Tanks appeared for the first time on the battlefield, as an entirely new weapon, during the First World War, and caused a shock to the German combat units headquarters. However, a pragmatic analysis of the situation followed: how to deal with the new threat? As the machine guns were not effective against the armored giants, the military’s attention turned to artillery. From the offensive grenades to manufacturing the first anti-tank guns, it was just one step.
Since the beginning of the armored tactics history, the strategists have taken into account the idea to use the aviation against the deadly tanks. At first glance, the maneuverable and agile plane seemed to be superior to the slow and heavy armored machine crawling on the ground. The first tankers did not have many chances when dealing with the biplanes attacking them at a speed of two hundred kilometers per hour. However, knocking out a tank was not an easy task for the pilots, too. On the West Front, the German aviators tried to destroy the huge British tanks by sending prolonged close-range gunshots against the upper part of the tank where the armor was thinner. It was a slight chance the projectiles would have pierced the armor and killed some of the crew, damaged the engine, or fired the vehicle. Moreover, the pilot was exposed to the infantry punishment, who could shot him down with the machine guns and rifles.
The effectiveness of the first air strikes against tanks did not meet the expectations. Same thing happened with the attempts to hit a tank with a bomb. The aiming was so inaccurate that hitting successfully such a small target was to a high degree a matter of pure luck and a happy event for the pilot. During the interwar era, the tanks fighting tactics improved, following the aircraft development closely. Some experiments with large caliber cannons mounted on aircraft were conducted, but fully functional anti-tank aircraft models appeared in the Second World War when most of the technical issues were solved.
The Sturdy Sturmovik
Even before the Second World War, the Soviet designing bureaus were working on developing an aircraft primarily intended for tactical attacks on land targets. The airplane was not supposed to achieve great performance at high heights, as it was designed to operate mainly at low altitude. The focus was geared towards a great ability to carry large quantities of equipment, for both shooting and bombing and also a strong armor. This aircraft was not expected to win a dogfight as it had to be protected by escorting fighters. This design led to the construction of the Iliusin Il-2 fighting plane, known as the Sturmovik. On the 2nd October 1939, the first prototype took off with the CKB-55 markings. At that time it was an unusual plane because of the extensive use of armor, from propeller to cockpit. In its original form, it had one place, but the designer immediately took into consideration a the two-seater version with a rear gunner.
During the Second World War, a total of 34,943 Ilyushin Il-2 planes were produced, of all versions. They served for 356 squadrons, and it is worth mentioning that 140 of them had to be fully rebuilt over time, some of them even several times, as a result of the severe damages inflicted. It is reported that 27,600 crew members died throughout the entire war.
In the exhausting war waged on the Eastern Front, the Sturmoviks were primarily used as antitank weapons and took part in most of the major operations. They flew over the routes to Moscow, in the sky of Stalingrad, and had a major role over the course of the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet aviation used attack tactics that involved large aircraft formations that approached the target area at a low height, trying to cover a wide area of the battlefield. However, sometimes the pilots were exposed to the infantry fire due to the low flight ceiling, a risk that could not be ignored.
Luftwaffe answered this tactic by sending fighter units to engage the Sturmovik squadrons before reaching their targets.
The Soviet commanders reacted by deploying smaller Il-2 groups, which approached targets from different directions, rallying just close to the battlefield. Above the target, the pilots were forming a circle, that was supposed to both increase the formations defense potential and keep the ground forces under constant pressure. Then, one by one, the planes left the formation, attacked the target, and returned to their positions eventually. The Soviet Command recommended attacking the back or lateral sides of the enemy tanks – the most vulnerable areas, protected by thinner armor. Supporting their own infantry units, the above-mentioned tactic of the circle formation had a strong impact by breaking the enemy armored units that were unable to coordinate and form offensive centers. Besides the armor destruction, another aim of this tactic was to force the enemy tanks to leave and reveal their hidden positions.
During the second half of the war, the Soviet Air Force headquarters understood that the strong, reliable Sturmovik aircraft would undoubtedly fight until the final victory; however, it had already reached its technical capabilities, at that time, and a radical update was mandatory. In April 1944 this became available, when the Il-10, a new generation of combat aircraft, was developed. The front side of the body, including the two-seater cockpit, consisted of a self-supporting armored surface; the equipment included four 23 mm VJa cannons in the wings and a 12.7 mm machine gun or 20 mm cannon, handled by the rear gunner. On the outside, the aircraft was able to carry 700 kg of bombs or up to eight unguided rockets.
The Terrifying Stuka
Throughout the entire war, the main aircraft employed by the Luftwaffe against tanks was the Junkers Ju 87, being assigned just one main task – the punctual bombing. The introduction into service of this dive bomber was in line with the new Wehrmacht tactics – the close cooperation of ground forces with aviation, dive bombers having an important role. Depending on the tanks and infantry units objectives, the planes had to destroy the enemy’s strong points and the mechanized advancing columns, including tanks and armored vehicles. In the early phases of the war, these targets were hit with penetrating bombs from above by bombers diving against them.
The single-engined airplane had a two-seater cockpit, the observer handling the machine gun and defending the aircraft rear side. A great variety of Ju 87 models was produced during the war, the first version one being the Ju 87B; Luftwaffe used it in Poland, in the lightning war against France and over the North Africa. In 1941, the Ju 87D variant was improved with better armor and aerodynamics. However, the use of these planes during the Battle of Britain ended in a fiasco, and on the Eastern Front, the Stukas could reach their full potential only when the Luftwaffe fighter aircraft dominated the battlefield. This was because the plane was slow, with a fixed landing gear and, after 1942, it became already an obsolete concept. Nevertheless, they were used in battle until the end of the war. After dive bombing, their role was gradually switched to long range bombing, the moment when losses began to raise.
After the balance of forces on the battlefield had shifted for the Red Army, the Soviet armored forces being now the dominant position, the German planes were upgraded with more powerful weaponry – two D-5 20 mm caliber cannons, and a 37mm cannon for the Ju 87G. The German pilots applied, just like their Soviet opponents, the diving tactic, by bombing the enemy tank from above, and also the direct fire against the rear horizontal area of the tanks, protected by thinner armor, that housed the tank propulsion unit.
Interestingly, after the end of 1942, special units called Panzerjäger were especially created to fight against tanks. Although the Ju 87 was not a revolutionary design, it performed very well the new anti-tank role, as some of its crews managed to win incredible victories over the Red Army’s tanks. This is the place to mention the famous ace Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who claimed the destruction of 519 tanks, during the 2,530 combat flights, most of them flying the Ju 87G.
During the later stages of the war, Luftwaffe used also against tanks, with some good results, the F, and G Focke-Wulf Fw 190 models, equipped with extra bombs and cannons. They were a major step forward, but the Germans never managed to replace the old Stuka planes entirely.
Hurricane and Mustang modified
Unlike the USSR and Germany, the Western Allies didn’t build a particular anti-tank aircraft. This role, tank destroyer, was handed over to several modified fighters and in some cases bombers. The first battle where the British had to solve the problem of fighting against the advancing German tank columns was North Africa. During the Battle of France, in 1940, the Allies used only classical bombing against the German armors, but with little effect.
In Africa, the Royal Air Force employed with quite good results the Hawker Hurricane fighter, Mk.IID version, equipped with two 40 mm cannons attached under wings. This model proved to be an effective weapon against the German and Italian armor, being able to destroy the PzKpfw III or PzKpfw IV, by damaging other tank areas, besides the engine compartment. In the European theater, this task was mainly taken over by the Hawker Typhoon planes, equipped with four 20 mm cannons, bombs, but especially with eight 76 millimeters unguided RP-3 rockets.
The US Army Air Force fought the German tanks using the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters equipped with unguided missiles and bombs. Some other types of fighting airplanes were also able to accomplish this job, but the P-47 was particularly appreciated for its extreme sturdiness and resistance to the firing coming from the ground units. Another benefit was the ability to carry extra equipment. Some P-51 Mustang versions (North American A-36 Apache) fought too against the German tanks, as ground-attack/dive bombers. The equipment consisted of six 12.7 mm M2 Browning machine guns and up to 454 kg of bombs.
In Africa, the attacks against moving tanks or mechanized formations were essentially similar to those employed on the Eastern Front, but with all the desert war characteristics. During the battles from Italy and Western Europe, the Allies applied different tactics as the enemy placed their tanks in stealthy positions, using the forest vegetation to hide them. This required a better cooperation with the ground observers and more accurate airborne attacks. However, American and British pilots managed to decimate the German tank divisions and forced them to move only at night, as the Allied air forces ruled the sky of Europe at that time.
The US Air Force used applied the same tactics in the Pacific Islands and Burma, where the Japanese forces employed tanks independently or in small groups, taking maximum advantage of the terrain and vegetation. Some bigger Japanese armor formations were present only in the Philippines, but the Allied aircraft and tanks managed to easily destroy them. During the fights on the islands, Allied infantry met only obsolete Japanese armored models, used mainly as static fortifications. The US troops could have met large numbers of modern tanks only if they had landed on the main islands, but that did not happen. However, large aircraft formations were able to operate here and attack in recurring waves, which would have decimated the ground resistance even before the Allied infantry entering the combat.
If you love building scale model aircraft, these legendary warbirds we have just talked about in the rows above are some really good sources of inspiration. You can build them and even fly them; the imagination is the limit, as the scale modeling market is full of thousands and thousands of models, that suit virtually every taste and skill level.
What better way to study the past than building with your very own hands replicas of those wonderful machines that made history.
Batchelor, John and V. Lowe, Malcolm. Complete Encyclopedia of Flight 1939-1945. Bookmart, 2005.
Batchelor, John and V. Lowe, Malcolm. The Complete Encyclopedia of Flight 1848-1939. Rebo International, 2005.
Pejčoch, Ivo. “Pedeapsa tanchiștilor vine din cer”.Al Doilea Război Mondial. Mai-June 2017: 4-8, Print.