Initially a single seater, the Il-2 proved to be a deadly air-to-ground weapon. This variant was to see heavy losses due to its vulnerability to fighter attack. Consequently, by September 1942, a two-seat design with a rear gunner under a stretched canopy entered service.
In the desperate months early in the war, the Sturmovik was pressed into a fighter role. Outclassed by dedicated enemy fighters in dogfights, the Il-2 could successfully take on other Luftwaffe aircraft. The German 7.92 mm machine guns were ineffective against the heavily armoured Sturmoviks, close formations of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, Junkers Ju 52, Heinkel He 111 and Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor bombers would be favoured targets.
Sturmovik pilots employed a brave defensive tactic, they would fly fast and low. This meant that the majority of ground fire would miss or ricochet from the armoured tub. If an enemy fighter closed in, they would slow down, letting the fighter overshoot and fly into the Il-2's firing range.
The Flying tank
An armoured tub, ranging from 5–12 mm (0.2–0.5 in) in thickness, enveloped the engine and the cockpit. This tub could deflect all small arms fire and glancing blows from larger-calibre ammunition. Unfortunately, the rear gunners did not have the benefit of all-around armour protection, especially from the rear and to the sides, until much later in the war.
Soviet policy of not returning home with unused ammunition would also add to the casualty rate, as pilots would make repeated passes on the target. Additionally, Soviet troops often requested repeat passes even after the aircraft was out of ammunition, exploiting the intimidating effect Il-2s had on the German ground troops. These soldiers gave it the nickname "The Flying Tank" whilst the Luftwaffe pilots called it the Zementbomber (Concrete bomber).