WWII

Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik – The Flying Tank

Few aircraft have earned a reputation as notable as the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. Hailed as the “flying tank” of the Second World War, the Il-2 stands as a symbol of the Soviet Union’s resilience and technological prowess.

This article explores the development, design, and operational history of this remarkable aircraft.

Contents

Development

The Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, also known as the “Il-2,” holds a unique place in aviation history.

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A ground-attack aircraft produced by the Soviet Union in large numbers during the Second World War, it played a pivotal role in the Eastern Front.

The Il-2 was renowned for its ruggedness and effectiveness, leading to its affectionate nickname, “the flying tank.”

The Il-2 could take a beating in combat.
The Il-2 could take a beating in combat.

Development began in the late 1930s, following a directive from the Soviet high command for a new armoured ground-attack aircraft.

Recognising the need for close air support for ground troops, the Central Design Bureau under the leadership of Sergei Ilyushin began work on what would become the Il-2.

The first prototype, known as TsKB-57, took to the skies for the first time in October 1939. It was powered by the Mikulin AM-35 engine, with an output of about 1,200 horsepower.

While it demonstrated potential, the prototype was deemed underpowered, and the search for a more suitable engine began.

Ilyushin’s team zeroed in on the Mikulin AM-38 engine, a variant of the AM-35 optimized for low-level operation, typical of ground-attack missions.

The AM-38 provided approximately 1,600 horsepower, a considerable improvement over the AM-35.

The Mikulin AM-38 engine that powered the Sturmovik. Photo credit - Varga Attila CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Mikulin AM-38 engine that powered the Sturmovik. Photo credit – Varga Attila CC BY-SA 3.0.

With the new engine, the reworked prototype, now designated the Il-2, made its maiden flight in March 1941.

The aircraft demonstrated excellent performance, leading to it being ordered into production.

As the Il-2 began to see operational use, feedback from the frontlines sparked further development.

The original single-seater design was found to be vulnerable to enemy fighters, leading to the introduction of a two-seater variant with a rear gunner position in 1942.

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The definitive version of the Il-2, the Il-2M, came into service in late 1942. This version featured a redesigned wing of lighter wooden construction and the more powerful AM-38F engine, capable of delivering up to 1,720 horsepower.

An Il-2M3 - a later model aircraft. Photo credit - Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.
An Il-2M3 – a later model aircraft. Photo credit – Alan Wilson CC BY-SA 2.0.

Design

The Il-2 was primarily designed to be a ground-attack aircraft. It had to be tough and capable of surviving intense ground fire while dealing significant damage to enemy forces.

This requirement led to the development of a design philosophy centred around ruggedness and functionality.

The Il-2 was a single-engine, low-wing monoplane – a configuration chosen for its stability, ease of control, and low altitude performance, characteristics beneficial for an aircraft designed for ground attack missions.

The most distinctive feature of the Il-2’s design was its heavy armour.

The cockpit was hjeavily armoured for maximum protection, but it meant the Il-2 was heavy.
The cockpit was heavily armoured for maximum protection, but it meant the Il-2 was heavy.

The aircraft incorporated a continuous armoured shell, often referred to as the “bathtub,” which covered the entire forward section of the aircraft. This shell, made of steel plates up to 7mm thick, provided protection to the engine, cockpit, radiators, and fuel tanks.

It was this armour that led to the Il-2’s nickname as the “flying tank.”

The Il-2 was powered by a Mikulin AM-38 engine, a liquid-cooled V-12 that initially delivered around 1,600 horsepower.

Later models, especially the Il-2M variant, were equipped with the upgraded AM-38F engine, capable of producing up to 1,720 horsepower for takeoff.

The firepower was equally impressive.

The typical armament consisted of two 23mm VYa-23 autocannons and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns.

It utilised a pair of these deadly 23mm cannons.
It utilised a pair of these deadly 23mm cannons.

However, the Il-2 could also carry a significant payload of bombs or rockets on underwing hardpoints. Later models, like the Il-2M and Il-2 Type 3, saw further enhancements to their armament.

Despite its heavy armour, the Il-2 had a surprisingly light airframe due to the extensive use of wood in its construction.

Its wings were wooden and designed to be straight and broad, providing excellent low-speed handling characteristics crucial for ground attack missions.

The use of wood also helped to streamline the manufacturing process and made field repairs more feasible.

Variants

As with many aircraft, the Il-2 saw multiple variants throughout its service, each contributing to its formidable reputation.

The initial variant of the Il-2 was a single-seat ground-attack aircraft. It was equipped with a potent combination of cannons, machine guns, and bombs.

There are still some air worthy aircraft left. Photo credit - Dmitry Terekhov CC BY-SA 2.0.
There are still some air worthy aircraft left. Photo credit – Dmitry Terekhov CC BY-SA 2.0.

However, the lack of a rear gunner made it vulnerable to attacks from behind, a flaw that was soon to be addressed.

In response to the vulnerability of the single-seater, a two-seater variant was introduced in 1942.

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The second seat was for a rear gunner armed with a 12.7mm UBT machine gun.

This change significantly improved the Il-2’s defensive capabilities, offering much-needed protection from enemy fighters.

The 2 seat aircraft with the tail gunner. Photo credit - Marko M CC BY-SA 3.0.
The 2 seat aircraft with the tail gunner. Photo credit – Marko M CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Il-2M, introduced in late 1942, is considered the definitive variant of the Il-2. It featured a number of significant improvements, most notably a redesigned wing of wooden construction, which was lighter and easier to manufacture.

Its armament was enhanced with two additional underwing hardpoints for carrying bombs or rockets.

This Il-2 has a pair of NS37 cannons under the wings.
This Il-2 has a pair of NS37 cannons under the wings.

The rear gunner’s position was equipped with a more effective 12.7mm UBT machine gun, providing better defensive firepower.

The Il-2 Type 3, which arrived in 1943, was a further refinement of the Il-2M.

It featured squared-off wingtips and tail surfaces for improved handling. Its forward armament was improved, with two 23mm VYa-23 cannons and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns, providing greater firepower for ground attack missions.

Some lesser-known variants of the Il-2 included the Il-2KR (Kr = Korrektirovshchik, ‘Artillery Spotter’) and Il-2U (U = Uchebnyy, ‘Trainer’).

The Il-2KR was a reconnaissance variant with added cameras, while the Il-2U was a dual-control trainer version.

Operational Use

The Il-2 was introduced into service with the Soviet Air Force in 1941, just in time for the outbreak of the German-Soviet conflict that would later be known as the Eastern Front.

A pair of Il-2 attackign during the battle for Kursk. Photo credit - RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0.
A pair of Il-2s attacking during the battle for Kursk. Photo credit – RIA Novosti archive CC BY-SA 3.0.

Its primary mission was to provide close air support for ground troops, but it also performed admirably in anti-tank, artillery spotting, and limited air-to-air roles.

The Il-2 was deployed in large numbers on the Eastern Front. Its ruggedness, resilience, and firepower made it a formidable tool in the hands of the Soviet forces.

The Sturmovik was tasked with attacking German armour, supply lines, and fortifications, thus supporting the Red Army’s advancement.

The armoured shell of the Il-2, encapsulating the cockpit and vital parts of the engine and fuel system, ensured a level of survivability in low-altitude operations that was simply unmatched.

Despite facing heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Il-2 proved capable of withstanding significant damage and returning home.

As the war progressed, so did the tactics employed by Il-2 pilots. Early in the war, the Sturmovik was used in free-hunting “roadrunner” flights where pilots would look for targets of opportunity.

As the war progressed, the Il-2 was used more in concentrated, regiment-sized attacks against specific targets, often in conjunction with artillery and infantry operations.

A pair of Il-2s taking off in 1945.
A pair of Il-2s taking off in 1945.

Anti-tank missions, known as “Tankodrom,” became one of the Il-2’s specialities.

Using PTAB-shaped-charge bomblets, Sturmoviks could break up German armoured formations, creating havoc and blunting many enemy offensives.

One of the most significant operations involving the Il-2 was the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, one of the largest tank battles in history.

Il-2s were used in both anti-tank and close support roles, proving instrumental in the Soviet victory.

By the end of the war, the Il-2 had made an indelible impact. Approximately 36,000 units were produced, making it the most-produced military aircraft in history. Joseph Stalin once remarked that the Il-2 was “as essential to the Red Army as air and bread.”

The operational use of the Il-2 was a key factor in the ultimate victory of the Soviet Union over Germany.

The aircraft’s design, resilience, and effectiveness in ground-attack roles were pivotal in some of the most crucial battles on the Eastern Front, making the Il-2 one of the most important aircraft of the Second World War.

Conclusion

The Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik stands as a testament to the power of effective design coupled with strategic purpose.

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The “flying tank” was pivotal in the Soviet Union’s war effort, and its legacy persists as a symbol of the nation’s resilience and technological capability during one of history’s most brutal conflicts. Its innovative design, widespread use, and effectiveness in battle cement the Il-2’s place in aviation history.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 11.65 m (38 ft 3 in)
  • Wingspan: 14.60 m (47 ft 11 in)
  • Height: 4.17 m (13 ft 8 in) (tail up)
  • Empty weight: 4,425 kg (9,755 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 6,360 kg (14,021 lb)
  • Fuel capacity: 730 L (190 US gal; 160 imp gal)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Mikulin AM-38F liquid-cooled V12 engine, 1,280 kW (1,720 hp) (takeoff power),1,100 kW (1,500 hp) at 750 m (2,460 ft)
  • Maximum speed: 410 km/h (250 mph, 220 kn) at 1,500 m (4,900 ft)
  • Range: 765 km (475 mi, 413 nmi) at 275 km/h (171 mph; 148 kn) and 1,000 m (3,300 ft)
  • Service ceiling: 4,525 m (14,846 ft) (service ceiling), 6,360 m (20,870 ft) (absolute ceiling)
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