The most widely-produced aircraft of the Second World War, the Soviet Shturmovik functioned as an “aerial tank” and was extremely effective against German armored Panzer columns.
Shturmovik at the Pima Air and Space Museum photo from WikiCommons
When the Nazi Panzer columns poured into the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Russian air force had only recently deployed the Ilyushin Il-2 “Shturmovik” ground attack aircraft, though early versions had seen combat in the Spanish Civil War and the 1939 Nomonhan Incident with Japan. A single-seater with a liquid-cooled inline engine, the Il-2 carried a load of 1,000 pounds of bombs and two 20mm cannons which, though not capable of penetrating the front armor of a tank, could do damage against the thinner armor at the top, and was also effective against softer targets like armored cars and convoy trucks. Rather than installing armor by adding plates to an aluminum skin, the Ilyushin design bureau simply made the forward part of the skin itself out of plate armor to protect the engine, cooling system, gas tanks, and pilot from all directions: the tail and wings were left unarmored and were made from plywood. The resulting aircraft weighed five tons.
But the Russians (and the German fighter pilots) soon learned that the Shturmovik had a serious flaw—it was undefended to the rear, and was a sitting duck for Me-109s and Fw-190s if it was caught without fighter cover. In desperation, the Soviets began cutting a door into the unarmored wooden side of the tail where someone could enter with a handheld machine gun and sit on a wicker chair to shoot at enemy attackers. These improvised rear gunners were often forced into service from the gulag detention camps or from Red Army “discipline brigades”.
The Ilyushin Bureau acted quickly, however, and made major modifications. The most vital of these was an expanded armored cockpit carrying a rear gunner to provide all-around protection from fighters. To deal with the extra weight, the 1,680 horsepower AM-38 engine was replaced by the 1,750 horsepower AM-38F, and to counter the shifted center of gravity, the wings were swept back by 15 degrees. The 20mm ShVAK wing cannons were upgraded to 23mm Vya autocannons, and the bomb racks and rocket rails were strengthened and expanded. The new version, dubbed the Il-2M3, began reaching the frontline in August 1942.
The Shturmovik became the most important combat airplane on the Eastern Front. Stalin himself, in a letter to factory managers, declared, “Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats.” Over 36,000 Il-2s were churned out in just five years, in a bewildering variety of configurations—making it the most widely-produced military airplane in history. Before the war ended, the Soviets also introduced an improved all-metal version designated Il-10.
Unlike the air war in the European theater, which centered mainly around strategic bombers and took place at high altitude, the Eastern Front was mostly a tank war, and air combat here was at low altitude, often below 100 feet. Although the Shturmovik is often popularly pictured as a tank-buster, that was not really its role: the Russians had their T-34 tank to take on the Panzers, and the Ilyushin’s armament was not capable of penetrating the armor of a main battle tank. Instead, the IL-2 acted as a sort of aerial artillery, and was most often used in low-level sweeps that closed in suddenly on troop columns, light armored vehicles, truck convoys, artillery batteries, airfields, and other softer targets, which could be hit with rockets, bombs and cannon fire. The Shturmovik’s speed made it a difficult target for anti-aircraft gunners, and its heavy armor and rugged construction meant it could take a considerable amount of damage: Il-2s would often return to base with chunks shot out of them. Nevertheless, losses were high, especially in the early years of the war when the Germans had air superiority: the average life expectancy for a Shturmovik pilot was nine missions. More than 12,000 Il-2s were shot down.
The heavily-armed plane also played an anti-shipping role. A few experimental models carried torpedoes, but even the standard 23mm cannons were capable of sinking small ships, and the Shturmovik’s bombs could handle larger targets. In all, some 100 German cargo and merchant vessels in the Baltic were sunk by Il-2 air attacks.
After the war, Shturmoviks, particularly the Il-10 model, continued in service with the air forces of the USSR and its satellites until the 1950s. At least 6,000 Il-10s were produced, and some of these saw combat in the Korean War flying with the Chinese and the North Koreans.
Today, despite the fact that the Shturmovik was produced in greater numbers than any other military plane ever (and is the second most numerous airplane of any type, exceeded only by the civilian Cessna 172), only around a dozen remain, most in Russia. Nearly all of these are restorations from recovered crashed wartime aircraft. One of these was restored at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona and is now on display.