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Countdown to Bagration: the planes of Bagration – Soviet IL-2 Sturmovik

by on July 24, 2012

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The Ilyushin Il-2 (Cyrillic Илью́шин Ил-2) was a ground-attack aircraft (Shturmovik) in the Second World War, produced by the Soviet Union in very large numbers. In combination with its successor, the Ilyushin Il-10, a total of 42,330were built, making it the single most produced military aircraft design in all of aviation history, as well as one of the most produced piloted aircraft in history along with the American postwar civilian Cessna 172 and the Soviet Polikarpov Po-2. It is regarded as the best ground attack aircraft of World War II. It was a prominent aircraft for tank killing with its accuracy in dive bombing and its guns being able to penetrate tanks’ thin top armor.

To Il-2 pilots, the aircraft was simply the diminutive “Ilyusha”. To the soldiers on the ground, it was the “Hunchback”, the “Flying Tank” or the “Flying Infantryman”. Its postwar NATO reporting name was “Bark“. The Il-2 aircraft played a crucial role on the Eastern Front. Joseph Stalin paid the Il-2 a great tribute in his own inimitable manner: when a particular production factory fell behind on its deliveries, Stalin sent an angrily-worded cable to the factory manager, stating “They are as essential to the Red Army as air and bread.”

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The Il-2 was eventually produced in vast quantities, becoming the single most widely produced military aircraft in aviation history, but only 249 had been built by the time Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

Production early in the war was slow because after the German invasion the aircraft factories near Moscow and other major cities in western Russia had to be moved east of the Ural Mountains. Ilyushin and his engineers had time to reconsider production methods, and two months after the move Il-2s were again being produced. The tempo was not to Premier Stalin’s liking, however, and he issued the following telegram to Shenkman and Tretyakov:

You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have the nerve not to manufacture IL-2s until now. Our Red Army now needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one IL-2 a day and Tretyakov builds one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army. I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more ILs. This is my final warning.
—Stalin

As a result, “the production of Shturmoviks rapidly gained speed. Stalin’s notion of the Il-2 being ‘like bread’ to the Red Army took hold in Ilyushin’s aircraft plants and the army soon had their Shturmoviks available in quantity.”

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The true capabilities of the Il-2 are difficult to determine from existing documentary evidence. W. Liss in Aircraft profile 88: Ilyushin Il-2 mentions an engagement during the Battle of Kursk on 7 July 1943, in which 70 tanks from the German 9th Panzer Division were claimed to be destroyed by Ilyushin Il-2s in just 20 minutes. However, on 1 July 1943, the 9th Panzer Division had only a total of 83 tanks and armored command vehicles available, which continued in action for over three months with most of its initial tanks still intact.

In another Soviet report of the action on the same day, a Soviet staff publication states that:

Ground forces highly valued the work of aviation on the battlefield. In a number of instances enemy attacks were thwarted thanks to our air operations. Thus on 7 July enemy tank attacks were disrupted in the Kashara region (13th Army). Here our assault aircraft delivered three powerful attacks in groups of 20-30, which resulted in the destruction and disabling of 34 tanks. The enemy was forced to halt further attacks and to withdraw the remnants of his force north of Kashara.
—Glantz and Orenstein 1999, p. 260.

Further Soviet claims during the Battle of Kursk, suggest the Sturmoviks destroyed over 270 tanks and several thousand men in a period of just two hours against the 3rd Panzer Division. Again, here on the 1st of July before the start of Operation Zitadelle, the 3rd Panzer Division had only 90 tanks and armored command vehicles, which is 180 less than the Soviets claimed as destroyed by Sturmoviks and on 11 July, the division still had 41 operational tanks.

Finally, the Soviet claim that over a period of 4 hours Sturmoviks destroyed 240 tanks of the 17th Panzer Division and virtually wiped them out is also of questionable merit. On 1 July the 17th Panzer Division had only a total of 67 tanks and armored command vehicles, which is 173 fewer total tanks than claimed destroyed by the Sturmoviks. Furthermore, the division did not even participate in the battle, being in Army Group South reserve.

In the Battle of Kursk, General V. Ryazanov became a master in the use of attack aircraft en masse, developing and improving the tactics of Il-2 operations in co-ordination with infantry, artillery and armoured troops. Ryazanov was later awarded the Gold Star of Hero of Soviet Union twice, and the 1st Attack Aircraft Corps under his command became the first unit to be awarded the honorific title of Guards.

Total German tank losses in Operation Zitadelle were approximately 1,612 tanks and assault guns damaged and 323 irreparably destroyed, the majority most likely to Soviet AT guns and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). Total German fully tracked AFV losses on the entire East Front from 1941 to 1945 were approximately 32,800 of which approximately 2,300 were lost to direct air attack from the IL-2s and other aircraft such as the Petlyakov Pe-2. In contrast, from 22nd June 1941 to the cessation of hostilities, 23,600 Il-2 and Il-10 ground attack aircraft were destroyed.These numbers suggest that more than 10 Il-2s and Il-10s were irrecoverably lost for every German fully tracked AFVs were destroyed by direct air attack on the East Front during WWII.

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Thanks to the heavy armor protection, the Il-2 could take a great deal of punishment and proved difficult for both ground and aircraft fire to shoot down. One Il-2 in particular was reported to have returned safely to base despite receiving more than 600 direct hits and having all its control surfaces completely shredded as well as numerous holes in its main armor and other structural damage. Some enemy pilots favored aiming down into the cockpit and wing roots in diving attacks on the slow, low-flying Il-2 formations. Several Luftwaffe aces claimed to attack while climbing from behind, out of view of the rear gunner, aiming for the Il-2’s non-retractable oil cooler. This has been disputed by some Il-2 pilots in postwar interviews, since Il-2s typically flew very close to the ground (cruise altitudes below 50 m (160 ft) were common) and the radiator protruded a mere 10 cm (4 in) from the aircraft.

The armored tub, ranging from 5–12 mm (0.2-0.5 in) in thickness and enveloping the engine and the cockpit, could deflect all small arms fire and glancing blows from larger-caliber ammunition. There are reports of the armored windscreen surviving direct hits from 20 mm (0.79 in) rounds. Unfortunately, the rear gunners did not have the benefit of all-around armor protection, especially from the rear and to the sides and suffered about four times more casualties than the pilots. Added casualties resulted from the Soviet policy of not returning home with unused ammunition which typically resulted in repeated passes on the target. Soviet troops often requested additional passes even after the aircraft were out of ammunition to exploit the intimidating effect Il-2s had on German ground troops, who gave it the nickname Schlächter (Slaughterer), perhaps a play on the term Schlachtflugzeug (“ground attack aircraft”).

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