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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.

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Albert barely understands the question. He views those old days without a cold war filter. Russian gratitude still touches him, and his memories of Soviet comrades still bring a smile. But he also remembers meeting French POWs late in the war who derided the pilots as Communists.

De la Poype says little on the subject, but his wife acknowledges that after the war, “there was a definite tendency to see the Normandie-Niemen pilots as Communists. De Gaulle kept this from happening—it needed somebody that powerful,” she says. “He wiped away the problem.”

During a long military career, Risso has viewed the Soviet Union through both lenses, but never sensed adverse vibrations from either side. “One should remember,” he says, “that Normandie-Niemen still carries on exchanges with the Russian squadron.” For example, pilots from the modern Normandie-Niemen unit’s successor squadron traveled to Russia in June 2001 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. During the event, the French pilots flew Russian Su-27s, and the Russians, French Mirages. And as of 1989, Risso says, 144 schools in the Soviet Union still bore the name Normandie-Niemen.

Although the three old friends meet infrequently now, each is intensely and affectionately interested in how the others are doing. You talked to Albert? Is he well? Is he fat? How did you find de la Poype? Tell Risso I send my love. As you listen, the years fall away, and voilà! —there are those young men in the Yakovlevs. The French Pilots.

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