Meet the Free French World War II Fighting Aces You've Never Heard of Before

By Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK - Yakolev Yak-9U [c/n 1257], CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64800968

Meet the Free French World War II Fighting Aces You've Never Heard of Before

The impressive Normandie-Niemen Squadron.

There were many more victories for the next two weeks. Even though German industry continued to turn out planes, their newer pilots were less well trained because severe shortages of fuel in Germany limited training flights.

The offensive stalled toward the end of October with a determined German counter-attack and the coming of winter weather, turning November into a time of consolidation and preparation. On the 27th, the regiment occupied a new field inside East Prussia. Of the Western Allies, Normandie-Niemen was the first combat group to occupy German soil. The inaction, though, wore on the veterans. It would be their third winter in Russia. With most of France now liberated, many longed to return home.

201 Enemy Planes Downed in 1944

In December, most of the regiment boarded a train for Moscow where General de Gaulle was on a state visit to see Marshal Stalin. All the pilots were excited to meet the man who had single-handedly redeemed France’s honor. At a special banquet, medals were awarded to the pilots and some Soviet personnel who worked closely with them.

Some of the veterans at last left for home. Their departure prompted the decision to reduce the regiment from four to three escadrilles. The year 1944 ended on a high note: all told, French pilots had shot down 201 enemy planes.

The weather now turned unpredictable, with snow followed by fog or brief moments of clear skies. Sometimes the snow had to be shoveled off a runway before planes could take off. The squadron also received a new commandant: Louis Delfino, who began the war flying for Vichy. He took over operational duties from Pierre Pouyade, who had gone home with 17 other veterans.

New pilots trained when the skies were clear but few missions were flown until January 13, 1945, when the Soviet offensive was resumed. Normandie-Niemen pilots added to their victories but began sustaining increased losses of their own as the fighting intensified.

Striking deeper into East Prussia, the Red Army began liberating French prisoners whom the Germans had put to hard labor. Whenever they could, the French pilots befriended their freed countrymen with gifts of cigarettes and food.

As the number of pilots diminished, there was news that 15 new replacement pilots were in Tehran waiting for transit to Moscow. It was hoped that a new Groupe de Chasse would be formed with the new pilots, but the war would end before this could be accomplished.

Last Battle of the Normandie-Nieman Squadron

The fight for the northern German city of Königsberg would be Normandie-Nieman’s last battle. As the Germans retreated in East Prussia, they gathered in the heavily defended fortress city on the Baltic for a last stand. The 3rd Byelorussian Army, which operated in this sector, unleashed all it had. Waves of bombers dropped tons of ordnance on German positions. Even the DC-3s got into the act as crews manhandled bombs out the side doors. Katyusha rockets sent more tons of explosives into the beleaguered city, and artillery and strafing added to the din, death, and destruction. The French flew protection and hunting missions during this climactic battle.

During the struggle, the French were charged with clearing the skies of the last vestiges of the Luftwaffe. Their new forward base was so close to the front that their runways received incoming fire from German artillery. Pilot Georges Henry (seven victories), who scored the squadron’s last victory on April 12, was killed the same afternoon by a German shell.

Losses during the battle reduced the regiment to two serviceable escadrilles, but even with reduced manpower, they flew all the missions assigned to them. In the end some 42,000 Soviet soldiers and an equal number of Germans died in the rubble of Königsberg.

Return to France

When Königsberg capitulated, Normandie-Niemen could finally stand down. In Berlin, the Germans announced their unconditional surrender. The war was over. More medals were handed out amid jubilant celebrations. Then Stalin himself gave the squadron pilots a unique gift. Forty Yak-3s were presented to the pilots as the Soviet leader’s special thanks for their services, and the men flew home in their planes.

Flying all the way from Moscow to Paris, the pilots were feted with banquets and champagne at every stop along the way. Their faithful Soviet mechanics went with them and shared in a bounty unheard of in their homeland. Reaching Paris in their Yaks in mid-June, the pilots received a heroes’ welcome, and the donated Russian planes would form the nucleus of France’s postwar air force.

It had been a long, hard war for these dedicated pilots. They had endured unimaginable privations: cold, disease, hunger, neglect, and a brutal enemy. Forty-two of their number had been killed. Yet over 30 of them became aces. They had collectively shot down a confirmed 273 enemy aircraft with many more probable, and their combat record of victories was the second highest score in the Soviet Air Force. During their 5,240 missions, they had also destroyed 27 trains, 22 locomotives, two E-boats, 132 trucks, and 24 staff cars, and damaged a number of tanks and armored vehicles.

For France, the accomplishments of Normandie-Niemen were a source of great pride and are remembered to this day by the French people. For many years the Memorial Normandie-Niemen museum was located at Les Andelys in Normandy, but it was closed in 2010 and the collection moved to a new and larger facility at the Le Bourget Airport in Paris (where Charles Lindburgh ended his historic 1927 transatlantic flight) that will open in 2012. The director of this new museum is Girard Feldzer, the nephew of Normandie-Niemen pilot Constantin Feldzer.

This article originally appeared in 2018 on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia.