Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik: Most Produced Warplane of World War II

The Soviet Flying Tank

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Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik shot down and forced into an emergency landing, autumn 1942, Ukraine, USSR (Federal Archive Picture 169-0066).
Some important planes just seem to disappear after their usefulness ends. This was the case with the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik (often spelled Sturmovik). Joseph Stalin described the plane as "necessary for the Red Army, like air, like bread." However, it came, it went, and it left barely a trace behind.

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Luftwaffe pilot Georg Schentke of  9.JG3 and his mates inspecting a downed IL2 Sturmovik that he had just shot down in February 1942.
The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik of World War II was produced in greater numbers than any other warplane in history. You would think that would make the Shturmovik just roll off the tongue of students of war. However, if you ask anyone knowledgeable about World War II to name the great planes of the war, the odds are that the Shturmovik won't make the list. That is the case even when you exclude bombers and just ask about fighters and ground-attack planes.

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The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.
Admittedly, the Shtrumovik's profile has been raised somewhat in recent years due to it being featured in various video games, but it remains an underappreciated fighter. Let's look at the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik and see whether or not it deserves to mentioned alongside the Junkers Ju 87 StukaSupermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109, Focke-Wulf Fw190, Mitsubishi A6M "Zero," and P-51 Mustang.

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An Il-2 Shturmovik in 1942. Note it is a single-seat version that has not been modified to add a rear gunner.

Aircraft Designer Sergey Ilyushin

Sergey Ilyushin was born in the village of Dilyalevo, Vologda Governorate Russian Empire (near Saint Petersburg), and was of humble means. At various times he dug ditches, worked in factories, and cleaned guitars. One of his jobs was at the first All-Russia Festival of Ballooning in autumn of 1910, which exposed him to aeronautics. While serving as an infantry conscript in World War I, Ilyushin volunteered for service in the Aviation Section. This led to his qualification as a pilot in mid-1917. During the turbulent early years of the Russian Revolution, he was in and out of the Army and a proud member of the Bolshevik party from October 1918. His communist credentials thus were impeccable, a vital asset in the Soviet Union.

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Sergey Ilyushin.
There weren't a lot of people in post-war Russia with aircraft expertise, and Ilyushin parlayed his wartime flying time into a career as an aviation technician. This led Ilyushin to enroll at the Institute of Engineers of the Red Air Fleet, where he began designing aircraft with great success. By 1933, Ilyushin was chief of the TsKB at the V.R. Menzhinski Moscow plant (later the Ilyushin OKB). With the Soviet Union in need of good aircraft designs, he came up with the single-engined Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack aircraft, the single most-produced combat aircraft design in history (with 36,183 examples), and the Ilyushin Il-4 twin-engined bomber (of which just over 5,200 examples were built).

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The prototype TsKB-55.

Development of the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik

The Soviet Union had a vibrant aircraft industry during the 1920s and 1930s which was assisted by an unlikely source: Germany. During the period of time when the Allied powers barred them from developing military aircraft, the German military secretly worked on military designs within the USSR. Many Luftwaffe pilots were trained at the Lipetsk fighter-pilot school located at what is now known as the Lipetsk Air Base in Lipetsk, Russia. However, the Soviets really didn't need any assistance, they had several brilliant aircraft designers of their own. Sergey Ilyushin was one of them, perhaps the very best.

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The TsKB-57 AM-38 (BSh-2 No 1) during manufacturer's fight tests. October 1940.
Sergey Ilyushin and his team at the Central Design Bureau came up with the plans for the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik in 1938. First designated as TsKB-55, the plane was a heavily armored two-seat weighing more than 10,300 lb (4700 kg) fully loaded. The novel feature of the design was its massive armor, which comprised 15% of the aircraft's gross weight and was an integral load-bearing part of its monocoque structure (the rear of the plane was wood). The TsKB-55 first flew on 2 October 1939. Once the prototype won a government competition, the designation changed to BSh-2. As can be imagined, the plane's massive armor put a severe strain on the original Mikulin AM-35 1,022 kW (1,370 hp) engine, but the design was considered acceptable.

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A crashed one-seat Il-2.
Development of the 1,254 kW (1,680 hp) Mikulin AM-38 engine gave the plane improved performance. This version, which first flew on 12 October 1940, was designated TsKB-57 and featured a single seat. After passing State Acceptance Trials in March 1941, the aircraft was put into production as the Il-2 in April. The original armament included two gas-operated Volkov-Yartsev VYa-23 23 mm (0.91-inch) cannon (Yakov Taubin offered an alternate gun design which failed, leading to his execution). The first Il-2 Shturmoviks ("armored ground attack planes") began reaching operational units in May 1941, just in time for the beginning of Germany's Operation Barbarossa the following month. There were 249 Il-2s built by 22 June 1941.

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German troops with a captured Il-2 Shturmovik.

The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik During World War II

Usually, new military aircraft are gradually assimilated into an air force over many months. This period is used to figure out how to fly and service the aircraft. The Red Air Force did not have that luxury in mid-1941. Shturmoviks were in action within days of the German invasion against the best Luftwaffe fighters. Their first recorded use was over the Berezina River by the 4th ShAP Ground Attack Regiment. Many pilots had no training in the Il-2 and the ground crews no experience in servicing them, so initial losses were heavy. In their first three days of use, 29 Shturmoviks were lost and 20 pilots killed. The 4th ShAP had lost 55 out of its original establishment of 65 Shturmoviks by 10 July 1941.

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An early single-seat Il-2 converted into a two-seater by cutting an opening on the fuselage.
This inauspicious debut, however, did not sour the Red Air Force on the Shturmovik. Escorts, usually Jak-1s or P-39 Aircobras, were provided when available. Tactics were rapidly improvised to take advantage of the Shturmovik's massive armor and useful cannon. While RS-82 and RS-132 rockets included in the design were potent, they were too inaccurate for normal use. Pilots learned to rely on the cannon and later to take advantage of 5.5 lb (2.5 kg) PTAB shaped charge bomblets. These could be carried in loads of 192 or 220, depending upon how they were loaded, and penetrated the relatively thin upper armor of German panzers.

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A crude rear gun added to an Il-2 at the front. The gun used in this type of conversion was whatever was handy, usually taken from other "parts" aircraft.
With all that armor, Shturmoviks were always slow. This made them easy targets for Luftwaffe fighters. While able to sustain heavy machine-gun fire, Shturmoviks were vulnerable to 20 mm (.79) cannon and 37 mm (1.46 inch) artillery. The Red Air Force compensated for these Shturmovik vulnerabilities by flying them in echeloned formations of four to twelve aircraft and by adding a rear gunner. While the Ilyushin designers had eliminated the rear seat during redesigns, technicians at the front simply cut holes in the fuselage to add it back in. A semi-turret gun mount was added for a 12.7 UBT machine gun. While this modification adversely affected the Shturmovik's flight characteristics, they were never that great to begin with. A loss in speed and handling was considered acceptable in exchange for some added defensive fire. In desperation, Captain Ye. Koval of 243rd ShAP finally wrote to comrade Stalin asking for the designers to redesign the plane to add a rear gunner.

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 Women were active in the Red Air Force. Senior Lieutenant Anna Yegorova flew over 260 missions, nearly all of them piloting the IL-2.  She was awarded the Soviet Union's highest decoration, the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
As with all of the premier aircraft of World War II (as listed above), design improvements on the Shturmovik continued throughout the war. On 30 October 1942, Shturmoviks with an uprated AM-38 engine which produced 1,700 hp at takeoff and 1,500 hp at 750 meters began operating on the central front. The second seat for the rear gunner was made an official part of the design once again in January 1943, when an uprated AM-38F engine gave the Shturmovik even more power.

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Ilyushin Il-2M3.
By necessity, Shturmoviks were used as both ground attack aircraft and as fighters. One of Joseph Stalin's favorite aphorisms was that quantity gave its own quality, and there were always plenty of Shturmoviks available to gang up on increasingly outnumbered Bf-109s and Focke-Wulf 190s. While Shturmoviks never had much luck against the top Luftwaffe fighters, they were fearsome when they caught Stukas and Henschel Hs-126 ground attack aircraft. All but the premier German fighters carried only machine guns, and these were practically useless against the Shturmovik armor. Thus, Shturmoviks could wade into almost any Luftwaffe formation that did not have a fighter escort with great success.

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This is probably a pre-mission briefing, with an Il-2 Shturmovik in the background.
Despite its armor, though, the Shturmovik could be shot down easily by Luftwaffe fighters. Shturmovik losses (including the later Il-10 version) were horrendous:
  • 1941: 533 lost
  • 1942: 1676 lost
  • 1943: 3515 lost
  • 1944: 3347 lost
  • 1945: 1945 lost
Overall, 10,762 Shturmoviks were lost in combat, which was more than total aircraft produced for all but a handful of other plane models. However, the Soviet Union produced so many Shturmoviks and had so many brave pilots willing to fly them that they were always available in abundance.

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A gunner in an Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. Note the ring on the plane for moving the gun from side to side.  
While effective throughout the war, the Shturmovik gave its most important to the Soviet Union during the German offensive at Kursk in July 1943. By then, Soviet pilots had refined their tactics to use Shturmoviks in massive groupings and in close coordination with ground troops. The Shturmoviks would form a defensive circle, a tactic similar to that used by a wagon train in the Old West ("circle the wagons"). One-by-one the planes would dive to attack a ground target before returning to provide protection for the next attacking plane. This tactic, known as the "circle of death," exposed the Shturmovik to ground fire but at least provided some protection from a Luftwaffe fighter attack.

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Soviet Ilyushin Il 2s flying in a typical formation over German positions near Moscow. Photo: RIA novosti / CC BY-SA 3.0.
While Shturmovik pilots claimed to have destroyed hundreds of Panzers in particular battles such as Kursk, those claims are called into question by German records showing much smaller losses. Pilot claims of tank destructions were exaggerated by both sides throughout the war. However, the circle of death certainly was noticeable and likely provided a morale boost for the Red Army units below. Sturmoviks operating in the vicinity dropping hundreds of bomblets around Panzers probably induced the protecting Wehrmacht infantry to give them a wide berth, making the tanks more vulnerable to Soviet infantry and armor.

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Il-2M3 of the 567 ShAP, 16th Army, during the Battle of Berlin in 1945.
As the war progressed and Shturmovik numbers grew, they became more effective. The declining Luftwaffe tended to ignore the large groups of Shturmoviks and pressed on with their own missions. Due to the Shturmoviks' relatively light bomb loads, they became more of a nuisance than a real strategic threat. By the Battle of Berlin in April 1945, Luftwaffe pilots often would simply note the presence of Shturmoviks flying below but rarely bother engaging them. However, right up until the end, a determined Luftwaffe or Finnish fighter pilot could easily shoot down a Shturmovik or two as long as he avoided return fire.

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A late-war Il-2 with its crew.


The Il-2 Shturmovik was an extremely useful aircraft for the Red Air Force. While outmatched by the top Luftwaffe fighters, it was a match for any Luftwaffe bomber, ground-attack plane, or transport aircraft. It was available in sufficient numbers to withstand horrendous losses while achieving reliable results. The general consensus that the Shturmovik was not a great aircraft is correct, but it did great service for the Soviet Union during its hours of greatest need. Given the paucity of other truly great Red Air Force planes during the conflict, the Il-2 Shturmovik must be reckoned as the most effective aircraft used by the Soviet Union during World War II.


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