“Our Red Army needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats.”
— Joseph Stalin
Ground Attack – The Il-2’s combination of heavy cannon, rockets and bombs can destroy an entire tank column by itself.
Durability – Although not invulnerable to enemy fire, the Il-2 can absorb more damage than other planes of its size and weight.
Speed – With a top speed of a little over 200 mph, the Il-2 requires fighter escort to make it to the target.
In 1937 Sergei Ilyushin’s idea of building a “special low-altitude attack aircraft with powerful attack armament” was approved for experimental manufacture. Originally designed as a two-seat monoplane with semi-retractable landing gear, the most notable feature was its integrated armor plating. The forward fuselage, from the engine to the crew compartment, was an armored steel tub between 4-8mm thick, which could deflect .30 cal bullets as well as larger rounds fired from an oblique angle.
Originally intended to use the AM-34FRN engine, it was changed to use the AM-35 high-altitude engine. However, the power drain from driving the supercharger harmed low altitude performance. Additionally, the engine’s critical altitude of 14,750 ft was far higher than the plane’s intended operating altitude. The Mikuln design team therefore set about making a non-supercharged version of the engine, designated the AM-38, which was capable of putting out 1,600 hp.
On orders from the Commissar for the Red Air Force, the BSh (Boronirovaniy Stormovik – armored attack aircraft) was converted to a single-seat version, along with other improvements called for by flight testing of the prototype. The armament was improved to two ShKAS 7.62mm machine-guns with 750 rpg and two PTB-23 cannon, but the recoil of the new cannon was twice as high as promised and it was quickly replaced with the ShVAK 20mm cannon with 500 rpg.
Production was finally authorized in December 1940, but by the time the Nazis invaded there were only 18 aircraft in the hands of the 4th Attack Air Regiment at Voronezh. These pilots had only had time to make a few circling flights themselves and, being originally intended as a training squadron, had no operational experience or even combat weapons training. However, the needs of the situation threw them into the fray and they had to develop both the skills and tactics. Throughout the war Il-2 pilots would always be under-trained with as little as ten hours type experience before being committed to combat.
Combat with the plane revealed several weaknesses, including a tendency of the wing-mounted ShVAK cannon to jam. This was solved by the introduction of the new 23mm VYa cannon with 300 rpg. The bigger problem though was that the planes were extremely vulnerable to attack from the rear. Because of their slow speeds and the inexperience of the pilots, they were sitting ducks for the experienced Luftwaffe Jagdgruppen. The clamor from the front lines demanded some sort of rear defense.
Ironically enough, the original design was to be a two-seater, but by now the production lines were running with single-seat versions and designing an updated integral “tub” armor system was out of the question. Several attempts were made with various turrets and installations at the factory, including the use of an M-82 radial engine to save weight.
In the end the gunner’s position was placed outside of the integrated armor and was given its own armor plating. This caused the center of gravity to be shifted dangerously to the rear and increased the total weight of the plane by almost 2,000 lbs., necessitating a reduction in the ammo load of the VYa-23s . Several minor modifications were made to improve stability, but the Il-2M, as it was known, was ordered into production in order to get the rear defense to the front as soon as possible.
While production shifted to the Il-2M, a more satisfactory solution was devised. This included a more elevated gun position to allow the gunner a better field of fire, a semi-enclosed gun position, and most notably, a distinct sweep back to the forward edge of the outer wings. The Il-2 Type 3 also used an upgraded AM-38F engine, which put out more power at a lower compression ratio, thus allowing the use of lower octane fuels.
Despite their heavy armor plating, Il-2s were vulnerable to enemy ground fire and fighters, with 1 in every 26 sorties resulting in a lost plane. Early in the war, Il-2 pilots were awarded the “Hero Of The Soviet Union” medal upon the completion of just 10 successful missions. Later this was raised to 100 missions, which gives an idea of the improvements to both the Il-2’s survivability and the rise in Soviet air superiority.
In a famous telegram threatening a factory director for not producing enough Il-2s, Stalin wrote that, “The Il-2 aircraft are necessary for our Red Army now, like air, like bread.” This was proven by its prolific use with over 35,000 Il-2s being built, more than any other aircraft in World War II.