Death in the Sky: How Russian "Storm Birds" Wreaked Havoc on Hitler's Armor

September 18, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IINazi GermanySoviet UnionUSSRRed ArmyAir Force

Death in the Sky: How Russian "Storm Birds" Wreaked Havoc on Hitler's Armor

The Soviet Air Force’s Ilyushin Il-2 “Shturmovik” took a heavy toll in German armor on the Eastern Front.

Key Point: The Shturmovik was both respected and loathed by German pilots, infantrymen, and tankers.

Vasily Emelianenko led a flight of Soviet Ilyushin IL-2 Shturmoviks, or “Storm Birds,” in late June 1942 against a German-held airfield near Artemovsk in eastern Ukraine, flying low up a deep ravine to avoid detection.

The Il-2 planes banked slightly to rise above the hill to their front, and the ground gave way as they spotted two rows of German bombers lined up neatly on the airfield ahead. Emelianenko had lowered the nose of his plane for the attack when he heard a deafening sound and the craft jolted suddenly as a large hole burst open in his right wing. He worked swiftly, straightening the plane and firing a salvo of rockets into the parked enemy aircraft. Emelianenko’s machine guns then erupted, and the bombers caught fire. His wingmen dropped their granular phosphorous, which spread the flames that roared even higher into the sky.

Emelianenko worked desperately to pull his plane above the wall of tall pines located beyond the airfield, but the plane was hit in the engine. The oil pressure plummeted toward zero, and the water temperature soared. The experienced pilot knew he had five minutes at best before the engine seized as he frantically maneuvered toward the safety of the Soviet lines.

The pilot skimmed the terrain, and every spin of the propeller pulled him ever closer to the safety of the Soviet lines. The engine finally seized up, and Emelianenko released the robust landing gear and came roaring down on the rocky soil at more than 60 miles per hour. He was miraculously still alert as the dust settled around him. He looked about to get his bearings as a burst of machine-gun fire struck the plane’s heavy armor plating. There was another burst, and when that ended Emelianenko jumped from the cockpit and fell flat on the ground as German machine pistols opened up.

The enemy soldiers seemed almost to be toying with him, firing anytime he moved yet not advancing or showing themselves. It took the pilot more than two harrowing hours to crawl some 200 yards from the plane and to the safety of a Soviet comrade who had carefully edged forward to rescue the downed veteran.

That would not be Emelianenko’s last brush with death flying a famed “Ilyusha,” the fem- inine nickname the Soviet pilots affectionately gave their stout attack aircraft. Before the war was over he had flown 92 sorties on the Eastern Front, was proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union, and had been shot down three times with the sturdy, armor hardened plane saving his life in each brush with death.

The Il-2 proved deadly throughout the war. For example, as the Battle of Stalingrad was nearing its fateful conclusion, two feared Soviet Shturmovik ground attack planes appeared over the crucial German-held train station at Malorossiyskaya to the south in the Tikhoretsk region.

The Germans scrambled that January 26, 1943, but it was too late. A series of deafening explosions rocked the four trains that sat exposed on the tracks, and a large black plume rose high into the sky as the station itself was obstructed from view in the wake of the destructive attack.

All four trains were destroyed by just the two Soviet “Storm Birds,” with a substantial loss of German personnel, fuel, tanks, and ammunition vital to the continued war effort. The tracks themselves were so badly damaged that they could not be readily repaired, and many stranded trains were captured by the advancing Red Army.

The Ilyushin Il-2 was built for business and could deal deadly blows to ground-based forces and equipment, even when located in hardened bunkers. By the mid-way point in World War II, the planes came equipped with two 37mm cannons, two 7.62mm machine guns, one 12.7mm Berezin machine gun for the rear-facing gunner, and up to 1,300 pounds of bombs or a number of deadly RS-82 or RS-132 rockets.

The rockets, especially the RS-132s, were powerful but were not overly accurate. However, they did prove particularly destructive, especially when fired in volleys from several planes. The aircraft also could carry upward of 216 bottles of incendiary liquid, which proved effective against armor and flak batteries as well.

The success of the train station mission and others like it, executed with considerable heroism by the Shturmovik pilots, prompted Soviet Premier Josef Stalin to issue an order calling for the continued attack of trains and convoys to disrupt German preparations for the upcoming Battle of Kursk, the famed tank battle that led to a near continuous German backpedaling toward Berlin over the next 21/2 years in the face of growing Soviet military prowess.

The Shturmovik was both respected and loathed by German pilots, infantrymen, and tankers. The Luftwaffe took to calling it the “Flying Tank,” “Concrete Plane,” or even “Iron Gustav” because of its highly effective armor protection, while German tankers and infantrymen referred to it as the “Butcher” or even the “Black Death” because of the destruction left in the wake of an Il-2 attack. The robust plane proved that it could more than hold its own against the vaunted Luftwaffe, especially as Soviet tactics improved and pilots gained experience against German flyers who became younger and the veterans fewer as the bloody “Great Patriotic War” pushed ever westward.

The plane was so detested that it became a fairly common practice on the Eastern Front for frustrated and battle-weary Wehrmacht soldiers to simply open the canopy of a downed Shturmovik and fire point blank into the head of an injured pilot.

The Il-2s themselves also improved over time, moving from somewhat underpowered single- seaters to two-seaters with a more robust powerplant and a machine gunner added behind the pilot to provide better protection against attacks from German fighters, particularly from above and behind.

In many ways the Shturmovik was a forerunner of today’s A-10 “Warthog,” developed by Fairchild Republic for the U.S. Air Force and used for close air support, which is capable of providing punishing damage to hardened ground targets while protecting its pilot with its toughened shell. The A-10 Thunderbolt Hog can spew 30mm high-explosive rounds from a seven-barreled, high-speed cannon protruding from its nose and can carry a deadly array of rockets and other weapons under its wings.

The “Storm Bird” was the right plane developed at the right time by the Soviets. It was designed for survival in the hostile, flak and fighter-filled skies of the Eastern Front, where the Germans risked so much and suffered more than 70 percent of their causalities during World War II.

The Il-2 had a sturdy undercarriage that enabled often quickly trained pilots to take off and land on comparatively primitive airfields. And it was praised for being easier than bombers to operate in adverse weather conditions. It was also relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, with more than 36,150 of all variants rolled out during the war, making it the most produced combat aircraft of all time.

Like most aircraft, the Shturmovik evolved from previously designed planes to meet a spe- cific need, in this case close air support. The 1939 Mongolian-Manchurian border conflict with Japan, the Spanish Civil War, and the early Winter War with Finland all demonstrated the need for such an aircraft. Various designs were attempted, most employing Soviet RS-82 rockets for air-to-air attacks and later for air-to-ground attacks as well.

Soviet lack of success in using such bombers as the Tupolev SB in the Spanish Civil War had caused the Red Air Force to shy away from the concept of strategic bombing in favor of fast-moving fighters to first gain air superiority and then to be employed in close air support. The decision to move toward a dedicated armored ground attack aircraft led in 1938 to the development of the TsKB-55, which was later called the Ilyushin after Sergey Ilyushin, the project director.

The plane first flew on October 2, 1939, a month after Germany, then the Soviet Union’s ally, invaded Poland and ignited World War II in Europe. The craft at that trial stage was a two-seater, single-engine monoplane. Vital components, including the engine and the entire crew compartment, were heavily armored, and the plane was equipped with five 7.62mm machine guns, one for defense and four in the wings for offensive fire capability. Armor plat- ing of varying thicknesses was used rather than just a layering of armor over existing structures as was then most often done.

Designer Ilyushin sought solid performance for the aircraft, which necessitated the selec- tion of a more powerful and available liquid- cooled engine over an air-cooled radial option. He believed the armor plating would provide the necessary protection for the potentially vulnerable cooling system. Ilyushin selected the Mikulin AM-35 engine, which provided 1,350 horsepower on takeoff, and gave the go-ahead for the development of even more powerful engines.

Further engine improvements were made along with a modification of the glazing where the rear gunner was initially placed, giving rise to the nickname of “Gorbatiy,” or “hunchback” in Russian. The plane at that stage had two 20mm cannons (later replaced with two 23mm cannons) and machine guns in the wings. Trials continued, and the go ahead for production was given in early March 1941, some three months before Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 of that year.