Moscow, Soviet Union • November 28, 1942
On this date in 1942 twelve Free French fighter 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 (Groupe de Chasse 3) and offered their services to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to fight alongside the Soviet air forces. The administration of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had turned down a similar offer of services de Gaulle made after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The British, by contrast, were more than willing to accept de Gaulle’s offer. At least seven Royal Air Force squadrons were entirely manned by Free French pilots, aircrew, and mechanics, and individual French aviators served in many other British or Commonwealth units.
Flying Soviet-built Yak fighters that sported the Soviet 1st Air Army star roundel and the French Normandy emblem, the Normandie-Niémen Squadron (later reorganized into a regiment of three squadrons) 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 fighter pilots were to be shot if captured.
The French airmen scored impressive victories with the 1st Air Army 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 regiment, 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. (Only 44 foreign citizens were awarded that title.) The Normandie-Niémen’s combat record of kills was the second highest in the Soviet air forces. 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 Normandie-Niémen Regiment’s last campaign 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 Airmen 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 Regiment, the only foreign division within the Red Army, are a source of great pride in France, and visitors can tour a museum at Le Bourget Airport in Paris that celebrates the airmen’s feats. The unit received numerous orders, citations, and decorations from both the Free French and Soviet governments, including the French Légion d’honneur, the Croix de guerre 1939–1945, and the Soviet Order of the Red Banner for conspicuous heroism, dedication, and courage demonstrated in battle. Joseph Stalin awarded the unit the name “Niemen” for its participation in the Battle of the Niemen (Neman) River, part of Operation Bagration, the great Soviet summer offensive against the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) in June and July 1944.
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 West 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 Soviets’ 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 legendary Free French airmen in Moscow’s Lefortovo Park in 2007. The monument is covered in large, colorful wreaths ahead of V-E Day, May 9 in Russia, the country’s second most popular public holiday after New Year’s Day.
French Film Tells the Story of the Normandie-Niémen Free French Airmen Who Fought on the Eastern Front from 1943 to 1945