Nicknamed the “Flying Tank,” this legendary ground-attack aircraft emerged as a symbol of Soviet resilience and determination against Nazi invasion.

Unheralded in the West, the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik played a crucial role in stopping the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. As the most-produced combat aircraft of the war and a symbol of Soviet resilience, the Il-2’s legacy endures, though today, only a few rare survivors bear witness to its heroics on the Eastern Front.

The Birth of a Flying Tank

Born from the visionary mind of aircraft designer Sergei Ilyushin, the Il-2 was conceived in the mid-1930s to meet the pressing need for a dedicated ground-attack aircraft capable of decimating enemy forces, including tanks and armored vehicles. Stalin’s approval of Ilyushin’s “flying tank” concept set the wheels in motion for the creation of this legendary warplane.

The Il-2 featured a single-engine, propeller-driven, low-wing monoplane that epitomized its role as a specialized assault aircraft. Designed to deliver devastating ground attacks, it also boasted unique elements that set it apart from its contemporaries.

One of the most notable aspects of the Il-2 was its pioneering use of armor in an innovative load-bearing structure. Throughout the nacelle and middle section of the fuselage, armor plates replaced traditional frame and paneling, providing unparalleled protection for the crew and essential components. An armored hull crafted from riveted homogeneous armor steel AB-1 (AB-2) further safeguarded critical elements such as the engine, cockpit, water, and oil radiators, and fuel tanks.

Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik
An Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack plane in flight (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Conceived initially as a single-seater, the Il-2’s design evolved to incorporate a two-seater configuration to enhance its defensive capabilities. Including a dedicated rear gunner significantly bolstered the aircraft’s ability to fend off enemy attacks from the rear, addressing the vulnerability observed in earlier versions.

Baptism by Fire

When Nazi Germany launched its devastating attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Il-2 Shturmovik was still in its infancy, with only a handful in service. Despite its limited numbers and unprepared pilots, the Il-2’s combat initiation came swiftly, striking a German convoy just five days after the invasion. The baptism by fire marked the beginning of Il-2’s meteoric rise as a force to be reckoned with on the Eastern Front.

The Flying Tank’s Resilience

Dubbed “Betonflugzeug” or “concrete plane” by the Germans, the Il-2 lived up to its nickname with a robust design featuring a thick armor-plated forward fuselage. This armor, along with a special alloy, allowed the Il-2 to endure extraordinary battle damage and protect the pilot and vital parts of the aircraft, letting one survive to fight another day. Though vulnerable from behind, the addition of a rear-gunner in a two-seat variant bolstered the Shturmovik’s defense.