It was the most numerous warplane series ever built, and in the Soviet Union in World War II, the most iconic. Soldiers thought of it as a flying tank; Stalin likened its importance to food and air. In the early days of the German invasion, it suffered grievously as a result of production shortcuts, but when these were rectified, it became a deadly force on the battlefield. The Shturmovik, or Ilyushin Il-2, was one of the most important ground attack airplanes of the war.
Like many of the military designs from the last years before the war, the Shturmovik was the product of the experience of the Spanish Civil War. It should be noted that it was this conflict that demonstrated the power of Germany’s dominant ground attack aircraft, the Stuka. Unlike the German design, however, the Soviet aircraft was to have strong armor to protect the pilot in close combat circumstances.
The requirement was issued in 1938, and two competing teams drew up proposals. Sergei V Ilyushin’s design, created at the Central Design Bureau (known as TsKB), was the one selected. A working prototype, classified as TsKB-55, made its first flight on December 30, 1939. Significantly, the design and prototype called for an aircrew of two, with a rear gunner joining the pilot inside an armored cabin known colloquially as a “bathtub.” It was principally in such armor protection that the design superseded the German Stuka, whose combat role it approximated. On Ilyushin’s design, armor was built into the plane itself, rather than being added to an existing airframe.
This protection defined the new aircraft, and perhaps some in the Soviet military felt that it made a rear gunner superfluous. The ordered a revision to the original design, reforming the plane as a single-seater. A new prototype flew on October 12, 1940, as the BSh-2 Bronirovanni Shturmovik (or “armored assaulter”). It was adopted the following March as Il-2, reflecting its creation under the auspices of Ilyushin, but the nickname “Shturmovik” remained with it for the rest of its service life. The first production models of the Il-2 were delivered to forward positions near the Soviet Union’s western borders in May, 1941.
In the event, it was the Germans who struck the first blow against the Soviets the following month. Forward-deployed Soviet aircraft were destroyed in large numbers on their own airfields before they had the chance to take to the air; those that managed to take off were overwhelmed in the Luftwaffe’s air supremacy. The Il-2 gave an unimpressive performance in this context, although the Soviet air forces (Vozdushnye Vooruzhonye Sily or VVS) were not prepared to abandon the design. Modifications would be necessary, when practicable.
Such modifications would be delayed by economic realities. Most of the Soviet industry was concentrated in the western part of the Soviet Union, and came under actual or threatened attack by the end of 1941. Entire industrial complexes were disassembled, transported to the Urals mountains and the lands beyond, and then reassembled. This process was carried out on a rapid timetable; in the case of the Shturmovik, new planes were being delivered within two months of this process.
As a stopgap measure, the Shturmovik was given a more powerful engine and heavier armament, with the revised configuration being designated as Il-2m, but a more durable configuration was proposed in the spring of 1942. Ilyushin’s original concept of a two-seater was restored, and the gunner was armed with a heavy machine gun in a 12.7 mm caliber. Some extension of the armor plating protecting the cockpit was necessary, but it was not as complete as the protection offered to the pilot, and for the remainder of the war, seven gunners were lost for every pilot killed in battle. This new configuration, which became operational in August as the Il-2m3, proved substantially more resilient than the single-seater versions.
The Il-2m3 saw service for the rest of the war, and in astonishing numbers. No further substantial changes were made, although armament was consistently increased; rather, the next step in development resulted in 1944 with the creation of a new series, the Il-10. Still, armament upgrades ensured that the Shturmovik remained competitive. The main armament of the Shturmovik was mounted in the wings, with a cannon and a machine gun on each side. The standard Soviet machine gun was the 7.62 mm (in contrast to the heavy machine gun operated by the gunner), but the cannons marked an increase in power. The Il-2m3 began with an upgrade from 20 mm cannons to high-velocity 23 mm cannons. Later, 37 mm anti-tank guns were mounted to the wings.
In addition, the Shturmovik was capable of delivering standard bombs; six smaller bombs (weighing 220 lbs) or two larger bombs (551 lbs) could be carried. Later in the war, rockets were added, and up to eight of them could be attached to the wings. Naval versions were capable of delivering torpedoes instead of bombs. In 1943, small (5 1/2 lb) anti-tank bombs were developed, and the Il-2m3 could carry 192 of these at a time. By dropping these over an armored formation, a single Shturmovik could severely disrupt a regiment or brigade.
Of course, it was never a question of a single Shturmovik. They were manufactured and deployed in vast numbers. It is estimated that as many as 12,000 were operational at the end of 1943, and by the end of the war, total production had exceeded 36,000. No other warplane has been built in comparable numbers, before or since.
In large measure, this is a reflection of the plane’s performance. The Il-2m3 fulfilled the promise of Ilyushin’s original design. It contributed significantly to the defense of Stalingrad, and then at the battle of Kursk, it played a decisive role. Indeed, the Shturmovik was largely responsible for the destruction of the 17th Panzer Division. More than anything else, it was the solidity with which the plane was constructed that made this possible. Pilots were able to engage in daring tactics, suicidal in other machines, to destroy enemy vehicles and guns in large numbers. They set a new standard in “nape of the earth” attack runs by flying as low as 16 feet above the ground, confident that no guns smaller than 20 mm would pose a threat. Where German Stukas had operated in Ketten of three planes, Shturmoviks often gathered in groups of eight or more; in large battles, Shturmoviks often assumed a circular perimeter above the fighting, known as the “circle of death,” which allowed smaller groups to leave the circle for attack runs before returning to the main formation.
Strategically, the main disadvantage to the Shturmovik was a need for frequent repair. It is not clear whether this is due to any mechanical defect, or simply to the reckless manner of flying that the plane permitted. In either case, the Shturmovik required regular maintenance, and this factor often drew these planes back into friendly territory when the ground forces were advancing quickly into enemy territory. Given the numbers of Shturmoviks, not to mention all of the other advantages that the Soviets enjoyed in 1945, this did not prove to be a significant challenge.
By any standard, the Shturmovik was one of the great warplanes of the Second World War. Indeed, its historical significance may be comparable to the T-34 tank. Both were superseded, vehicle for vehicle, by more advanced planes or tanks in the last months of the war, but by their toughness and sheer numbers, they remained relevant even when officially obsolete.
Bishop, Chris. The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II. Sterling, 2002
Crosby, Francis. The World Encylopedia of Fighters & Bombers. Anness Publishing, 2010
Haskew, Michael. Weapons of WWII. Amber, 2012
Jackson, Robert, ed. The Encyclopedia of Aircraft. Thunder Bay Press, 2004
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