January 16, 2015

1943. The Free French Squadron in Russia

The Men of the Normandie-Niemen Squadron
June 17, 1943: "French pilots from the 'Normandie-Niemen' squadron, who fought against the Germans on the Soviet-German front: junior pilot Joseph Risso, [Lieutenant Dervior] and Lieutenant Noel Castelain (died in a July 16, 1943 during the battle against the Focke-Wulf of 51 squadron of the Luftwaffe. In the background, the Yak-1B." (Photo by Mikhail Savin)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

April 9, 1943

It continues to be a "spring fever" front here in Russia, but wartime spring fever is hardly a languorous, lazy feeling. In the Soviet Union, the fever that comes with spring is a fever of preparation and planning. Soldiers and officers on both sides of the line work up a temperature cursing the mud and the water.

And all the time there is the sweat of bringing up supplies and regrouping troops in preparation for the summer fighting.

That's what is occurring on the front today. The Germans are maintaining their pressure on the Donets front. They attacked at a new place called Balakleya yesterday. This is about halfway up the Donets River and railroad line between Izium and Kharkov. The attack failed.

Meanwhile, the Red Army is putting on its own heat at two other sectors but making only local gains. The fighting on the Smolensk front has become stabilized. And in the Northern Caucasus, the struggle to kick the Germans out of the Kuban has again been slowed by heavy rains.

The Fighting French squadron stationed here in Russia has drawn its first blood. This group of young Frenchmen call themselves the Normandie squadron, and they have been training in the Soviet Union for many months. They are flying a crack Russian fighter plane, the Yak.

The first fighting assignment the Fighting Frenchmen received went to two young lieutenants who were ordered to escort two Russian bombers on a bombing mission just behind the German lines. The Frenchmen got the Red Army bombers to the target all right and were on their way home when they ran into a pair of Focke-Wulf 190s.

One of the lieutenants got an early burst into one of the German planes and had to retreat in flames. The other Focke-Wulf was shot down in a forest.

I have talked to these young Frenchmen before. They're a slim, good looking group of kids out for action. Many of them are veterans of the Fighting French air force in Britain. Here they operate under Russian command and have a great respect for the fighting abilities of the Russian fliers. One of them told me he was learning how the Soviet pilots ram German planes in combat. He said the Russians had developed a technique in which a pilot could knock the tail or wing off an enemy plane and do very little damage to his own ship.

And as a matter of passing interest, these Fighting French boys have made their conquests in Russia. The traditional French charm works in Russia too. If you want to see the best looking women in Russia, all you have to do is follow them around for a bit. Sooner or later they turn up with the prize winners.