The world was understandably shocked when France capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940, but not all Frenchmen accepted their country’s humiliation. Chief among them was General Charles de Gaulle, who fled to England to continue the struggle as the self-proclaimed head of the Free French government in exile. Almost alone at the beginning, others would join his cause.
Individually and in small groups, pilots of the French Air Force (Armée de L’air) made their way out of Vichy-controlled France, North Africa, Madagascar, and even Indo-China to join the Free French forces.
One such pilot, Louis Delfino, had scored several aerial victories against the Germans before France’s capitulation. He then flew for Vichy at Dakar where he scored a victory over an RAF Wellington bomber before joining the Free French fighting on Britain’s side. By war’s end, Delfino’s official score against the Germans would be 17 victories, including seven in Russia. (It should be noted that recognized victories in the heat of battle are subjective and there is often more than one list of scores. The victories cited here are the “official” version of Normandie-Niemen pilots’ scores.)
Another French pilot, Constantin Feldzer was born in Ukraine in 1909. In 1917 his father immigrated with his family to France where, in 1929, Feldzer took up flying and flew missions during the Spanish Civil War. Against orders in June 1940, during the Sitzkrieg, or Phoney War, he shot down an Me-109 that had intruded into French airspace. After France’s surrender and the establishment of the new collaborationist government at Vichy, Feldzer decided to defect. His perilous journey included imprisonment by the Vichy authorities in North Africa and subsequent escapes. When the Allies invaded North Africa, he was quick to join them and the Free French.
Soon, many of these stateless pilots had their property confiscated by Vichy and sentences of death imposed on their heads. Defiant, they formed their own fighter and bomber squadrons within the RAF, where they played an important but largely unsung part in the Battle of Britain. At least 13 French pilots were awarded the bronze Battle of Britain bar for their services in the skies over England between July 10 and October 31, 1940. Other Frenchman served in regular RAF squadrons, most notably the future Prime Minister of France, Pierre Mendés-France (1954-1955).
De Gaulle Sidelined by the Allies
De Gaulle believed that it was important for French soldiers to fight alongside the Allies and against the Germans anywhere possible. When the Soviet Union was invaded in June 1941, de Gaulle declared, “Without agreeing to discuss now the depravity and even crimes of the Soviet Regime, we must declare, as Churchill did, that we’re very sincerely with the Russians as they are fighting the Germans.”
He reached out to Stalin with offers of assistance and a request that his Free French organization be recognized as the legitimate government of France. Stalin broke relations with Vichy when Russia was invaded but he hedged about recognizing de Gaulle. He did not think that de Gaulle had much to bring to the table and, besides, in the summer and fall of 1941, he was preoccupied with the German invasion.
De Gaulle’s relations with the United States were no easier. After Pearl Harbor, de Gaulle offered to send a squadron of Free French fighter pilots to serve with the United States, proposing to call them the “Lafayette Escadrille” (or Escadrille de Lafayette) in honor of the American pilots who served with France in World War I. The U.S. Army Air corps turned him down.
Even after entering the war following Pearl Harbor, the United States continued to maintain diplomatic relations with the Vichy government, and de Gaulle was frozen out. To Franklin Roosevelt, de Gaulle was a demagogue who had never been legitimately elected by the French people. Churchill reluctantly followed FDR’s lead. It soon became apparent to de Gaulle that the Anglo-American alliance would overlook French interests. He was determined to counter this by building bridges to Stalin.
Groupe de Chasse 3: An Air Force For Stalin
In March 1942, de Gaulle ordered that a new group of Free French fighter pilots and ground personnel be organized; they would be offered to Stalin to fight alongside the Soviet Air Force. Stalin tentatively accepted this idea, provided that the French pilots were of the highest caliber. Thus began a remarkable saga of courage and fortitude.
De Gaulle dispatched Albert Mirlesse to Moscow to be the French representative for the proposed air squadron. Mirlesse was the French-born son of Russian Jewish émigrés who fled the czarist police in 1905; he spoke fluent Russian and worked closely with the Soviets to iron out the details.
By September 1942, French pilots began gathering in Syria, which was newly liberated from Vichy control. There they trained and honed their flying skills while studying Russian.
The new force was known as Groupe de Chasse 3 (GC3). This was the equivalent of an RAF wing with three squads (or escadrilles), though it would be awhile before the new Groupe was up to full strength.
All Free French squadrons were named after French provinces. GC3 took the nom de guerre of “Normandie” (Normandy). Its insignia, borrowing that of the province of Normandy, included two golden leopards, one above the other, on a red background. Beneath the lions was a white lightning bolt, the symbol of their Soviet Division.
For de Gaulle, France naturally came first. When visiting Joseph Pouliguen, the first commandant of GC3 in Syria, he remarked, “Above everything, when you have any decision to make, always ask yourself: what is the interest of France in that matter?”
Pouliguen was a Great War veteran who had been wounded as an infantryman. He then took up flying and completed 30 missions in a Breguet XIV, a large biplane used as a bomber and for reconnaissance, before war’s end. He then flew 30 missions against the emerging Bolsheviks. He reenlisted in 1939 but resigned his commission in the Armée de L’air before escaping France to join the Free French.
Political Games in the Soviet Union
The next task was to get the pilots and crew to Russia. It was decided that sailing from England to Murmansk was too dangerous because of the very active menace of U-boats which were taking a heavy toll of Allied shipping in the North Sea. Another route had to be found.
In November 1942, three American DC-3s from Egypt were made available to take the group of 12 pilots, their ground crews, and equipment first to Baghdad and then to Tehran. They flew on to Russia on three Lisunov LI-2s (which were essentially Douglas DC-3s built under licence in the USSR). By November 28, the pilots and ground crews assembled at their training center at Ivanovo, 125 miles northeast of Moscow.
The pilots were under no illusions about the nature of the Soviet government. Pilot Roland de la Poype would later write, “As soon as we reached USSR in 1942, I was not fooled about the reality of the Soviet regime. Along with all my friends, I was not seriously listening to the conferences organized by the political commissar. But all of us were strongly united by our determination to fight the Nazis, and that was all. Even at the worst of the Cold War, the friendship bonds we had during the war were still there.”Coming from Syria, they were not ready for the extreme cold of the Russian winter. Temperatures of 30 to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit were common. But they were warmly and officially welcomed into the Soviet Air Force, which providently provided them with some winter gear. The pilots were assigned to heated cabins with three or four men to a room. Their rations consisted of porridge of millet seeds and an occasional bit of sausage of questionable origin.
Their willingness to fight did not keep them from being tested. One night Michel Schick, a French pilot and liaison officer who spoke Russian fluently, was attending a circus in Moscow. There he met a lovely, young Russian woman who invited him back to her apartment. There with a friend, a war widow, they drank vodka and flirted. Suddenly one of the women asked Schick if he had heard of the Stalinist purges in which thousands had been killed. They called Stalin “a crazy pig” and worse. Smelling a trap, Schick replied that a French officer would never listen to such “shit.” He stood up and abruptly left.
Upon returning to base, Schick informed Commandant Pouliguen of the incident. Together they confronted an officer of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Russian was told that the French had come to fight and did not have time for these games. They suspected that the culprit was the Soviet political liaison officer assigned to them. Within a week he was replaced by a Lieutenant Kounine who spoke perfect French. (Like all units in the Soviet military, Normandie was assigned a political officer whose job it was to monitor the opinions of his charges. Despite this, Kounine was accepted as a part of Normandie and became fast friends with everyone.)