One of the best sources of information about daily life in the Third Reich is Assignment to Berlin by Harry W. Flannery, a CBS Radio Correspondent sent to Berlin to replace William Shirer although their tenure overlapped for a few weeks so Shirer could show the ropes to Flannery.
On this particular evening, Shirer accompanied Flannery to the broadcast studio and the two men arrived early enough to dine at a nearby restaurant. They had just begun to eat dinner…
…when the alarm sounded. It was a startling, annoying, frightening sound, like the long drawn-out wail of a giant cat, rising and then falling … I listened to the first notes of the alarm and then resumed eating. I was planning to finish the meal, but Bill, as a veteran, cautioned me to act. ‘Better forget your dinner tonight,’ he said.
Although the broadcasting studio was across the street, Shirer insisted they leave immediately or we might get caught in the restaurant and not be able to leave and go to the studio. (It was illegal to be outside on the street during an air-raid). Flannery:
As we went into the street the anti-aircraft guns were already cracking. ‘Keep alongside the buildings,’ Bill cautioned, ‘and then, when we get to the best point, we’ll run as fast as possible across the street. The shrapnel is more to be feared than the bombs.’
Shrapnel, in this case referring to the fractured bits of the anti-aircraft shells, was a real danger during air-raids in World War Two. It was even more dangerous in areas where there were large concentrations of anti-aircraft guns such as Berlin. The Germans defended themselves with Fliegerabwehrkanone which translates as air defense cannon. That being too long a word even for Germans, they abbreviated it to “flak” which became the generic term for anti-aircraft fire in WW Two. If you have ever used or heard the expression, “I got a lot of flak,” that’s where it comes from.
In an air raid on a major city like Berlin, few of the flak batteries would actually be firing at specific planes; rather they would be firing a pattern of shells set to explode at various heights creating a “box.” RAF bombers would have to fly through this “box” of exploding shells to reach their target. ‘Since what goes up, must come down,’ once the shells exploded, the fragments, or shrapnel, would fall back to earth. A small piece of a shell could easily kill you. Because of this, no one was allowed to be outside during an air raid. In various memoirs one reads not only of people being killed but of buildings sustaining heavy damage from falling shrapnel.
Like many words, shrapnel takes its name from a person, in this case, Henry Shrapnel (3 June 1761 – 13 March 1842), a British Army officer who served in the Royal Artillery. He invented a spherical exploding shell filled with musket balls (or shrapnel) which was designed to explode among enemy troops and kill lots of them. It worked quite well. Almost two-hundred fifty years later, Colonel Shrapnel has been forgotten but his name lives on as a description of deadly fragments caused by artillery shells.