Fire in the Steppe:
Stalin’s Storm Bird
In late 1938, the Red Air Force requested
a new design for an anti-tank aircraft. Sergei
V. Ilyushin’s answer, the IL-2 Shturmovik,
would become one of the most effective aircraft
of the Second World War and plays a major
role in Panzer
Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe.
The first prototype flew in October 1939,
but development took a long time as the designers
sought the proper engine. A competing design,
the Sukhoi Su-6, moved no faster, however,
and Ilyushin’s team was able to fly
a much improved aircraft a year later. The
new plane, chirstened IL-2 in honor of its
designer, was approved for production in early
The first IL-2 production models carried two
7.62mm machine guns and two 20mm cannon. Launch
rails carried eight 82mm RS-82 rockets. The
single-seat aircraft featured an armored “bathtub”
surrounding the cockpit with up to 12mm of
armor plate, and the canopy was made of two-inch-thick
K4 armored glass. Ilyushin argued strenuously
for the two-seat model, but factory managers
won out with their argument that they could
make more one-seaters more quickly.
As necessary as
oxygen and bread.
When the Hitlerites invaded in June 1941,
only 18 Shturmoviks (“Storm Bird,”
a generic term for all Soviet “Armored
Assault Aircraft”) had been delivered
to operational squadrons, and they had little
to no impact on the overall picture. In their
first action on 1 July just outside Bobruisk,
the attacking planes devastated their German
targets and absorbed enormous punishment from
ground fire. Before production could speed
up, however, the factories making the new
plane had to be relocated beyond the Ural
Mountains. When they re-opened in late 1941,
only one plane came off the line per day.
Given that they had built the factory buildings
around an open-air assembly line, managers
felt proud to be making any planes at all,
but in Moscow Josef Stalin had no patience
for such excuses.
“The IL-2 aircraft
are as necessary to the Red Army as oxygen
or bread,” the General Secretary telegraphed.
“(The factory) produces one IL-2 per
day . . . It is a mockery of our
country and the Red Army. I ask you not the
try the government’s patience, and demand
that you manufacture more IL’s. I warn
you for the last time.”
Stalin clearly was channeling future wargame
company management, his message brought results.
Production quickly climbed, and Soviet pilots
made good use of the machine in the spring
1942 campaign. But the Shturmovik proved very
vulnerable to German fighters, and after a
series of meetings with front-line pilots
new versions began to appear that summer.
The improved IL-2M Shturmovik sported a more
powerful engine and replaced the low-velocity
20mm cannon with much more capable 23mm weapons.
The IL-2M3 that came out right on its heels
added a rear gunner with a 12.7mm machine
gun (a prototype feature that had been deleted
to ease production).
Other innovations added to the Il-2M and IL-2M3
included the PTAB anti-tank bomb, a small hollow-charge
warhead. A single Shturmovik could drop 192
of the 2-kilo charges. For defense against enemy
fighters, the DAG-10 grenade launcher could
place parachute-equipped aerial mines in the
plane’s wake, a weapon straight out of
the era’s bad pulp science fiction. More
useful was thicker armor for the “bathtub”:
The planes could rarely be brought down by anything
less than 20mm cannon fire.
IL-2M3 Storm Birds seek their prey.
The improved planes made a serious impact
in the Saturn and Uranus offensives around
Stalingrad in late 1942. Hundreds of white-painted
Shturmoviki attacked German armored columns,
coming in at 60 feet altitude or less in the
“Circle of Death” maneuver designed
to attack tanks from their more-vulnerable
rear flank. A full squadron would circle continuously
over the target, making sure that some part
of the German formation always had to expose
its vulnerable rear.
New models continued to upgrade the armament.
The IL-2-37 which appeared in early 1943 replaced
the 23mm cannon with a pair of long-barreled
NS37 37mm guns. This variant greatly reduced
the plane’s handling, and the cannons’
recoil often damaged the airframe. But in
the hands of a skilled pilot, the 37mm cannons
could punch through the thin deck armor of
any German tank, including Panthers and Tigers.
The Rs-82 rocket also gave way to the bigger
132mm RS-132, which provided a powerful hollow-charge
warhead for use against armor as well as a
Shturmovik pilot and Hero of the Soviet
Sr. Lt. Anna Timofyenvna Yegorova.
The all-metal IL-10 appeared in late 1944,
with a powered turret for a 20mm cannon replacing
the rear gunner’s hand-operated 12.7mm
machine gun. The new plane also carried four
23mm cannon for ground attack. Huge numbers
of all models participated in the final drive
to Berlin, and as German troop quality declined,
Shturmovik pilots learned that they could
rout Volkssturm formations simply by flying
over them at low altitude even after expending
all their munitions.
Ugly but dangerous. The IL-2-37.
The IL-2 appears in Panzer
Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe. Because of
the nature of the game’s very simple air
support system (air support counters usually
represent total air strength and not specific
aircraft) the piece is available in all scenarios.
As a variation, players may wish to return the
IL-2 piece to the container and draw again for
scenarios taking place in 1941, but this greatly
hampers the Soviet player and we advise against
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.