The aircraft that arguably had the greatest impact on the war on the Eastern Front, the Ilyushin Il-2, is also one of the most well-known Soviet aircraft in the West. Nevertheless, common misconceptions of the role of the Sturmoviks, like so many aspects of war against Germany in the East, lead to denigration, which in turn contributes to a gross misunderstanding of not only this particular aircraft, but of the whole of the war on the Eastern Front. Soviet ground attack aircraft were an integral part of the Stavka’s plan to defeat the Wehrmacht. Indeed, from the Stalingrad to Kursk and all the way to Berlin, it is difficult to imagine how the Red Army could have been victorious if not for the effective close air support provided by Il-2s. One often overlooked yet crucial aspect of the combat effectiveness of Sturmovik units was the presence of a rear gunner armed with a 12.7mm UBT machine gun in each aircraft. Initially produced in a single-seat model, the development of Ilyushins equipped with a rear gun enabled Sturmovik units to fly in formation with greatly decreased vulnerability, as rear gunners would provide cover not only for their own aircraft, but for all Sturmoviks in the formation. While their job was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous in the VVS, Il-2 rear gunners played a pivotal role in the ground attack missions which, as much as anything, were instrumental in the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.
The Ilyushin Il-2 was one of the war’s most definitive weapons, though through a series of trials and errors on the part of Soviet engineers, the flying tank would not have its profound impacts until 1943. In early 1938, Sergey Ilyushin and his team developed the TsKB-55 (BSh-2) prototype in response to the Kremlin’s call to develop a heavy ground attack aircraft. The two-seat heavily armored plane powered by a single Mikulin AM-35 inline engine was found to be underpowered, but after removing the rear-gunner and installing a more powerful AM-38 engine, Soviet test pilots reported drastic improvements in maneuverability, speed, and handling. This single-seat model was cleared for service in early 1941, and the first production model was flown in March of that year.
Following the German invasion on June 22nd, 1941, the new Il-2s without rear gunners
found themselves defenseless against the battle-tested Luftwaffe fighters. During the first offensive mission mounted by an Il-2 unit on July 1 along the Berezina river near the city of Bobruysk, the German Bf-109s were quickly able to identify the attack the Soviet aircrafts’ blind spots, and the Sturmoviks consequently suffered heavy losses at the hands of the enemy fighters. The vulnerability of the single-seat Il-2s led many VVS units to field modify their aircraft in the early months of the war by cutting a hole in the fuselage behind the cockpit to mount a 12.7mm UBT machine gun. The rear-gunner sat atop a canvas strap in these crude early two-seaters. The mount allowed gunners to fire at angles of up to 35 degrees upwards and 15 degrees on each side. While the makeshift solution did provide much needed cover, Sturmovik pilots found their aircraft more difficult to handle as the center of gravity had shifted backwards due to the increased weight. Moreover, the two-man crew led to the Il-2’s already slow top speed being reduced by a further 10-20 km/h. Nevertheless, airmen convinced the Ilyushin design bureau to produce a two-seat Sturmovik, which started rolling off production lines in 1942. With gunner mobility increased to 38 degrees and upwards and 22 degrees on each side, the serial production two-person Il-2s had a much improved firing angle for rear gunners than the makeshift two-seaters.
To improve the performance of the improved Sturmoviks, Soviet engineers developed the more powerful AM-38F engine. In the fall of 1942, two-seat Il-2s powered by the upgraded engine made their service trials, with the rear gunners shooting down seven German aircraft and repelling many attacks during this time. By January of 1943, the definitive Sturmovik that would have such a pivotal impact on the war, the Il-2M3, began to arrive in large numbers at the front. However, it did take time for the two-seat Ilyushins to completely replace the single-seat versions. One Il-2 rear-gunner, Fedor Lavrentovich Gavrilov, recalled when he first arrived that the front in 1944 that one single-seat Sturmovik remained in his regiment, and the rest were equipped with a 12.7 mm UBT in the rear. The pilot of the lone early model Ilyushin, Yakov Petrovich Tsukarev, was the natural target for German fighters on any bombing run, and he was eventually shot down because of it. “When we bombed the Germans who went out of the city [in Romania] the German fighters saw the [Ilyushin] with no rear gunner and began to converge on his tail. As a result, he was shot, but he pulled the Ilyushin to our territory,” Gavrilov recounted.
Gavrilov went on to describe the tactics that Il-2M3 crews were able to adopt to provide cover to the other aircraft while flying in formation. “Our task [as rear-gunners] during the flight was primarily to repel the attacks of enemy fighters… if we went with one machine… it would be difficult to fend off the enemy. But we flew with a whole squadron of 12 aircraft and 12 12.7 mm UBT machine guns [providing rear cover]. German planes were terribly afraid to get under the concentrated fire of our turrets, and if suddenly a fighter flew into it, it would be shot down,” he recalled.
From tactics such as the closed loop, loose circle, and scissors maneuvers, Il-2 airmen sought to ensure the presence of a coordinated defensive formation during their sorties. Nevertheless, the skilled German pilots developed tactics of their own to counter the Sturmovik formations, and were able to locate the Achilles heel of the heavily armored flying tank: the oil cooler. Erich Hartmann, the Luftwaffe’s top scoring ace with 352 victories, recalled targeting the oil cooler on Il-2s because if he shot the armored sections of the cockpits, his bullets would simply bounce off. As a result, Hartmann would attempt to approach Sturmoviks from below and behind, targeting their underbelly and the vulnerable oil cooler. If such a maneuver were not possible given the circumstances of the battle, Hartmann attempted to shoot the where the wing met the fuselage with his Bf-109’s 20mm cannon. Fifteen of the German ace’s 352 victories were Sturmoviks.
While the Il-2 had its vulnerabilities, the rear-gunner’s position was much more perilous than the pilot’s. While his crewmate was protected by 12mm of armor on both sides and behind the seat, not to mention 65mm protective glass sections, the gunner was provided with 6mm of armor, which was only effective against small arms fire. The death rate among rear-gunners was understandably exceptionally high, and injuries were even more frequent. Resting their feet on partitions separating the fuselage from the cockpit, gunners’ legs were protected only by the aircraft’s outer plywood. As one rear gunner recalled, “there was a feeling that every time you’d go out you were going to your execution. [With only] a tunic and a gun, and if they [German fighters] should double up, or God forbid four come in?”
Despite the rear-gunners’ vulnerability, like so many aspects of war, an individual’s combat instincts, which could only be developed after experiencing battle, served as the best defense for Il-2 gunners. As one rear gunner, Vladimir Moiseyevich Mester, recalled, “Gunners, like most pilots, were killed during their first flight. When the gunner had made dozens of flights, there was hope that he would live, though it would not always depend on him.” With this experience came an understanding of how combat sorties unfolded, and in turn how to improve the equipment the rear-gunners were given. Il-2 crews quickly learned how to modify their rear compartments to expand the capabilities of the UBTs. Gunners recalled that the glass canopies covering the compartments restricted the firing arch of the 12.7 mm machine guns, and many regiments consequently decided to remove the glass, despite the fact that it led a further decrease in airspeed. Nevertheless, aircrews often determined that it was worth it to trade 5-7 km/h of airspeed for a larger field of vision for the gunner and a larger arch of fire.
Throughout the Great Patriotic War, Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, especially in 1943-1945. Providing close air support to Red Army ground troops, the flying tanks fought at low altitudes on the front of nearly every major battle in Eastern Europe. As VVS pilots quickly learned, Ilyushins were not able to carry out the ever important ground attack missions effectively without a rear gunner to provide cover against the talented and battle-hardened Luftwaffe pilots. These often forgotten rear gunners undertook perilous missions behind scant amounts of armor on the front lines of the deadliest war in human history, and played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front.