Out of 97 volunteers, 42 never came back. They became living legends feared by the Germans and admired by the Soviets.
They were a fighter group named Normandie-Niemen.
After the fall of France and the call of General Charles de Gaulle in June 1940, French people were divided on what has to be done. Some deliberately collaborated with the occupant, some were forced and some tried to live the best they could in difficult times. For others, the only solution was to answer the general’s call and keep fighting. Dozens of resistance groups brought the fight in the occupied zones and others emigrated in Great Britain, the United States or the colonies and became part of the Free French Forces.
In 1942, De Gaulle estimated that it was important to have French fighters on every front of World War 2. Britain opposed the idea of sending a group of tanks but supported ( not without reticence ) the decision to send a group of pilots in the Soviet Union. After painful discussions and negotiations between the Western allies and the Soviet command, 14 pilots and 58 mechanics made the long journey to the small town of Ivanovo through England, North Africa and the Middle East.
The group sf baptised Fighting Squadron 3 but known by another name, the Normandie. Once arrived in the USSR under the command of Jean Tulasne, the Free French pilots are offered to choose their plane. As a courtesy and for practical reasons, they refused the American fighter and took the 1940 Yakovlev Yak-1. The Russian harsh winter complicated the task of the French engineers who were not used to work with such low temperatures, the unit was granted several soviet engineers. Four months after their arrival, the Normandie pilots were engaged in their first campaign and the 12 July 1943 flew over the gigantic battlefields of the Battle of Kursk.
In barely five days, the Normandie executed 112 missions flying with the red star and French colours, recorded 17 victories but suffered the loss of 6 out of 14 pilots including the commander Jean Tulasne and his second, Captain Alfred Littolff ( credited of 14 victories during 2,000 hours of flight in WW2 ). For breaking the 1940 armistice between France and Germany, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel sentenced all the Normandie fighters to death. Should any of them be captured, the German soldiers had the order to immediately executed them.
After Tulasne was shot down, Pierre Pouyade took command of the unit and worked with General Zakharov to relieve the French engineers from working in such harsh conditions. The Normandie is now equipped of Soviet engineers and welcomes new men.
By August 1943, the Normandie is divided into two squadrons named Rouen and Le Havre. Seven months later the squadrons Caen and Cherbourg would be created. With their results and deeds during battles such as Kursk or Smolensk ( October 1943 ), the Normandie pilots had earned the respect of Soviet counterparts. By the end of Normandie’s first campaign, the unit had lost 21 men most of them shot down but also executed or missing. Its victories were 72 mainly against the Focke-Wulf planes.
With winter coming, the 6 remaining pilots are sent south of Moscow to rest and wait for replacements before the next major offensive of spring 1944.
In July 1944, the Normandie is engaged in the battles above the Niemen river and proved itself once more to be a valuable unit despite its small size. The leader of the USSR, Joseph Stalin renamed the group Normandie-Niemen and it became a regiment.
In October, the Soviet command launched the Goldap-Gumbinnen operation. A massive offensive in Eastern Prussia where almost half a million men of the Red Army were sent. The offensive is a disaster for the Soviets however the Normandie-Niemen pilots broke the record of shooting down 41 German planes in two days. Despite operation Gumbinnen, the tide had turned for Germany whose soldiers had to give up some 600 kilometres to the Soviets. By 1944, the pilots of Free French were the first French to enter German territory.
In early 1945, the Normandie-Niemen is part of the decisive but deadly battle of Königsberg. After four days of fighting, the German commander surrendered to his enemies leading to the reddition of some 80,000 German troops the 9th of April 1945. A month later, the pilots of the Normandie-Niemen along their Soviet brothers-in-arms celebrated to total victory over the Third Reich. For these French soldiers, the Second World War was finally over.
In June 1945, Joseph Stalin offered every survivor of the Normandie-Niemen regiment to return in their homeland with their very own Yak-3 fighters and the 20th of June they landed at the airport of Paris-le-Bourget as heroes with the planes that made their legend.
In 3 years of war, the regiment totalised impressive statistics :
- 5,240 accomplished missions.
- 869 air battles
- 273 confirmed victories and 26 probable.
- 45 damaged enemy planes in air combat.
- 2 ships destroyed
- 8 train stations and 3 factories attacked
- 27 attacks on trains
- 132 destroyed trucks plus dozens of other attacked or destroyed objectives ( cars, wagons, …Etc )
- 96 engaged volunteers with 42 of them killed or missing in action.
The regiment has also been decorated several times by France and the Soviet Union. Some of its decorations are : the Legion of Honour, Military Medal, Order of the Liberation, Order of Lenin, Order of the Heroes of the Soviet Union, Order of Alexandr Nevskogo or the Order of the Red Star.
Some of the veterans retired from military service after the war but several of them would participate in future conflicts like Indochina.
Portrait of some pilots :
- Marcel Lefèvre ( 1918-1944 ): Flight instructor before the armistice of 1940, Lefèvre joined Great Britain and the Free French Forces in December 1941. In 1944, the now Lieutenant Lefèvre managed to land his plane on the base while being on fire. Despite the fact that several Soviet engineered rushed to help him, he was burned so severely that he died shortly after in a Muscovite hospital, the 5th of June 1944. Oddly, he died the day before the Allied forces landed in Normandy, his native region which he deeply loved. He was buried near Napoleon’s soldiers in Moscow after receiving the highest Soviet honours. Marcel’s body was brought back to France in the 50s where he now rests beside his parents, in Normandy. He was 26 years old.
- Maurice Bon ( 1920-1943 ); Maurice Bon made his first military missions before the Armistice and served in various places such as Madagascar until 1943 where he signed with the FFL. He won his first victory shortly after being incorporated in the Normandie unit against a Junkers Ju-88. Five other victories followed before he was shot down by a Focker-Wulf 190 the 13th of October 1943. He died aged 23 and his body was never found.
- Maurice de Seynes ( 1914-1944 ) : De Seynes joined the FFL in 1942 and became a pilot in the Normandie the 1st of January 1944. The 15th of July 1944, then aged 29 he realised his Yak had an oil leak while flying with his Russian engineer. De Seynes tried several times to land on the airstrip but could not manage it. A Russian pilot contacted him on the radio and told him to fly as high as possible and bailout. De Seynes answered that he could jump since his engineer was with him in the plane. The Russian engineer told the pilot : ” It does not matter. You have to jump. I am an engineer and can easily be replaced but you, you are a pilot. ” He refused and tried to land a last time. Both him and his engineer died in the crash. Stalin ordered that both De Seynes and his engineer ( a man named Biezoloub ) were to be buried together in the same grave. De Seynes’ and Biezoloub’s deaths became legendary on the front and further developed the spirit of brotherhood between the French and Soviet pilots. Stamps in France were made at the effigy of the pilot and engineer, shaking hands.
- Roland d’Ivoy de la Poype ( 1920-2012 ) : Nicknamed ” the marquis “ because he was the son of a Count ( who was K.I.A. in 1940 as a Colonel ), de la Poype was in the Normandie-Niemen since its beginnings in 1942 and won 16 victories. At 27 years old, he already had 9 medals ( including the Legion of Honour and Hero of the Soviet Union ) and 12 citations in his regiment. De la Poype left the army in 1947 and became a renown industrial. In 1970, he created the theme park Marineland in Antibes. He died aged 92 in 2012 and was buried with every military honour and the presence of the Red Army Chorus. In 2007 he published his memoirs: The Epopee of the Normandie-Niémen.
Names of all the pilots who joined the Normandie Niemen during the Second World War :
Albert Marcel, De Seynes Maurice, Amarger Maurice, André Jacques, Delfino Louis, Beguin Didier, le Martelot Emile, Bertrand Jacques, Bizien Yves, de Geoffre François, Castelain Noël, Derville Raymond, Durand Albert, de la Poype Roland, Lefèvre Marcel, Littolff Albert, Reverchon Charles, Bayssade Jean, Mahe Yves, de Pange Jean, de Faletans Bruno, Poznanski André, Bourdieu Maurice, Preziosi Albert, de Saint-Marceaux Gaston, Risso Joseph, Schick Michel, Martin René, Bleton Pierre, Dechanet Yves, Tulasne Jean, Bernavon Adrien, Mertzisen Gabriel, Bon Maurice, Lemare Georges, Gaston Jacques, Brihaye Emmanuel, Laurent Alexandre, Perrin Marcel, Sauvage Jean, Sauvage Roger, Balcou André, Pierrot Fernand, Delin Robert, Barbier Léo, Monge Maurice, Lorillon Pierre, Boube Henri, des Forges Paul, Léon Gérald, Mathis Jacques, Schoendorff Joseph, Douarre Pierre, Pouyade Pierre, De Tedesco Jean, Henry Georges, Charras Marc, Le Bras Albert, Ougloff Maurice, Vermeil Firmin, Carbon yves, Largeau André, Matras Pierre, Astier Louis, Pinon Roger, Denis Roger, Fauroux Yves, Foucaud Henri, Gènes Pierre Rey Jean, De Sibour Jean, Jeannel Pierre, de Saint-Phalles Jacques, Mourier Yves, Joire Jules, Cuffaut Léon, Casaneuve Jacques, Feldzer Constantin, Querne Louis, Challe Maurice, Challe René, Marchi Robert, Penverne Roger, Manceau Jean, Verdier Marc, Castin Robert, Bagnères Jacques, Iribarne Robert, Moynet André, Monier Charles, Emonet Jean, Miquel Charles, Taburet Gaël ( still alive ), De la Salle Charles, Versini Roger, Guido Maurice, Piquenot Jean.