The Il-2: Russia’s “Flying Infantryman”

“Our army needs Il-2s as much as it needs bread, as much as it needs the air it breathes.” Joseph Stalin.

As the world’s first practical armored attack aircraft, Ilyushin’s Il-2 Shturmoviki made up a third of the USSR’s combat aircraft fleet during the Great Patriotic War–known to the West as World War II. Central to its construction was the one-piece armored bath with integrally pressed engine bearers and cooler nests. This thirteen mm thick armor plate extended from the nose to the rear of the cockpit and was augmented by armored glass for the canopy and 55 to 65 millimeter armored glass windscreen. It could not be penetrated from below by low caliber projectiles. Main undercarriage wheels were semi-exposed when the gear was retracted to allow gear up landings with minimal structural damage to the aircraft.

In a study done by the Soviet Union during the war, this aircraft’s only weak points were the wooden rear fuselage, the wooden outer wing panels, and the oil radiators. Metal outer wing panels proved to be more survivable.

Powered by an AM 38 engine of 1,680 horsepower and armed with two Shkas 7.62 mm machine guns, two Shvak 20 mm cannon, rails for eight 82-mm RS 82 rockets and a bomb capacity of 400 kg, 249 single-seat Il-2s were in service at the time of the German attack. With a fighter escort flying at 1000 to 1500 meters altitude and the Il-2s gliding down to attack at 10 meters altitude, Soviet pilots complained that the aircraft was vulnerable to attack from behind by fighters firing at ranges of 10 to 15 meters. By the summer of 1942 pilots frequently carried only half a bomb load, if they carried bombs at all. Their attacks were frequently made with guns and rockets alone. They recommended the addition of a rear gunner.

Two-seat Il-2s began to appear at the front in the spring of 1942, and the Il-2m3 made its appearance in August 1942. The armor plating was lengthened to include the rear gunner with minimal structural changes. Initially the rear gunner was provided with a pair of 7.62 mm machineguns. This was altered to a 12.7 mm machinegun. The pilot’s armament was increased to two 23 mm cannon in the wings. The Soviet Air Force now mandated a minimum 400 kilogram bomb load.

Experiments with 37 mm cannon were also conducted and small numbers were available at Kursk. The powerful recoil of these cannon made aiming difficult.

In January 1943 the AM 38F engine was introduced. This engine was uprated to 1,750 horsepower and was able to use low octane fuel. At the Battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, 1,644 Il-2s were available. By the time of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, in July 1943, that number increased to 2,817 Il-2s.

German fighter pilots quickly learned that the Il-2 pilot’s standard attack procedure was to glide from 1,000 to 1,500 meters altitude to their attack altitude of 10 meters and then to turn to port to set up the Circle of Death. This technique allowed the Shturmoviki to have aircraft over the target continuously for an extended period. During the Battle for Kursk the 9th Panzer Division lost 70 tanks in 20 minutes on 7 July, 1943. German pilots took advantage of the knowledge of the port turn to set up their attacks. Even so, the Germans found the Il-2 difficult to down when it was evading at 10 meters altitude and 400 kilometers per hour.

Although we have no knowledge of all women Il-2 units, we do know that many of the units had mixed aircrews.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War Volume Two: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft, and Bombers, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov with Alexander Medved’, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1999

The Ilyushin Il-2, Number 88, Witold Liss, Profile Publications Ltd. Leatherhead, England.

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