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 Main undercarriage wheels were semi-exposed when the gear was retracted to allow gear up landings with minimal structural damage to the aircraft.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.

Air Action over Prokhorovka

According to the official Soviet Air Force history bad weather over the battlefield on 12 July, 1943, forced the Soviets to operate in small groups. At approximately 0840 hours the Second Air Army began their preparatory operations with 200 aircraft.

Single engine Il-2 attack bombers approached the front at 1000 to 1500 meters altitude. Dropping down to altitudes of five to ten meters above ground level they directed nearly horizontal 20 mm cannon fire against their targets and fired RS82 rockets or dropped their 400 kilogram bomb loads. Executing a port turn after passing over their targets, they returned to their targets singly, forming what was called a circle of death. In such a manner they kept the Germans under constant attack for fifteen minutes to half an hour. Twin engine Pe-2 fast attack bombers carried a 7.62 mm machinegun and a 12.7 mm machinegun in the nose and 600 kilograms of bombs.

Fighter cover for the bombers included Yak-1, Yak-7, and Yak-9 fighters. These aircraft were able to out-climb as well as out-turn their opponents. Fully one quarter of all Soviet fighters engaged in this battle were La-5 and La-5F fighters. These machines conducted rocket and hollow charge bomb attacks on German armor before climbing to higher altitude to fly cover for their comrades. Under 4000 meters the La-5 fighters were not inferior to their opponents, using turns to get above the enemy. The Germans considered them the most dangerous threat on the Eastern Front. Ivan Kozhedub, the leading allied ace of the Second World War with 62 victories, flew an La-5 in this battle.

German fighter pilots excelled at high altitude combat so Soviet pilots made sure they lured the Germans down to a more suitable altitude.

The Battle for the Kursk Salient ended the career of the Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. Large numbers of these aircraft were lost to fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but they were already being replaced by the Focke Wulf 190 single seat fighter-bomber. Organized in fast attack groups they made an impact on the combat by forcing the 29th Tank Corps to change the axis of their attack.

The storms of the afternoon called a temporary halt to battlefield action on 12 July, however, when the storms let up, the fighting resumed. At 2000 hours massive air support helped Totenkopf take Polezhaev.

Although this was the last major offensive operation conducted by the German army on the Eastern Front, for the Luftwaffe fighter pilots on the Eastern Front this was one of their brightest military accomplishments.

Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War Volumes One and Two, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1998

Jagdgeschwader 54 Gruenherz: Aces of the Eastern Front, Jerry Scutts, Airlife Publishing Ltd., Shrewsbury, England, 1992

Prokhorovka: Part 1

World War II, Eastern Front, Russian and German Battle for the Kursk Salient.

The climax of the battle for the Kursk Salient took place near the city of Prohorovka on 12 July 1943. After the Allied landing on Sicily on 10 July Hitler gave tentative approval for the continuation of the drive on Kursk, but everyone involved in the decision knew that the resources needed to meet both threats exceeded Germany’s capabilities.

By now II SS Panzer Corps possessed fewer than 300 armored vehicles and III Panzer Corps had fewer than 200. General Rotmistrov’s 5 Guards Tank Army had five corps with a total of 830 tanks and self-propelled guns. The long eastern flank held by II SS Panzer Corps absorbed much of the armored vehicles of both armies, so the number of tanks, tank destroyers, and self-propelled guns involved in the action at Prokhorovka probably did not exceed 570.

General von Manstein’s orders for 12 July directed 48 Panzer Corps to capture the Psel River crossings south of Oboyan.  III Panzer Corp and Army Group Kempf were to move north to divert Soviet forces from Prokhorovka and, if possible, to join with II SS Panzer Corps to surround the Soviet forces in the pocket between them. II SS Panzer Corps was ordered to move northeast the last few kilometers to take Prokhorovka.

General Vatutin ordered attacks all along the front. Tenth Tank Corps was ordered to move down both sides of the Oboyan road with 100 tanks. Additional forces, including 70 tanks, were directed to strike Grossdeutschland from the west attacking toward Syrtzewo and Lukhanino. On the east General Vatutin ordered General Rotmistrov, commanding the 5th Guards Tank Army, to attack II SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps while holding 212 tanks in reserve.

The heat and humidity of the previous days continued. Increasing clouds and light showers did not initially interfere with movement. German operations began at dawn. In the southeast 6th Panzer Division drove north to take Rzhavets, immediately sending forces across to the northern bank of the Donets by 0500 hours.  The 19th Panzer Division advanced along the south bank of the Donets to take Krivisovo. Vatutin, recognizing the danger to the Prokhorovka position, directed Rotmistrov to send his reserves to the northern Donets to block that threat. Luftwaffe fighters cleared the skies at 0630 and bombers began close support all along the front beginning at 0700. This air activity attracted Soviet fighter response.

The Soviet creeping artillery barrage began at 0810 hours in preparation for Vatutin’s assaults scheduled for 0900.

Sources: David M. Glantz & Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS, 1999

Ludwig Heinrich Dyck, “Showdown a Krokhorovka and Oboian”, WW II History, September 2006

George M. Nipe, Jr., “Ribbentrop at Prokhorovka”, WW II History, July 2009