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

Normandie-Niémen Yak

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.

Normandie-Niémen pilots

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.

Monument to Normandie-Niémen pilots, Lefortovo Park, Moscow

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