World War II’s Eastern Front was one of the war’s bloodiest for sure with tens of millions of caualites. Defined by vast, mostly flat open spaces, the theater saw extensive use of armored vehicles and massed infantry formations on both sides. Thanks also in part to Eastern Europe’s sparsely-populated plains, aerial combat took place at lower altitudes than in other theaters, and ground-attack aircraft were in particularly high demand.
One of the Soviet Union’s ground attack and support aircraft was the Ilyushin Il-2, a heavily armed and armored airplane that excelled in support of infantry. Though the Il-2 was indeed a powerful airplane, improvements to the design were needed, in particular improvements to the airplane’s maneuverability at lower attack altitudes as well as improvements to the aircraft’s speed in order to make it a more difficult airplane to target by smaller-diameter anti-aircraft fire. With these improvements in mind, Soviet aerospace designers drew up plans for the Il-10.
Russia’s Flying Tank
The Il-10’s main armament was not dissimilar to that of late-model Il-2s: it housed two 23mm cannons and two medium machine guns within its wings, as well as a rear-mounted .50 caliber heavy, machine-gun operated by a rear gunner for protection from enemy aircraft. Additionally, the Il-10 could hold a modest amount of bomb payload for attacking ground targets. Post-war, the Il-10 underwent some further firepower improvements: all forward-facing guns were 23mm, and the rear gunner’s single gun diameter was upped to 20mm.
Aside from the guns the airplane mounted, it’s most impressive feature was an extensive armor package designed to protect the pilot, gunner, and engine from incoming ground fire as well as fire from enemy airplanes. In addition to cockpit armor around and above the pilot, the windshield was also protected, as was the wall separating the pilot and gunner and the underside of the fuselage’s engine section To say that the Il-10’s armor plating was heavy is an understatement — nearly 2,200 pounds of armor protection was incorporated into the airframe.
Though the design ultimately made its combat debut with Soviet forces at the tail end of the Second World War, it came too late to make a significant impact on the Eastern Front. However the design was considered solid, and the Soviet Union exported their ground attack design to a number of Warsaw Pact countries as well as to North Korea and China post-war. Some of the most long-lived Il-10s serve with China until the early 1970s, though at that point they were obsolete.
Had the Il-10 made its combat debut earlier, it could have arguably been one of the most effective ground-attack airframes of the war. Still, it makes for an interesting piece of World War II aviation history.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.