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

In September, Normandie divided into two squadrons: The first, Rouen, was led by Marcel Albert, with Roland de la Poype on his wing. The second, Le Havre, was commanded by Didier Béguin, with Risso on his wing. That month, Albert Durand—with nine individual and two shared kills—vanished in action on the road toward Minsk. Another pilot went down in October. By then, says Albert, “we were about finished.” Normandie’s handful of survivors fell back to Toula, south of Moscow, to train the new pilots shuttling in from Free French forces in North Africa. Two more squadrons were formed: Cherbourg, commanded by Marcel Lefèvre, and Caen, led by Louis Delfino.

The second campaign opened in May 1944 with the Normandie regiment back at the front, at a rough field near Doubrovka. There, the commandant’s diary continued its refrain of loss. Henri Foucaud was killed in late April. In May, returning from a mission over Vitebsk, Marcel Lefèvre’s Yak-9 hemorrhaged fuel and burst into flames a few feet off the ground; he died in a Moscow hospital a month later. (He survives in spirit as a host figure at the Normandie regiment museum in his home town, Les Andelys.) In July, Maurice de Seynes’ Yak filled with gas fumes, but he refused to bail out because his Russian mechanic, seated in cramped space behind him, had no parachute. Both men died after several aborted approaches to the field at Mikountani. Camille-Jean Bertrand was killed in August, as the offensive near Kaunas pushed the invaders back across the Niemen River.

The regiment was by then transitioning to the Yakovlev Yak-3. “It is an excellent machine,” an enthusiastic Pouyade wrote, “superior to the FW 190 in all the dimensions. In everyone’s opinion, it is probably the best fighter plane of the armies of the world. It is one of the fastest and, in every case, the lighter and more maneuverable airplane, the best climber of the world. Visibility is perfect.”

As 1944 wore on, however, the pace of combat slackened, along with the flow of news and supplies. The war was clearly winding down. De Gaulle had returned to liberated Paris in August; France was free. Why were French pilots still in Russia?

“Because of the persistent lack of fuel, of airplanes, of flight operations,” a dejected Pouyade wrote his general, “the morale of all the pilots is very bad. Our inactivity menaces [the] aeronautical prestige which Normandie has gained thus far. In consequence, I propose the withdrawal of operations, with the return of the regiment to France where it can be sent immediately to a sector where it shall surely find work. If [this] is unacceptable I have the honor of asking that I be relieved of my command.” Pouyade departed on November 11. Delfino assumed his role.

Less than a week later, there was bigger news. “Yesterday we heard, by radio that General de Gaulle has been invited to come to Moscow,” Delfino wrote on November 17. “All hope to see him come to the Regiment.” Just days after that, Albert and de la Poype were named Heroes of the Soviet Union.

For its role in ejecting the German invaders, the unit got a new designation from Premier Joseph Stalin: Normandie-Niemen, the second name after the historic river. In December, the regiment traveled by special train to Moscow to meet the visiting de Gaulle, and the men were awarded French and Soviet medals all around.

The air wing’s war wore on, though, along with the hard winter. “The snow still falls and we pass a solitary Christmas in our rooms,” noted Delfino. “Now and then a bottle of cognac appears.” Of the regiment’s original pilots—only six had survived—none fought in the short campaign of spring 1945. “We were sent to France to rest according to General de Gaulle’s decision,” says Risso. Albert got typhus and nearly died.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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