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IL-2 - Black Death!
by Jim "Twitch" Tittle

Article Type: History
Article Date: April 20, 2001

Black Death

Winter Camo

German pilots called it the "Iron Gustav" while infantrymen dubbed it the "Schwartz Tod" (Black Death). The Stormovik ground attack aircraft was manufactured in greater quantity than any warplane in history. Of the IL-2 36,163 were built along with 4,966 IL-10s compromising fully half of the Russian aircraft built in WWII.

Different Approaches
Bronirovanni Shturmovik (Bsh) meaning "armored attacker" refers to no specific plane but became synonymous with the IL-2, often shortened to Sturmovik or Stormovik.
The design bureau responsible for the ubiquitous plane was that of Ilyushin. Design layout from 1936 saw prototype construction and test flights during 1937-38 with production aircraft reaching VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushniye Sily Russian Air Force) tactical air units by late 1939.

In Germany, the infamous Stuka (from Sturzkampfflugzeug descriptive of ALL dive bombers) had been flying with the Luftwaffe since the spring of 1937. The Ju 87 Stuka was brutish in its angular design and inverted gull wing. The fixed landing gear with its streamlined spats added to the unique, sinister look. In 1936 it bested the graceful and slender Heinkel He 118 in Rechlin trials for Luftwaffe service.


By comparison the Stormovik, or Assaulter, was conventional in its lines more on the order of the He 118 that was rumored to be the basis that Sergei Vladimirovich Ilyushin (1894-1977) drew his plane from. It is certainly possible since Soviet German relations were amiable at that time and interchange of information existed. An example of the He 118 was allegedly taken to Russia but the historical information of the time is convoluted at best. Ilyushin was awarded "Hero of Socialist Labor" for his contributions to Russian aviation three times.

Iron Bathtub
The IL-2 began life as a single-seater with slightly larger dimensions than that of the Stuka at 38.5 feet in length with a 49.0 foot wingspan and a maximum speed on the order of 280 mph. Kliment E. Voroshilov, then Comissar and Chairman of the Red Air Force, who thought that the rear gun position wasn't necessary, ordered the single seat configuration. Heavy losses mounted from enemy fighters in the first months of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), when IL-2's were forced to operate without both escort and rear defense. Despite the heavy armor and firepower of the Stormovik, German fighters had time for multiple attacks when Stormoviks were on a straight-in target run. But as early as in May 1942 some regiments started to improvise with a rear gunner position on their own. The rear gunner position was factory-added later in 1942 with the "M" model.

The IL-2 was an excellent rough field performer. With a wide tread and sturdy undercarriage it was well adapted for use in the mud, snow and the improvised fields it was used on. There were as many field modifications as one can imagine carried out in brutal conditions far from any repair facility. Even the many factory sub-designations were hard to keep up with. In harsh winter environment mechanics even set fires beneath the engines to keep vital fluids viscous.

Later factory modifications were made to the airframe making it able to carry a torpedo. The Navy version was designated the IL-2T. No other information is readily available as to operational history.

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 of 497 miles.

Two 20mm ShVAK cannon with an astounding 500 rpg (later 2-Vya 23mms w/300 rpg) and two ShKAS 7.62mm MG with 750 rpg 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.

Firing the 37mms

Various bombs, eight RS-82 or four RS-132 rockets were slung beneath the wings with a maximum of 2,205 pounds 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 on par with Ju 87 gunnershigh.

Its armor plate was laid on thick around the monocoque "bathtub" type construction of the cockpit and most surfaces. It was actually part of the plane's structure in some places. Russian pilots always felt safe in the Stormovik.

Not The Same
Stuka pilot Hans Rudel notes in his biography the "normal 2 cm flak riccocheting off the armor of the Russian bombers," on a regular basis. He mentioned that 2 cm armor piercing had to be used to bring them down. Rudel was often in the same airspace as the IL-2s and with one round from each of his 37mms destroyed one from 300 feet behind.

As contemporaries the similarity between the IL-2 and the Ju 87 is non-existent, really, since they were conceived for different mission roles. They simply ended up doing the same basic war job. We all know the Stuka as a dive-bomber. It had huge dive brakes that allowed it to float down so slowly that it was very easy for a practiced pilot to aim and drop his egg right on the target. Early models had but two 7.9mm MGs in the wings which proved ground attack was not a serious priority. Later 20mms replaced them and, finally, tank busters had the two 37mm anti-tank cannons mounted under-wing in pods each with a long barrel. Speed was hampered, of course. Rudel could not even keep up with IL-2s in his Stuka with the AT weapons attached.

After a vertical dive and bomb drop the Ju 87 was not as capable as the IL-2 thereafter. Not as proficiently armed for true ground attack, the Stuka pilots simply made due with its shortcomings. Stormoviks, on the other hand, could dive bomb in a pinch, as can any plane, but thereafter its wide arsenal served its versatile roles well.

In action the IL-2 would attack from 20-30 feet high hitting hard targets with its rockets, heavy cannons and bombs deployed from eight wing hardpoints. Against infantry it dropped anti-personnel cluster bombs. Tank busting called for about a 45-degree dive angle when using cannons by Stuka or Stormovik. The Russian machine's superior Vya 23mms were better suited to ground attack and light armor that the MG FF or MG 151 20mms were. Plus its two 7.62 mm weapons added to the weight and spread of ordnance being fired. When internal 37mms were installed its effectiveness was undeniable. The 12.7mm rear defense was much more formidable than the Ju 87's 7.9mm when flying in close formation also. Both sides' 37mm projectiles were designed to penetrate before exploding.

While each aircraft did a superb job in its specialized role the IL-2 was generally able to use its strengths throughout the war with better results than the Ju 87. Certainly numerical superiority goes to the Russians with over 41,000 machines compared to about 5,000 for the Germans. ILs could swarm a battle zone like ravens where the Ju 87s had to do more with less. By mid-1943 the Ju 87s forte of casually picking a dive-bombing target under an umbrella of air superiority provided by Bf 109s was over.

Turn Of Events
In autumn 1941 Panzer divisions were under persistent attack from PE-2s and IL-2s in the Kiev area and escorted by MiG and Yak fighters. During the battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 the Luftwaffe's airfields were being pounded by IL-2s, IL-4s and PE-2s and the Ju 52s ferrying supplies to them suffered heavy losses from Lavochkin La 5s. During the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the German 9th Panzer Division lost seventy tanks within a span of twenty minutes. The Red Army directed and controlled the supporting air units to a higher degree than in any contemporary army Allied or Axis. They had much less autonomy than we are familiar with. An IL-2's operational life lasted on average only thirty combat missions partly due the fact that many pilots had but ten flights in the type before being thrust into combat.

An IL-10 Today

By the summer of 1944, as the Red Army thrust deeper into Poland, fighter and ground attack units followed on airfields at times only ten miles from the front. By then the IL-10 mounting a 2,000 hp AM 42 V-12 good for 335 mph, was phasing out some IL-2 groups. In 1944 the Russian combat aircraft had achieved both quality and quantity.

It is a well-known fact that Russian women flew combat aircraft in battle. At least two became fighter aces: Lilya Litvak (12 victories) and Katis Budanova (11 victories). Though no entirely female unit operated IL-2s, mixed crews often flew them.

Stars Denote Aerial Kills

Tank busting was not so easy a task. It was necessary to evade enemy fighters and run the gauntlet of ground fire. In urban areas care had to be taken to avoid obstacles such as larger structures and chimneys. The Tigers and Panthers loved to nestle in partially destroyed buildings for good firing position and present a small target. In the field tanks, trees hid armored vehicles.

Virtually every weapon would open up on an approaching Stormovik including pistols. The armor did protect from most lighter ordnance but it took nerves of steel to bore in listening to projectiles thud and clink around while holding a straight line to the target. With bombs or rockets the stand off distance was greater but the 37mm cannon required getting in closer. The thinnest armor plate was on and around the engine of the tank and was the most desirable target view.

Only once the tank was hit could the IL-2 jink to the best of its ability to evade fire. Many VVS aces guarding the IL-2s built up their scores since the flying tanks drew Luftwaffe interceptors like so many flies to honey.

Any Field Was An Airfield

Blast From The Past
The National Air and Space Museums has an IL-2M3 probably built in 1943. Service life with the VVS is not known but it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on March 15, 1944 during the support of a Russian assault on the German ground forces in the Pskov region. The gunner on the plane was killed in the crash and the pilot, Lt. Ivan Andreyev, was captured by the Germans, but returned to Russia at the end of the war.

Andreyev crashed it on the frozen Lake Kryakorsky but it went through the ice and sank. There it rested until 1992 when Jeet Mahal, an aircraft broker from Vancouver, Canada, recovered it. The aircraft is undergoing restoration for eventual display.

The images used in this article came from the following two excellent sites:

Click to join a discussion about this article.


Boyne, Walter
Clash of Wings: WWII in the Air
Simon & Shuster, N.Y., 1994

Hess, William N.
Allied Aces of World War Two
Arco Publishing, N.Y., 1966

Green, William
Famous Bombers of the Second World War
Hanover House, N.Y., 1959

Lee, Asher
The Soviet Air Force
The John Day Co., N.Y., 1962

Rudel, Hans
Stuka Pilot
Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1958


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