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.

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Free French Normandie-Niémen Pilots 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 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.

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 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.

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 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