Moscow, Soviet Union · April 15, 1943

On this date in 1943 Soviet Gen. Géorgui Zakharov placed a patrol of six Yak‑7s with Soviet pilots under Free French com­mand. The initial six French pilots formed a mixed patrol of six French and six Russian planes. The brain­child of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French govern­ment in exile the year before, the Nor­mandie-Niémen Squad­ron of volun­teer French pilots was the only foreign divi­sion within the Soviet Air Force. (De Gaulle had offered Free French flying services to the Roosevelt admin­is­tra­tion after Japan’s Dec­ember 7, 1941, surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, but those services were declined.)

Flying Soviet-built fighters that sported Soviet markings and the French Nor­mandy emblem, the Nor­mandie-Nié­men Squad­ron took part in 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 squad­ron scored impres­sive victories with the Red Army Air Force in the epic Battle of Kursk (July 1943), when 2,000 Soviet planes engaged 1,800 Ger­man air­craft, as well as 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. 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, Soviet leader Joseph 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. 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.

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Free French Normandie-Niémen Pilots on the Eastern Front, 1942–1945

Normandie-Niémen Yak

Above: A Normandie-Niémen Yak. The cross of Lorraine has been painted on its tail.

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, Russia

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