Stalin’s Warthog

***image1*** Though not well known in the West, the most widely produced aircraft of World War II, with more than 36,000 made, was the Soviet Union’s Ilyushin Il-2, commonly (and incorrectly) called the “Shturmovik” (attacker).

In the late 1930s, dive bombers like the Stuka were all the rage for ground attack, but the Soviet Army took a different tack, asking for a highly survivable ground attack aircraft intended to operate below 2,000 feet. Sergei Ilyushin responded with a single seat, single engine aircraft − designated the Il-2 − protected by more than 1,500 pounds of 2 ½ inch-thick armor in a “bath” around the engine and cockpit.

The aircraft showed poor stability and performance, and the low quality of Soviet manufacturing made uniformly drilling the screw holes in the armored portion for attachment to the rest of the fuselage a major challenge. But, the lack of a better aircraft led to its being put into production, albeit slowly.

When the Germans invaded in June 1941, only 249 Il-2s had been completed, and only 18 were in front line service. When production did not accelerate, in early 1942 Soviet dictator Josef Stalin sent the plant managers a famous telegram: “You have let down our country …  the Il-2 Aircraft are necessary for our Red Army now, like air, like bread … do not try the government’s patience … I warn you for the last time. Stalin.”

 Production increased rapidly. In combat, the Il-2’s armor made it almost invulnerable to ground fire, but its heavy weight compromised maneuverability and the lack of a tail gunner allowed German fighters to easily shoot it down. Stalin was reluctant to allow any modifications that would slow production, but finally allowed Ilyushin to produce a model with a rear gunner. This rear gunner had to sit on a leather sling attached to the fuselage walls, but his single .50 gun was enough to sharply curtail losses.

Later, Il-2s were armed with two magnificent types of forward firing cannons, the 23 mm VYa and the large 37 mm NS-37, which were devastating against German vehicles and armor. The Il-2 production rate soared to more than  2,300 a month, and soon the Soviets were using them in groups of more than 500 aircraft in devastating attacks on German formations.

One historian noted, “The Il-2 was very simple, like a sledgehammer,” but if the terms “armored bath” and “heavy cannon armament” sound vaguely familiar, they should. The design of the Il-2 was the model for the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog.

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