In World War II, to protect the Third Reich’s cities and industrial sites from Allied bombers, the Nazis ringed them with huge numbers of anti-aircraft guns. These were called, in the singular, Fliegerabwehrkanone (pilot defence gun).
By cobbling together the first letters of each element of the longer compound word, this was typically shortened to ‘FlaK’.
The word soon entered English, first seen in Jane’s Fighting Ships in 1938, when the annual described the anti-aircraft armament of a German warship.
These weapons became the terror of Allied airmen flying bombing missions over Germany, their machines lashed with lethal showers of metal shards. The Times would note on 16 September 1940 that ‘The word “Flak” is probably used in every Bomber Command pilot’s report after a raid on Germany.’
After the war, flak would also come to mean very strong criticism or abuse, as seen in the New York Times of 20 May 1968: ‘In spite of the current flak between Mayor Lindsay and … [the] administrator of Boston and New Haven.’
This sense has persisted into the 21st century. A person who is subject to severe, disapproving criticism may be said to be figuratively catching ‘flak’ in the same manner that Allied bomber aircraft literally did over occupied Europe.
Wartime German anti-aircraft artillery consisted of guns of a myriad of calibres, with the most prominent heavy pieces being those of the workhorse 88mm FlaK 18/36/37 series.
The much-feared ‘88’ was an extremely potent weapon with a tremendous muzzle velocity, high rate of fire, and excellent range, being capable of effectively engaging targets at altitudes of up to 26,000 feet.
Its punch, accuracy, and the flat trajectory of its projectile also found it a role as a deadly anti-tank weapon in the North African desert campaigns.
This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.