“The Il-2 was peerless among combat airplanes…The Shturmovik produced a mighty roar that terrified the Fascists as the aircraft attacked. They nicknamed it ‘Schwarze Tod,’ or ‘Black Death.'” –Anna Yegorova
In the first two years of the war, Yegorova dreamed of piloting an airplane that could fight back. She’d proven herself flying hair-raising reconnaissance and delivery missions behind the lines in the Polikarpov-2 (U-2 or Po-2)–a slow, wooden biplane whose only defense was evasion. She learned to fly low and slow below treeline, following the bends of rivers, landing in small fields and villages when she needed to hide. But her little “kukuruznik” (the plane’s nickname, basically meaning “corn cutter”) was no match for the heavily armed, faster German fighters that overwhelmed the devastated Soviet Air Force in 1941-2.
To the “Shturmovik” Regiment
In the winter of 1942-3, as the Battle of Stalingrad raged on the Volga, Yegorova finally got her chance to shoot back. She learned to fly the famous Ilyushin-2 (Il-2) “Shturmovik,” considered to be the best low-altitude ground-attack aircraft of WWII. Nicknamed “The Flying Tank” by its designer and “Ilyusha” or “Hunchback” by its pilots, the Il-2 came to symbolize Soviet air power, much like the Spitfire defined the Royal Air Force.* Stalin considered the airplane so vital to the war effort that he wrote a letter to its designer stating that the Il-2 was as important to the Red Army “as air and bread.”** The Soviets produced Il-2s in massive quantities during the war — more than 36,000 of them, to be exact.* (When you consider that only around 250 Il-2s existed when the war began, you get some sense of the “phoenix from the ashes” story of Soviet wartime industry.)
The Il-2 was an incredibly effective ground-assault and tank-busting aircraft, with steel armor encasing the engine and cockpit, and extraordinary firepower:
“I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the airplane. It was a beauty. It had a streamlined, elongated fuselage with a glassed-in cockpit that looked out across a great distance of pointed engine cowling. Four menacing rapid-fire cannons and machine guns bristled from the wing’s leading edges, and eight launch guides for anti-tank missiles hung beneath the wings. The aircraft’s central wing section held four bomb bays, and six more 100-kilogram bombs could be fastened under the fuselage…What a mighty bird had been entrusted to me!”
–Anna Yegorova, quoted from Red Sky, Black Death
Air Battle of the Kuban
Early in 1943, Lt. Yegorova transferred to an attack aviation regiment and flew her first missions in the “Shturmovik” on the Taman Peninsula (eastern shore of the Black Sea). In April and May of 1943, she and her fellow Shturmoviks (the term referred to the plane and also to its pilot) engaged in one of the mightiest air battles of the war, in the “Kuban” (along the Kuban River in the Northern Caucasus, near the NE coast of the Black Sea).
With top speeds of around 250 mph, max takeoff weight of more than 14,000 pounds (empty wt. approx. 9,970) and a 1,700-hp V-12 engine (see Il-2 specifications), “Ilyusha” was no docile little biplane. Although some of her trainers and comrades initially doubted whether a woman could handle the Shturmovik, Yegrova quickly proved herself, mastering the airplane and its armaments, surviving many of her pilot-comrades and eventually becoming a flight leader and regimental navigator with the 805th Attack Aviation Regiment.
She and her regiment joined the westward drive to Berlin, although the young lieutenant only made it as far as Poland. In August of 1944, the Germans finally grounded Yegorova for good, shooting her airplane down over the Magnuszew Brigdehead, near Warsaw. Even as the terribly burned and battered young pilot fell into enemy hands, she heard the thrilling roar of Shturmoviks diving nearby, her terrified German captors shouting “Schwarze Tod, Schwarze Tod!” as they ran for cover.
“Hey, ‘Ilyusha,’ my dear friend,
Let’s attack them yet again!”
(a favorite song of the regiment, written by one of Yegorova’s navigator-comrades)
For the true warbird geeks among us, check out these fantastic Red Army Il-2 training videos, circa 1943:
Preflight inspection–checking aircraft exterior, cockpit, and engine start
Before takeoff engine and instruments checks, taxi and takeoff, navigating across enemy lines to target
Attacking the target, returning to the airfield, approach and landing, taxi and engine shutdown
Video’s final message: “Machine gunners, artillerists, mortarmen, tankists, pilots: study your weapons well. Become complete masters of your trade, and hit the German-Fascist invaders point-blank until they are utterly destroyed.”
–People’s Commissar of Defense…AND STALIN”
* Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power 1941-1945. (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), 169.
** Hardesty, Red Phoenix, 170.
*** Hardesty, Red Phoenix, 121.
§ Hardesty, Red Phoenix, 122.
§§ Hardesty, Red Phoenix, 170.