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Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik: Russia’s World War II Tank-Killer Warplane

The Reds’ own tank-killing plane of the conflict, the “Shturmovik” single-engine bomber, had its own successes. 

Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Nazi Germany’s infamous Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber of WWII quickly became known as a tank buster with its intimidating whistling wings and cannon-firing approach.

The Stuka ended up on the losing side of what the Soviets officially dubbed “The Great Patriotic War.”

The Reds’ own tank-killing plane of the conflict, the “Shturmovik” single-engine bomber, had its own successes. 

Il-2 “Shturmovik” Early History and Specifications

The Ilyushin Il-2 made her maiden flight on October 2, 1939, and officially entered into operational service with the Soviet Air Force in 1941. It should be noted that “shturmovik (штурмовик)” is actually a generic Russian term for any ground-attack aircraft, but the USSR’s Western allies chose to apply the term specifically to the Il-2, and it has stuck to the present day.

The manufacturer, Ilyushin Design Bureau, was founded in 1933 and was merged in 2006 into what is now known as the Public Joint-Stock Company “United Aircraft Corporation” (PJSC UAC).

Specifications included a crew of two, a fuselage length of 38 feet 3 inches, a wingspan of 47 feet inches, a height of 13 feet 8 inches, an empty weight of 9,755 pounds, and a maximum takeoff weight of 14,021 pounds. Max airspeed was a modest 261 miles per hour, but that relatively slow speed was compensated for by the plane’s incredible toughness, in the form of armor 4 to 8 millimeters thick that covered the entire front half of the airframe (more on this in a bit).

Armament bristled with 1,320 pounds of bombs or rockets, two 37 mm cannon, one Berezin UB 12.7 mm machine gun, and two ShKAS 7.62 mm machine guns. 

An astonishing 36,163 of these bombers were produced, making it the second most-produced aircraft ever, exceeded only by the Cessna 172 at 44,000+.

Combat Performance:  the Other Big Killer at Kursk

A detailed account of the Il-2’s deadliness comes to us from British journalist Russell Miller’s 1983 book “The Soviet Air Force at War,” part of Time-Life Books’ excellent Epic of Flight series that also includes “Fighting Jets” (some of us here are old enough to remember the cool informercial for that product back in the day). Mr. Miller – a former contributor to The Sunday Times of London – starts the opening chapter of his book discussing the Shturmoviks’ contribution to the monumental Soviet victory in the July 1943 Battle of Kursk, which goes to show that particular engagement was more than just an epic tank-vs.-tank battle

“The Shturmoviks had a bewildering repertory of tactics; one was a fearsome maneuver known as the circle of death, in which they orbited around a cluster of enemy tanks in groups of four, six, or eight, delivering blasts of 37-millimeter cannon fire, 132-millimeter rockets and hollow-charge bombs that, as one Soviet flier put it, ‘burned holes in the fascist armor.’ Barely 20 minutes after the arrival of the Shturmoviks over the Wehrmacht’s 9th Panzer Division on that terrible July morning, 70 enemy tanks were in flames … In the space of scarcely two hours, the Wehrmacht’s 3rd Panzer Division lost 270 of its 300 tanks to the pitiless Shturmoviks. And a like fate befell the 17th Panzer Division, which lost 240 of its 300 tanks in four hours of desperate combat against the Red Air Force.”

So thorough was the devastation inflicted by the Il-2s that German soldiers dubbed them “Die Pest (the Plague).”

This Red warbird could take punishment as well as dish it out. That aforementioned frontal armor made it virtually immune to light machine gun fire, and there is at least one recorded instance of a Shturmovik surviving 350 hits in the course of a dozen missions. Thus the plane was admiringly nicknamed the “Flying Tank” by Red Army infantrymen. The P-47 Thunderbolt is the only other allied airplane I can think of that had a comparable level of survivability. 

Shturmovik Overrated? A Contrarian Viewpoint

As deadly as the Il-2 was, there are some military aviation experts who actually consider the bomber to be overrated.

Among them is one armchair historian colleague I know well, who provided some thoughtful contrarian insight. 

Among his salient points is that the planes weren’t terribly accurate against ground vehicle targets – he rates the T-Bolt and the RAF Hawker Typhoon much higher in that regard – but because of their sheer numbers “they were bound to hit something,” and their RS-82 and RS-132 rockets rarely penetrated Tiger armor – the P-47’s larger HVAR rocket was way more effective. Armchair historian adds that high explosive antitank (HEAT) shaped charged bomblets called protivotankovaya aviabomba (“anti-tank aviation bomb”) were instead used to hit the armor of Panther and Tiger tanks at the roof where the armor was thin; “Il-2s carried large numbers of them to nearly guarantee a hit.”

Where Are They Now?

Out of those 36,163 Shturmoviks, roughly 20 survive today, spread out between Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, the U.S., and the UK. Only two of them are airworthy: serial #1872452 at the Wings of Victory Foundation in Moscow, which had been recovered from the bottom of a lake near Murmansk; and serial #305401 at the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, which incorporates parts scavenged from four different aircraft and painstakingly restored by so-called Retro Avia Tech with a reversed Allison V-1710-113 engine. 

There are also two static displays that stateside museumgoers can choose from: the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland; and the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. 

Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.  

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).