Frenchmen in the Soviet Armed Forces in 1942—1945.


Text by 1JMA member Skorzeny

After the fall of France in June 1940, when general C. De Gaulle called upon his fellow countrymen staying on British soil to join him in the struggle for the liberation of France (18.06.1940), the Free French forces established their control over some parts of the vast colonial empire, including the New Hebrides, Cameroon, French Equatorial Africa, the New Caledonia, etc., whereas approximately 2/3 of French territory was occupied by Germany, and on the remaining 1/3 the Vichy government under Marshal Petain, satellite of Germany, emerged. However, some of the states of the future anti-Axis coalition preferred to uphold diplomatic relations with the Vichy government, the representatives of which were tried in France after 1945 for collaboration activities. For instance, the USA continued diplomatic relations with the Vichy France until autumn of 1942, expecting to exploit the situation in order to establish some sort of control over the French overseas territories in Western hemisphere and in North Africa. According to Cordell Hull, maintaining diplomatic relations with Vichy was reckoned appropriate and expedient policy in Washington, DC within 1940--1942 time span. The Soviet Union which was pursuing policies of cooperation with Germany, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, decided to maintain diplomatic relations with the Vichy government. Moreover, when the new Soviet representative A.Bogomolov was sent to Vichy France in November 1940(technically called "assistant of the political representative" and charge d'affaires), the Soviet embassy was actually reinforced with an experienced diplomat. The actual field of cooperation between Vichy France and USSR concerned primarily economic aspects: the crippled French economy desperately lacked raw-materials, and intensive negotiations regarding the supplies of Soviel oil, gasoline, timber and wool to Vichy took place. Although the actual deliveries were not particularly significant in numerical terms, they were clear sign of existing economic relations between USSR and Vichy. Following the events of June 22, 1941, when Germany declared war to the USSR, the Deputy People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs A.Vyshynski (notorious for participating and staging politically motivated processes during the great purge of 1936-1937 and later appearing at Nuremberg Tribunal) met the Vichy France ambassador to Moscow Bergerie at 22.00 on June 29, 1941. Bergerie announced that France dissolves diplomatic relations with the USSR referring to the "activities undertaken by the Soviet consular and diplomati personnel in France aimed at endangering the public order and state security", obviously referring to the Soviet intelligence efforts which unquestionably took place. Since the Soviet personnel could not leave Paris, the Vichy embassy personnel in Moscow was barred from leaving Soviet Union via neutral states. Moreover, in July 1941 the total of 87 French citizens were arested and interned in the USSR following the dissolution of diplomatic relations between Vichy France and the USSR. The Frenchmen remained in custody until October 1942, released as a gesture of good will towards the De Gaulle movement. Initially USSR remained extremely sceptical assessing the perspectives of De Gaulle in late 1940, but recognized him as "the leader of all free Frenchmen" on September 26, 1941 and agreed to host a Free French military mission in December 1941. After the Soviet government recognized the French Committee of National Liberation on August 27, 1943, it issued a declaration promising the transition of the premises of the French embassy, vacant since June-July 1941, to the Free French representatives. It was on May 25, 1944, that the plenipotentiary of the French Committee of National Liberation could move into the embassy with a number of auxilary personnel--quite amazingly, the USSR proved to be the first country in the world to turn the building of French embassy at the disposal of De Gaulle's movement. However, there were countless cases of serious conflicts between the Soviet government and the Free French movement, namely, the problem of territorial gains (De Gaulle attempted to secure Stalin's agreement for future French occupation of Ruhr and Rhein regions after the defeat of Germany), the problem of repatriation and the attempts to re-establish French colonial administration in Syria and Lebannon. Another French initiative concerned the liberation of the Wehrmacht prisoners of war hailing from Alsace and Lorraine, voiced in march 1943 and firmly rejected by the Soviet side; however, in summer 1943 such POWs were filtered in camps and placed in separate barracks; after repeated French requests in April 1944 the decision was taken in May 1944 to release Alsace and Lorraine-origin POWs, which was accomplished in July, when 1700 servicemen were transported to North Africa via Iran and Middle east.

The Soviet—French cooperation was also imporant in the field of military propaganda. In April 1943 the Free French mission in Moscow was allowed to broadcast a 15-minute radio program every week for the population of occupied France employing the Soviet radiostations, and since May the programs were broadcasted two times a week. Moreover, it was agreed that the prominent radical Soviet writer and journalist of Jewish origin Illya Erenburg would regularly contribute to the major Gaullist newspaper—the “Marseillaise”. Another important matter concerned the attempt to establish the new direct aerial routes, allowing easier communication between the French and Soviet political and military missions. In September 1943 the French side offered the Soviet government to establish a regular aviation route Algiers—Moscow, so as to provide a permanent link between the institutionalized Free French political citadel and the USSR, then treated by General De Gaulle as a possible counterbalancing power as compared to Britain or the USA. Since the routes Damascus—Algiers (French) and Moscow—Teheran (Soviet) were employed intensively since 1941, it was suggested to link the two routes via Damascus, employing French airfields and support personnel. The first immediate difficulty arising at the negotiations in Moscow in October 1943 concerned the availability of the necessary hardware—at that time the Free French airforce possessed mere 12 transport aircraft at its disposal. The Soviet side, obviously interested in developing its intelligence assets in the region, practically non-existing in fact, would agree to provide as many aircraft as necessary, but it appeared that the route would inevitably pass through airspace of Iraq and Egypt, with which the USSR had no diplomatic relations. That consideration disrupted the project.

The most interesting aspect of French-Soviet relationship after the break of USSR with Vichy France was the participation of De Gaulle's troops in combat on eastern Front, suggested by the General personally on December 9, 1941 to A.Bogomolov, who acted as a Soviet ambassador at the allied governments in exile in London. De Gaulle suggested transferring one of his two divisions based in Syria (after the bloody campaign in early 1941) to USSR, all in all 6 infantry battalions, truck transport, artillery and a number of tanks and APCs, preferably by land from Syria through occupied Iran via Tebriz employing French transport facilities. he suggested accomplishing the deployment by March 1942, since the division consisted largely of Senegalese (40% with combat experience in France in May--June 1940), unfit for service in continental winter conditions. However, De gauulle predicted serious problems with the British command in the Middle east to thwart the procedure. In October 1941 the British government suggested deploying its troops on the Soviet territory for the potential defense of the North Caucasus, following earlier Soviet proposals to detach a British expeditionary force to the Northern or Southern front sectors. The suggestion was declined by Molotov on October 22. Therefore, the plan to deploy Free French troops in the USSR, positively viewed by the Soviet side, was doomed to be rejected by the British, who, additionally, planned to employ the French troops for operations in North Africa against the Germans. On December 27, 1941, Soviet People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs V.Molotov officially accepted de Gaulles offer and agreed to host one Free French division. In January 1942 the Free French side informed the Soviets that the division would probably reach the USSR in April, and that it would need Soviet transport aid to transport the personnel and hardware from Tebriz to the Soviet territory. It appeared that in practice the Free French "light" division would most probably make up a conventional motorized brigade, consisting of 5000 personnel, 150 officers, armed with French hardware and possessing ammunition for the period of 5 months. The Brigade would consist of 4 infantry battalions: 1 French, 1 mixed French/North African, 2 Senegalese?French battalions, 30--40 tanks, artillery and communication equipment. On January 29, 1942, De Gaulle complained to Soviet ambassador in Britain I.Majskij that the British side, although issuing its agreement for the transfer of troops, practically sabotaged the operation, under pretext of lack of transport in one case, and lack of fuel in another. On February 2, 1942 Majskij officially enquired A.Eden as for the reasons of such a strange attitude. Eden stated that after consulting General Auchinleck thye British government considered the deployemnt of the Free French forces in USSR impossible. Auchinleck referred to the fact that the artillery of the French divisions based in Syria was attached to the Free French forces operating in Lybia, that the total number of white Frenchmen in those two divisions (4800 servicemen) was totally inadequate for supporting the French combat capabilities either in Lybia or USSR. The transportation of De Gaulles division through Iraq and Iran was considered impossible without cutting the British military supplies to the USSR, and, moreover, Auchinleck refused to dispatch a Free French force until a replacement arrived from Britain. Eden also pointed out that in case the Soviet army would take care of supplying the French division with the necessary materials, there could still be some options, but in general the initiative was virtually scrapped. On March 30, 1942, General De Gaulle cabled his representatives in Moscow the following lines: “The deployment of our light motorized division in Russia is impossible under current circumstances, taking into account our campaign in Lybia. I request you to act in the way that the Soviet authorities would not have an illusion that our troop deployment can be realized in the nearest future and that we would take such a responsibility. Our desire to contribute to military operations in Russia is unquestionable, but we must carry out our current plans and responsibilities. Although, we are fully committed to sending a considerable number of well-trained fighter pilots to Russia”. Already on March 31 the Soviet deputy Airforce attache in London major-General Panfilov was contacted by the Free Frenchmen on the subject of sending a French air squadron to the USSR, and was assured that the French pilots would receive the Soviet entry visas without additional trouble. On April 8, 1942, the Soviet ambassador to the allied governments in exile in London A.Bogomolov received a French memorandum requesting permission for the transfer of 30 French pilots and 30 men of technical personnel to the USSR for combat operations. Although these modest numbers were very far from meeting De Gaulle’s bombastic tirades of “considerable number of well-trained fighter pilots”, thr Soviet side accepted the offer with surprising enthusiasm. This enthusiasm caused rather nervous reaction of the British government, in particular A.Sinclair of the Air Ministry, who summoned the air-referent of the French National Committee to inform him that the transfer of a French squadron would be considered undesirable: the loss of an air squadron of the British airforce was deemed unreasonable. Instead, he suggested the possibility of deploying a RAF bomber squadron in the Northern Caucasus employing the available British reserves in the Middle East. The Soviet historiography explains this phenomenon by a certain British restraint to allow the Free French forces to move into the theatre where the British side offered its assistance (although in a questionable format), but was rejected.

On May 24, 1942, the Soviet People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs V.Molotov had a meeting with General C. De Gaulle at the Soviet embassy in London, during which the latter specifically referred to his initiative to “send a small group of pilots to the USSR in order to contribute to the struggle which the Red Army leads against Germany”. De Gaulle requested that the Soviet side sends a liason officer or establishes a consular agency in the Free French-controlled Levantine region in order to aid the transfer. In June 1942 the Free French mission in Moscow formally confirmed that the awaited Free-French mechanized units would not arrive because of high losses in North Africa, but the fighter squadron will be deployed as soon as possible. In September 1942 a special French representative Captain Mirles arrived to Moscow for the practical arrangements, which were concluded by a special agreement signed on November 25, 1942, concerning “the participation of the French airforce in the operations in the USSR”. The conditions were specified as follows:

1. The Free French movement deployed a fighter squadron, raised according to a standard Soviet TO&E scheme, for the joint operations with the Soviet airforce.

2. The Soviet side was responsible for equipping the French personnel, as well as for the food supplies and the financial support. Also, the additional technical personnel necessary for the training purposes, would be detached by the Soviets.

3. The French squadron would have to oblige formally by the discipline standards of the Soviet armed forces, as well as existing Soviet regulations, charters and statutes, retaining autonomous administration within the unit.

4. The promotions, including wing commanders level, were the prerogative of the commander of the Soviet operational unit of which the squadron was the part, upon suggestions of the squadron commander.

5. The Frenchmen requested the distribution of the “best modern Soviet fighter aircraft” to the new unit, rejecting the proposed British or American planes shipped to the east Front by the lend-lease agreements.

6. The French side was respnsible for maintaining the numerical strength of a squadron at a definite level, keeping as many as 15 pilots in reserve for replacing the combat losses.

7. The Frenchmen also requested that the Soviet airforce provides necessary transport aircraft to transport the personnel from Teheran to the USSR.

The secret agreement was signed “for the duration of hostilities” and demanded that the French squadron could be withdrawn from the East Front only by the preliminary notification of the Red Army airforce command—at least 1 month before the withdrawal. The technical and operative details were agreed at a special meeting held on November 19, 1942, between Lieutenant-General Falaleev and Colonel Levandovich representing the Red Army airforce and Major- General Petie and Captain Mirles representing the Free French airforce. The first important issue arising was the type of the aircraft offered by the Soviet side—it appeared to be Yak-I type, presented by the Soviets as the “mainstay aviation hardware”.

The Frenchmen requested the employment of special national insignia and symbols for morale-boosting purposes, including a tricolour ribbon painted on the fuselage and a 50cm-large national unit markings on the cockpit. Soviet Colonel Levandovich remarked that the 50cm marking would be too large and provoke mistaken identification and possible AA-fire from the ground troops, therefore suggesting to reduce the size and placing of the marking. The relevant matter of communication difficulties inevitably arising was solved by the following measures: a special communication aicraft manned by a joint Franco-Soviet crew would co-ordinate the operations permanently, all French officers and NCOs were provided with Russian language course materials, as well as translated elements of regulations (however, the maps were available only in Russian variants, where some larger citities were typed in French). French language was recognized the official language in the unit, with the condition that gradually both sides would master each other’s language to make communication easier. The Frenchmen emphasized that their vision of the opreative deployment concentrated around “free hunt” tactics, definitely not including the AA-defence tasks, defending the bomber squadrons or ground-attack missions. Particularly important for the French pilots was the issue of proper winter uniforms and warm clothing, as they mostly arrived from tropical conditions, totally unprepared for the continental winter, and it was promise to arrange the delivery of necessary items to Teheran.

The French pilots were assembled in Beirut, then travelled to Baghdad and Teheran by trucks and were airlifted by 4 Soviet transport aircraft on November 12, 1942—all in all, 15 pilots and 44 technicians. As a rule, the French squadron was formed by the pilots escaping from Vichy France, Madagascar and Indochina, while some of them took long and dangerous routes, such as escaping from Marocco via Tanger and Gibraltar, or travelling via Turkey and Lebanon. On November 24 the French group arrived to the city of Ivanovo, not far from Moscow, stopping at Baku and Astrakhan. In Ivanovo, playing the role of a significant airforce training center, the French squadron, officially created on December 4, 1942, was included in the 6th Brigade for training purposes, receiving the unit banner—standard French tricolour with the symbol of Normandy province, a bit later also transformed into the name of the squadron—“Normandy”. The training airfields and barracks were situated in the city of Ivanovo, and later, in 1944, when the squadron was increased to the Regiment’s size, in Tula, also rather close to Moscow. The period of training and adaptation lasted for 3 month, and on March 22, 1943, the “Normandy” fighter squadron arrived to the frontline—based at the airfield Mukovnino (Kaluga region), the Soviet Western Front (commander—General V.Sokolovsky), where it was included in the order of battle of the 1st Soviet Air Army, subordinated to the 204th Bomber Division (March—May 1943) and later to the 303rd Fighter Division (May 1943—May 1945). During the battle of Kursk the “Normandy” squadron participated in combat in the Orel sector of the front and in August 1943 renamed into the 1st Separate Fighter Regiment “Normandy” of the Fighting France—although lacking necessary personnel to actually match the size of the unit. During 1943 the squadron claimed 77 German aircraft.

In January—April 1944 the “Normandy” Regiment was stationed in Tula, where it was increased to the size of 4 fighter squadrons, 70 Yak-I planes all in all, and in May 1944, together with the 303rd Fighter Division transferred to the area of Smolensk (3rd Byelorussian Front), flying numerous missions during operation “Bagration”. Having participated in the air-support missions during the crossing of river Neman in June 1944, the Regiment received the additional honorary name “Neman” in November 1944, and was called by the Frenchmen “Normandy-Neman” henceforth. The main opreations took place in the skies over Byelorussian cities of Borisov, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Minsk, Orsha, Lithuanian Kaunas, Alitus and Prussian Tilsit. The Regiment claimed 122 German aircraft shot down within June—December 1944, including 103 in October—November period, employing the tactics of group flights instead of the usual “free hunting”. In November 1944—January 1945 “Normandy-Neman” fought over Gumbinnen and Koenigsberg, and finished the war in East Prussia—at Elbing, from where the pilots were airlifted to France at the end of May 1945. Overall, in 1943—1945 96 French pilots flew 5240 combat sorties, engaged in combat encounters with the enemy for 869 times and claimed 268 German aircraft. The “Normandy” Fighter Regiment was awarded by the Soviet government the orders of Red Banner and Alexander Nevsky, 4 Frenchmen were awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” stars, whereas 34 French pilots were killed in combat, and 8 died in various accidents.


[1]. “The Soviet—French Relations During the Great Patriotic War 1941—1945: Documents and Materials”, Moscow: Politizdat, Vol.1, 1983, pp. 42, 61-92, 331-340…




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