrKanone—FLAK). The Germans have a penchant for making new words by simply combining component old words into one new word—Flugzeug (Aircraft) Abwehr (Defence) Kanone (Cannon)—AircraftDefenceCanon. The word “flak”, meaning defensive, ground-based, high-calibre weapons (both ballistic and explosive) used to destroy or damage enemy aircraft (usually situated around high-value military targets), came into common use by Allied aircrews of the Second World War. It is also known by various other names—AA, AAA, Triple A, Archie and Ack Ack—but “flak” is the only sobriquet that made it into the common lexicon.
Aviation geeks (myself included) believe they know plenty about combat aircraft of the Second World War, yet few of us have gone on to make a study of the Axis weapon system that destroyed or damaged most Allied aircraft—flak. There is no better way to understand, in simple terms, what pilots thought of flak and how effective it was against them, than to hear it from the horse’s mouth—from a Spitfire pilot engaged in low level attacks on German strong points in the months before and following Operation OVERLORD—D-Day.
The stories of the men and women who played a part in the Second World War become powerful and sometimes sorrowful voices, transcending time and space, calling out to us, teaching us, warning us, loving us. These lessons are all the more powerful when the voice takes the form of the humble and eloquent words of a very dear friend. Bill McRae was a Spitfire pilot in the years leading up to and the months following the Normandy invasion. Starting with multiple combat ops on D-Day, Bill flew at least one operation each day for 60 days straight. He spoke with the authority of experience, the sadness of personal loss, the pride of accomplishment and the gratitude of survival. Bill McRae was part of our family at Vintage Wings of Canada. He died four years ago this month. We love him dearly and his words, which we send out to Vintage News subscribers from time to time, bring his smiling face back into sharp focus. Here now, our beloved Bill McRae tells us about how RCAF Spitfire pilots viewed Flugzeugabwehrkanone (flak) and how it affected Allied fighter operations.—Dave O’Malley
Recollections of Flugzeugabwehrkanone (Flak) – By Bill McRae
Early in the spring of 1944, 401 Squadron saw a gradual reduction in the principal role it had played over the previous nine months, i.e.: high level, or close escort, most often to U.S. B-26 Marauders. Focus began switching more to ground targets, initially attacks on trains and barges, but in April dive bombing was added, with Noball [at the time these were “mystery” targets—usually V-1 buzz bomb and V-2 rocket launch sites—Ed.] and railway bridges becoming the main objectives. Following D-day the main targets became enemy transports moving up to the front. These targets were often heavily defended by light flak, which, although it was no stranger to us, was now seen in much greater concentrations than previously experienced.
Flight Lieutenant Bill McRae, 401 Ram Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. Photo via Marilynn Best (née McRae)
I should explain the definitions of flak. There were two general categories, ‘light’ and ‘heavy’, neither of which referred to the intensity of the fire but rather the calibre. Light flak could be anything from machine gun caliber to 40 mm cannon, effective up to about 10,000’. Heavy flak usually came from the superb German 88 (88 mm) which fired a 9 kg projectile at 800–1,000 m/sec velocity with some models reaching altitudes up to 20,000 m**. With tray loading for rapid fire, and radar ranging, it was a formidable weapon. Intensity of fire was described equally for both categories, ‘intense’, ‘moderate’ or ‘insignificant’; this last one struck me as a joke, one bullet was insignificant, but not if it went through the radiator of a liquid cooled engine!
A gun crew for a German 88 mm anti-aircraft gun, known simply as the Eighty Eight, have a lunch break in France during the Normandy campaign. In the First World War, a similar 88 mm gun was used for anti-aircraft defence - German soldiers and airmen called them by a similar name—Acht-Acht (Eight Eight)—which likely gave rise to the nickname used by the British at the time—Ack Ack. Photo: Bundesarchiv
It was light flak which caused the majority of our losses leading up to and during the Normandy campaign. Because the small caliber weapons had a high rate of fire, the guns were often mounted as multiple units, and as we were attacking down to very low levels, the odds of being hit were quite high. There was also a psychological factor which came into play since most of these guns used tracer ammunition. It was rather unnerving to be diving at a target from which streams of red or white ping pong balls were floating up at you, seemingly right at you. Usually these would arc down before reaching you, having been fired out of range. Other times they would have the range but not the line and the pyrotechnics would sail by on either side. Not very comforting, knowing that just one of those things hitting your Achilles heel, the radiator, and your flying days would be over.
German anti-aircraft gunners with a “light” flak gun called the Flakvierling 38—combining four 20 mm Flak 30 guns on one mount. Despite its smaller size, it required a crew of eight. Like all mobile flak guns, it could also be used against ground targets—with devastating effect. The gun fired 800 rounds per minute. No wonder Bill McRae and his fellow Spitfire pilots of 401 Squadron feared “light” flak most of all. Photo via fhsw.wikia.com
Statistics for total loss of aircraft and pilots reflect only a small percentage of the number of Spitfires which were damaged but able to return safely. I recall one day when 401 was unable to mount any operations during the afternoon due to an insufficient number of serviceable machines. The Wing ORB [Operational Record Book] for 27 June states in part: “Flak opposition through the day was quite heavy, especially while strafing, and the Wing suffered 12 aircraft temporarily out of action from this cause”.
It was not always enemy flak causing the damage. A few days after D-Day, 127 Wing, attempting to cross the beaches to take up patrol, were fired on by the Royal Navy. After several unsuccessful attempts, in which one pilot was killed, another wounded, and six aircraft damaged, the Wing gave up and returned to Tangmere.
Despite its delicate appearance, and the admitted vulnerability of its cooling system, the Spitfire could take a lot of punishment. Soon after we took up residence in France, I flew the Auster to B-6 to pick up Art Bishop following his emergency landing there. I have never seen a machine so badly mauled and still flyable—it looked as if a madman had attacked the wings with an axe, yet the radiator was untouched. On another occasion, one of our pilots had his stabilizer sliced through from leading edge to spar while dive bombing, yet it held together long enough for him to get back to Hawkinge.
In this story, Bill McRae speaks of flying the squadron Auster liaison aircraft to pick up Art Bishop, whose Spitfire had been shredded by flak. William Arthur Christian Avery Bishop (right) was the fighter pilot son of one of the greatest aces of the First World War, Canada’s Air Marshal William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO, and Bar, MC, DFC, ED, LL.D (left) who had 72 aerial victories to his name. Photos: TheStar.com (right) and WarMuseum.ca (left)
An RAF Auster light utility aircraft similar to that flown by the author when picking up Art Bishop. McRae was likely flying 126 Wing’s liaison aircraft or “hack”. Photo: Imperial War Museum
As much as light flak was highly visible, heavy flak was stealthy—unseen until it arrived and burst. A direct hit would be catastrophic. On at least two occasions I witnessed B-26’s cut clean in half by direct hits. Sometimes a volley of only a few rounds, or even a single round, could appear when least expected. This was the case when S/L Hap Kennedy was brought down. I had a somewhat similar experience, with more fortunate outcome, a few weeks before D-Day. We were returning home from an uneventful fighter sweep in the Paris region. Flying over Rouen at about 15,000’, an 88 round burst directly in front of my spinner; I saw the burst and flew through it at the same instant. Whether from the explosion or having instinctively pulling the stick back I don’t know, but when I looked down I could see the rest of the squadron sailing along about 200’ below me, and where they had been a moment before the sky was filled with black puffs of smoke from a box barrage. Perhaps I had received the ranging round. I could not believe that such a close call would not have hit me somewhere, and spent some anxious moments checking the coolant temperature gauge until I was satisfied my radiator had not been hit. On landing back at Tangmere, the crew and I examined the whole aircraft carefully and found only two hits. The starboard navigation light had been cut away cleanly, as if by a knife, and there was a chunk of flak several inches long protruding from the wooden blade of my Rotol prop, about two feet out from the spinner. I thought this warranted a new prop, but they pulled out the flak, filled the hole with plastic wood, and dabbed some black paint on it!
Escorting both RAF and USAAC Martin Marauders on bombing missions against heavily defended V-1 and V-2 launch sites, McRae witnessed the devastating effects of heavy flak at altitude. Here, on Valentine’s Day 1945, B-26 Lafayette, We Are Here II (serial number 42-95900) falls from the sky. The official, but dramatic, caption from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHEAF) censor, typed on the back of this photo reads in part: “A Martin B-26 Marauder, aflame from engine to tail, hurtles earthward during a 9th Bombardment Division attack against a German front-line communications centre in the path of the advancing First and Ninth Armies. A direct hit from enemy anti-aircraft artillery penetrated the left engine. Flames, starting at the point where the cowling has come off, engulf the wing, fuselage and tail from both sides.” Such scenes had a powerful effect on pilots like McRae. Photo: USAF
When I left 401 in August of 1944, I was flying my fourth Mk IX since my first one back in November 1943, three having been temporarily retired due to flak damage. Since I assume most pilots had similar or greater experiences, it adds up to an impressive number of aircraft having been required to keep one squadron operating.
Addendum: While waiting for transport back to England from France, I continued to visit my old squadron, just up the road a short distance. On one of these visits the pilot who had inherited “my” Spit invited me to come and have a look at it. The starboard wing had a neat round hole in it, slightly larger than 88 mm, in the bottom and out the top, and very close to the fuselage. Obviously an 88 mm round, fortunately failing to explode, had punched a hole clean through before continuing on its way, taking out the camera gun. You don’t get any luckier than that!
A pilot (left) and two ground crew inspect the flak damage of a 332 (Norwegian) Squadron Spitfire Mk Vb. Close calls like this were commonplace, but flak near the engine, fuel tanks or even the radiator could cause the total destruction of the aircraft. Photo: WarAlbum.ru
Flight Lieutenant Arthur Sager of 416 Squadron RCAF was clobbered by flak while flying on a “Rhubarb” over Holland on 13 November 1943. Despite a damaged aircraft, destroyed radio and injuries, he was able to get the Spitfire back to their base at RAF Coltishaw. Rhubarbs were defined by the RAF as operations when sections of fighters or fighter-bombers, taking full advantage of low cloud and poor visibility, would cross the English Channel and then drop below cloud level to search for targets of opportunity such as railway locomotives and rolling stock, aircraft on the ground, enemy troops and vehicles on roads. As such, they were very susceptible to small caliber flak. Photo via spitfiresite.com and flyingforyourlife.com
RCAF Flight Sergeant Mehew Zobell, of Raymond, Alberta, was hit by flak while supporting the Canadian–British raid at Dieppe on the north coast of France on 19 August 1942. His Spitfire was struck both around the engine cowling and the rudder. Despite wounds to his head and face, he was able to get the aircraft home and safely on the ground. Photo: RCAF
Though not an RCAF Spitfire, this photograph of a USAAF P-47 Thunderbolt powerfully demonstrates the shredding effect of a close call with a flak detonation. Luckily the pilot, who is being attended to by the airman on the wing, was able to get his aircraft back on the ground. Photo: USAF
Flak was the bane of all flying operations, fighter or bomber. The image of a B-17 Flying Fortress that managed to return bears testament to two things—the devastating power of heavy flak and the incredible ability of the “Fort” to sustain damage and continue. Photo: USAF
This story and many others, Bill McRae wrote for the Canadian Aviation Historical Society (CAHS) over many years. He sent this and several other stories to Vintage Wings before his death in 2011. Precious gifts that they are, we dole them out one at a time, hoping to extend the connection to Bill into the future. Bill was witness to history and a gifted, humble and humorous writer of his and his fellow pilots’ experiences throughout the war. He believed deeply in the importance of the CAHS and its goal to record for all time the powerful aviation heritage that is Canada’s. To find out more about the CAHS, visit www.cahs.ca
* Bill Belichick and Emperor Palpatine
** range distances and projectile speeds differ from model to model and from projectile to projectile.