Il-2 - our pride or tragic error?


Role played by Il-2 in the Great Patriotic War is hard to overestimate. But recently some articles have appeared in the press where Il-2 is presented as a ... terrible error of soviet aviation industry, "flying coffin" - perfect target for German aces which costs tens of thousands lives of soviet pilots and gunners.

Indeed, for many years Il-2 was presented by our press as the best and the most produced WWII aircraft, and any critics appeared to be heretics. Now our "experts" fall into the opposite extreme... For example, newspaper "The Beginning" published following statement : "Soviet stormovik Il-2 gave up to German Junkers Ju-87 'Stuka' factor 1.5 in ceiling, factor 4 in range, factor 3 in bomb load, advancing only in gun firepower... by 1 machine gun. Briefly, famous Il-2 was a cheap, primitive and bad aircraft. It was a plane for a death squad. Average survivability, as proved by practices, was only 5 combat missions." Such an opinion. It is unclear, indeed, why author started with comparison of aircraft from different classes - ground attacker and dive bomber. And moreover - where he got all those numbers?

Comment by A.Savin :
Il-2 vs 'Stuka'
Il-2 (type 3) Ju-87b1 (1938) Ju-87g1(1942)
Range 740km 600km 320km
Speed 404km/h 358km/h 314km/h
Bombs 400kg internal
200kg external
700kg none
Machine guns 2x7.62mm
3x7.9mm 1x7.9mm
Cannons 2x23mm
or 2x37mm
none 2x30mm
Rockets 8xRS-82
or 4xRS-132
none none
According to Il-2, "Il-2 in Action", and Gustin's Military Aircraft Database;

Statistics are a tough thing, and they confirm that every lost Il-2 lasted on average 30 combat missions. These statistics include heavy losses in the early period of the war, when German fighters could practice shooting on single-seat Il's which had no defensive weapons and practically no fighter escorts.

Single-seat Il-2 crashed. Often the only way to bring down one of these aircraft was to shoot off the ailerons, elevators or rudder, since the pilot and engine were invulnerable to machine gun fire. Photo Almark from 'Ground attack' by Christopher Chant (47k);

In the same way many other soviet planes were doomed, including SB, R-5, TB-3, Su-2. But in the second half of the Great Patriotic War Soviet (and Allied - A.S.) aviation took over domination in the air from Germany, and Il-2 started to operate with escort fighters. Stormovik pilots learned an effective defence maneuver called 'circle'. (Stormoviks form circle protecting tail of previous aircraft, and their powerful guns are ready to welcome fighters from any direction.) As a result Il-2 losses became much smaller.

Losses from German front line anti-aircraft fire were also significant, but German front line air defenses were known to be extremely strong, and any other aircraft would have been much more vulnerable under those testing circumstances.

It is reasonable to ask the question: why Allied Forces on the West Front had lower losses and high efficiency despite the fact they just used heavy "Thunderbolt" fighters. Maybe this aircraft was more efficient than armored Il-2? Indeed, this is not the case. The reason is that active use of "Thunderbolts" as an attack aircraft began in 1944, when German front line aviation was almost paralyzed, and air defence interceptors were busy with defeating "Flying Fortresses".

Plus the main target for attacking Allied Forces was not on the front line but deep behind enemy lines (thanks to range of US fighters - A.S.), where they hunted trains and automotive escorts.

Indeed, such a target could not be protected by strong anti-aircraft defence. In the case of front line operations losses of Thunderbolts could be much heavier, because the armor of Il-2 protected pilot and engine from shrapnel and bullets.

Situation with the gunner's protection was much worse. Gunner in Il-2 (see history of the problem in 'Special Class' - A.S.) was not protected by armored cockpit, and for every pilot casualty there were about 7 killed gunners... (may be this is a legend, but some Gulag prisoners volunteered to serve as Il-2 gunners in exchange for chance to get freedom - A.S.). This problem was solved only on seriously modified Il-10 with both crew members sharing common armored cockpit.

Other "experts" mention liquid cooling engine of Il-2 as its disadvantage, because it required additional armoring. Now, as long as 50 years after the war they blame S.V.Ilyushin for not employing a more combat-robust air-cooling engine. This is indeed a good idea, but was such an engine available at the time? When Il-2 was under development, there was no such engine available capable of suppling sufficient power. Only the low-altitude AM-38 could be of any use to the Il-2. It is not surprising that the more advanced Sukhoi Su-6 equipped with M-71 engine did not reach mass production - the M-71 (ASh-71) engine was only available as an experimental model. Of course S.V.Ilyushin understood the significance of power plant "survivability", but he had no viable alternative solutions.

S.V.Ilyushin developed and flight tested the Il-2M-82, (also designated Il-4) with M-82 14-cylinder 2-row engine, but it had almost identical performance. (A.Savine)

I guess many of you had a chance to hear that Il-2 was heavy and clumsy, and as a result it suffered big losses. Yes it was heavy, but it was not a fighter but a ground attacker (take for comparison Fairchild A-10, this plane was designed following exactly the same concept ! - A.S.). Nobody will blame Pe-2 or Il-4 for not being as maneuverable as Bf.109 was. The Stormovik was required not only as a bomber but also to be capable in the destruction of ground targets, with its protection from enemy fighters being the duty of escort fighters.

The trouble of our Stormovik pilots being forced up to the middle of the war to operating without fighter protection, should not be viewed with guilt. Where could young pilots get experience of defensive air combat tactics when they just started to fly under cut training programs? Some of them came to action with only 10 flight hours on the stormovik...

This was a cause of simplified attack tactics - small angle dive on target, this made aircraft a good target for concentrated anti-aircraft fire. One more reason for heavy losses...

But Il-2 itself was not such a "lead-brick" as one can imagine. Experienced pilots could perform complex "figures" on Il-2 and were quite successful in defence combat alone face-to-face with enemy fighters.

Moreover, test photo-combats proved that on low altitude Il-2 was capable of defeating such maneuverable fighters as Yak-3. Concerning the more powerful and advanced Il-10, at low altitude it was not only as maneuverable as a fighter but also as fast as a fighter. Unfortunately stormovik pilots on mass were not specially trained for active air-air combat...

A few words about Il-2 armament. Unprepared people will not be impressed by the fact that it had two 23-mm guns VYa-23. Indeed, it only had 3mm more than the ordinary 20mm ShVAK (or similar German MG/FF and MG-151/20). But the last three were nothing more than modified heavy machine guns with increased diameter of barrel (from 12.7mm to 20mm). As a result the speed of the shell was almost the same for the machine gun prototype. But shell of VYa-23 was two times heavier than the one of ShVAK, and had a significantly higher speed. It was not unknown for German fighters to try and avoid frontal attacks against Soviet stormoviks. For destruction of ground targets VYa-23 was also very effective, especially if gun fire was accompanied by RS-82/132 missile salvo.

Conceptual analysis of Il-2 stormovik proves that this aircraft came exactly in the nick of time and played an exceptionally important part in slowing down of German tanks and motorized infantry in early stages of the (Great Patriotic - AS) war, and later helped in Soviet army advance.

Il-2 was the only Soviet strike aircraft capable of operating effectively in 1941 under conditions of complete air domination by German aviation. Exactly at this time J.Stalin said that "...Il-2 is as needed by the army as air." Did those words play a bad joke with this great aircraft? Was it good that so many Il's were produced during the war? How many resources were consumed by overproduction of this plane? What was a final result of all this?

It is not a secret that during the War more than half of the Soviet air force were Il-2's. It is absolutely clear that under those circumstances there will always be shortages of escort fighters... and unavoidable losses.

Moreover, Il-2 was involved in solving non-typical combat tasks such as reconnaissance, routine bombing of railroad stations, depots, other ground objects, and also ships. With removed guns Il-2 was used... as a torpedo-bomber. But if instead of using stormoviks with relatively small bomb loads, those tasks were addressed by "classic" bombers like Tu-2, enemy losses could have been much more significant. Is it justified to replace heavy bombers by Il-2 to make massive strikes against large targets?

Unfortunately Soviet airforce had no other choice in the situation when the production of "classic" bombers was much smaller than that of Il-2. It was necessary to bombard the enemy with all available resources, and Il's did it.

'Wings of MotherLand' January 1992

edited on February 22, 2000
by Rob Prain
Created January 25, 1996
by Alexandre Savine
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