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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Two weeks after Germany’s May 9 surrender, five Dakotas flew into Insterbourn to take the regiment back to Moscow, where they paid their respects to comrades buried in the foreigners’ cemetery. That night, Jacques André and Marcel Lefèvre were posthumously named Heroes of the Soviet Union. Party followed party. “New reception at the French embassy,” wrote Delfino. “Lots of music, lots of people, little to drink.”

The idea had been for the regiment to return the way it had come: by way of the Middle East. But on June 9, General Petit sent a telegram relaying a message from Stalin: “As he considers that ‘Normandie-Niemen’ has fought very well on the Soviet front, it does not seem just to disarm it and remove its materiel. It is proposed that the pilots of Normandie-Niemen return to France with their combat aircraft.” Delfino recorded the pilots’ response: “A joyous reaction.”

At six that evening on June 15, 40 Yak-3s lifted off for Prague. Five days later, after several stops and parties and a few losses, 37 touched down at Le Bourget airport in Paris.

The Normandie-Niemen regiment left quite a record in its wake: 5,240 missions flown, 273 confirmed kills, 37 probable, and 45 enemy aircraft sorely damaged. Among the unit’s 39 aces, Marcel Albert led with 22 confirmed kills, one probable, and two more in other theaters. Roland de la Poype ranked second, with 16, two probables, and two aircraft damaged. Joseph Risso finished at ninth place: 11 kills, four probables. But the regiment’s victories had not come cheap: Of the 96 pilots who went to Russia, 46 did not return.

Only about a dozen of the Normandie-Niemen pilots who served in Russia are alive today, and only three of the first group survive—the same trio that shared the first Normandie sortie. In old photographs, one sees three very different young men—Albert, a former Renault mechanic, rough and ready, impatient of authority; the aristocratic de la Poype, languid in his boots and riding britches; Risso, the reflective southerner, always working on his pipe.

Marcel Albert crashed a D-520 during an air show in Paris; he flew very little after that. He met his wife, Freda, while he was the French air attaché to Prague, and moved to the United States in 1947. After working in the restaurant business, the couple settled in the Florida panhandle, in a roomy bungalow rich with Normandie-Niemen memorabilia.

Roland de la Poype stayed with aviation but made his fortune as an inventor of disposable plastic containers, among many other things. He and his artist wife Marie-Nöelle live in a lavish Paris apartment a half-mile west of the Trocadero. They have participated in a variety of enterprises, including the Marineland Antibes theme park, where they have bred orcas and dolphins. “I found fun everywhere,”

says de la Poype. “I’ve been born under a lucky star.”

Risso rose through the ranks of the French air force and retired as a brigadier general in 1971, returning to Cadolive.

One wonders, when talking to them, how they were treated once the glow of World War II chilled into the cold war, and the Soviets became the enemy. Were the Normandie-Niemen anciens made to pay for their Russian adventure?

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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