The Ilyushin Il-2 was by all accounts a formidable aircraft.
With the Il-2, the Soviet Union’s Ilyushin aerospace bureau created one of the most feared ground-attack aircraft on the Eastern Front—a design that would ultimately become not only the most-produced World War II combat airplane, but also the second-most produced airplane period.
Though the Soviet Union had experimented with armored aircraft prior to the Il-2's combat debut, particularly with armored biplanes in a ground-attack role, up arming aircraft with armor came at an obvious cost: weight. Early biplanes, and even later aircraft, with decidedly underpowered engines, struggled against the negative flight characteristics caused by heavy armor protection low output engines. The Il-2 sought to address these very issues.
As a dedicated ground-attack aircraft, it was imperative that the airplane’s pilot be protected from the blistering ground fire that it could expect to fly against. Surprisingly, however, the Il-2 was initially made of a mixed wood and metal construction both to keep production costs low as well as to allow rapid parts manufacture by unskilled labor.
Despite the airplane’s rather primitive design, it was very robust thanks to extensive armor plating that protected vital parts of the aircraft as well as the pilot. This video show’s the Il-2 taking off and gives a good impression of the aircraft’s size.
A fascinating first-person account of flying the Il-2 can be read here. According to Yurii Khukhrikov a Soviet Il-2 pilot on the Eastern Front, the Il-2 was “an excellent aircraft for those times! Carried 600 kilograms of bombs, 8 rockets, 300 23mm shells for VIa cannon (150 per gun), and 1800 rounds for each machine gun—3,600 rounds. The gunner had a 12.7mm Berezin machine gun, 10 DAG-10 distance aviation grenades for the protection of the lower rear hemisphere.”
According to the pilot, the engine was the most vulnerable part of the plane, although the wings “were fine, more or less.” The pilots also were apparently not too worried about a direct fuel tank hit. “If a fuel tank was hit, that wasn't bad either, why? When approaching the target we opened carbon dioxide canisters, which filled the empty space of fuel tanks. If a bullet pierced the body and hit a fuel tank, the sealer would fill the hole, fuel would not leak out, there would be no vapor, and consequently no combustion.”
Although the Il-2 was indeed a well-armored, robust aircraft, the early production version of the airplane had a single-person cockpit—room only for a pilot. This left the low-flying planes vulnerable to enemy attacks from the rear. In order to remedy the situation, Ilyushin redesigned the Il-2 with a second, rear-facing gunner seat to give the fighter a measure of protection from German aircraft as well a limited strafing capability against ground targets.
Partly thanks to the chaos of war and the particularly destructive events of the Eastern Front, the Il-2s definitive effectiveness on the battlefield is not known exactly. However, the airplane was generally regarded as an essential infantry support tool against both German armored formations as well as dismounted infantry.
Like the T-34—a Soviet icon of both armored combat on the Eastern Front as well as the Soviet Union’s ultimate success—so too is the Il-2 revered as an essential part of the war effort: as the Soviet Union’s flying tank.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.