Story

Stalin’s “Essential Aircraft:” Ilyushin Il-2 in WWII

Posted on Mon, September 26, 2016
favorite

At the Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility, a unique aircraft is waiting for restoration: the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2. Barely known in the West, the Il-2 Shturmovik played an essential role in defeating the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Not only was the Il-2 the most-produced combat aircraft of World War II, it is also the second most-produced aircraft ever, exceeded only by the Cessna 172. But today, only about a dozen Il-2s are in existence – their scarcity bearing witness to the savage brutality of the war on the Eastern front.

When the Nazi Army attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Soviet government was thrown into confusion and disbelief; they had not anticipated or actively prepared for this act. At the time of the attack, the Soviet Air Force was undergoing a major modernization program to upgrade its capabilities with a variety of new warplanes. But delivery and integration of these new aircraft into the Air Force was slow; and only a small number of the new bomber, fighter, and attack aircraft had made it to front-line air force units. One of the most important of these new types was the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, a rugged single-engine ground attack aircraft. Its origins date back to the mid-1930s, when Soviet military specialists realized that the country needed a dedicated aircraft with dive-bombing capabilities, capable of independently attacking and disabling enemy ground forces and targets, including tanks and other armored vehicles.

In early 1938, Sergei Ilyushin, head of the legendary Ilyushin aircraft design bureau, suggested to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin the idea of a “flying tank,” and asked that his bureau be allowed to design and construct such an aircraft. Somewhat unusually for the normal Soviet aircraft acquisition process, there was no design competition or request for proposals from other Soviet aircraft design bureaus. Ilyushin’s idea was approved, and two prototype Il-2s were ordered, with the first flying in October 1939. Originally conceived as a two-seater, the Il-2 was redesigned as a single-seater to achieve better flying characteristics. After an Il-2 pilot wrote directly to Stalin, suggesting that a gunner behind the pilot was needed to fend-off Nazi fighters seeking to shoot-down the aircraft, the Il-2 was designed as a two-seater once again. Following successful flight tests, the type was ordered into production. About 249 Il-2s were built by the time Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. But of these, a mere 70 were actually in service at that time. Even worse: Only 20 of them were in service with the frontier military districts. Their pilots had only undergone a minimum training, and operational air tactics that ultimately would made the Il-2 so successful were not in existence yet. Indeed, the Il-2’s combat initiation came on June 27, 1941, just five days after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, when five Il-2s attacked a German convoy of tanks and mechanized infantry.

To achieve the IL-2's full potential, production needed to be sharply ramped up. This was not an easy task, since the German invasion had dislocated most of the production facilities. Stalin did not conceal his rage at this disruption of production. In a telegram to the directors of one of the troubled Il-2 plants, he wrote, “You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have the nerve not to manufacture Il-2s until now. Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. (This plant) now produces one Il-2 a day….It is a mockery of the Red Army….I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more Il-2s. This is my final warning. Stalin.” Not surprisingly, Il-2 production increased sharply within weeks.

Over the course of the war, a total of between 31,000 and about 36,000 Il-2s were to be produced — more than any other combat aircraft in WWII. The Il-2 was anything but advanced in its mixed wood-and-metal construction, which was relatively easy to manufacture in significant numbers using relatively unskilled workers. But for an aircraft, it was an amazing achievement. Among the Shturmovik’s most important assets were its strength and robustness in combat. The forward fuselage section — protecting the aircraft’s fuel system, radiators and crew station — was built entirely of armor plate. Thus, the Il-2 could, and often did, absorb extraordinary battle damage and survive to fight another day. The protective armor shell employed a special alloy developed for the Il-2; its thickness varied by location on the airframe. Special consideration had been given to a technology that would allow maintenance personnel to stamp the armor steel in the field, thus providing flexibility in the design, especially when Soviet units were forced to operate from primitive forward battle areas.

Historical photo of aircraft in flight. Clouds and farmland can be seen in the background.

An Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik in flight.

The heavy armor of the Il-2 led to its German nickname, “Betonflugzeug” (“concrete plane”), since it was basically impossible to shoot down an Il-2 with a machine gun or a 20 mm cannon. Early combat experience, however, quickly revealed the single-seat Il-2’s great vulnerability to German attack from behind. This was compounded by the inability of escorting Russian fighters, which operated at much higher altitudes than the Shturmoviks, to protect their charges. The Il-2s, of course, had to operate at extremely low heights to strike their ground targets successfully. The response was development of a two-seat Il-2, with the second crew-member operating rearward-firing machineguns. This new version quickly supplanted the single-seat version on Il-2 production lines.

On the website I remember. Soviet World War II Veteran Memoirs, Il-2 pilot Yurii Khukhrikov recalls: “It was an excellent aircraft for those times! We carried 600 kilograms of bombs, 8 rockets, 300 23 mm shells for the cannon (150 rounds for each gun), and 1800 rounds” for the machine guns. According to Khukhrikov, the engine was the most vulnerable part of the Il-2: “The wings were fine, more or less. If a fuel tank was hit, that wasn’t bad either, why? When we approached the target, we opened carbon dioxide canisters, which filled the empty space of the 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.”

Historical photo of several aircraft on a grassy field.

Several Ilyushin Il-2 on the ground at an unidentified airfield, with their engines running. Image: The National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM 20009-12008

The Il-2, however, was not a wonder weapon. One of its major problems was the inaccuracy of its attacks. Although massive numbers of Shturmoviks began to support main offensives of the ground troops, the aircrafts’ effect was often rather psychological, especially against targets that were dug-in or armored. Additionally, the heavy weight of the Il-2’s armor meant that Shturmoviks could not carry heavy bomb loads. Nevertheless, Shturmoviks played a critical role in the massive Soviet counteroffensives against the German forces. The Il-2 was particularly effective against transport and logistical equipment, including fuel transport, personnel, and supplies. In late November 1942, hundreds of Il-2s were deployed to provide close air support for Soviet ground troops encircling German Panzer forces near Stalingrad. Escorted by fighter aircraft, Il-2s achieved great success during the strike on the airfield at Salsk, a primitive airstrip used by the Germans for Luftwaffe operations. In January 1943, the Germans had based up to 150 aircraft there, parked close together and vulnerable to attack. They were an ideal target for Il-2s, which flew at near-treetop altitude, hoping to avoid detection by German fighters and anti-aircraft artillery. The Russian planes executed seven lightning-quick strafing runs over the German base. The Germans were caught completely by surprise; 72 German aircraft were destroyed. In an attack during the Kursk Battle in summer 1943, Il-2s destroyed 70 tanks of the German 9th Panzer Division within 20 minutes.

A number of Il-2 pilots became highly successful. Among them were also women, like Senior Lieutenant Anna Yegorowa who flew 243 missions in Il-2 and received the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union in late 1944, after she was taken prisoner by the German troops. Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Stepayan, according to Soviet sources, apparently shot down or destroyed in 239 combat sorties no less than 53 ships, 80 tanks, 600 armored vehicles and 27 aircraft. In December 1944, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was seriously wounded, Stepanyan steered his plane into a German warship and sank it.

Squadron commander Leonid Beda, decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union, made more than 100 combat sorties in an Il-2. In Famous Russian Aircraft, he describes how he led a group of Il-2s supporting Soviet ground troops assaulting Sapun Hill, in a crucial area near Sevastopol at the Crimea. Flying 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) above the ground, they masked their approach in the valleys surrounding the German gun emplacements on the hill, and were able to inflict considerable damage. To facilitate their escape, Beda and his group took refuge in the valleys again, flying extremely low. Later, Beda and his fellow Il-2 pilots participated in strafing attacks on German vessels in Sevastopol’s bays and against German airbases nearby. Despite the presence of significant anti-aircraft artillery, Beda and his squadron mates succeeded in sinking several ships in the harbor and destroying a number of German aircraft.

Lack of available Russian fighter protection, however, for the vulnerable and slow-moving Il-2s often led to severe losses in combat. In the spring and summer of 1942, for example, Il-2s were being lost at the very high rate of one for every 24 combat sorties; during the Battle of Stalingrad, that ratio increased to one aircraft per 10-12 combat missions. Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft units claimed 6,900 victories over Il-2s in 1943, and 7,300 in 1944. These numbers might be exaggerated, but on the other hand, the Soviet numbers of losses might not be correct either: According to Soviet records, the total wartime Il-2 losses amounted to nearly 11,570 aircraft, or about 30 percent of the Soviet Union’s total combat aircraft losses.

Nevertheless, by the end of World War II, the Il-2 was widely regarded as one of the best and most effective weapons deployed by the Soviet forces. Oleg Rastrenin, a highly regarded expert on Soviet airpower, notes that, during World War II, “it was precisely the Il-2 that was the most useful aircraft for our infantry and the aircraft most feared by the German infantry.” According to Rastrenin, at the beginning of the war, Il-2s comprised less than 0.2% of the inventory of the Soviet Air Force. But soon this number rose, and stayed at about 30% of all Soviet combat tactical aircraft for the duration of the war. For World War II, the Ilyushin Il-2 is an iconic aircraft, as iconic as the T-34 tank or the Katyusha rocket system - an aircraft that contributed significantly to the Allied victory in World War II.

Airplane flies over what appears to be farmland.

Il-2 were still flying after World War II; their NATO code name was “Bark." Image: The National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM 81-14320

In part 2 of this story, we will take a closer look at Museum's Il-2 and its upcoming restoration. In the meantime, here are some sources for further reading (which also were used to prepare this post):

  • Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov and Dimitry Komissarov, Famous Russian Aircraft: Illyushin Il-2/Il-10 Shturmovik, Midland Publishing, Surrey, United Kingdom, 2010
  • Oleg Rastrenin, Il-2 Shturmovik Guards Units of World War 2, Osprey Publishing Limited, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2008
  • Von Hardesty, Red Phoenix Rising, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 2012
  • Vasily B. Emelianenko, Red Star against the Swastika. The Story of a Soviet Pilot over the Eastern Front, London: Greenhill Books, 2005, and
  • I Remember: Soviet WWII Veteran Memoirs, a Russian-language website (on-line translation from the Russian).

Gene Eisman, a volunteer with the National Air and Space Museum, also contributed to this story. Thanks also to Von Hardesty, Carl Bobrow and Larry deRiccio for their input.

Related Topics