German forces pushing into the Soviet Union felt nearly invincible—until they met the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik.
Nazi forces were storming the Soviet Union. It was early July 1941, two weeks into Operation Barbarossa. Hitler's plan of conquest called for the capture of Moscow, plus lands to the Volga River—all before winter.
But before the takeover could happen, the Second and Third Panzer Divisions had to cross the Berezina River near Bobruisk—the same waterway Napoleon had crossed in his ruinous invasion. The Soviets blew up most of the spans, forcing the Germans to construct pontoon bridges. Taking aim at the masses of troops and vehicles attempting to cross the river was a new type of Soviet airplane—one that the Germans compared to their Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, a dive-bomber and ground-attack aircraft. To the dismay of the Germans, the Soviet air force had mobilized the Ilyushin Il-2, a low-flying, single-seat monoplane equipped with automatic cannons, rockets, machine guns, and bombs.
The Germans, however, quickly discovered the Il-2’s weak points. With the attack aircraft only five months into production and never tested even in war games, Soviet pilots had not yet developed the tactics needed to protect each other in flight, and they still lacked proper sights to aim their cannons and bombs. While thick armor surrounded the pilot and engine, the structure aft of the cockpit was only plywood, which shredded under fire.
Dozens of Il-2s succumbed to anti-aircraft guns and fighter attacks from the rear. Still, the Soviet pilots took to the sky, each hazarding a few runs before being shot down. Mindful of the Russian failures in World War I—when factories couldn’t manufacture enough rifles for its soldiers—the Germans were confident that their new enemy wouldn't be able to replace destroyed aircraft, much less increase their numbers.
Even if replaced, how could such an untested aircraft measure up against the Luftwaffe's armada of low-flying, ground-attack Stukas? The aircraft had proven effective in the Spanish Civil War and across Europe. The Soviet forces’ attempt at ground attack would be no more than an annoyance, the Germans believed.
But the Il-2 wasn't the same as the Stuka; in time it would be much better. “We haven’t got anything like it,” said retired World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker after inspecting the Il-2 and its assembly lines two years later. “It’s a whale of a plane, the best plane for its purpose in the world.”
The Black Death
In late 1943, Il-2s would again meet the Nazis at the Berezina River, as the Germans made a desperate retreat. And this time the Il-2’s appearance wasn’t spotty: The aircraft came in waves and carried a new tank-killing weapon. The Germans had nicknamed the airplane Betonflugzeug (“concrete plane”), due to its thick armor. Others called it by another moniker: Der Schwarze Tod, “the Black Death.”
Thousands of Il-2s were lost to accidents and enemy fire, but the Soviets had plenty more to throw into the fight. Due to an astonishing turnaround in industrial capacity, by April 1945 the Il-2, along with its Il-10 derivative, counted as the most-manufactured warplane of all time, at more than 36,000 units. The record still stands. Surprisingly, less than two dozen restored Il-2s can be found in the world’s museums, and only a handful of those are flyable. The National Air and Space Museum has an Il-2, and it’s undergoing a restoration at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.
The Il-2 began, as most military aircraft do, with a problem in search of a solution. Soviet military planners in the 1930s had concluded they needed an airplane capable of attacking ground forces, including heavily armored vehicles. In 1938, aircraft designer Sergei Ilyushin approached Joseph Stalin and won approval for a concept he referred to as a “flying tank.” His design was built on the realization that, instead of building an attack airplane and putting armor on it, he could make part of the airplane out of armor, says Bill Hadden, a restoration specialist at the National Air and Space Museum assigned to the Il-2 project. “The steel part of the fuselage has very little structure inside, and that’s because Ilyushin saw that you could use the armor to carry structural loads,” says Hadden.
The airplane would also need armor-piercing guns, racks for bombs and rockets, treetop maneuverability, and survivability under the massed anti-aircraft fire that such proximity would bring.
Ilyushin had also wanted a tail gunner position to hold off enemy fighters, but flight tests showed it added too much weight for the early version of the aircraft’s Mikulin AM-38 piston engine to handle. So the first production models went into battle as single-seaters.
Russian pilots dubbed the aircraft Ilyusha, a play both on the designer’s name and on a tough little character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Its designation was “Shturmovik,” which means “armored attack.”
Still, during its debut in 1941, rapid-firing anti-aircraft guns proved deadly to the Il-2 and, two months into the war on the Eastern Front, stocks of serviceable Shturmoviks were running low. The Soviet air force’s Fourth Ground-Attack Aviation Regiment, for instance, entered the war with 63 airworthy Il-2s. Sixty were shot down.
Even so, the remaining Il-2s took flight in August battles like one near the village of Potelitsa, where Soviet forces were swarmed by 70 German tanks. “I’m exceptionally pleased with the successful operations of the Shturmoviks and fighters,” reported Colonel N.F. Naumenko to a fellow commander. “Thanks to the crushing strike delivered by you on 21 August and 22, 1941, the counter-attack by an enemy Panzer division was beaten back.”
Such accolades likely caught Stalin’s attention. Eager for any good news after a disastrous autumn, he seized on the aircraft as vital to stopping the Nazis. Germany’s planned four-month race to victory could turn into a war of attrition, one that the Soviets could win, given their vast landscape and huge population—but only if supplies and arms held out. By 1941, when the Germans moved against Moscow in Operation Typhoon, however, only 72 Shturmoviks were on hand to meet them.
Supply and Demands
Russia’s ability to slow the German advances would depend on its ability to build more aircraft. Unfortunately, far too much of the country’s industrial and mineral production lay close to Germany—and German bombers.
Ready or not, the Soviets needed to initiate an industrial evacuation. Any delay meant having to destroy a factory as the enemy came over the horizon or—worse—losing it intact. The Soviets moved more than 1,500 plants in less than half a year.
Factories that would produce most of the Il-2s during the war (along with thousands of workers and unfinished aircraft) had to move over a railway network already jammed with trains headed to the front. The destinations were sometimes little more than cleared plots. There, the arriving workers began hunting for thousands of crates often jumbled with other cargo.
The equipment from one pair of factories (plants number 380 and 381) moved more than 1,300 miles by rail from Leningrad to Nizhny Tagil in the Urals. Some of the machine tools found a home in existing rail-car shops, but other gear had to find shelter under hastily erected hangars. In less than six weeks, the plants were back in production.
A second wartime refuge would be the city of Kuibyshev (now known as Samara), an established industrial city on the Volga. It was to serve as the nation’s emergency capital if the Germans took Moscow. After the enemy reached Kharkov in October 1941, two large Il-2 assembly plants in Voronezh and Moscow received orders to relocate 500 miles to a plot near Kuibyshev’s Bezymyanka railroad station.
”At that time the main blocks [in Kuibyshev] had no roofs,” says Yefim Gordon, military historian and co-author of the definitive Ilyushin Il-2 and Il-10 Shturmovik. “The work was hampered by severe frosts that came earlier than usual. The workers had to kindle fires in the workshops in order to warm up themselves and the machine tools to be installed. In general, conditions of life and work for the people engaged in the resettlement of the plant were extremely harsh.”
For all the suffering, the order to shift the plants to a safe distance did pay off. Hitler’s own mistakes were coming home to roost by now, such as his orders to hold back on long-range bomber production in favor of fighters and twin-engine medium bombers. The Il-2 plants in Kuibyshev were out of range for the Luftwaffe.
The relocated plants, numbers 1 and 18 of Kuibyshev, would in time roll out more than 27,000 Shturmoviks. Such a number seemed impossible at first. After a five-week delay to restart production, plant number 18 reported less than a dozen aircraft out the doors by mid-December. That prompted a cable from Stalin: “The Il-2 aircraft are necessary for our Red Army now. Like air, like bread....We do not need MiGs, but Il-2. If the 18th plant thinks to secede from the country, giving one Il-2 per day, then it is cruelly mistaken and will be punished for it. I ask you not to drive the government out of patience, and I demand that more Ils be produced. I warn you one last time.” Production increased.
Stalin initially banned any design modifications without his permission, fearing a hold up in production. But as the German advance bogged down, Ilyushin won the right to make changes. (In fact, by 1942, the Soviets felt secure enough about Moscow to restart Il-2 production there.) Ilyushin produced more than 115 variations, including models that substituted fixed skis for wheels. Another prototype mounted a flamethrower.
The Shturmovik’s main armament started as a pair of 20mm ShVak auto-cannons, but they were prone to jamming. After experimenting with cannon bores as large as 37mm, Ilyushin settled on the 23mm Vya cannon, which was better but still unable to penetrate heavy armor.
After the Mikulin engine’s power output improved, Ilyushin could finally add the tail gunner position to aircraft in production. Pilot reports from the war, however, suggest that tail gunners were more helpful as rear observers. Gunners had a survival rate only one-seventh that of pilots, since the gunner’s portion of the aircraft was largely constructed from plywood.
The Il-2 did shoot down German Junkers Ju 52 transports and Heinkel He 111 bombers on occasion, but even at its most advanced, it wasn’t suited for tight turns and steep dives. One self-preservation tactic was the Lufbery circle, dating to the dogfights of World War I: airplanes protect each other’s rear hemisphere by forming a defensive ring.
Through the early summer of 1943, Shturmovik pilots had the benefit of many design and equipment advances, with one notable exception: a tiny bomb called the PTAB, short for Protivo-Tankovaya Avia Bomba. Stalin approved production of almost a million of the bomblets in April, but held them back until a sufficiently important crisis—or opportunity—loomed.
The PTAB was so small—about five pounds each—that a Shturmovik could carry almost 200 of them. Each PTAB possessed a “shaped charge” warhead that could blast a hole through the top armor of Germany’s tanks (even the lethal Tiger), igniting ammunition and fuel.
Dropped in swarms from masses of Shturmoviks, the PTABs took a horrific toll when introduced at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the largest tank engagement of the war. Over five days, Soviet pilots of the 291st Division claimed 422 German tanks damaged or destroyed.
Canadian pilot Ross Granley has considerable knowledge about everything that is good, bad, and ugly about the Il-2. On behalf of the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, he’s flown the two-seater model—the Il-2M3.
Interviewed for Vintage Aviation Echo, Granley observed that while the airplane’s profile might call to mind a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the Shturmovik is so big and heavy it handles like a bomber. “It doesn’t maneuver very well, and doesn’t have the power to evade vertically,” he told the magazine. “I wouldn’t want to get into a turning dogfight [while flying] it.” A small deviation from correct pitch at low speeds or in recovering from a wingover could cause a feedback loop that sent the Il-2 out of control.
Granley added that, while the bullet-resistant windscreen and armored cockpit improved the pilot’s chances of survival, the steel plates alongside the flier’s head obstruct the view to the rear. And the engine’s wrap-around armor had a weak spot that adversaries like German ace Erich Hartmann, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109, learned to exploit. Tracers directed at the oil-cooler on the underside sent many Shturmoviks into the ground.
While very few of the 36,000 Shturmoviks manufactured still exist, the aircraft holds a prominent place in World War II-theme flight simulators. And when Russians gather to commemorate the Great Patriotic War, the Il-2 is likely to get a mention along with other wartime game-changers: the T-34 tank, the PPSh-41 submachine gun, and the Katyusha rocket launcher.
And today, a monument to the Il-2 and the workers who built the aircraft during their country’s darkest days rises up from a traffic circle in the Russian city of Samara, where Shturmoviks rolled out of factories nearly 80 years ago.
James R. Chiles is a frequent contributor to Air & Space Quarterly and the author of The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, The Story of the Helicopter (Bantam Dell, 2007).
How to Restore a “Concrete Plane”
After nearly three decades in storage, the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik has been moved to the National Air and Space Museum’s Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar in Chantilly, Virginia. There, historians and craftspeople are collaborating to return the Il-2—one of World War II’s most iconic aircraft—to its former glory.
Although more than 36,000 Il-2 ground-attack aircraft were built in the Soviet Union, very few survived the war. For years afterward, even wrecks of the “concrete plane” (so-called because it was hard to destroy) were extremely rare. That changed after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, when history buffs had more leeway to search. “Quite a few relatively intact examples have been dredged up from lakes, so there are over a dozen examples in museums now,” says Bill Hadden, a Museum restoration specialist assigned to the Il-2 project.
The Museum’s Shturmovik is one such aircraft: It spent half a century at the bottom of a lake. Or, to be more accurate, an initial restoration effort undertaken by a Russian team combined three or four aircraft, most dredged from the same lake, to create a single whole one. Unfortunately, the Russians didn’t have records of which airplanes were used and where they were from—making the provenance of the Museum’s Il-2 difficult to determine. What’s more, the restoration methods used by the Russian team inadvertently removed some valuable clues.
“It appears that they used paint stripper and sand blasting and whatever was needed to remove corrosion and old paint before rebuilding the airplane,” says Hadden. Such heavy-handed methods have fallen out of favor, he says, because they erase so much of an object’s history. “For instance, the serial number was painted on in several places when they were manufactured,” says Hadden. “With essentially all the original paint removed, we may never know the identity of our airplane or its particular service history.
“Thanks to a vibrant community of Il-2 enthusiasts worldwide, we have gained access to a rich collection of manuals and reference material, but of course we have to translate nearly all of it into English to use it,” Hadden adds. The process of repairing the aircraft also promises to reveal how it was constructed. That’s because the back half of the original fuselage is made entirely of wood, which didn’t survive 50 years of being submerged. “We have committed to building a wood aft fuselage using original factory techniques, and that has required much research,” says Hadden. The project is also benefiting from the woodworking abilities of Museum restoration specialist Jay Flanagan, who has previously used historic tools to restore old aircraft. “The process, though common 75 years ago, is something of a lost art today,” says Hadden.
However, don’t expect to see the Il-2 take flight. “Restoring old airplanes to fly is a wonderful goal, and we are glad others do it,” says Hadden. “But our goal at the Smithsonian is to preserve the history of the objects in our care, which means we cannot make them operational. Making an aircraft airworthy, for instance, requires erasing many of the clues that will help future generations understand it.”
Mark Strauss is the managing editor at Air & Space Quarterly.