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By war’s end, the French pilots had scored 129 victories against the Luftwaffe. (Von Hardesty/NASM)

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.

The Niemen River, which rises near Minsk and meanders toward the Baltic, has long been the boundary armies cross to invade Russia—and cross again, in tattered retreat. In June 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte sent half a million soldiers along this route, Moscow bound. Six months later, 10,000 or so survivors stumbled out of Russia, harried by the Russian winter and mounted bands of Cossacks.

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In the summer of 1941, Adolph Hitler’s army followed Napoleon’s trail into Russia. Three and a half years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, they were back on the Niemen, fleeing into Poland and East Prussia. This time the harrying fire was from swarms of aircraft, including Yakovlev Yak-3 fighters flown by the Normandie-Niemen regiment of the Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres—the Free French Air Force. By then, everyone in Russia had heard of “the French Pilots”—a small band of volunteers who since early 1943 had been flying and dying in Russia’s defense.

For many of these pilots, the road to the Eastern Front began as France prepared to surrender to Germany in June 1940. On June 18, just four days before it concluded armistice negotiations, France sent most of its pilots and airworthy warbirds to continue the fight against Hitler from colonial bases in North Africa. At the very least, officials in the falling government believed, the move would keep the aircraft out of Nazi hands.

The plan didn’t quite work; the new Vichy government—named for the French city where the new, nominally sovereign French regime was set up to govern southern France and the Francophone northern rim of Africa—quickly absorbed the forces that had escaped to Algeria. The Curtiss 75A Hawks, Bloch 152s, and Moraine-Salnier MS-406s that had fought the Germans were turned against the British, as were the new Diwoitine D-520s that had proved effective against Germany’s Bf-109E.

But even as those airplanes flew south, another French government was forming. Exiled Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, in a broadcast from London, urged his compatriots to rally around the banner of France Libre. France’s disaffected pilots responded. From the Etampes flight school south of Paris, Roland de la Poype and the others in his graduating class followed their commandant to England. Marcel Albert, Albert Durand, and Marcel Lefèvre—having flown about a dozen missions against the British—defected in their D-520s to Gibraltar and were placed in a Royal Air Force Spitfire squadron. Joseph Risso and two fellow pilots also made it to Gibraltar—in a four-place Caudron C-630 Simoun (Sandstorm ) they “borrowed” in Algeria. Pierre Pouyade, who commanded a night-fighter unit in Cambodia, escaped to China in an old Potez 25 biplane and eventually found his way to London. One by one or group by group, French pilots peeled off for England, most of them in their early 20s, guided by a few old men nearing 30.

Hitler thrust more than three million troops into the Soviet Union in June 1941, and de Gaulle saw an opportunity for his government-in-exile. He was inclined to send a division of the Free French army to the Russian front—a move he hoped would garner Moscow’s formal recognition of his government. The commander of the just-assembled Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres, Brigadier General Martial Valin, persuaded him that a small air force unit would produce the desired effect, with fewer moving parts.

Word of what promised to be an excellent adventure went out to the FAFL units in Great Britain and North Africa. Fifteen pilots volunteered. They were led by Joseph Pouliquen, then the commander of a fighter group in North Africa. Captain Jean Tulasne, who flew for the RAF in Cairo, was second in command. Several interpreters, a doctor, and 40-odd technicians brought the unit’s initial strength to 62.

The pilots did not volunteer out of a desire to defend Communism. “At our level,” says Joseph Risso, “nothing was political. It was a decision of General de Gaulle himself.” Risso lives today in Cadolive, the French village where he was born. His friend Marcel Albert, who lives in Florida with an American wife, remembers the group’s single-mindedness. The men were, Albert says, “just fighting the Germans.” Not everyone approved. Some of de Gaulle’s staffers detested the idea of French pilots flying for the Soviet Union, and the British—always wary of the French general’s ambitions and loath to lose pilots then flying with the RAF—dragged their feet.

It was not until August that the volunteers began their long slog to the Eastern Front. They traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, by boat, then flew to Cairo. As they sailed south, the FAFL gave the unit a new moniker in line with General Valin’s new practice of naming air wings after French provinces. “Alsace” had already gone to GC.1; “Ile de France” to GC.2. GC.3 would henceforth be known as Escadrille Normandie.

On November 10, two days after the Allies had begun the invasion of North Africa, the volunteers arrived in Lebanon, where they met de Gaulle and got their Soviet visas and some orientation training. Two days later, they flew to Baghdad aboard three U.S. C-47 transports. The group took a train to Basra, Iraq, and then was trucked to Ahvas, Iran, to catch another train for Tehran. By the time GC.3 pulled into that city, the Vichy airmen in North Africa had been told by their general that they too would fly as Free French, in British and U.S. aircraft.

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