After the surrender of France in June of 1940, exiled Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, in a broadcast from London, urged his fellow Frenchmen to rally around France Libre to fight the German invaders. While many who answered de Gaulle’s call went on to fight the Germans in North Africa and the Mediterranean, a handful of French fliers eventually ended up in an unexpected theater of war: The Eastern Front. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, de Gaulle saw an opportunity for his Free French pilots to fight the Germans. At the same time, de Gaulle hoped the move would garner Moscow’s formal recognition of his government. The few French airmen who arrived in the Soviet Union in September of 1941 would evolve into an effective and deadly air group, which would later be known as the Normandie-Niemen Regiment. By the end of the war, these French volunteers would shoot down 273 German aircraft through major campaigns such as the battle of Kursk and Operation Bagration. While some historians have suggested that their role was exaggerated by Soviet propaganda organs, the regiment’s track record indicates that the regiment, also known as GC 3 (Groupe de Chasse 3), carried out its missions effectively and successfully, thereby aiding the VVS in its crucial role in the victory of Germany.
The core group of 12 French pilots and 47 ground staff arrived in Soviet Azerbaijan, through Iran, on September 1, 1941. The French airmen were given their choice of Soviet aircraft, and eventually settled on the fast and maneuverable Yakovlev Yak-1, one of the Soviet Union’s best fighters at the time of the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Captain Albert Litolff of the CG 3 noted that the Yakovlev was in many ways similar to the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighter that many of the airmen had flown against the Luftwaffe during Germany’s invasion of France, though the Soviet fighter had a greater speed and could perform sharper turns. Despite the fact that many in the CG 3 were experienced pilots before they left France, the fighter group spent its first six months in the Soviet Union learning the capabilities of their Yak-1s and studying the Soviet Manual of Operations. By the time the group became operational in March of 1943, the French pilots had an average of 857 hours of flight time, more than three times that of their Soviet counterparts.
On March 21st, 1943, the CG 3 was declared fit for duty, and was transferred to the Western Front, stationed outside of Kaluga, as part of the 1st Air Army, where it was tasked with escorting bombers of the 204th Bomber Air Division. Shortly thereafter, on April 5th, the pilots of the Normandie Group scored their first kill. According to an article published on April 8th in the Red Army’s newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, the first combat mission of Lt. Duran and Lt. Precios, who had “been waiting for the day when they would rise in the air in Soviet aircraft to shoot down the hated Nazis,” shot down a German Fw-190 fighter.
The French pilots, however, quickly learned firsthand the brutality of the Eastern Front. On April 13th, while escorting bombers of the 204th, three pilots of the CG 3 did not return from the mission. This incident made clear that the language barrier between the Soviet bombers and their French escorts led to a lack of interaction between the twin-engine aircraft and their fighter escorts, and it was something that could not be ignored. The CG 3 was subsequently taken off escort duty and transferred to the 303rd Fighter Division.
Some historians argue that the training of French pilots highlighted individualism and promoted the principle of maximum independence in battle, which in turn made airmen of the CG 3 poor escorts. Many Soviet pilots, however, have discounted this accusation. For example, Sturmovik pilot Nikolay Rumyantsev 70 years later adamantly stressed that rumors suggesting that Normandie pilots were more interested in pursuing individual dog fights than providing cover were simply untrue. “They flew normally,” he emphasized. It was more likely that when issues did arise, it was due to the language barrier between bomber pilots and their escorts. It certainly would not have been the first time that the Normandie Group had to make adjustments because of the language difference.
For example, it was initially hoped that French mechanics would service the aircraft of CG 3, but they were replaced by Soviet air crews before the unit became operational in the spring of 1943. As one Russian mechanic, Yuriy Fedorin, recalled, “In the winter of 1942, the air temperature was -30˚C and below. The French technical staff was unable to prepare the aircraft for combat missions, and it was therefore decided to replace it with Russian [staff].” There was, consequently, a significant and frustrating language barrier between the French pilots and their Soviet ground crews. The pilots of CG 3 did not speak Russian, and Soviet citizens generally did not speak French, and those who did were not aircraft mechanics. The Normandie Group was thus forced to rely on the work of translators, of which there was an acute shortage. Fedorin recalled that, “When a pilot returned from battle, we would ask ‘how is the plane’, and he would say ‘good’ or ‘not good’, and then we would have to look for what was ‘not good’.”
Communication issues notwithstanding, the CG 3 continued to fly combat missions with the 303rd Fighter Division throughout April and into May, when the Normandie group was temporarily grounded due to fears that the French pilots would be executed by the Germans if the airmen were forced to bail out or crash land in enemy territory. The Vichy regime had sentenced the CG 3 pilots to death in absentia, and it was unclear if the Germans on the Eastern Front would carry out the execution orders of the Nazi puppet state in France. Nevertheless, in June, an additional group of eight French pilots led by Major Pierre Pouyade arrived in the Soviet Union, and on July 12, after the VVS had sustained heavy losses during the German offensive at Kursk, the order grounding the CG 3 was lifted, and the Normandie regiment was brought to the front as part of the Soviet counteroffensive, during which the French pilots shot down an impressive 18 German aircraft. Seven CG 3 pilots, however, were killed between July 12th and 17th, including Captain Litolff and Major Tulasne.
Ilyushin Sturmovik pilots recalled how Tulasne died on July 17th while providing air cover for the ground attack aircraft. The French airman “escorted Sturmoviks to the area of Znamenskoye with nine fighters under the command of Major Tulasne… two Fw-190s attacked, clashing with three Yak-9s- Major Tulasne, Captain De Forges, and Second Lieutenant Bon. Soon another six Fw-190s and eight Bf-109s joined the battle, attacking the Sturmoviks from the right rear. Our fighters were forced to leave the Sturmoviks and the nine [Yaks] repulsed the enemy’s attacks. Lieutenant Beguin, when paired with Senior Lieutenant Vermeille, fought a battle with four Fw-190s and was shot down… Major Tulasne, Captain DeVore, and Second Lieutenant Bon, leading the fight against the enemy fighters, entered the clouds. After exiting the clouds, none of the pilots could see Major Tulasne.”
Due to the heavy losses suffered by CG 3 during the battle of Kursk, the French pilots were once again temporarily grounded in an attempt to give the Normandie airmen time to recuperate and recover from the intense and seemingly endless dog fights in which they participated. In early August, the CG 3 received fresh pilots and aircraft, bringing their total number to 40, and in early September the French airmen were ordered to help the Red Army liberate Smolensk, where the CG 3 continued to improve its track record. By the end of October, the Normandie airmen had claimed 72 victories for the loss of 20 French pilots.
The Normandie pilots were then transferred to Tula where they spent the winter of 1943-1944. The airmen, during the brief respite from the front, spent most of their time relaxing and training in their new Yak-9Ts that had just arrived. By spring, their number had increased to 61 pilots, and in May, the Normandie Regiment was transferred back to Smolensk where it was put on operational duty with the 303rd IAD. On June 22, the Normandie regiment participated in Operation Bagration- the Red Army’s largest offensive of the war. By the end of the day, CG 3 pilots had shot down eight German aircraft, losing one of their own.
One Soviet pilot, Valentin Besklubov, later recalled a terrifying run in with the French pilots while flying a Yak-9 during Operation Bagration, saying “The heavy air battles began for us when we participated in Operation Bagration. We had already been flying the Yak-9. There was one case in which I was in combat and ran out of fuel, and I didn’t make it back to the airfield, so I landed in an unfamiliar place. People ran up to me, not speaking Russian. I was scared, I thought it was a German airfield. They sat on the wings, and immediately began looking at the instruments. It turned out to be the Normandie-Niemen French regiment. The next day, when I refueled, I flew to my own airfield.”
The CG 3 continued its work at the front lines throughout the summer and fall of 1944, joining the Red Army and VVS in the gradual push westwards. On October 16th, the regiment had its most successful day, when Normandie pilots shot down 29 German aircraft, losing none of their own. The French pilots continued to pile up convincing numbers, claiming 12 enemy aircraft on the 17th, 11 on the 20th, and 12 on the 22nd. According to Soviet sources, Normandie airmen shot down 129 German aircraft in the summer and fall of 1944, losing 20 aircraft of their own and 15 pilots. In November, due to its contribution in covering Soviet troops crossing the Niemen River, the regiment was renamed the Normandie-Niemen regment, and that same day, two French pilots, Marcel Albert and Roland de La Poype were awarded Gold Star: Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest distinction.
Between January of 1945 and the end of the war, Normandie-Niemen pilots carried out a further 1300 sorties, shooting down an additional 67 German aircraft while losing ten of their own. Another two French pilots, Marcel Lefèvre and Jacques André, were awarded Gold Star: Hero of the Soviet Union after the German surrender. By May 9, 1945, the regiment had claimed 273 aerial victories and 37 probables, losing 87 aircraft and 52 pilots. In 5,240 sorties flown, the CG 3 took part in 869 dog fights and also destroyed numerous ground targets including 27 trains, 22 locomotives, two E-boats, 132 trucks, and 24 staff cars. After the war was over, the Soviet government expressed its gratitude to the regiment by offering 37 of the unit’s Yak fighters as a gift to France. The French pilots returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome on June 20, 1945.
The French pilots of the Normandie-Niemen regiment were thus not simply products of Soviet propaganda; they were active at the frontline in decisive battles such as Kursk and Operational Bagration, and had the record to show for it. After the swift defeat of France by the Wehrmacht, several French fliers answered Charles De Gaulle’s call to fight against the Germans in the Soviet Union, not for political purposes, but as a way to fight against the enemy that had invaded their own homeland. These airmen fought in several decisive battles on the Eastern Front, helping the VVS maintain air superiority, thus enabling the Red Army to deliver the crushing offensives against the Germans in the last two years of the war. While welcomed as heroes upon their return to France in 1945, these brave pilots truly were Heroes of the Soviet Union.