On November 28, 1942, Escadrille Normandie boarded three Li.2s (Russian-built DC-3s) and finally crossed into the Soviet Union, landing at Baku. Then, as the descending winter permitted, the airplanes shuttled the men to a base at Ivanovna, 150 miles northeast of Moscow.
“It was 30, 40 below zero,” says Albert. “We had no clothes to start with. We’re out there with gabardine. They gave us coats and pants with fur and boots.”
These were bleak days for the Soviet Union. By the time Escadrille Normandie arrived, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)
was in its second year of siege, Kharkov
was lost, and the German fist was closing around the industrial region of the Donets River basin. Nazi Panzers had been looking down Moscow’s throat for a year. Stalingrad was in its third terrible month of street fighting, and three million Russians had been taken prisoner.
The arrival of the French offered a glimmer of hope.
“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.