"It was crude, in the same sense that a sledgehammer is crude.
It had no adornments and was dedicated to its function without regard to aesthetics."
- Greg Goebel, Aviation enthusiast and writer
In the 1930's, the Soviet miltary was looking into ways of combating armour from the air, but a number of studies into the realm of tankbusting and winged anti-armour warfare were eventually fruitless.
As World War II loomed on the horizon in late 1938, an outright request for an antitank aircraft was issued. A team led by Sergei V. Ilyushin of the Soviet Central Design Bureau came up with a two-seat design designated TsKB-55. It was powered by a 1370hp Mikulin AM-35 V12 engine, and the first of the two prototypes flew in October 1939.
The design was redesignated BSh-2 for Bronirovannyi Shturmovik which means Armoured Attack Aircraft, Storm Bird . Hence Shturmovik is a generic term. The Soviet's main CAS aircraft from 1977 onwards, the Sukhoi Su-25, is also referred to as Shturmovik in a number of sources, including official aircraft rosters. Its name really isn't Frogfoot since the Soviets never took the opportunity to adapt NATO reporting names for internal use.
After initial test flying of the BSh-2, a number of problems were discovered. The first thing to go was the engine. Not only was it underpowered, it also had a supercharger which was superfluous at the low altitudes the aircraft was intended to operate at. Mikulin supplied a similar non-supercharged 1680hp AM-38 engine for the October 1940 flight trials, giving the design a much better performance. The other major design change was deleting the back seat, thereby removing any defensive armament.
Armament for the type was originally four 7.62 mm (cal .30) machine guns, but after a series of experiments and trials it was decided to go for two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns and two 20mm ShVAK cannons. It could carry a 400 kg / 880 pound bombload and had rails for eight 82 mm rockets as well. Thus the Il-2 was one of the first attack aircraft to carry rockets. Later variants had 132 mm rockets.
Since the aircraft was supposed to engage tanks (and other thick-skinned battlefield paraphernalia), the designers put in steel armour around the engine and cockpit and moved radiators and air intakes out of harm's way as much as possible. The armoured cockpit glass was up to 65 mm thick in places, providing additional protection for the pilot.
From the outset Il-2s were designed to operate from rough unpaved runways. It had no tailwheel but a "skid" to drag its tail on during landings and takeoffs. The main wheels retracted only partially into the airframe to help reduce damage in the event of a wheels-up landing. The skid was replaced with a regular tailwheel on later variants.
In level flight the Il-2 could attain 300mph/254 knots and the operational ceiling was 6,600 feet.
Soviet factories began preparing for Il-2 Shturmovik (now the official designation) production in early 1941.
At the time of the German invasion on June 22, 1941, only 18 out of the 249 built Il-2s had reached frontline units. The pilots had little experience with the new aircraft and was terribly outnumbered to boot. The amount of damage they could do to the advancing German panzer columns was negligible. The Shturmovik's baptism of fire was not a particularly glorious one.
Stalin gets impatient
During the summer of 1941, the aircraft factories located around Moscow and other major towns in western Russia were moved east of the Ural mountains. Ilyushin and his band of engineers took the opportunity to rethink their production methods. Two months after the relocation, Shturmoviks were again starting to come off the production lines, albeit in a slow tempo. Stalin was not very pleased and sent the following telegram to Ilyushin:
YOU HAVE LET DOWN OUR COUNTRY AND OUR RED ARMY.
YOU HAVE NOT MANUFACTURED IL-2S UNTIL NOW.
THE IL-2 AIRCRAFT ARE NECESSARY FOR OUR RED ARMY NOW, LIKE AIR, LIKE BREAD.
SHENKMAN PRODUCES ONE IL-2 A DAY AND TRETIAKOV 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. I WARN YOU FOR THE LAST TIME.
Needless to say, the production of Shturmoviks rapidly gained speed. Stalin's notion of the Il-2 being "like bread" to the Red Army took hold in Ilyushin's aircraft plants and the army soon had their Shturmoviks available in quantity.
Despite being easy to fly and with few deficiencies with regard to the aircraft itself, the Il-2 was still supposed to be a winged killing machine. The 20mm cannon was found to lack the power needed to take out tanks, and its lack of defensive armament made it vulnerable to enemy fighter attacks while flying low and slow over the battlefield.
The Ilyushin team met with operational pilots in the spring of 1942 and devised a number of improvements. The 20mm cannons were replaced with high-velocity 23mm ones, and an upgraded AM-38F 1750hp engine replaced the old one. These improvements changed the designation to Il-2M.
Shortly thereafter, the Il-2M3 variant started to come off the production lines. This one had a rear gunner manning a single 12.7 mm (.50 cal.) machine gun. The rear gunner sat back-to-back with the pilot in the lengthened cockpit, protected by an additional 250 kgs of armour plating. Another addition to the Il-2M3 was the PTAB anti-tank bomblets. Not unlike modern cluster bombs, up to 192 PTAB bomblets could be scattered over enemy armoured columns, all from a single aircraft. By far the oddest weapon to be employed by the Shturmovik however, was the DAG-10 grenade launcher. This device operated almost like an aerial mine, ejecting grenades hanging from parachutes. The idea was to lay "mines" in the way of a pursuing enemy aircraft, and were according to contemporary Soviet sources very effective.
The two-crew Shturmovik was now ready for center stage.
The tactics favoured by the Soviet flyers were heavily dependent on the Shturmovik's ability to withstand ground fire. Out in the open against soft mobile targets, groups of 8 to 12 aircraft skimmed the grass at altitudes down to 15 feet, wreaking havoc amongst the enemy with bombs and blazing guns. In order to take out stationary hard targets they utilized near-vertical dive-bombing attacks. Columns of tanks and other armoured vehicles got treated with PTAB bomblets while the aircraft zig-zagged down the column at about 300-400 feet.
To counter armour in an offensive formation however, Il-2 pilots used the Circle of Death. The IL-2s would flank around the enemy and peel off the formation to make individual attack runs. When the attack run ended, the plane rejoined the formation to wait for another turn. This kept the enemy under constant fire for as long as the Il-2s had any ammunition left.
The Il-2 evolved continually and had a number of bigger and smaller improvements done, most of them based on real-life battle experience. Not all of these are actual variants of the Il-2 Shturmovik, but completely new aircraft based on the Il-2 airframe design.
- TsKB-55: two seat prototype
- Il-2: original single seater
- Il-2M: cannons upgraded from 20mm to 23mm high velocity
- Il-2M3: rear facing gunner added, bigger engine, more armour, tailwheel
- Il-2KR: battlefield photo reconnaissance variant
- Il-2T: Soviet Navy variant
- Il-2U: dual control trainer
- Il-2I: armoured fighter. Prototype only
- Il-8: larger variant of the Il-2. Prototype only.
- Il-10: fully retractable wheels, quadruple 23mm cannons, 20mm gun for rear gunner, smaller bombload, all-metal design. Used in the Korean War.
The Il-2 Shturmovik and its brethren (sisters?) is the most numerous aircraft to be built anywhere. Around 42,000 was built from 1941 up to the Korean War. An Il-2M3 can be seen at the US Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. This particular aircraft was recovered from Kryakovsky Lake near Pskov in 1992.
Another Il-2 is on display in the Museum of the Russian Air Force in Monino, Russia.
Two squadrons of Shturmoviks attacked a German road column over Austria on May 8, 1945. Before the attack commenced they were joined by four American P-38 Lightnings, making it the only joint Soviet/American air operation during World War II.
The Shturmovik variants had the NATO reporting name BARK during the late 1940's and early 1950's.
To the pilots, it was simply Ilyusha. The soldiers on the ground named it the Hunchback, the Flying Tank and perhaps the most flattering name of them all, The Flying Infantryman. To the Germans at the business end of the plane, it was the ominous Schwarze Tod ("Black Death").
Video game company Ubi Soft released the PC game IL-2 Sturmovik in 2002 (note spelling). Held in high regard amongst the flight sim crowd, it lets you fly every single production Il-2 up against other accurately simulated German and Soviet aircraft.
- National Air and Space Museum, Ilyushin IL2-M3 BARK <http://www.nasm.si.edu/nasm/aero/aircraft/ilyushin.htm>
- Greg Goebel, The Il-2 Shturmovik (v1.2.0, public domain) <http://www.vectorsite.net/avil2.html>
- Ubi Soft, IL-2 Sturmovik official website <http://www.il2sturmovik.com/>