Moscow, Soviet Union · November 28, 1942
On this date in 1942 twelve Free French pilots and their ground crews, flying from newly liberated Syria in the eastern Mediterranean, landed at their Ivanovo training center, 125 miles northeast of the Soviet capital, Moscow. Earlier in the year, in March, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French government in exile, had ordered into being a new group of French fighter pilots and ground crew and offered their services to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to fight alongside the Soviet Air Force. (The Roosevelt administration had turned down a similar offer of services de Gaulle made after Pearl Harbor.) Flying Soviet-built Yak fighters that sported Soviet markings and the French Normandy emblem, the Normandie-Niémen Squadron saw its first combat mission in March 1943 when it flew escort for Soviet ground-attack bombers. On April 5, 1943, Normandie pilots had their first two kills. The next month, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme High Command of the German Armed Forces), signed an order that Normandie pilots were to be shot if captured. The French squadron scored impressive victories with the Red Air Force in the epic Battle of Kursk (July 1943), when 2,000 Soviet planes engaged 1,800 German aircraft, and in the 1944 Soviet offensive in East Prussia. In one two-day period in mid-October 1944, the volunteer squadron, now grown to 50‑plus operational pilots, downed 38 German aircraft to one of their own. (The French pilot was rescued.) In two years of service, 42 of their number were killed but over 30 became aces. Four were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The squadron’s combat record of kills was the second highest in the Soviet Air Force. Collectively they downed a confirmed 273 enemy aircraft with many more probables. During 5,240 missions they also destroyed 27 trains, 22 locomotives, and 154 trucks and staff cars as well as an unknown number of tanks and armored vehicles. The squadron’s last assignment for the Soviets was clearing the skies of the remnants of the Luftwaffe during the battle for the German Baltic city of Koenigsberg in April 1945. As a reward for their services, symbolic and insignificant in the grand scheme of the air war, Stalin presented 40 Yak‑3s to the French pilots to use in returning home. The Yaks formed the nucleus of France’s postwar air force.
Free French Normandie-Niémen Pilots on Eastern Front, 1942–1945
Above: A Normandie-Niémen Yak. The cross of Lorraine has been painted on its tail. The accomplishments of the Normandie-Niémen are a source of great pride in France, and visitors can tour a museum at Le Bourget Airport in Paris that celebrates the squadron’s feats.
Above: Normandie-Niémen pilots pose beside their Soviet fighter. De Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, believed it was important for French servicemen to serve on all fronts in the war. The Normandie-Niémen regiment was one of only two air combat units from an Allied western European country to participate on the Eastern Front during World War II, the other being the British No. 151 Wing RAF. The British pilots were stationed near the northern port of Murmansk during September–October 1941, providing air cover for Arctic merchant convoys and later pilot conversion training for Red Army Air Force pilots training on the Hawker Hurricane, the first Allied Lend-Lease aircraft to be delivered to the Soviet Union.
Above: Monument to Normandie-Niémen Pilots. Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled the monument to the Free French airmen in Moscow’s Lefortovo Park in 2007.
French Film Tells the Story of the Normandie-Niémen Free French Pilots Who Fought on the Eastern Front from 1943 to 1945