Ilyushin Il-2 Ground Attack Aircraft

The Ilyushin Il-2 or Shturmovik was a ground-attack aircraft produced by the Soviet Union in very large numbers during the Second World War (Great Patriotic War). With 36,183 units of the Il-2 produced during the war.

Shturmovik

The Il-2 was designed by Sergey Ilyushin and his team at the Central Design Bureau in 1938. TsKB-55 was a two-seat aircraft with an armored shell weighing 700 kg (1,540 lb), protecting crew, engine, radiators, and the fuel tank. Standing loaded, the Ilyushin weighed more than 4,700 kg (10,300 lb), making the armored shell about 15% of the aircraft’s gross weight. Uniquely for a World War II attack aircraft, and similarly to the forward fuselage design of the World War I-era Imperial German Junkers J.I armored, all-metal biplane, the Il-2’s armor was designed as a load-bearing part of the Ilyushin’s monocoque structure, thus saving considerable weight. The prototype TsKB-55, which first flew on October 2nd, 1939, won the government competition against the Sukhoi Su-6 and received the VVS designation BSh-2 (the BSh stood for “Bronirovani Shturmovik” or armored ground attack).

The BSh-2 was overweight and underpowered, with the original Mikulin AM-35 1,022 kW (1,370 hp) engine designed to give its greatest power outputs at high altitude. Because of this it was redesigned as the TsKB-57, a lighter single-seat design, with the more powerful 1,254 kW (1,680 hp) Mikulin AM-38 engine, a development of the AM-35 optimized for low level operation. The TsKB-57 first flew on October 12th, 1940. The production aircraft passed State Acceptance Trials in March 1941, and was re-designated Il-2 in April. Deliveries to operational units commenced in May 1941. One of the first 1940 photographs of the Il-2 show it equipped with two MP-6 23 mm auto-cannons developed by Yakov Taubin. The MP-6 gun weighed 70 kg and developed an initial muzzle velocity of 900 m/s. It operated on the short recoil principle and had a rate of fire of about 600 rpm. In the early Il-2 prototypes, these guns were fed by 81-round magazines. In flight, these magazines sometimes became dislodged. Subsequently, in May 1941, development of the MP-6 gun was terminated and Taubin was arrested and summarily executed in October that year.

In early 1941, the Il-2 was ordered into production at four factories, and was eventually produced in greater numbers than any other military aircraft in aviation history, but by the time Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, only State Aviation Factory 18 at Voronezh and Factory 381 at Leningrad had commenced production, with 249 having been built by the time of the German attack. Production early in the war was slow because after the German invasion the aircraft factories near Moscow and other major cities in western Russia had to be moved east of the Ural Mountains. Ilyushin and his engineers had time to reconsider production methods, and two months after the move Il-2s were again being produced. After threats by Stalin to increase production, Stalin’s notion of the Il-2 being ‘like bread’ to the Red Army took hold in Ilyushin’s aircraft plants and the army soon had their Shturmoviks available in quantity.

Maybe it’s easier to visualize as a “flying tractor”.

The first use in action of the Il-2 was with the 4th ShAP (Ground Attack Regiment) over the Berezina River days after German invasion began. The aircraft was so new that the pilots had no training in flight characteristics or tactics, and the ground crew no training in servicing or re-arming. The training received enabled the pilots only to take-off and land; none of the pilots had fired the armament, let alone learned tactics.

There were 249 Il-2s available in June 1941. In the first three days, 4th ShAP had lost 10 Il-2s to enemy action, a further 19 were lost to other causes, and 20 pilots were killed. By July, 4th ShAP was down to 10 aircraft from a strength of 65. Tactics improved as Soviet aircrews became used to the Il-2’s strengths. Instead of a low horizontal straight approach at 150 ft. AGL, the target was usually kept to the pilot’s left and a turn and shallow dive of 30 degrees was used. Although the Il-2’s RS-82 and RS-132 rockets could destroy armored vehicles with a single hit, they were so inaccurate that experienced Il-2 pilots mainly used the cannon. Another potent weapon of the Il-2s was the PTAB shaped charge bomblets (protivotankovaya aviabomba, “anti-tank aviation bomb”).

PTABs were first used on a large scale in the Battle of Kursk. The Il-2 was thereafter widely deployed on the Eastern Front. The aircraft could fly in low light conditions and carried weapons able to defeat the thick armor of the Panther and Tiger I tanks. In the Battle of Kursk, General V. Ryazanov became a master in the use of attack aircraft en masse, developing and improving the tactics of Il-2 operations in co-ordination with infantry, artillery and armored troops. Il-2s at Kursk used the “circle of death” tactic: up to eight Shturmoviks formed a defensive circle, each plane protecting the one ahead with its forward machine guns, while individual Il-2s took turns leaving the circle, attacking a target, and rejoining the circle. Ryazanov was later awarded the Gold Star of Hero of Soviet Union twice, and the 1st Assault Aviation Corps under his command became the first unit to be awarded the honorific title of Guards. In 1943, 26 Shturmovik sorties were conducted. About half of those lost during were shot down by fighters, the rest falling to anti-aircraft fire.

During the Battle of Kursk, VVS Il-2s claimed the destruction of no less than 270 tanks (and 2,000 men) in a period of just two hours against the 3rd Panzer Division. Perhaps the most extraordinary claim by the VVS’s Il-2s is that, over a period of four hours, they destroyed 240 tanks and in the process virtually wiped out the 17th Panzer Division. The 17th Panzer did not register any abnormal losses due to aircraft in the summer of 1943, and retreated westwards with Army Group South later in the year, still intact.

There is a lesson to be learned. If you claimed substantial kills, you received the Order of Lenin. If you didn’t, you were shot.

The main problem with the Il-2 was the inaccuracy of its attacks. Towards the end of war, the Soviets were able to concentrate large numbers of Shturmoviks to support their main offensives. The effect, however, was often more psychological than actual physical destruction of targets, particularly against dug-in and armored targets. While some attacks against large unprotected targets such as horse and truck convoys and railyards had devastating results, attacks against dug-in point targets were usually ineffective. The frequent duels between dug-in 20 and 40 mm AA guns and Il-2 attackers never resulted in the complete destruction of the gun, while many Il-2s were brought down in these attacks. The heavy armor of the Il-2 also meant that it would typically carry only comparatively light bomb-loads, which together with the poor accuracy of its attacks made it a far less deadly attack aircraft than contemporary Allied fighter-bombers such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and Hawker Typhoon.

Thanks to the heavy armor protection, the Il-2 could take a great deal of punishment and proved difficult for both ground and aircraft fire to shoot down. A major threat to the Il-2 was German ground fire. In postwar interviews, Il-2 pilots reported 20 mm (0.79 in) and 37 mm (1.46 in) artillery as the primary threat. While the fabled 88 mm (3.46 in) calibre gun was formidable, low-flying Il-2s presented too fast-moving a target for the 88’s relatively low rate of fire, only occasional hits were scored. Owing to a shortage of fighters, in 1941–1942, Il-2s were occasionally used as fighters. While outclassed by dedicated fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190, in dogfights, the Il-2 could take on other Luftwaffe aircraft with some success. While the Il-2 was a deadly air-to-ground weapon, and even a fairly effective interceptor against slow bombers and transport aircraft, heavy losses resulted from its vulnerability to fighter attack. Losses were very high, the highest of all types of Soviet aircraft, though given the numbers in service this is only to be expected.

In final summery, the aircraft was a piece of Russian flying junk, but they built 36,183 of them (allowing many German fighter pilots to rack up impressive kill records at their expense). The quality of pilot training was poor and most of the squadrons were directed by ground controllers who tightly choreographed what they should do. If you departed from the directions and survived the mission you would likely be shot and replaced. It was not a great time to be a Russian ground-attack pilot.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting. I have, of course heard of the plane but knew little about it. The eastern front doesn’t get enough attention from most over here.

    • The Great Patriotic War saw MASSIVE casualties for the Russians. Later in the war, the Germans learned why you don’t invade Russia. Russian air power was never impressive. But the Russian people (with an assist from nature) beat the German Army like an unwanted stepchild. We can argue how they did it with numbers and weather, but the key was that they won.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson. This is information of which I had not previously been aware. It is among the reasons I visit your site often.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    P.S.: Your grandchildren are a delight to the eye.

  3. Recap: So the ‘most famous’ ground attack aircraft of WWII was, as typical, an overhyped piece of Soviet excrement more designed to kill the true enemy of the Soviet, which was always the population of… the Soviet Union.

    Ahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    So great that Stuka pilots shot them down.

    Ahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    I think they would have done more damage to the German armor if they just rammed said armor with their planes.

    Now do the vaunted Soviet Armor. That had tanks with engines that could last 200 hours or so before being replaced, but since the tank wasn’t going to last that long…

    • The Shturmovik gave the Germans something to shoot down.

      Junk notwithstanding, if the Russians would have given the pilots a chance to learn to fly they might have scored better. Early in the war some Russian pilots defected in their Shturmoviks, and that led to the Russians sending fighters along to shoot down their own planes if they deviated from the plan. The joys of communism…

      Well, you’re right. The life expectancy of a T-34 in combat wasn’t anywhere near 200 hours. So why make engines that last longer than that?

      But the Russians were the bullet sponge that took the fight out of the Germans. I know, as I mentioned above, that we can argue about it simply meant that they took unbelievable casualties – and they did. They ended up with Corps the size of platoons at Stalingrad.

      I wrote the blog on the Shturmovik (above) because it was emblematic of the Russian war machine in many ways.

      • Of course, the T-34s low lifetime in combat was partly a result of design failures such as no turret basket, very substandard visibility when buttoned up, an arrangement of equipment that could deemed “anti-ergonomic”, shortages of radios left early formations to rely on watching the commander’s tank for flag signals from within vehicles with exceptionally bad visibility. Then training, which consisted a couple or the days for the driver to get accustomed, and obviously no time for tactical driving training, especially as part of a formation, then off to the range to fire 3 rounds of main gun ammo and belt through each of the MGs, then it was off to the front with them. Only 20% of the crew were likely to survive their T-34 being knocked out, whereas only 20% of the crew of a knocked-out Sherman were likely to die.

  4. Sounds like Saddam executing his wmd guys because they failed the first time. Way to get things going, yeah? If someone does not have the freedom to fail, they are never going to take a chance, they will spend their whole career covering their ass.

    • Logistics wins wars. Shifting topics just a little bit, by The Battle of Midway, the US had dozens of aircraft carriers under construction. The Japanese had one (two if you count the Shinano – a converted battleship that never launched a plane – sunk by a US submarine). The outcome of the war was never in question. It was only a matter of time. (sort of why DRJIM’s blog is named “every blade of grass”) The Japanese fought their army and aviators until they died. There was no effort to send experienced pilots home to train new pilots the way that the US did. Many US combat veterans returned home during the war and were replaced by fresh divisions.

      The Chinese and others laughed about the US Military until the First Gulf War when precise munitions were used and demonstrated on the evening news feeds. Flying missiles and guided bombs through windows was something well beyond what the Russians could do. Saddam’s army featured the best Soviet military equipment. We can argue quality of soldiers. But all that equipment ended up broken and rusting.

      Do you recall when that Russian mixed force battalion attacked the US position in Syria a couple years ago? They were going to show the Americans how it was done downtown, and were wiped out almost to a man with no losses or casualties on the US side.

      • Your points are rational, unlike my flippant ones. During the First Gulf War, I ate humble pie. At the time Iraq had the 4th largest Army in the world; seasoned by years of war with Iran. Being a Vietnam era vet, my opinion of senior military leaders, and their civilian bosses, was very low. I predicted a disaster and was pleased to be wrong. The logistics of using just one decent road to support that effort was a major feat.

        • Americans can fight. We may have certain national dysfunctions, which are all apparent now, but we have a history. Vietnam was a situation where we were completely betrayed. I thought never again, then came Afghanistan.

        • I was fortunate to be a hard-core (civilian) wargamer years before, and had actually studied area before. IIRC, the name was “Gulf Strike” modeling the Iran-Iraq War, but there was an expansion pack with US and other forces that paralleled what actually happened. There was almost no way we weren’t going to establish air supremacy and then go to town against every formation not using civilians as shields, drop every bridge of use to them, and then after they’ve been cut off from supplies and attrited from the air for a few weeks, we’d unleash the army. We’d have been better continuing the ground war another few hours until we’d bagged all of the Republican Guard. Iraq would’ve fallen into civil war between the Kurds in the north and the Marsh Arabs (mostly Shia) revolting in the south. Delaying opening that can of worms only meant we’d be back in a generation or so (lesson: if you go to war against an Arab tinpot dictator, he must not survive the experience, otherwise he becomes a hero just for surviving), and I loudly predicted that to anyone who would listen. Now, whether we should’ve done a damned thing in 1990 to defend to oil ticks in Riyadh, let alone Kuwait, is another question. But Saddam Hussein was a truly bad actor, and if he’d got ahold of nuclear weapons, that would’ve been A Bad Thing, I think. He was a lot closer than we thought in 1990.

          James Dunnigan was one of the few who laid it all out, pretty correctly, for Congress in the weeks leading up to Desert Storm. He wasn’t an alarmist, so he got no airtime other than CSPAN

          • Remember Gulf War I very well, and having ‘insider info’ on the weapons in use, had no doubt that the Bad Guys were in for a shock.

            General Schwarzkopf was exactly the right man for the job, and he was allowed to do the job, without interference, until it was pretty much done.

  5. I was amazed at the demise of the 17th Panzer Division until I wasn’t.
    I wonder how many of those Pilots were thrilled at the opportunity to gain Glory and Victory only to find that they were on a certain path to doom and destruction.

    • In some cases, they’d give a young woman (a lot of women flew the IL-2 because the men were dying in ground combat) three hours of “classroom instruction” before she took off on her first mission. The Shturmovik lumbered into the air, had a very low stall speed, and the pilot would listen to her radio, following directions. Some lived to drop ordnance (rarely hitting anything) and would then return to learn how to land an aircraft by doing. A lot of the seats in the aircraft were actually tractor seats because that was what Russia was producing.

      The Russians didn’t know what to do so that’s the sort of thing they did.

  6. And now, remarkably, Russia is a Christian nation. It escaped from beneath the talons of the beast. But back on topic:

    The Soldier, who’s passed A School and landed in Korea last week, never tires of saying the US Army is “high speed.” Could we be overwhelmed by low tech ChiCom quantity? I doubt it.

    Pity the poor airwomen that died for Stalin, btw.

    • It’s good to hear that the PFC is enjoying his time. As I’ve suggested since before he took the King’s/Trump’s shilling, I think that he will have a great adventure. South Korea is cool.

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