The French-Russian Connection
With Russian Yaks, a small group of French pilots fought like hell to drive the Germans out of the Soviet Union.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
(Page 3 of 7)
“The Russians liked us,” Albert says. “There was one who told us we boosted their morale. They thought they were finished and then we are there. They said they thought we knew something they didn’t.”
At Ivanovna, the Normandie volunteers trained in the two-seat Yakovlev-7, then the Yak-1B fighter, which the pilots had chosen over U.S. and British alternatives. The -1B, like most Soviet fighters of the day, was built of steel tubing, light alloys, and wood. It was a powerful aircraft: fast, highly maneuverable, and heavily armed—“an airborne cannon and guns,” says Risso.
The French took to it immediately. According to Albert, the Russian airplane cruised faster and climbed better than the Spitfire and the Bf-109. “As easy to fly as a kite,” says Roland de la Poype, who lives in Paris today. “But if you dived over 500 miles an hour, you could lose the wings.”
On March 19, the unit was deemed sufficiently trained to leave for the front. Three days later, GC.3 joined the Soviet 303rd Air Division at Polotniani-Zavod airfield, southwest of Moscow. On the 26th, Albert, de la Poype, and Risso flew the Normandie regiment’s first sortie over Russia: They scrambled after a German reconnaissance airplane but made no contact. On April 5, flying cover for Petlyakov Pe-2 bombers, two pilots in the group, Albert Durand and Albert Prezisosi, shared first blood: a Focke-Wulf 190.
In the squadron log, Jean Tulasne, who in February had succeeded Poliquen as Normandie commander, wrote, “The squadron has arrived at the front during full thaw…the worst period of the Russian year…. The still-cold temperatures require a longer start of the engines (hot water and hot oil). The mechanics work about 14 hours per day. Moving the airplane on the ground between the stalls and the runway requires some 30-45 minutes and the help of all the squadron personnel. This for all the airplanes before and on their return from a mission…. The Soviet personnel have freed the only comfortable building on the base to billet the squadron. The food is excellent from every point of view: quantity and quality. Wine fairly often. Vodka for the pilots and mechanics each day there is a combat mission.”
Morale was “excellent,” according to Tulasne, but these were definitely new conditions for his men. “Fighting was entirely different,” recalls Risso. “Yak aircraft had no bad-weather instruments. Furthermore, the radio equipment was far from the VHF used in England.” And, Risso explains, “as the Soviets had no radar, the aerodromes were close to the frontline—about 20, 25 kilometers [12 to 15 miles]. Once, we did operate as close as five kilometers from the front.” These “aerodromes” were spartan affairs. Albert remembers “no roads, no wire, no electric, no water—nothing.”
Events seemed to confirm that Normandie’s arrival had changed Russia’s luck. Since the group had begun operations in November, what remained of Stalingrad had come back into Soviet hands, along with thousands of German prisoners. Russia—aided as always by a merciless winter—wore down the invaders, who were slowly driven back toward the Niemen.
Trailing the Soviet armor and infantry by only a few kilometers, the Normandie squadron moved from airfield to airfield: from Polotniani-Zavod in March, to Mosalsk in April, to Koziel in May, to Hationki in June. The billeting deteriorated to shelters made of branches and rope, and then the abandoned hovels of peasants. Pilots were lucky to get sausage; mere technicians got potatoes. The airplanes were kept in improvised revetments, disguised by branches and nets.