Tools of War: The Il-2 Shturmovik

During the Second World War, the Western Allies chose to place a focus on heavy strategic bombers. The Soviet Union chose to pursue a different path, placing an emphasis on attack aircraft. The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik became not only the most prolific example of this type of aircraft, it became the most widely produced aircraft in history.

By Seth Marshall

            While both the United States Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force pursued the design and production of heavy bombers during the interwar period with the intention of launching strategic bombing campaigns with the outbreak of war, the Soviet Air Force (VVS) concentrated on tactical aircraft instead. The VVS’ interest in a low-flying anti-tank aircraft was prevalent through the 1930s and manifested itself with the work by Soviet design bureaus. A precursor to the Il-2 was the R-5Sh Shturmovik, a biplane aircraft designed by Nikolai Polikarpov in the 1920s. Originally, the aircraft was to be a reconnaissance aircraft and light bomber, but it was converted to a ground attack version with the addition a forward-firing machine gun, twin machine guns mounted in the observer position, and four obliquely-firing machine guns, and wing racks that could hold up to 500kg of bombs.[1] Though the aircraft served in the Spanish Civil War and during the border skirmishes against the Japanese in Mongolia, it was underpowered and lacked the endurance to loiter over the battlefield.

            In 1938, the VVS issued another request for an anti-tank aircraft to its design bureaus. Two design teams submitted design proposals. The first, led by Sergei Vladimirovich Ilyushin fro mthe Soviet Central Design Burea, proposed a two-seat aircraft designated “TsKB-55” or “CKB-55.” Earlier VVS tactical aircraft had been limited in performance by the weight of armor plating added to the airframe. Illyushin got around this problem by constructing the airframe itself from steel armor. Illyushin’s aircraft first flew on October 2, 1939. The aircraft encountered some problems at first, the most critical of which was the powerplant. The original engine was a supercharged-AM-35 V-12 engine providing 1,370 HP. It was determined that the supercharger was unnecessary, as the aircraft was intended for low-level tactical use, and it was deleted. The engine was replaced with the AM-38 engine, which provided 1,680 HP.[2] Additionally, the rear seat position and section of the fuselage was removed to reduce weight. Armor on the aircraft was concentrated around the engine and cockpit. The aircraft was fitted with four internal bomb bays which could each hold a 100kg bomb, and could also carry bombs externally. The aircraft was also armed with two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns and two 20mm ShVAK cannons, which were fitted in the wings.[3]The aircraft was redesignated the TsKB-57. Trials with the newly modified aircraft began in October 1940. The design changes greatly improved the performance of the aircraft.

A competing team under Pavel Sukhoi also designed a two-seat aircraft to meet the needs of the VVS, powered by a radial M-71 engine, known as the Su-6.[4] This aircraft was not ready for trails as early as the Il-2, thanks in part to large numbers of the engine not being available. The first prototype was completed in early 1941. In March, flight testing began- the Su-6 surpassed the Il-2’s performance in airspeed, rate of climb, and take off and landing. However, the aircraft was not armed with cannon and did not possess the ability to carry rockets. With the start of the war, progress was further delayed on this aircraft when the engine reached the end of its life expectancy. Flight testing continued with a second prototype during 1942-1943, but again engine production difficulties delayed putting the aircraft into production. Finally, the Sukhoi team installed an AM-42 inline engine, which degraded the performance of the aircraft. Additionally, Illyushin had at that time began the introduction of the Il-10, which surpassed the Su-6 in nearly all aspects. As a result, the Su-6 was finally cancelled in 1944.[5]

The Sukhoi Su-6, competitor to the Il-2. The initial version had superior performance to the Ilyushin design, but problems with development and production of the M-71 engine meant that the Il-2 went into production instead of the Su-6.

The Sukhoi Su-6, competitor to the Il-2. The initial version had superior performance to the Ilyushin design, but problems with development and production of the M-71 engine meant that the Il-2 went into production instead of the Su-6.

            As the Su-6 lagged behind in flight testing, the Il-2 was put into production. The first production Il-2 was completed at the Zavod No. 18 factory at Voronezh. As the first dedicated attack aircraft, or Shturmovik (literally, “ground attack plane”), within the VVS, the Il-2 was to begin replacing aging biplanes such as the Polikarpov I-15bis and I-153.

“The Il-2 was central to the VVS RKKA’s rearmament plans, with 11 attack aviation regiments scheduled to be equipped with Shturmoviks within five frontline military districts by the end of 1941. Six other regiments deployed further from the front, and in the far eastern regions of the USSR, were to convert to the Il-2 by mid-1942. In addition, eight short-range bomber regiments were to also have re-equipped with the type by early 1942.”[6]

Despite these ambitious plans, by the time of the German invasion on June 22, 1941, only 249 Il-2s had been built, with only 70 of these actually in service, and only 20 of those in the areas that were in contact with the Germans. Those units that were equipped with Il-2s did not have the training or personnel to effectively utilize their new aircraft. [7]

The original Il-2 was a single-seat design that had omitted the rear-gunner position in order to save weight- ultimately this would cost the lives of many pilots.

The original Il-2 was a single-seat design that had omitted the rear-gunner position in order to save weight- ultimately this would cost the lives of many pilots.

A single-seater Il-2, painted in whitewash to blend into the snow-covered landscape. This aircraft has been equipped with skis to make it more suitable to the crude runways that would have been coated in ice and snow.

A single-seater Il-2, painted in whitewash to blend into the snow-covered landscape. This aircraft has been equipped with skis to make it more suitable to the crude runways that would have been coated in ice and snow.

            The invasion added a sense of urgency to production, even though flight testing continued. While only 249 Shturmoviks had been produced before the outbreak of war, during the rest of the year, 1,293 more were built.[8] As Shturmovik units entered combat, strengths and weaknesses of the Illyushin design were revealed. Early Shturmovik units took heavy losses when engaged by Luftwaffe fighters- the deletion of the rear gunner position during the flight testing phase left the relatively slow-flying Il-2 quite vulnerable to attacks from the rear. As a result, early in the war Il-2s on average survived only nine missions.[9] The losses were curtailed with the addition of a rear gunner armed with a 12.7mm machine gun. Additionally, the 20mm wing-mounted cannons, which had been found lacking in serious stopping power, were replaced with two 23mm VYa cannon. The Shturmovik’s engine was also upgraded with the AM-38F, which provided 1,750 HP. Finally, the aircraft’s armor was increased from 700kg to 950kg. Following these modifications, the Il-2 was redesignated the Il-2M3. This model would become the most produced Shturmovik of the war.[10]

The redesigned Shturmovik, designated as the Il-2M3. The most notable improvement was the addition of a rear gunner.

The redesigned Shturmovik, designated as the Il-2M3. The most notable improvement was the addition of a rear gunner.

The rear gunner's position- the 12.7mm gun offered an increased chance of survival for the Il-2, though many gunners were killed in their relatively exposed position.

The rear gunner's position- the 12.7mm gun offered an increased chance of survival for the Il-2, though many gunners were killed in their relatively exposed position.

            As 1941 progressed, Il-2 production struggled to meet the demands of the VVS. Frustrated with the sluggish pace of construction, Josef Stalin sent an infamous message to two plant managers:

“You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have not manufactured Il-2s until now. The Il-2 aircraft are necessary for our Red Army now, like air, like bread. Shenkman produces one Il-2 a day and Tretiakov build one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army. I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more Il-2s. I warn you for the last time.”[11]

Eventually, no doubt partially motivated by Stalin’s forboding letter, Il-2 factories began churning out new aircraft. By 1943, one third of Soviet-built combat aircraft were Il-2s.[12] When production of the Il-2 ceased in November 1944, over 36,000 had been built, making it the most prolific combat aircraft in history.[13]

A group of Il-2 pilots discuss the results of a mission after landing.

A group of Il-2 pilots discuss the results of a mission after landing.

            It comes as no surprise that a tactical aircraft built in such large numbers saw very extensive combat service during the war. Il-2s were frequently called upon to attack German columns and soften up positions. When the Soviets launched Operation Neptune, the counter-attack which would cut off the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, Shturmoviks flew some 1,000 sorties from November 19-23, despite the blizzard conditions. When the weather cleared on the 24th, the Shturmoviks increased their operational tempo, flying over 6,000 sorties from November 24-December 1st.[14] During the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, Shturmoviks claimed large numbers of vehicles destroyed.

“Il-2s destroyed 70 tanks of the 9th Panzer Division in a mere 20 minutes, inflicted losses of 2,000 men and 270 tanks in two hours of attack on the 3rd Panzer Division, and effectively destroyed the 17th Panzer Division in four hours of strikes, smashing 240 vehicles out of their total of almost 300.”[15]

These claims are difficult to substantiate- other Air Forces found in post-battle studies that very little short of a direct bomb or rocket hit could destroy a tank. Some scholars have argued that, of the 32,500 tracked German AFVs destroyed on the Eastern Front, only about 7% were actually destroyed by Soviet aircraft.[16] It is much more likely that the true impact of the Il-2 was felt in attacks on soft-skinned vehicles, which are easily destroyed by machine guns and cannons. The destruction of trucks and tankers would limit supply of material to frontline units as well as reduce their mobility by depriving them of their fuel lifeline. Additionally, the Il-2 would have been a dangerous weapon against German infantry, who knew the aircraft by names such as “Iron Gustav”, “Betonvogel” (concrete bird), or “Butcher.”[17]

A group of Il-2M3s lined up at an airfield.

A group of Il-2M3s lined up at an airfield.

A group of Il-2M3 pilots prepare for a mission. The shrouds over the engine are intended to keep the engines warm during the extreme temperatures of the Russian winter. Without the shrouds, the engines would seize and refuse to start.

A group of Il-2M3 pilots prepare for a mission. The shrouds over the engine are intended to keep the engines warm during the extreme temperatures of the Russian winter. Without the shrouds, the engines would seize and refuse to start.

            As the war went on, several changes were made both to the Il-2 itself as well as the tactics used with the aircraft. In early 1943, a variant of the Il-2M3 was produced with the 23mm cannon replaced with two 37mm NS-37; the recoil caused by the cannons however affected the aircraft’s handling. Later, the Il-2M3 was outfitted be able to carry 192 PTAB anti-tank bomblets, small hollow-charge explosives designed to be dropped over large groups of armor. Perhaps most incredible was the installation of a DAG-10 grenade launcher, which was intended to fire grenades suspended by drogue chutes- the intention was that the grenades would float into the path of pursuing fighters.[18] Additionally, after some time, Il-2 units developed tactics that played to their aircraft’s strengths. Shturmoviks, with their takeoff weight of 5 tons, only were not overly quick or maneuverable aircraft.[19] In order to minimize their exposure to ground fire, Il-2s would frequently fly at altitudes as low as 10 meters (32 feet) in groups of 8-12 aircraft. This particular tactic was used against soft-skinned vehicles such as trucks, light vehicles, and infantry. Dive-bombing was a preferred tactic against hardened targets such as well-prepared defenses. Against armor, two tactics were developed. When armor was deployed in a column formation, Shturmoviks would fly in a weaving motion about 100-150m (320-480 feet) above the column, dropping PTAB bomblets as they went. When armor was deployed in an offensive formation, Il-2 pilots executed a maneuver known as the “Circle of Death”- a formation of the attack aircraft would fly towards the flank of the German armor formation. Individual aircraft would break off from the formation to make a shallow diving attack on the tanks- the aircraft would then circle around to make another attack. The aircraft would continue to make circling attacks until ammunition had been exhausted.[20] As earlier stated, these attacks likely did not actually destroy much armor. However, it is likely that they at least caused some disruption and chaos amongst the attacking tanks, even breaking up some attacks entirely. Additionally, ground attack units would at times send pilots forward to the front lines to serve as forward observers, communicating with the aircraft overhead.[21]

A group of Il-2M3s fly low above a devastated city.

A group of Il-2M3s fly low above a devastated city.

A group of Il-2s make a diving attack with their 23mm cannon.

A group of Il-2s make a diving attack with their 23mm cannon.

            Whatever the success the VVS experienced with these attacks, they paid dearly for their gains in both aircrew and aircraft. During the Il-2s production run from 1941-1944, of the 36,163 aircraft built, some 26,600 were lost- approximately half of those losses were as a result of combat.[22] One pilot, Yurii Khukhrikov, recalled that the unit he was assigned to, the 1st Squadron of the 566th Ground Attack Aviation Regiment, lost 105 pilots and 50 gunners during the course of the war. Of the 28 individuals with whom he joined his unit in 1944, 15 were killed.[23] While a large number of aircraft were destroyed, many were able to withstand serious damage and return to their base, thanks to their armor. Khukhrikov recalls several close calls:

“We got hit a couple of times. A shell hit a wing on the twenty-eighth sortie. We it back miraculously- the hole was about a meter in size. If a bullet hits, the smell of burned metal can be felt. I smelled it. Turned my head- there it was, a hole. But I was lucky- the shock wave and fragments went to the gunner. His legs were mangled. Communications were disrupted. We landed in Wittenberg. I taxied, turned off the engine, jumped out onto the wing- the gunner, Viktor Shakhaev, Siberian, born in 1926, was just lying there. Guys ran to us, pulled him out. Barely saved his legs. But it turned out that I was also hit. A fragment scratched the back of my head. Where did it manage to penetrate? They wanted to put me in a hospital, but I refused. War ended for me in Wittenberg. I had flown 84 sorties.”[24]

Other pilots echoed similar sentiments. V.S. Frolov’s aircraft was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire on one mission:

“I was unconscious for a moment, then felt a jet of cold air burst into the cockpit. Opening my eyes, I pulled the control stick and level out from a dive just above the tree tops. I shot a glance back and saw an enormous hole in the wing root and the fuselage… There was no response from the gunner.”[25]

Frolov managed to get his aircraft back to his base, where he crash-landed. The aircraft broke up when it impacted a small building. Though wounded, Frolov survived the crash- his gunner was found dead.

A pilot poses with his damaged Il-2 following a mission. In this instance, flak has damaged the elevator.

A pilot poses with his damaged Il-2 following a mission. In this instance, flak has damaged the elevator.

This Il-2M3 has made a wheels-up landing following severe flak damage to the vertical stabilizer. Note the crude whitewash pattern applied over the aircraft's camoflauge. Whitewash was generally applied in the field with whatever materials were on hand- it frequently wore off after a few weeks. 

This Il-2M3 has made a wheels-up landing following severe flak damage to the vertical stabilizer. Note the crude whitewash pattern applied over the aircraft's camoflauge. Whitewash was generally applied in the field with whatever materials were on hand- it frequently wore off after a few weeks. 

An in-flight picture taken during a Shturmovik attack on German vehicles- the arrow indicates an attacking Il-2 ahead of the camera aircraft.

An in-flight picture taken during a Shturmovik attack on German vehicles- the arrow indicates an attacking Il-2 ahead of the camera aircraft.

Another in-flight picture taken during a Shturmovik attack, this time the target of the attack appears to be a German motor pool or headquarters.

Another in-flight picture taken during a Shturmovik attack, this time the target of the attack appears to be a German motor pool or headquarters.

            In 1943, the Ilyushin design team made the decision to essentially redesign the Il-2 based on the wartime lessons. The end result became known as the Il-10. Roughly similar in appearance to the Il-2, the Il-10 was constructed entirely of metal, unlike the Il-2, which had some parts made from wood and fabric. Additionally, the rear gunner’s position was altered to include a powered turret armed with a single 20mm cannon. Il-10s gradually began to replace Il-2s from 1944 onwards. By the time production of the Il-10 had ceased in 1954, over 6,000 had been produced.[26] Following the end of the Second World War, the Il-10 served with numerous Eastern Bloc countries. During the Korean War, a number served with the short-lived Korean People’s Air Force, which was quickly destroyed by the US Air Force, whose jets and piston-engine fighters overwhelmed the outnumbered and outmoded North Koreans. Eventually, the aircraft was finally phased out as a trainer.

A North Korean Air Force Il-10 sits in the ruins of a destroyed hangar at Kimpo airfield.

A North Korean Air Force Il-10 sits in the ruins of a destroyed hangar at Kimpo airfield.

            The Il-2 Shturmovik remains one of the definitive combat aircraft of the Second World War. Certainly the most prolific aircraft built during the war, the Shturmovik became iconic for its role as a tactical support aircraft, in the same vein as the Republic P-47, the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, and the Hawker Typhoon. While it is entirely probable that many of its pilot’s claims against German armor was highly inflated at times, the aircraft’s ability to provide close air support, break up attacks, and degrade the Germans’ ability to supply their front lines. Curiously, despite the amount of resources that the VVS invested in both developing and employing the Il-2 and the Il-10, following the retirement of the Il-2 and Il-10 from frontline service in the mid-1950s, the VVS did not develop another purpose-built attack aircraft. Instead, the VVS turned to fighter bombers to take over the role. It would not be until the mid-1970s that another attack aircraft was developed. This time it was the Sukhoi firm who successfully developed the new aircraft- the Su-25 (NATO reporting name “Frogfoot”), an aircraft rivaled in capability and armament only by the USAF’s Fairchild A-10 “Thunderbolt II”. Today, the legacy of the Il-2 is preserved through numerous static examples in museums, and one remaining in flying condition in the United States.

 

 

 

Sources

1.    Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

2.    Rastrenin, O. V., and A. Yurgenson. II-2 Shturmovik Guard Units of World War 2. Oxford: Osprey, 2008. Print

3.    Rickard, J. "Polikarpov R-5." Historyofwar.org., 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 7 June 2016.

4.    ILYUSHIN II-2M3 SHTURMOVIK." Flying Heritage Collection., 2016. Web. 07 June 2016

5.    Wilkinson, Stephan. "Shturmovik Rebuilt Under Radar | HistoryNet."HistoryNet. World History Group, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 June 2016.

6.    Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

7.    Khukhrikov, Yurii. "Yurii Khukhrikov." - Я Помню. Герои Великой Отечественной войны. Участники ВОВ. Книга памяти. Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 June 2016

8.    Ashkey, Nigel. "COMBAT AIRCRAFT VERSUS ARMOUR IN WWII."Operation Barbarossa. DesignsenseWeb, 2014. Web. 07 June 2016.

9.    "Sukhoi Su-6." Sukhoi. Sukhoi Company, 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

10.  Wetterhan, Ralph. "Kursk." Air & Space Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, May 2015. Web. 20 June 2016.

 

[1] Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[2] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[3] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[4] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[5] "Sukhoi Su-6." Sukhoi. Sukhoi Company, 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

[6] Rastrenin, O. V., and A. Yurgenson. II-2 Shturmovik Guard Units of World War 2. Oxford: Osprey, 2008. Print

[7] Rastrenin, O. V., and A. Yurgenson. II-2 Shturmovik Guard Units of World War 2. Oxford: Osprey, 2008. Print

[8] Rastrenin, O. V., and A. Yurgenson. II-2 Shturmovik Guard Units of World War 2. Oxford: Osprey, 2008. Print

[9] Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

 

[10] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[11] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[12] Rastrenin, O. V., and A. Yurgenson. II-2 Shturmovik Guard Units of World War 2. Oxford: Osprey, 2008. Print

[13] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[14] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[15] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[16] Ashkey, Nigel. "COMBAT AIRCRAFT VERSUS ARMOUR IN WWII."Operation Barbarossa. DesignsenseWeb, 2014. Web. 07 June 2016

[17] Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[18] Ashkey, Nigel. "COMBAT AIRCRAFT VERSUS ARMOUR IN WWII."Operation Barbarossa. DesignsenseWeb, 2014. Web. 07 June 2016

[19] Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[20] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[21] Khukhrikov, Yurii. "Yurii Khukhrikov." - Я Помню. Герои Великой Отечественной войны. Участники ВОВ. Книга памяти. Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 June 2016

[22] Matveyev, Vadim. "The Ilyushin Il-2: Unflinching Air Support in the Thick of Battle." Russia Beyond The Headline., 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016

[23] Khukhrikov, Yurii. "Yurii Khukhrikov." - Я Помню. Герои Великой Отечественной войны. Участники ВОВ. Книга памяти. Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 June 2016

[24] Khukhrikov, Yurii. "Yurii Khukhrikov." - Я Помню. Герои Великой Отечественной войны. Участники ВОВ. Книга памяти. Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication, 27 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 June 2016

[25] Wetterhan, Ralph. "Kursk." Air & Space Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, May 2015. Web. 20 June 2016.

[26] Goebel, Greg. "The Il-2 Shturmovik." The Il-2 Shturmovik., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 June 2016