Moscow, Soviet Union November 28, 1942

On this date in 1942, while the Battle of Stalin­grad was still being fought, 12 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, or GC3, 3rd Fighter Group) and offered their ser­vices to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to fight along­side the Soviet air forces. De Gaulle wanted Free French forces represented on every front of the war and Stalin was game enough. 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 Squad­ron (GC3, 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 2 years of service, 42 of their number were killed (including 7 of the origi­nal 12) while 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 March and April 1945. The French­men had stuck with the Soviet Union through thick and thin to the bitter­sweet end. As a reward for their faith­ful ser­vices, sym­bolic and insigni­fi­cant in the grand scheme of the air war, Stalin pre­sented 40 Yak‑3s to the French flyers 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 Yakovlev fighter, or Yak. The double-barred Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of Free France during World War II, 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. In 1944 Joseph Stalin awarded the unit the honor­ific 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 Yak‑9 Soviet fighter, which was the squadron’s plane at the time. Roger Sauvage sits at far right in this photo­graph of Free French pilots. Sauvage (1917–1977), whose mother was a white Pari­si­enne and whose father was a World War I sol­dier from Mar­ti­nique in the French (Antilles) West Indies, was the highest scoring black fighter ace of World War II with 16 con­firmed aerial vic­tories and at least one prob­able. He was the recip­i­ent of 7 major Soviet and French deco­ra­tions. 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.

Normandie-Niémen heroes’ welcome at Paris-Le Bourget Airport

Above: On June 20, 1945, at Paris-Le Bourget Airport, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple wel­comed home the Nor­mandie-Niémen heroes. Hero pilot 2nd Lt. Roger Sau­vage, at over 6 ft tall, is eighth from left in front row. In mid-1943, after the Western Allies had libe­rated Vichy French Algeria, Sauvage, a pilot in the Armée de l’air de Vichy, was given the choice of flying for the Royal Air Force or going to the Soviet Union, where he could join the Nor­mandie squa­dron already famous for its role in the Battle of Kursk and its after­math. He chose to hitch his fate to the Free French Nor­mandie squa­dron. Along with 13 other French volun­teer pilots, Sauvage arrived at Nor­mandie’s air­field in Tula, 120 miles south of Moscow, on January 6, 1944.

French Film Tells the Story of the Normandie-Nié­men Free French Airmen Who Fought on the Eastern Front from 1943 to 1945

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