Russia's IL-2 Sturmovik 'Flying Tank': No Plane Has Been Built in Bigger Numbers (And It Helped Crush Hitler)
If you had to choose one plane that defined Soviet airpower in World War II, there can be little doubt it was the Il-2 Sturmovik “Flying Tank,” an armored ground-attack plane that hammered Nazi Germany’s tanks and troops from the opening days of Operation Barbarossa to the fall of Berlin. Despite sustaining horrifying losses to opposing fighters and flak guns, Soviet industry fed tens of thousands of the sturdy warplanes into the struggle, making it the most extensively produced military aircraft type ever.
The Soviet Air Force, or VVS, was primarily oriented towards supporting troops on the ground, much like the German Luftwaffe. The latter revolutionized mechanized warfare by using Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers to provide relatively precise air support for fast-moving mechanized columns. But after the initial shock of Stuka attacks early in the war, the slow and lightly armored dive bomber proved excessively vulnerable to enemy fighters and flak. Soviet aeronautical engineer Sergey Ilyushin proposed a Stuka-like plane with a twist: his ground-attack plane would be armored.
Simply bolting on armor plates is liable to make an airplane fly like a brick. Ilyushin’s solution was to make the steel armor an integral load-bearing element of the Il-2’s monocoque fuselage—even though the rear of the aircraft and the wings panels were still made of wood. After several prototypes, the resulting single-seat Il-2 production aircraft weighed nearly ten thousand pounds, compared to seven thousand for the Stuka, and could carry a similar maximum bomb load of around 1,100 pounds. However, it was slightly faster, at 250 miles per hour, and more heavily armed, with two twenty-millimeter cannons in addition to two machine guns in the wings. An armored tub five to twelve millimeters thick shielded the cockpit, fuel tanks, AM38 engine and radiators. Even the canopy averaged six centimeters of armored glass! The Sturmovik’s robust landing gear was also designed to handle rough frontline airstrips.
Only a small number of Il-2s were deployed to frontline units—notably in the Fourth Aviation Assault Regiment—when the Wehrmacht began its devastating invasion of the Soviet Union on June 1941. Thrust into a desperate effort to blunt German advancing mechanized spearheads, Sturmovik pilots discovered their armor rendered the Il-2 nearly immune to machinegun fire from the front, and even gave it a chance to survive twenty-millimeter cannon shells.
However, the Sturmoviks sustained devastating losses as faster German fighter planes swooped around to hit their unarmored rears. German pilots dubbed the Il-2 the “Concrete Bomber”—a commentary perhaps both on its durability and agility, or lack thereof. During periods of intense fighting, one Sturmovik was being lost for every ten combat missions, a ratio that would “improve” to one loss for every twenty-six missions in 1943.
The VVS lost over four thousand aircraft of all types in the disastrous first month of hostilities—the Fourth Regiment, for example, lost fifty-five of its sixty-five Sturmoviks—and the Il-2 production facilities had to be evacuated east of the Ural Mountains, interrupting deliveries for two months. Yet as German tanks blazed a trail toward Moscow in the fall of 1941, Stalin found time to personally address this famous telegram to the Il-2 factory managers:
You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have the nerve not to manufacture IL-2s until now. Our Red Army now needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one IL-2 a day and Tretyakov builds 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 Ils. This is my final warning.
Coming from a man who had given no warning whatsoever to hundreds of thousands of Red Army officers executed for suspected disloyalty, the message must have proven motivational. Over thirty-six thousand Il-2 Sturmoviks were built over the course of the war, making it the second most widely produced airplane ever. (First place goes to the ubiquitous civilian Cessna 172.) Stalin would influence the Il-2 in another manner: after receiving a letter from a Soviet pilot begging for a tail gunner to defend against German fighters, he ordered Ilyushin to switch to two-seater Il-2s.
The Il-2M, introduced in 1942, had an extended canopy to accommodate the gunner of a rear-mounted 12.7-millimeter UBT heavy machine gun. Its wing cannons were also upgraded to high-velocity twenty-three-millimeter VYa types. (Finding a suitable cannon for the Sturmovik proved a contentious process; the designer of one failed cannon prototype, Yakov Taubin, was executed for “plotting the production of inferior-quality weaponry.”) The tail gunners did prove useful in shooting down harrying German fighters. However, they weren’t protected by any armor plating, and suffered four times the fatality rate of the pilots. The additional crewmember and weapon also reduced flight speed and badly unbalanced the airplane by shifting the center of gravity towards the rear.
Nonetheless, such was the desperation of the air war over the Eastern Front then that the Il-2 was frequently called upon to serve as a fighter. While the Sturmovik had no way of keeping pace with German fighters, it proved deadly in taking down slower German bomber, observation and transport planes, resulting in several Il-2 aces.