- The African sun, like a bloody curious eye, hung on the rim of the world as hundreds of airplane engines coughed into life, spewing miniature dust storms across the flat wastes of a desert airfield.
Thin aluminum skins of C-47s vibrated like drawn snare drums and as paratroopers heaved themselves up into the planes and sought their predesignated seats, they wrinkled their noses at the smell of gasoline and lacquer that flooded the planes' interiors.
Spearheading the airborne invasion of Sicily, the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry, crossed the North African coast as the sun flared briefly, then plummeted into the Mediterranean. Flak rose thinly into the dusky sky ahead-probably Malta, the paratroopers grimly thought.
Detached from the regiment for tactical requirements, the 3rd Battalion crossed over the Sicilian coast on schedule and jumped on its assigned drop zone, July 9, 1943 - the first Allied troops to land in the invasion that Prime Minister Winston Churchill termed, "not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning".
from a personal tribute to the 504th Parachute Infantry Brigade
Like blitz, dachshund and dollar, flak is a German loanword first coined in 1938 for Fliegerabwehrkanone as in Flieger+Abwehr+Kanone for "flyer defense gun," or more literally a "pilot-defense-gun." The military meaning was obtained from "anti-aircraft fire" in 1940.
During World War II the British called flak ack-ack or Archie. "Ack" was then the British symbolic enunciation for "a" so "ack-ack" stood for a-a or anti-aircraft. By December 1942 "ack" was replaced by "able" as the symbolic enunciation of "a" in the military system of symbolic letter substitutes.
The Automatic 2 cm Anti-Aircraft Gun was initially used successfully in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 during the battle of Bilabao. Earlier the weapon had been introduced into the German Luftwaffe in 1934 as a replacement for the anti-aircraft machine-gun MG C30. The purpose was to provide a defense against low flying aircrafts. As a German defense system flak units employed more than a million men and women and POW's during the war, were responsible for more than half of all Allied aircraft losses, forced Allied bombers to fly far above high-accuracy altitudes, and permitted Germany to hold out far longer than it might have otherwise. Hitler was obsessed with micromanaging the war. Nearing the target's searchlights, sometimes guided by primitive radar the flak unit would hunt for a plane by attempting to cone it between two different beams of light to as a target for the anti-aircraft guns.
- The searchlights were fantastic, they really were. They were worse really than flak because you didn't see that until it actually burst. But to fly towards a target which was literally ringed with cones of searchlights, with the flak going up into where all the beams met at a focal point, and then all the guns round it would concentrate on that area once they got someone in it. It was quite scary.
- "You had to literally fly through a wall of flak..... often getting chunks of metal come pinging in to the aircraft. And sometimes you could smell the cordite in the aircraft." -Tom Wingham
- The women of the 588th (Women's Bomber Regiment) also came up with a unique strategy to deal with the German "flak circuses." In an area they controlled or were protecting, the Germans would assemble as many as two dozen 37 mm antiaircraft guns in concentric circles around a target. The gunners would be supported by a searchlight platoon. Many Soviet bomber pilots, true to their unyielding strategy, flew straight in, alit by searchlights and pounded by ring after ring of antiaircraft fire; they seldom made it to the target. After several casualties among the women bomber pilots, the survivors decided to break out of the Soviet strategy mold. The women decided to fly in groups of three instead of two; two would fly headlong toward the target while one held back. When the front two were first hit by the searchlights, they would go into wild evasive action, and the searchlight operators would try to follow them. The third plane would slip in under their cover and deliver her load. The women would later describe the tension of waiting for the searchlight to hit them, how they ignored the sound of flak tearing through the wings and fuselage, and their worry about their friends who had been sent in to draw the Germans' fire. But, in the end, they seemed to shrug the tactic off in a pragmatic military manner. "It worked," they said.
- The German Flak was aimed visually and by radar. In the thirty or so miles to the target we used electronic jamming and dispensed chaff. The chaff looked like the old time X-mas tree tinsel. We used those items to fool their radar, but if it was a clear day they used visual sighting and that negated our counter measures. (Cubbins, William R., The War of the Cottontails, p. 45)
Flak related phrases used by American airmen from 1943-1945 were, 'flak farm,' the 'flak shack' and a 'flak home,' which led to more terms like, "flak-happy," a person mentally affected by flak. One B-26 nick named Flak Bait, a famous Marauder, endured over 1000 enemy hits during her combat days. Today the un-restored nose section is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
The word has been extended to flak jacket, slang for a bullet-proof vest. By 1946, the word "flack" meant a press agent when it was first used by show biz magazine Variety, supposedly from name of Gene Flack, a movie agent. Along with this change in spelling, there seems to be a semantic shift from "flak" as a defensive to an offensive sense leading to the idiom "flak catcher," " a person who takes the heat" or "a slick spokesperson who can turn any criticism to the advantage of their employer." Sometime around 1963 it became an American colloquialism for opposition or heavy criticism. which could lead some to think of a flak catcher as a limited definition of a public relations agent and that reporters could fire "flak at a flack."
BBC - History - World War Two - The Air War and British Bomber