During World War II, the Soviet Union possessed an extremely effective “flying tank”: the Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft.
With 36,183 units, it is the most produced combat aircraft with unmatched firepower. If the T-34 tanks helped the Soviets dominate the ground, then in the air the Ilyushin Il-2 was the terror of all German tanks.
The Ilyushin Il-2 or widely known as the Shturmovik, was without a doubt a symbol of Soviet air power during World War II, an armored ground attack aircraft that shot down tanks and troops from the opening days of Operation Barbarossa to the fall of Berlin. The Il-2 aircraft played a crucial role on the Eastern Front. When factories fell behind on deliveries, Joseph Stalin told the factory managers that the Il-2s were “as essential to the Red Army as air and bread.”
As early as the 1930s, the Soviet military experimented with the idea of a dedicated ground attack aircraft. The Il-2 had its first flight in 1939 and entered service in 1941. The single-seat Il-2 weighed nearly 10,000 pounds, compared to 7,000 for the Stuka, and could carry a similar maximum bomb load of around 1,100 pounds. However, it was slightly faster, at 250 miles per hour, and more heavily armed, with two 20-millimeter cannons in addition to two machine guns in the wings.
Its most notable feature was the inclusion of armor in an airframe load-bearing scheme. Armor plates replaced the frame and paneling throughout the nacelle and middle part of the fuselage, and an armored hull made of riveted homogeneous armor steel AB-1 secured the aircraft’s engine, cockpit, water and oil radiators, and fuel tanks. The Sturmovik’s robust landing gear was also designed to handle rough frontline airstrips. Sturmovik pilots discovered their armor rendered the Il-2 nearly immune to machine gun fire from the front, and even gave it a chance to survive 20-millimeter cannon shells.
However, the Sturmoviks sustained devastating losses as faster German fighter planes swooped around to hit their unarmored rears. During periods of intense fighting, one Sturmovik was being lost for every 10 combat missions, a ratio that would “improve” to one loss for every 26 missions in 1943. The Soviet Air force lost more than 4,000 aircraft of all types in the disastrous first month of hostilities — the Fourth Regiment, for example, lost 55 of its 65 Sturmoviks — and the Il-2 production facilities had to be evacuated east of the Ural Mountains, interrupting deliveries for two months.
After Stalin’s famous message, the production schedule improved. More than 36,000 Il-2 Sturmoviks were built over the course of the war, making it the second most widely produced airplane ever. First place goes to the ubiquitous civilian Cessna 172. The Il-2M, introduced in 1942, had an extended canopy to accommodate the gunner of a rear-mounted 12.7-millimeter UBT heavy machine gun. Its wing cannons were also upgraded to high-velocity 23-millimeter types. The tail gunners did prove useful in shooting down harrying German fighters. However, they weren’t protected by any armor plating, and suffered four times the fatality rate of the pilots.
The Il-2 disposed of a variety of specialized antitank weapons. It could carry eight 82-millimeter or four 132-millimeter rockets, but despite their excellent armor-piercing ability, they proved too inaccurate to be highly effective. Some Il-2s were equipped with two huge tank-busting 37-millimeter automatic cannons with 50 rounds of ammunition each. However, the cannons’ accuracy was so poor, due to excessive recoil, that production of this type was halted after construction of “only” 3,500 examples.
The Battle of Kursk actually began with one of the largest air battles of World War II, when German fighters scrambled just in time to blunt an enormous preemptive air strike by Soviet fighters and bombers. The aerial melee involved 500 warplanes and resulted in a few dozen German losses in exchange for around one hundred Soviet aircraft. But Soviet commanders didn’t let the initial setback prevent them from feeding even more Sturmoviks into the battle. Il-2 pilots in Kursk began flying in “Circles of Death” over the battlefield to cover each other’s tails from enemy fighters, one aircraft at a time peeling away to make ground attack runs before rejoining the circle.
During the following weeks of fighting, Sturmoviks and Stukas competed frenetically to knock out the tanks of their adversaries. German airpower, including new Ju-87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129 attack planes with tank-busting cannons, supposedly single-handedly blunted the advance of the Second Guards Tanks Corp on July 8, knocking out 50 tanks.
By 1943, the Soviet air force began to field the Il-2M3 model, which corrected many of the flaws of its predecessor. The tail gunner finally received 13 millimeters of plate armor, while the leading edges of the wings were swept back 15 degrees in order to compensate for the shift in the center of gravity, greatly improving the Sturmovik’s handling.
Thousands of Sturmoviks supported the Red Army through the end of World War II, even pounding the last entrenched defenders outside of Berlin in the massive four-day Battle of the Seelow Heights. By that time, the Il-2 was joined by an evolved cousin, the all-metal Il-10.
Soviet records state that a total of 11,000 Il-2s were lost in action during World War II, although some sources estimate the true total to be twice that. Whatever the case may be, a great many Sturmoviks served on into the 1950s in the Soviet air force and in states such as Mongolia, Yugoslavia and Poland.
After World War II, Soviet aircraft designers focused on light, speedy fighter bombers for ground support. A true successor for the Sturmovik didn’t emerge until the late 1970s in the armored Su-25 Frogfoot attack plane, which continues to see extensive action around the world today.