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.
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.”