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Tank Busters

by Jim "Twitch" Tittle

Article Type: Military History
Article Date: June 27, 2001


IL-2

The IL-2 Stormovik was more than a tank buster. It filled the role as ground attack aircraft better than any in the world too. Its armor plate was laid on thick around the monocoque "bathtub" type construction of the cockpit and most surfaces. It was part of the plane's load bearing structure in some places. It was a brawny plane well suited to any type of landing field or pasture.

Ilyushin drew up the design in 1936 as a single-seater but in-the-field modifications added the sorely needed rear gunner. Stalin finally relented and allowed later models to be built in the factory this way.

An IL-2 In Winter Camo

The original power plant was a 1,660 hp Mikulin AM-38 V-12 liquid cooled upgraded to a supercharged 1,770 hp AM-38F for the two-seater IL-2M. The 2M had a top speed of 258 mph; could climb to 16,405 feet in 15 minutes; had a service ceiling 19,685 feet and a range 497 miles.

But the weaponry was the strongest part of this beast. It had two wing-mounted 20mm ShVAK cannon with an ample 500 RPG (later 2-Vya 23mms w/300 rpg) and two ShKAS 7.62mm MG with 750 RPG in the wings consisted of the forward firing armament. This weaponry's firing time was about thirty seconds. But the 23mm weapon had a projectile weight of some 200 grams compared to 96 grams of the 20mm and a higher muzzle velocity offering greater penetration. It was not simply a slightly larger diameter shell.

Assorted bombs, eight RS-82 or four RS-132 rockets were hung beneath the wings with a maximum of 2,205 lbs. possible. The IL-2M and IL-10 mounted two 37mm Ns-OKB-16 cannon in place of the 23mms for increased tank busting ability. The rear gunner had a 12.7mm BS or UBT machine gun with 210 rounds though the mortality rate was high.

In battle the IL-2 would come in from 20-30 feet high hitting hard targets at maximum distance with rockets, heavy cannons and then bombs. The IL-2 had eight hardpoints on the wings. It could drop anti-personnel cluster bombs and fire rockets. Tank busting called for about a 45-degree dive angle when using cannons. The Germans dubbed it the “Iron Gustav” and, more appropriately, "Schwartz Tod" (Black Death).

The Russian machine's superior Vya 23mm canon were better suited to ground attack and light armor than the MG FF or MG 151 20mms were. The two fast-firing 7.62 mm weapons added still more firepower to the weight and spread of ordnance being deployed. The 37mm projectiles were designed to penetrate before exploding. The 12.7mm rear defense was much more formidable when flying in close formation. Armored cars, half-tracks, trucks and anything besides a full tracked tank could be penetrated by the 23mms. The 37mms could go through lighter tanks’ armor and devastating hits on medium and heavy tanks in the thinner-armored engine area or sides were possible.

The Vya 23mms could penetrate armor 20mms thick at 400 meters while the 37mms could get through 48mm plate. The RS-82 rockets carried had a .585-kilogram warhead and were 22 inches long with a range of over three miles. The 132mm RS-132s had a 2.25kg. warhead, were nearly 3 feet long and traveled up to 1.5 miles.

As the Red Army thrust deeper into Poland by the summer of 1944, fighter and ground attack units followed on airfields at times only ten miles from the front. The IL-10 mounting a 2,000 hp AM 42 V-12 good for 335 mph, was phasing out some IL-2 groups. Visually it was an IL-2. See “IL-2: Black Death” for more on the IL-2 in the COMBATSIM.COM archives.

36,163 were built along with 4,966 IL-10s. This number comprised fully half of the Russian aircraft built in WWII.


Stuka

Compared to the Stormovik’s smooth flowing design the Stuka was a draftsman’s nightmare. It had a fixed landing gear, inverted gull wings, tail braces, a radiator hanging out in front and sharp angular lines throughout. In the 1936 fly-off it bested the graceful and slender Heinkel He 118 in Rechlin trials for Luftwaffe service. “Stuka” is from “Sturzkampfflugzeug”- describing all dive-bombers.

The Best Tank Buster?”

It was successful in the Polish And French campaigns with Bf 109s sweeping the skies ahead against generally inferior interceptors that existed at the time. Where the Stormovik was a ground attack plane that could dive bomb, the Stuka was primarily a dive-bomber that could perform ground attack duties.

The Ju 86G-1 was first tested in 1942 and reached the first Staffel on the Eastern Front in October of 1943 being specifically cobbled up as a tank buster from a Ju 87D. It mounted a 650 lb. Bk 3.7cm Flak 18 cannon pod under each wing. The barrel reached to mid-prop spinner distance in front creating more drag on an already slow ship. Two 7.9mm MG 17s with 500 RPG in the wing gave the pilot an aim point for the 37s when they were fired. The pods detached with their fifteen rounds of ammo for bombing duties.

Bk 3.7s

The Bk flak gun was much more potent than the Soviet NS-37. The NS-37 had a higher rate of fire at 250 RPM but this is where comparison ends. The German weapons projectile speed was 3,838 FPS. The NS-37 was but 2,952 FPS. The Bk round weighed 380 grams (relative to a pound being 373 grams) compared to the NS-37’s 735 grams and fired at 160RPM where the NS-37 fired at 250 RPM. The German 37mm had a horizontal range of 6,492 meters but the Russian had an ample 5,200-meter range. The length of the Bk 3.7cm was a longer 263 mm compared to the NS-37 at 195mm. Over to 60mm of armor could be holed with the Bk gun.

Hans Rudel- 519 Kills

The most famous Stuka pilot, Hans Rudel flew 2,930 missions and destroyed 519 Soviet tanks. Many were killed with bombs in earlier model Stukas but the record is astounding in any case. Rudel said the weapon’s accuracy was to within 20-30cm. but at what range it was not stated. He once took out an IL-2 at 900 ft. with the 37s. But his main quarry was T-34s and later, tougher JS-2 “Stalins” that continually scurried to evade behind buildings, trees and any cover offered. They were constantly trying to turn to not leave their vulnerable rear engines in the line of fire. With cannon Rudel would usually get four or five tanks before his ammo ran out.

The Ju 87G-1 had a Junker Jumo 211P V-12 engine of 1,500 HP. Without the gun pods, speed was only 248 MPH at 14,100 ft. with a climb rate of just 1,000 FPM. A maximum clean range was 954 miles but normal operational range with ordnance was 510 miles. With a maximum 3,968 lb. short-range bomb load the ceiling was 15,520 ft. and without it was 23,950 ft. Empty weight was 8,683 lbs. and at the max it weight 14,565 lbs. Normal loaded weight was 12,600 lbs.

The ungainly wing measured 45.25 feet and the length was 37.7 feet. Production exceeded 5,000 examples built.


Hs 129

The only other aircraft made specifically for anti-armor work was the strange Henschel HS 129 that first flew in 1939 and began service in January 1942. Originally two 465 HP Argus V12 engines were slated for power but they proved too puny and the 700 HP French Gnome-Rhone 14M 4/5 14-cylinder radials were installed.

The engines proved quite unreliable seizing without warning and were not able to absorb even trivial battle damage. They were susceptible to dust of the Russian steppes and the sand of North Africa also. And even the Stuka was more maneuverable.

The Hs 129 had a very robust fuselage and heavy armor plate, however. And it was more adaptable to varying weapon loads carried under the fuselage centerline. Its basic armament was two 7.9mm MG 17s with 500 RPG and two 20mm MG 151s with 125 RPG. But additional Rüstsätze (equipment/armament sets) were (R2) one 30mm Mk 101 cannon with 30 rounds in detachable ventral pod (R3) four 7.9mm MG 17s under fuselage with 250 RPG (R4) four 110 lb. bombs and 24 anti-personnel bombs or one 551 lb. bomb.

The Mk 101 used a 184mm long round of 355 grams in weight with a rate of fire of 250 RPM and had a muzzle velocity of 3,159 FPS but it was incapable of punching through more than 44mm of armor. The T-34 had 60mm frontal armor. Shots to the “softer” sides and engine areas were the only way to stop them.

BK 3.7cm packs were used in 1943 as the Hs 129 became more tank buster than general attack oriented. The MG 17s were removed when the 37mms were attached. Rockets showed some success with thick Russian armor. The 210mm Wfr. Gr.21 and 280mm Wfr. Gr.28, the 70mm Panzerblitz 1 and 55mm Panzerblitz 2 and even a flame-thrower were used.

Advanced German research even tested a downward firing mortar shell with a 77mm jacket over a 45mm armor-piercing core that automatically actuated when a photo-electric cell in the nose sensed the electro-magnetic field the size of a tank. This wasn’t used operationally.

HS 129 With 75mm

But if bigger was better the Technische Amt (Technical Administration) came up with the 75mm PaK 40L Panzerabwehrkanone pod carrying twelve 26-lb. projectiles and designated the Bk 7.5. The big gun fired at 40 RPM with a muzzle velocity of 3,061 FPS and had a muzzle recoil brake. It fired electro-pneumatically with the best range being 110 meters from the enemy tank. The pilot could get out four rounds per pass in this way and they were sufficient to breach the frontal armor of any tank, the JS-2 with 200mm thick plate included!

The Hs 129B-2 had small span for a twin-engine at 46.5 feet and a length of 32 feet. The Gnome-Rhones gave it a top speed of 253 MPH at 12,570 feet in a clean configuration. With a Mk 101 pod it dropped to 199 MPH at 9,845 feet. With nothing hung on it a range of 428 miles was possible. With the 30mm Mk 101 it was 348 miles. Climb clean was 1,595 FPM and the ceiling of 29,530 feet but with ordnance loads these figures were reduced to about 1,100 FPM and 24,600 feet. Performance with the Bk 3.7 was less and with the Bk 7.5 must have been drastically decreased. Loaded weight with the Mk 101 was 9,243 lbs. At maximum the plane weighed 12,574 lbs.

A mock up Hs 129C with two Isotta-Fraschini V-12s of 840 HP with two Mk 101 cannons was never pursued.


Fat Bertha

The versatile Ju 88 showed its strength with the “P” model’s ability to house the 75mm and other weapons. Original tests with a revolving six-barrel weapon firing Wfr. Gr. 21 and 28 recoilless shells were abandoned in favor of the immense, under fuselage fairing of the Bk 7.5 installation. The plane was dubbed “Die Dicke Bertha” (The Fat Bertha). After tests on captured T-34s the Ju 88P entered service and enjoyed some success against Russian armor but the plane could not evade fighter intercept owing to its now low speed of 244 MPH and poor maneuverability. Two Bk 3.7s replaced the Bk 7.5 on the P-2 model. A P-4 model mounted a 50mm Bk 5 in a tidy ventral housing. The 50mm shell was 419mm long, weighed 1,250 grams. The weapon fired at a rate of 50 RPM and 3,937 FPM.

Production Models Had Solid Nose

Some P-1 and P-2s with the Bk 7.5 were used to intercept U.S. day bombers but were too unwieldy. American gunners saw Ju 88s with huge cannons over Schweinfurt. They were ultimately all sent to anti-armor duty in Russia. Their wingspan of 65 feet and length of 47 feet were the same as B-25 and B-26 bombers.


Hornisse

At one time Hitler wanted Hans Rudel to lead a tank buster group of Messerschmitt 410 Hornisses (Hornets) but to discontinue his flying duties. This didn’t happen though the Me 410A-1/U4 did with a long-barreled, 2,000 lb. Bk 5 pack with 21-rounds under the nose. It seems that few were made and they ended up as bomber destroyers. It had the one gun only and, of course, performance suffered.

A 410A-1/U4

Sturmvogel

Even the Me 262 Stürmvogel (Stormbird) attack bomber saw four airframes converted to mount the Bk 5 with 21-rounds and a rate of fire of 75 RPM. The barrel protruded seven feet ahead of the fighter and the blast was blinding. In tests twenty-seven out of thirty hits were scored on a target thirty-five yards wide from 1,300-1,640 yards distant. One such plane was captured by American forces at the end of the war.

Final Tank Buster Aircraft Of WWII

Hurricane

By 1942 the Hawker Hurricane was outclassed as an interceptor fighter but a new wing for tank busting was developed. The model IID carried a pair of Rolls-Royce B.F. 40mm cannon with twelve rounds each under the wings. Soon thereafter Vickers Type S guns were installed with fifteen rounds. A pair of .303s for aiming purposes was mounted in the wings. Additional armor for ground attack was attached to protect both pilot and machine.

A IID With R-R 40mms

The Type S fired a 40mm shell that was 158mm in length weighing 1,130 grams at a slow rate of 100 RPM. The muzzle velocity was also slow at 2,018 FPS. Used in North Africa by N. 6 Squadron the Hurricane IID was devastating to Rommel’s armor.

Wingspan was the same 40 feet and length was 32.1 feet but maximum weight was heavier at 8,100 lbs. Normal weight was 7,700 lbs., which was max loaded weight for the normal IIB or IIC. Speed was 290 MPH at 12,000 feet and 316 MPH at 19,000 feet Range was 480 miles and the ceiling was 33,500 feet. The normal 1,460 HP Merlin XX V-12 was used for power.

With the final Hurricane, the IV in 1943, the universal armament wing could now carry eight 60-lb. rockets. But the 8,500 lb. loaded weight was so great that top speed was reduced to only 284 MPH at 13,500 ft.


Typhoon

With the Hawker Typhoons failure as an interceptor and weak tail structure in RAF service other roles were opened to this fighter. The IA mounted twelve .303 with 486 RPG in 1941 which were replaced by four 20mm Hispanos with 140 RPG and was able to progressively carry heavier bomb loads culminating with two 1,000 pounders thanks to the 2,180 HP Napier Sabre IIA 24-cylinder horizontal-H engine.

A IIB With Rockets

But D-Day in 1944 was when twenty-six groups of Typhoons like Squadrons Nos. 174, 181, 245 and 609 found their niche with their eight 60-lb. rockets. During the Normandy fighting Typhoons decimated German armor with 137 kills. With the Luftwaffe unable to oppose Allied air supremacy Typhoons roamed the sky taking out ground targets at will.

405 MPH was maximum speed at 18,000 feet but it could haul at 374 MPH down low at 5,500 feet too. Climb to 15,000 feet took 6.2 minutes and the ceiling was 34,000 feet. Range with ordnance was 510 miles. The wingspan was 41.5 feet and length was 31.9 feet while loaded weight tipped the scales at 11,400 lbs.

Hawker Tempests could carry the same load out as the Typhoon but were not used as widely as the Typhoon was. And with the advent of American five-inch rockets, planes like the P-47, which could carry ten, and the Mustang with six made any fighter a ground attack/anti-armor machine. Many P-47 groups were diverted to ground attack as more Mustangs flooded the theater.

The specialized aircraft that were designed or modified specifically for puncturing armored vehicles were few. Without their contributions WWII would have unfolded quite differently.



Sources


  • Green, William
    Bombers & Recon Aircraft Vol. 10
    Doubleday & Co. NY, 1968

  • Green, Wm.
    Famous Bombers of the 2nd World War Vol. 1
    Hanover House, NY, 1959

  • Green, William
    Fighters Vols. 1,2, 4
    Doubleday & Co., 1960-61

  • Green, William
    Jets Aircraft of the World
    Macdonald, London, 1955

  • Rudel, Hans
    Stuka Pilot
    Ballantine Books, NY, 1958

  • Windrow, Martin C.
    German Air Force Fighters Vol.1
    Doubleday & Co. NY1968


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