Often overshadowed by the U.S.-built B-25 Mitchells and A-20 Bostons in western histories, the Soviet-built Ilyushin Il-4 was one of the great bombers on the Eastern Front. With over 5,000 built over the course of the war, the Il-4 was used in a variety of roles, from medium-range and long-range bombers to torpedo bomber. While the twin-engined Ilyushin would not go on the achieve the legendary status of its little brother, the Il-2 Sturmovik, the Il-4 did make a significant contribution to the war, as the VVS had an acute shortage of bombers capable of carrying heavy payloads over vast distances. Despite numerous shortcomings, Soviet bomber crews generally thought the Ilyushin was a tough and quality aircraft. The Soviet military required a dependable twin-engined bomber, and the Il-4 proved to be more than capable.
The Il-4 evolved from the Ilyushin DB-3 bomber of the 1930s. Immediately following the German invasion in June of 1941, the DB-3 was the only twin-engine bomber that the Soviets had in their arsenal, and in August, it was the DB-3 that carried out the air raid on Berlin that gave Soviet soldiers and citizens a significant morale boost in the midst of a seemingly endless German onslaught. In 1941-1942, the Ilyushin Design Bureau set about radically redesigning the airframe, wings, and fuel system of the outdated bomber. Initially marked for designation as DB-3F (Forsirovannyi or “boosted”), the changes made to the bomber of the 1930s were so significant that in March of 1942, the outcome of the DB-3’s transformation was an entirely new aircraft: the Ilyushin Il-4.
The new low-wing, twin-engine bomber arrived to the front at around the same time as the U.S.-made B-25s and A-20s, which were sent to the Soviet Union as part of the lend-lease program. The marks given to the Il-4 by Soviet aircrews were initially quite poor when compared to the Mitchells and Bostons. As one Soviet bomber pilot, Rotislav Demidov, succinctly put it, “The Boston is good because it is much easier than the Il-4. The Il-4 is a heavy airplane with inferior maneuverability.”
Nevertheless, Soviet pilots and aircrews gradually grew to admire the strengths of the
twin-engined Ilyushin and were willing to overlook its deficiencies. As Fedor Titov of the728th Regiment recalled, the Il-4 “had weak engines. On takeoff, it was difficult… [but] I was used to it. I then flew the B-25. I didn’t like it as much… maybe it was a little faster, but the Il-4 had a ceiling of 7,800 meters… [up there] all was good!” Another Soviet bomber pilot, Vladimir Pshenko, also thought the Il-4 was a quality aircraft despite its shortcomings. “In terms of piloting, the Il-4 was a very moody airplane. Particularly during takeoff… However, I liked the Il-4. It flew well in both simple and complex conditions. It survived the war.”
The twin-engined Ilyushin was especially championed for its ability to withstand attacks from German fighters and anti-aircraft guns. Soviet mechanic Dmitry Bogdanov explained that “Il-4s were surprisingly tenacious. They had fabric coating, like canvas… After each sortie our equipment managed to patch up [the holes]… the aircraft could be fixed with incredible adaptations.” Soviet bomber pilots also noted that Il-4s were able to withstand significant amounts of combat damage and still fly, often times on only one engine, though this depended on the ability of each individual pilot. An Il-4 could get home on one engine “with difficulties,” Soviet navigator Nikolai Bungin recalled. “On one engine, with good piloting, it could fly to its home airfield. But some could not cope [with only one engine] and landed on reserve airfields, which were closer.”
Powered by two Tumansky M-88 radial engines, the Il-4 could carry 1,000 kilograms of bombs 1,600 kilometers, and had a maximum payload of 2,600 kilograms. Such specifications caught the attention of the Soviet Navy, so twin-engined Ilyushins were also fitted with equipment enabling it to carry type 45-36 torpedoes. The Red Navy began using the domestically-built bombers extensively in 1943, and by the end of the war, Il-4s would go on to sink more than 50 German ships. The Il-4’s naval service was far from its only accomplishment. Over the course of the war, Soviet DB-3s and Il-4s flew more than 222,000 sorties, dropping 2,000,000 bombs. By May of 1945, 240 pilots, navigators, gunners, and navigators became Heroes of the Soviet Union while flying these bombers.
While western historians tend to focus on the impact of U.S.-built bombers, such as the B-25 and A-20, on the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviet aviation design industry itself was capable of producing a high-quality bomber of its own. Mitchells and Bostons were undoubtedly superb aircraft, and deserve to be remembered as such, but it is fallacious Cold War thinking to believe that the U.S.-built twin-engined aircraft were the only bombers that the VVS and Red Navy had at their disposal. Though lacking the legendary status of its little brother, the Il-2 Sturmovik, the Il-4 was an effective bomber that was wisely used in the roles in which it excelled. The twin-engined Ilyushin deserves to be remembered as the tough and capable bomber that it was. As Sergei Ilyushin himself said in 1943, “In order to fly on a dark night 1500 km into the enemy’s rear, you need to very strongly believe in the reliability of the… aircraft and motor.” The Il-4 proved to be such an aircraft.