A sight feared by the Wehrmacht a flight of Il-2s race over the battlefield during a low-level attack in the autumn of 1941.
The Il-2 was central to VVS RKKA’s rearmament plans, with 11 attack aircraft regiments scheduled to be equipped with Shturmoviks within five frontline military districts by the end of 1941. Six other regiments deployed further from the front, and in the far eastern regions of the USSR, were to convert to the Il-2 by mid-1942.
In addition, eight short-range bomber regiments were to also have re-equipped with the type by early 1942. As of 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR, VVS RKKA attack aviation in the five military districts facing the invaders were operating 207 1-15bis and 193 1-153 fighters. These formations had received just 20 Il-2s by the time war broke out, five having been delivered to the Baltic Special Military District, eight to the Western Special Military District, five to the Caucasus Special Military District and two to the Odessa Military District. But not one had been included in the duty rosters of the units in what was soon to become the frontline. This was due to a lack of trained pilots.
4th BBAP (Blizhnebombardirovochniy Aviatsionniy Polk – Short-Range Bomber Air Regiment) of the Kharkov Military District was the only unit to have modern attack aircraft on strength on 22 June, having received 63 Il-2s, but its pilots had not yet fully converted onto the type. According to official sources, 60 pilots and 102 engineers had been trained to operate and maintain the Il-2 by 22 June, but none had returned to their frontline units by that fateful date.
And even if they had reached 4th BBAP prior to the German invasion, pilots had not received any instruction in Il-2 combat tactics since there was no manual to study! Pre-war tactics were totally unsuited to the Il-2, and did not exploit its capabilities to their fullest extent.
The fact was that the People’s Commissar of Defence had only signed the order for Il-2 combat tests on 31 May 1941. NII VVS (NauchnoIspitatelniy Institut Voenno- Vozdushnykh Sil- Air Force Scientific Testing Institute) issued the corresponding order on 20 June. By decree of the People’s Commissar of Defence, dated 17 May 1941, independent flight crews and flights of the Caucasus Special Military District were to complete Il-2 service testing by 15 July 1941.
In actuality, tactics for the Shturmovik had to be worked out in the crucible of war in the first year of the conflict in the east, with regiments bearing heavy losses in both pilots and aircraft during this period.
With all frontline Il-2 units attached to combined services armies, combined air divisions and reserve and attack air groups of the Supreme High Command General Headquarters, Air Force command was totally unable to maneuver its forces efficiently and focus its main efforts on the primary German lines of advance.
In the early months of the war, Il-2s operated in groups of three to five aircraft, with Shturmoviks attacking their targets one at a time from a minimum altitude of20-25 m (65-80 ft) up to 150-200 m (500-650 ft), using all their weapons in a single run over the target. Whatever the height at which they started their attack, pilots would always fire their guns and drop their bombs from low level. In the absence of enemy fighters or strong anti-aircraft defences, pilots would make two to three attack runs. When operating at low level, Il-2 pilots could capitalise on the element of surprise to evade enemy fighters. Should they be intercepted close to the ground, invariably there was no room for effective combat maneuvering by the attacking fighters.
Low-level attacks were problematic for the Il-2 pilots as well, however, as they found navigating to and from the target area no easy proposition. The short time they spent over the latter also made it difficult for commanders to coordinate their individual attack runs effectively. Combat experience, and follow-up firing-range tests, demonstrated that low-level operations did not allow the Il-2 to capitalise on its capabilities. The fact was that such tactics were the wrong ones, and could only be justified by the small number of Il-2s then in service, and the poor organisation of escorting fighter units. Western Front Air Force headquarters put it this way in a directive dated 8 August 1941;
‘Il-2 attack aircraft suffer especially inept employment. Il-2 pilots are afraid of being shot down, and often unreasonably resort to low-level flight and lose their bearings, with the result that their missions fail.’
From August, therefore, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of attacks on small targets, groups of Il-2s were led by a mission controller in a Sukhoi Su-2, a Petlyakov Pe-2 or a fighter. They would designate the target by dropping bombs or AZh-2 incendiary spheres on it.