Everyone knows the story by now. The Spitfire saves England during the Battle of Britain, Germany calls off the invasion of Great Britain and the world is saved. There are those today who would say that the Spitfire was “the plane that saved the world”. In fact, there’s a book by that title.

Yeah, sorry, but I don’t think so. Sure the Spitfire was an amazing aircraft and the RAF fought tenaciously but it wouldn’t be my first pick for “plane that saved the world”.

First off, the less sexy Hawker Hurricane did at least as much work as the Spitfire.

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The poor “Hurri” has to live in the shadow of its prettier cousin.

WARNING! Dangerously simplified history ahead! 

I just don’t think the Germans could have pulled off an invasion England even if the RAF was somehow defeated. The Royal Navy home fleet might have had a thing or two to say about it. Even if they managed to get past the Royal Navy it’s questionable if the Germans could have secured a beachhead in England and sustained it.

Could Germany had forced the British to negotiate a separate peace? That’s somewhat more likely but I don’t really see it happening as long as Churchill is Prime Minister.

Keep in mind that England wasn’t just a plucky little island standing all alone as sometimes depicted. They were still the British Empire at that time and had all the resources of the Commonwealth to call upon.

So if not the Spitfire what would I pick?

The B-17? Nope. I think the Allied bombing offensive shortened the the war in Europe but I don’t think it decided the war.

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Beautiful plane but I don’t think it won the war.

The Lancaster? No, for the same reasons.

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Better than the B-17 in some ways but still not decisive.

The Mustang? Great airplane but still a no. While the Mustang was key to the Allied bombing offensive I don’t think it was decisive. Even if the Allied bombing offensive fails I think it just takes the Red Army longer to get to Berlin.

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Oooooh sexy! Still not the one, however.

Now I could make a strong case for the C-47. Eisenhower credited the Jeep, the landing craft and the C-47 for making victory possible. Cargo planes aren’t glamorous but good luck fighting a war without them. I’ll give the C-47 my #2 spot.

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Cargo planes aren’t sexy but try fighting a war without them.

All that being said, my pick for # 1 goes to this guy:

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IL-2M3 model

For those here that are not WWII geeks, that’s an Ilyushin IL-2. Sometimes called a Sturmovik but that really just means “ground attack aircraft” in Russian. The Soviets didn’t give their planes official names. Soviet troops sometimes called it the flying tank or flying infantryman. Those that flew it sometimes called it Ilyusha.

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IL-2 cockpit looks pretty spartan. About what you’d expect for a dedicated ground attack plane.

Fighter pilots mostly love to turn and burn and treat “air to mud” with disdain but it’s the mud movers that do the dirty work. You can shoot down all the enemy planes you want but if the enemy tank commander is eating lunch in your cafeteria when you get back to base you’ve lost the war.

What made the IL-2 unique was its thick armor. Most WWII fighters had some armor bolted on here and there, usually behind the pilot’s seat. The IL-2 had the armor baked into the cake as it were. Ilyushin, in a clever move, made the armor the primary structure of the airplane. The most important bits like the pilot, engine, fuel tanks and radiators were well protected.

The Soviets built roughly 36,000 of these and lost about a third of them in combat (yikes).

Production got off to a slow start until Stalin sent his now infamous telegram to factory directors M.B. Shenkman and A.T. Tretyakov.

You have let down our country and our Red Army. You have the nerve not to manufacture IL-2s until now. Our Red Army now needs IL-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one IL-2 a day and Tretyakov builds one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army. I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more ILs. This is my final warning.

(Joe Stalin, dictator and motivational speaker)
 

I don’t know about you but I would certainly be highly motivated after reading that!

Reminds me of my favorite scene from Enemy at the Gates with Bob Hoskins as Kruschev.

While the IL-2 was a tough airplane it really wasn’t a flying tank (neither is the A-10 for that matter). They still took heavy losses, mostly from fighters and medium caliber anti aircraft rounds like 37mm and 40mm. The smaller stuff tended to bounce off and bigger guns like the dreaded “88” had a hard time hitting a fighter sized target. 

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The relatively slow (250 mph) IL-2s were vulnerable to fighter attacks, particularly from the rear. Early versions of the IL-2 were single seaters. Later versions got a rear gunner with a 12.7mm machine gun. The rear gunners didn’t have as much armor protection as the pilots and had a very high attrition rate.

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IL-2 rear gunners died at 4 times the rate of pilots. As you can see here he’s not all that well protected.

The best defense against German fighters was to form a defensive circle for mutual protection. One IL-2 would briefly leave the circle to attack a ground target and then join back up. The slower IL-2 could sometimes force a fast moving German fighter into an overshoot (stall speed was around 65 mph) —  “I’m gonna hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by!” 

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Female IL-2 pilot. This may be Anna Yegorova, Hero of the Soviet Union. There were also female IL-2 gunners.

Anna survived 243 missions, being shot down by the Germans, a POW camp and interrogation by the NKVD as a potential traitor after being liberated.

Reportedly these were fairly docile handling airplanes but had a few quirks. I found a good article about flying one of the few remaining IL-2s here.

Sometimes IL-2s were even pressed into service as fighters. While you wouldn’t want to tangle with a Messerschmidt in one, they did a pretty good job against Stukas, bombers and transports. The Ilyushin’s heavy armor could shrug off defensive fire from a bomber’s guns. Amazingly enough there were actually several IL-2 aces.

I think there are maybe two of these is still flying. This one was pieced together from multiple aircraft and retrofitted with an Allison engine instead of the original Mikulin AM-38.

The biggest problem with the IL-2 was that it just couldn’t carry a whole lot of armament. Armor is heavy and you have to give up something to carry it. Compared to something like a Hawker Tempest or P-47 the IL-2 had roughly half the weapons load. In addition to its two 7.62 mm machine guns and two 23 mm cannons it could only carry six small bombs (220 lbs each) , eight small (82mm) rockets or four large (132mm) rockets.

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I’m guessing that’s a patriotic slogan on the side of the lead aircraft. I have no idea what it says.

Effectiveness against German tanks was initially iffy. Tanks were hard to hit with the weapons of the day and they’re built like…..well…..tanks.

Even a WWII tank could usually shrug off a hit from a fighter’s 23mm cannon. The thinnest armor on a Tiger I was one inch thick, which the VYa-23 cannon just wasn’t going to penetrate when you consider the range and angle it would have been fired from.

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Rare shot of an IL-2 firing its cannons.

Rockets and bombs weren’t particularly accurate and the bomb sights on the IL-2 weren’t that good. You might take out a medium tank like a Panzer IV with a direct hit from a 132mm rocket, but good luck getting a direct hit.

As one fighter pilot told me “You can’t hit your ass with a rocket!” Unlike bullets, rockets start out slow and speed up. They tend to “tip off” the launch rail and veer off from where they were aimed.

Sometimes larger guns like 37mm or 40mm were fitted to WWII aircraft but the recoil proved hard to manage and rate of fire was low. These things were heavy and added a lot of drag, making an already slow attack plane even slower. The Stuka with 37mm cannons reportedly flew like “an elephant on roller skates”.

Long story short you probably weren’t going to take out a German tank with one of these unless you got really lucky. Same goes for any other WWII fighter, even a Tempest or P-47.

They did better after the Soviets developed a small bomb with a shaped-charge warhead that could penetrate the top armor of a tank. The IL-2 could carry a large number of these little bombs. One source says 192 and another says 280. Either way an IL-2 could lay down a “carpet” of these things.

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Not sure what this is dropping a carpet of PTAB bombs. Yak-9 maybe?

Overall the effectiveness of tactical air against armor has been downplayed in recent years.

Air crews from all sides made highly exaggerated claims of tank kills that turned out to be largely false. In reality less than ten percent of tank kills in the war were due to tactical air. Maybe as little as five percent. Most tanks were killed by other things, usually anti-tank guns or other tanks. 

That scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan where the P-51s take out the Tiger tank? Probably not.

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IL-2 attack on a German column during Operation Bagration. Note that much of German transport was horse drawn. 

That didn’t mean that tactical air wasn’t important. It destroyed a lot of “soft targets” like artillery, trains, trucks and of course people. People tend to be rather soft and squishy. Being subjected to aerial attack had a definite psychological effect on enemy troops well beyond the actual damage done. There is also a psychological benefit for friendly troops to see their own planes flying overhead and attacking the enemy.

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Battle damaged IL-2. The IL-2 was constructed partly of wood (wings and tail I believe). The later IL-10 was all metal.

Soviet air doctrine was largely close air support. They weren’t big on strategic bombing like the US and British were. Mostly they used fighters and light bombers in direct support of ground troops or striking targets just a few miles behind the front lines. The IL-2 was basically flying artillery.

337339 10.09.1968 Репродукция плаката "Вперед! Победа близка!". 1944 год. Художник Нина Ватолина. В. Филимонов/РИА Новости
Say what you will they sure knew how to do propaganda! This makes me want to go fight for the motherland.

It’s the height of hyperbole to say that any single plane “saved the world” but I’d say the IL-2 has at least as much claim to that title as the Spitfire. While I doubt the Soviets could have beaten Germany without the Allies, the fact is they did most of the heavy lifting when it came to stopping the Nazis. While we were trying to break out from Normandy the Soviets were launching Operation Bagration with something like 2.3 million troops on the Eastern Front.

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US propaganda poster.

The IL-2 and its successor the IL-10 is the single most produced military aircraft in history with a total of 42,000 of both types produced. For all that I think there are only two still airworthy, one in the US and one in Russia.

Since the IL-2 was arguably the most important plane in the Soviet inventory I’d say it’s as good a pick as any.

Of course, getting saved by Stalin was a mixed blessing at best.

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