Replica of Normandie Niemen ace Marcel Lefèvre's mount, Yak 9 '14 Le Père Magloire' exhibited outside the now defunct "Normandie" museum at Les Andelys on the Seine. Lefèvre was one of the leading aces of the "Neu-Neu" and originally from Les Andelys - the emblem celebrates his links with Normandy, "Le Père Magloire" being a particularly well known brand of Calvados apple Brandy. Pictures by Martin Bull
The French documentary on the Normandie Niemen, above, opens with footage of the pilots returning home to France. They flew into Le Bourget, Paris on 20 June 1945 to the clamour of a huge crowd of well-wishers. The film concludes with an interview with veteran NN ace Roland de la Poype.
Unfortunately there is little in English on the history of the French volunteer fighter unit that fought in Russia alongside the Soviets. John D. Clarke's book 'French Eagles, Soviet Heroes' is unfortunately a terrible read. It is essentially a (very poor) translation of the unit's service journal and as such is written in a very dry style - disappointingly there is little to be gleaned on the men themselves; the pilot's careers or their service history. However if you can read French then memoirs and histories abound.
During 1942 the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, enjoying limited freedom of action in London, set in motion a variety of initiatives to preserve France's 'honour' and 'influence' alongside the Americans and British. One of these initiatives was the opening of negotiations with the Russians with the aim of sending an escadrille of French pilots to fight alongside the Soviet Air force on the Eastern Front. On 1 September 1942, the Groupe de Chasse III or 3rd Fighter Group 'Normandie' was created under its first operational CO Jean Tulasne. Tulasne's career highlighted the dilemma that many French pilots faced after June 1940. As one of them put it; " it was not so much a question of doing one's duty, but actually knowing what one's duty was.."
Tulasne had initially gone to the Middle East with GC I/7 (Rayak, Bekaa valley, Syria) in early 1940 and had taken no part in the French campaign. Although his wife and young child were in France, Tulasne was determined to continue fighting - with the RAF if possible - following the French armistice with the Germans. He had seized his chance on 5 December 1940. Airborne from Rayak at the controls of MS 406 No. 819 he headed for British-controlled Palestine. Officially reported lost at sea by the Vichy authorities, he was promoted to the rank of Commandant during February 1941 by the Free French, assuming command of GC 1 Alsace in September 1941. Tasked with setting up the third Free French fighter Group destined to fight on the Russian front, Tulasne was entrusted with training the first volunteers, pilots such as Albert Littolff, Préziosi, Derville. The trials and tribulations involved with establishing his new command were enormous - not unnaturally the RAF were unwilling to allow the French pilots that they had trained and assembled in No.340 (Free French) Squadron to depart overnight for the Soviet Union. The journey to reach the Soviet Union followed a tortuous route via north Africa and the Middle East for those Free French pilots based in the UK. Among their number was Roland de la Poype who had flown some sixty sorties as Paddy Finucane's wingman in 602 Squadron. It was with no little apprehension that the first 'Normandie' pilots boarded the three Dakotas in Teheran (Iran) that would fly them to Russia during November 1942. Tulasne related some of his fears;
" what concerned me the most is not so much the thought of aerial combat with the Germans on the Russian front, but how we would cope with the uncertain conditions in Russia, the vastness of the country, the cold. We didn't know the regime, the people or the language. In addition our men came from a variety of backgrounds and were lacking a homogenous flying training programme. What sort of technical assistance would we enjoy? Not least of our problems was that we knew nothing of the aircraft the Russians flew..."
Arriving in Ivanovo -north east of Moscow- from North Africa the first 13 'Normandie' pilots started training on the Yak-1 fighter aircraft - Tulasne had selected this type over the Hurricane and the P-39, the latter type not having enjoyed a very good press in the UK. This choice of aircraft was seen by some as a gesture towards the Soviets, but the Yak 1 was a highly manoeuvrable little cannon-armed fighter that suited the Gallic temperament (according to Chris Ehrengardt) and one that the 'Normandie' would not regret. The French pilots were soon impressing their Soviet hosts with their airmanhip and acrobatic prowess as ace Roland de la Poype explains in the video above (at 02:30, still image below). Louis Delfino in particular, last commander of the Normandie Niemen was flying figures never before seen in the Yak (in particular an 'outside loop')
First victorious sortie was flown on 5 April 1943, an escort mission for Pe-2s bombers of the 261st Regiment. Pilots Albert Préziosi and Albert Durand, airborne from Polotniani-Zavod, south-west of Moscow, achieved each downed a Fw 190 in the region of Loudinovo..
Over the next two years, the notoriety of the 'Normandie' group grew quickly. They were to become not only the most highly decorated French fighter unit of the war but the second highest scoring fighter air group of the Soviet Air Force. The Normandie fought the Luftwaffe on over 800 separate occasions. Joseph Risso described a combat with eight Fw 190s on 13 October 1943 near Lenino, 20 km north of Gorki;
".. we had crossed the front lines at altitude when we spotted two La-5 fighters in difficulty being harried by about five or six Fw 190s. We dove on them straight away. Flying top cover I was the last to wing over and head down. I saw one of the Fw 190s leave the La-5s and slide in behind a Yak which immediately pulled up into a chandelle, with the Focke Wulf still snapping at his heels. I had only to pull back on the stick a little to come in on the German's tail and snap out a brief burst. I saw his prop judder to a stop. The Fw 190 fell away and went down. On my return my victory was confirmed - the Fw 190 had been seen to auger in. When I related what had happened, Roland de la Poype said to me ; ' it was me in the Yak. I put him on a plate for you, how about we share that one ?' I agreed readily - a half share each.."
Line-up of Normadie aces seen in October 1943, from the left, Marcel Albert, Roland de La Poype, Marcel Lefèvre and Joseph Risso
During 1944 Stalin was to honour the Normandie by adding 'Niemen' to their title in recognition for the help they rendered the Soviet Army in crossing this river. One of the first Allied fighter units to operate from occupied German territory, the 'Normandie-Niemen' clashed with JG51 Mölders in the huge air battles over Konigsberg in March 1945. By the war's end and over 5,000 sorties flown, the Group had achieved some 273 confirmed victories and another 36 probables before their triumphal return to Le Bourget, Paris on 20 June 1945. Forty-two of the squadron's pilots were killed and 30 reached ace status. Four of its pilots, Marcel Albert, Marcel Lefèvre, Jacques André and Roland de La Poype, became Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Above; Robert Marchi at the controls of his Yak and below; Yak 3 in Normandie-Niemen colours exhibited at the Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, Le Bourget.