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 4 of 7)
In May, German Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel paid the Normandie squadron a grim compliment: He ordered that all French pilots captured on the Russian front be executed. “We didn’t know anything about Keitel’s order until the Nuremberg trial in November 1946,” recalls Risso. “What I can say is that 28 of ours were missing. Only three came [back] from prisoners’ camps: Mahé, Bayssade, Feldzer.”
By mid-summer 1943, as Russian aircraft regained control of the skies above the Eastern Front, it was clear to all concerned that the era of German air supremacy was over. But the westward trail from Moscow to the Niemen hadn’t been kind to the Frenchmen. While Soviet forces fought their way toward Smolensk that April, two French pilots were killed in action. Another was lost in June. Squadron commander Tulasne and three more died in July.
“The Germans were scared of us,” says Albert, but he adds that General Petit wasn’t satisfied. “ ‘We want more victories at any cost!’ ” he snarls, imitating the general. “Bastard.”
French pilots had begun trading their exhausted Yak-1s for Yak-9s, fighters that were optimized for high performance at low altitude—as many a Luftwaffe pilot discovered while trying to turn with the Russian fighter near the ground. The Yak-9 had a teardrop canopy for better visibility and wings strong enough to hold internal fuel cells. Some -9s had a small bomb compartment behind the pilot. Some were tank killers, with a big 37-mm cannon replacing the 20-mm gun in the nose, and the cockpit shifted a half-meter aft to accommodate the breech.
In July, the squadron’s mechanics returned to North Africa and were replaced by Soviets, who were familiar with the new and more powerful Russian airplane. In August, the Normandie group moved to a field in Gorodichina. “The mechanics rode in the back seat of the Yak-9,” recorded Tulasne’s successor, Colonel Pierre Pouyade, in the squadron log. “The pilots were received in a very amicable fashion by the Russian officers of the regiment, and were profoundly touched by their attention. At the entrance to the rooms were streamers bearing the inscription, TO THE BRAVE SONS OF THE FRENCH PEOPLE, WHO WITH OUR VALIANT ALLIES, WILL VANQUISH THE EXECRABLE ENEMY. In the evening, good cheer, vodka. Cinema was an agreeable surprise.”
But all was not well. General Petit wrote de Gaulle that life on the Russian front had become very hard, especially as the unit developed “a sense of being abandoned.” To make matters worse, the men were not being paid. The acerbic Pouyade wrote: “The greetings of Soviet officials replace the money of the French command.”
According to Albert, the pilots came close to getting paid only once. “Stalin decided to pay our salaries,” he says. “We were not getting any money—30-some months in Russia without pay. Stalin said, ‘Okay, I’m going to pay these guys in dollars.’ He had a big sack of money. We were [to get] $750—at that time a pile of dough. But [General Petit] said, ‘We are not fighting for money.’ That one—he was not fighting at all.”
Quips Roland de la Poype, “Pay? We never had a problem. We never got anything. Rien.”