With winter just a few months away, in the late summer of 1941 more than 3 million Wehrmacht soldiers along with thousands of aircraft and armored vehicles stormed across Russia’s vast plains toward Leningrad.
Outnumbered, outgunned and reeling from Stalin’s pre-war purges that decimated the army’s officer corps, it’s the USSR’s darkest hour.
Making huge territorial gains and encountering meager resistance, the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were riding high, and by all outward appearances Operation Barbarossa was destined to be a resounding success.
Then on the horizon a formation of droning airplanes appears.
Flying low and fast, in seconds their cannons erupt sending high-velocity shells tearing through the German armor as the columns scatter in disarray.
Dramatic stories like this abounded on the Eastern Front
By most accounts Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks decimated German armor to the tune of thousands of vehicles destroyed.
But the question has always remained, were the Sturmoviks the lethal tank-busters they were made out to be, or were statistics inflated and stories embellished for propaganda purposes?
Let’s find out.
The Flying Tank
Powered by 1,700 horsepower engines and armed with rockets, bombs and cannons capable of punching hefty holes in all but the heaviest tanks, Il-2s were the Soviet Union’s most capable ground attack aircraft of the Second World War, and with more than 36,000 manufactured, they were the most mass produced military airplanes in history.
Though never officially designated “Sturmovik” – the generic Russian term for ground attack aircraft – the moniker stuck.
Other nicknames include Flying Tank, Hunchback, Tractor, Concrete Bomber, Black Death and Flying Infantryman, all of which were earned due to their ability to absorb huge amounts of punishment, unleash lethal firepower, and provide accurate support to troops on the ground, a characteristic often referred to as “getting down in the weeds” in aviation circles.
The concept for a purpose-built mono-wing ground-attack aircraft began in the early ‘30s when the Soviet Air Forces relied on biplanes that were rapidly becoming obsolete due to their fixed undercarriages, anemic engines, slow speeds and meager weapons loads.
The Il-2 was designed by a team of engineers led by Sergey Ilyushin at the Central Design Bureau, and the final draft was ready by 1938.
Originally called the TsKB-55, the new tank killer was a sleek two-seater with a 1,500-pound (700 kg) armored bathtub protecting the crew, engine and fuel tank from ground fire.
Ranging from 5 to 12 mm (0.20 to 0.47 in) thick, the armor was capable of stopping small arm rounds and deflecting shots from larger caliber weapons like 20 and 40 mm cannons, if they impacted at an angle.
Other aircraft of the day had armor protection as well, but on Il-2s individual plates replaced standard panels and frame elements which had the added benefit of increasing airframe strength.
Decked out for battle, Ilyushins tipped the scales at about 10,400 pounds (4,700 kg), of which the armor accounted for nearly 15% of total weight.
This of course limited speed, range and agility, but was nonetheless an essential element for an aircraft tasked with flying low and relatively slow over enemy formations equipped with everything from bolt-action Mausers to 88 mm Flak cannons, projectiles from the latter of which could punch through the Il-2’s armor like a jackhammer through a hunk of warm Velveeta.
In most cases however, low, lumbering Sturmoviks proved difficult targets, though over the course of the war thousands were lost to ground fire.
The first prototype flew against the Sukhoi Design Bureau’s Su-6 in a state-sponsored competition to determine the aircraft best suited to the ground attack role, but though the Il-2 was deemed to be the better aircraft, it was still too underpowered and too heavy.
In addition to the armor, much of the weight came from the rear gun and cockpit extension.
On the subsequent prototype horsepower was increased from 1,350 to 1,700 when the Mikulin AM-35 engine was swapped for the more powerful AM-38 liquid-cooled V12.
It was also determined that the rear gun and gunner weren’t necessary, and the next variant was a lighter more agile single-seater, though battlefield conditions mandated that they be reincorporated later when losses to German fighters became unacceptably high.
The final prototype that would become the first service model was ordered into production in March of 1941, at which time it was redesignated the Il-2.
38 feet (11.65 m) long and approximately 48 feet (14.65 m) from wingtip to wingtip, Il-2s had maximum takeoff weights of slightly more than 14,000 pounds (6,360 kg), though they rarely flew that heavy.
With a fuel capacity of approximately 190 US gallons (160 imperial gallons), the engine could propel the aircraft to a top speed of just 250 miles per hour (410 km/h), which was at least 100 miles per hour (161 km/h) slower than most of the aircraft that were its most persistent adversaries.
That said, it was never meant to tangle with dedicated fighters, and its range of 475 miles (765 km) and endurance time of nearly three hours meant it could loiter over the battlefield until its ammo and weapons had been depleted.
Il-2M3 armament included two 23 mm VYa-23 cannons with 150 rounds each, two 7.62 mm (.30 caliber) ShKAS machine guns with 750 rounds each, and one rear-facing manually aimed
12.7 mm (.50 caliber) machine gun with 300 rounds.
Rockets were also frequently carried under wing hardpoints, but accuracy was notoriously poor, and with just 2-pound (.9 kg) warheads they were largely ineffective except in cases of direct hits on the tops of tanks where the armor was thinnest.
Later Il-2s also carried cluster bomb cannisters containing dozens of shape-charge bomblets which spread shrapnel over a wide area, making them particulary effective against troops and and thinly armored vehicles like trucks and halftracks.
Il-2s went into production at four factories, but by the time of the German invasion less than 250 had been built, and the vital new aircraft were rolling off assembly lines much more slowly than initial projections had estimated.
Russian manufacturing wasn’t as efficient as Germany’s, and with hundreds of individual suppliers spread over a large geographical area, getting parts when they were needed was a constant challenge.
In addition, early production was slowed due to the intermittent bombing of aircraft factories in and around Moscow.
In fact it became so debilitating that it was necessary to move many factories east of the Ural Mountains, after which production increased, but never to the level Stalin had been expecting.
To address the issue, he issued telegrams to managers at the factories with the lowest production numbers, informing them in no uncertain terms that they were letting down not only the Red Army, but the country as a whole.
The pointed messages stated that the managers had some “nerve” for not meeting production goals, that they were making a “mockery” of their positions, and that Il-2s were as vital to the war effort as bread and air.
The last telegram ended with, “this is my final warning.”
It goes without saying that falling out of Stalin’s favor was bad for one’s health, hence, like a switch had been flipped, Sturmovik production increased fourfold.
Sturmoviks in Combat
Il-2s first saw combat with the 4th Ground Attack Regiment just days after the invasion commenced.
But though the aircraft themselves were up to the task for which they’d been built, many pilots had had just a few hours of actual flight time, much of which was practicing takeoffs and landings.
Few had even fired the cannons at stationary targets, let alone at a moving tank with AAA shells whizzing around the canopy.
Ground crews were unfamiliar with the new planes too, which meant that simple tasks like repairing, servicing and rearming them between sorties took much longer than it should have.
Not surprisingly, their effectiveness wasn’t what it might have been, and initial losses were high.
In the first few days dozens of Sturmoviks were shot down by German fighters and ground fire, while scores more were lost to non-combat related accidents and crashes.
All told more than 20 pilots were killed in less than a week, and the men and women who replaced them were often even less experienced.
In the early going Il-2 pilots generally attacked armored columns flying straight and low, often just 200 feet (61 m) over the ground, which gave gunners relatively predictable targets.
With losses and damage mounting, a new staggered assault tactic was devised whereby groups of between 5 and 12 aircraft made their approaches in sweeping descending turns similar to those used by Ju-87 Stuka pilots, and when possible missions were flown in low light conditions at dawn and dusk which helped conceal the planes against the dark sky.
Another issue was that pilots initially relied too heavily on their RS-82 and RS-132 rockets.
Despite small warheads they were capable of taking out tanks, but due to wildly unpredictable flight paths, direct hits were exceedingly rare.
Instead, cannons became the primary weapons.
In the summer of 1943, Il-2s played a major role in the Battle of Kursk – the largest armored engagement in history in which more than 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2 million troops clashed.
Tactics were further honed to include attacks of even more aircraft in precise coordination with tanks, artillery and infantry.
To prevent increasing losses from enemy fighters, the “circle of death” tactic was initiated, in which eight Sturmoviks flew in a tight circle over the target area.
In succession, each would peel off and dive down to attack, while the others covered it with their rear gunners, after which it would rejoin the circle and another would take its turn.
In one instance pilots claimed to have destroyed more than 70 German tanks in less than 20 minutes.
General Ryazanov, the mastermind behind the circle of death was later made a Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union.
However, perhaps the most extraordinary claim made by Air Forces pilots was that in just four hours, 240 tanks from the 17th Panzer Division were either destroyed or damaged, though these claims are largely unsubstantiated, and what actually constituted “damaged” has always been debatable.
Ironically, subsequent historical investigations have determined that of the German armor destroyed at Kursk, relatively little was caused by IL-2s or any other Soviet aircraft, and few firsthand Panzer crew accounts described anything more than the occasional loss due to air attack.
In fact, most estimates of total German armor losses at Kursk put the real number at less than 400, and it’s believed that the vast majority were taken out by tanks, anti-tank guns and mines.
Many were also abandoned after mechanical breakdowns or simply because they’d thrown a track or run out of gas.
Though the claims may have been inflated there’s little doubt that Sturmoviks were menaces and that ground forces considered them godsends if not for their effectiveness, for their ability to raise Soviet morale while having debilitating psychological effects on Wehrmacht troops.
Heavy losses to enemy fighters made reincorporating a rear gunner imperative by early 1942.
The revived two-seater now featured a gunner’s portal, and early single-seat variants were modified by cutting a hole in the back of the canopy to accommodate the machine gun.
The occupant sat on a small canvas sling similar to a hammock, and the new variant featured a slightly elongated fuselage with a partially open canopy that provided some protection against the elements, though in winter conditions were brutally cold.
Mounted in a small ball and socket turret, the gun could be elevated up to 35 degrees and traverse 35 degrees to starboard, but only 15 degrees to port.
Since the tail was directly in the line of fire and the gun couldn’t be angled downward except to the sides, German pilots learned to attack from below along the aircraft’s centerline, which largely shielded them from defensive fire.
Excluding the weight of the gunner, the upgrade increased the plane’s weight by just 370 pounds (167 kg), and manufacturer tests deemed the setup to be effective if not altogether comfortable.
Maximum speed decreased only moderately, though the plane’s handling characteristics were altered because the center of gravity had been shifted rearward.
These later two-seat variants also included aerodynamic improvements, increased fuel capacity, and the replacement of metal outer wing panels with wood ones for further weight reduction.
In addition, gunners weren’t protected by the thickest parts of the armor as were the pilots.
In some areas the rear armor was 75% thinner than it was upfront.
Hence gunner casualties were substantially higher, and it was common for pilots to land damaged aircraft with a dead gunner behind him.
This was exacerbated by the fact that Soviet policy forbade Sturmoviks from disengaging before they’d expended all their ammunition and ordnance, which often required repeated, predictable passes over targets that gave ground troops multiple chances to direct fire accurately.
Soviet commanders on the ground also frequently requested – as in ordered – additional passes over the targets even when the planes were out of ammunition, only to harass and distract the Germans.
Il-2s were never meant to be fighters, but as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures.
Between 1941 and early 1943, Sturmoviks were occasionally used to engage and intercept enemy fighters and bombers respectively.
Though hopelessly outclassed by Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, when attacking unescorted bombers, transports and twin-engine “destroyers” like BF-110s they were lethally effective, though the 110s could easily outrun them if they detected their pursuers early enough.
When Il-2 pilots found themselves in the unenviable position of having a German fighter on their tail, they typically reduced power drastically as the enemy closed in.
In many cases, this dramatic change in airspeed caused the attacker to overshoot its prey, and with a little luck fly right into Il-2’s cannon site.
Notable Il-2 Pilots
During the middle and late stages of the war, the Soviet Union relied more heavily on women pilots.
Lieutenant Anna Yegorova flew nearly 250 missions in an Il-2 and was decorated for heroics three times.
In late 1944 she was posthumously awarded the Gold Star of Hero after being presumed dead after failing to return to base.
However the “posthumous” classification was premature, because she survived and was imprisoned in a German POW camp.
But perhaps the most interesting story is of a young pilot who survived a crash after being shot down in 1942.
Fleeing from the plane and hiding in a wooded area nearby, he watched in astonishment as a German Bf-109 landed nearby, after which the pilot strolled over to inspect the plane he’d just downed.
But akin to leaving your keys in the ignition when running into the convenience store for a pack of smokes, he left the plane’s engine running, and the enterprising young Russian ran to the fighter, hopped in, hammered the throttle and took off.
On the flight home he barely avoided being shot down by Soviet fighters, apparently by waving his arms wildly and rocking the plane from side to side in the hopes that his comrades would recognize him.
But from a statistical standpoint – if the numbers are to be believed – the most lethal of all Il-2 pilots was a young pilot named Nelson Stepanyan.
On what would be his final mission in mid-December of 1944, his plane was fatally damaged by antiaircraft fire, but he managed to limp it out to sea and fly into a German warship, which subsequently sank.
All told, official Soviet records claim that Stepanyan flew nearly 250 combat sorties, single handedly sunk more than a dozen ships, destroyed 80 tanks and more than 500 armored vehicles, and shot down at least 25 aircraft.
Arguably more than any other aircraft – and perhaps the infamous Russian winter itself – Il-2s were most responsible for repelling the Nazi juggernaut.
They also suffered some of the heaviest losses, totalling nearly 11,000 aircraft.
Since relatively few airplanes were in service in 1941 losses totalled just more than 500, but in both 1943 and 1944 the numbers exceeded 3,300.
Most remaining aircraft were retired after the war, but some soldiered on into the early ‘50s with the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia.