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.
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.