The Soviets made 40,000 'Flying Tanks' during WWII; the aircraft was never pretty, but it did the job...

The Sturmovik was a remarkable aircraft, and more of them were made than any other aircraft - somewhere between 36,000 and 42,000 depending on the way you count them. It sure ain't no Spitfire in the looks department, but it did the job. Known in the west, if it was known at all, as the 'Flying Tank' or the 'Hunchback' it was made of wood and metal - including thick steel plate around the cockpit for protection - and was brutally simple to make, to repair, and in between became legendary for the amount of punishment it could take before being forced to crash.

I find its chunky functionality utterly engaging, and like so many Soviet creations, what it lacked in finesse it more than made up for in being solid and practical. It didn't do anything particularly well, and certainly nothing with flair - it just flew low and slow, was cheap to build and easy to repair, and there were so many of them churned out that it tipped the balance in the Soviet's favour.

Stalin appreciated the Ilyushin-2 a lot, when production fell at one factory factory, he sent a cable to the manager, saying of the aircraft - "They are as essential to the Red Army as air and bread. I demand more machines. This is my final warning!"


Considering how many of these machines were made, there are surprisingly few surviving examples, maybe only a dozen or so. Here is a piece that ran recently on the BBC's Website about a Sturmovik found in a Lake near to St Petersberg and now being restored in the USA - Bringing the Soviet Union's Flying Tank back to life

One of the very few Sturmovik's in the west is housed in a small museum that only just fits around it, in the far northern Norwegian border town of Kirkenes.

The town feels decidedly remote, despite the Russian border being very close and the large Russian city of Murmansk being 140 miles to the east. And because of it's extreme latitude, stand in Kirkenes and you are actually east of Istanbul and almost as easterly as Cairo.

It's a sleepy place and in contrast to so many Norwegian coastal towns, not a pretty jumble of twee wooden structures, but in fact a somewhat ugly and characterless place where the small main square is surrounded by nondescript concrete buildings.

The reason for this is that fierce and prolonged battled raged here during the Second World War - at a time when the Nazi's were confronting the Soviets across the roof of Europe. The Soviets churned out their ground attack Sturmoviks in huge numbers and threw them at the dug in Germans.

Walking to the Borderlands Museum, Kirkenes. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The aircraft on display here crash landed in the adjascent Lake Førstevatn after being shot down in the war, and was restored by the city of Murmansk and gifted to the people of Kirkenes. It's by far the largest exhibit in the otherwise somewhat homely Borderland Museum - and a pleasant 20 minute walk from the centre of town.

The aircraft was hit in the engine by German anti-aircraft fire after it had attacked the Elvenes Bridge. The rear gunner bailed out and the pilot landed in the lake and survived. 

The Ilyushin IL-2 on display at the Borderlands Museum, Kirkenes. Photo Matti Paavola

There are few attractions in Kirkenes, but walking distance from the town is the Snow Hotel. Barents Safari Tours runs trips out into the Barents Sea in search of King Crab.

For more information see Visit Kirkenes


Other places to see a Sturmovik...

Belgrade, Serbia: the Aeronautical Museum at Belgrade's Nicola Tesla Airport is a couple of hundred metres walk from the main terminal, and a very good place to visit if you happen to arrive at the airport with spare time on your hands, or if your flight is delayed.


Monino, Moscow, Russia: the country's Central Museum of the Air Force is 45 kilometers to the east of Moscow, at the Monino airfield, and opposite the now closed Gagarin Air Force Academy. This is Russia's largest collection of aircraft on display - it was founded in 1958, but not opened to the public til 2000, and includes a TU-144 'Concordski', the largest helicopter ever built (Mil V-12), numerous Migs and Sukois, and a Sturmovik. 

The impressive collection at the Central Air Force Museum. Photo Andrey Khachatryan/Livejournal

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow, Russia: opened in 1995, the museum follows in the tradition of Soviet war memorials. The main building is centred on the Hall of Glory, which is a vast church-like space housing a large bronze 'Soldier of Victory' and with walls featuring the names of the 11,100% recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union. 

Outside and to the left is a large open air park containing military equipment from WWII, including motor torpedo boats, a gigantic railways carriage mounted gun, and more than a dozen aircraft, including a Sturmovik. 

The Sturmovik at the outdoor section of Moscow's Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Photo My Bathroom Wall

Samara, Russia: this large southern Russian city stands on the River Volga, and has it's Sturmovik mounted on a pedestal in the middle of a traffic island. The aircraft was manufactured here in 1942 and was shot down over Karelia a year later.


Novorossiysk, Russia: at this large Black Sea port and Hero City, honoured for the city's defence against the German and Romanian armies in 1943, is a Sturmovik. Alas the pedestal is hideously ugly and the paint scheme of dubious accuracy, but it is one of the city's many wartime memorials. 


Prague, Czech Republic: Out at Kbely, eight kilometers north-east of the city, is the Prague Aviation Museum, with over 100 aircraft on display, including an Ilyushin 2 in a themes WWII hangar.


Warsaw, Poland: The Polish Army Museum was founded in 1920 and is surprisingly central, located by a main road not far from the Vistula River.