Marcel Albert served in the air arms of his native France and Britain before hitting full stride flying Soviet fighters in the Normandie Regiment.
No air force’s involvement in World War II was more complicated than that of France. Inadequately prepared for war, French airmen put up a stout resistance, only to see their government capitulate to the Germans on June 22, 1940. One group of airmen carried on in the service of the nominally neutral Vichy government. Some fought against their former British allies over Lebanon and Syria in 1941, and over Morocco and Algeria in 1942. Others, taking a stand with exiled General Charles de Gaulle, served in British RAF squadrons. After the Germans occupied
France entirely in November 1942, many former Vichy French pilots rejoined the Al lied side, flying British- or American-built aircraft. By then another contingent was seeing action in a special all-French unit of the Soviet Red Army Air Force, known initially as the Normandie Group and later as the Normandie-Niémen Regiment. France’s highest-scoring ace of the war, Marcel Olivier Albert served in three air forces. Among the first to pilot France’s Dewoitine D.520 fighter in combat, he later flew Supermarine Spitfires for the RAF. But he achieved his greatest success in Soviet-built Yakovlev fighters, scoring 21 of his 23 accredited victories with the Normandie Regiment.
Albert was born in Paris on November 25, 1917, in the middle of World War I. “My father was wounded and taken prisoner in the Somme in 1914,” he said. “He later died because of a shell [fragment] in his back, which the doctors thought was only under the skin, but it was through a lung. His three brothers and their brother-in-law all were killed in the war. One took a shell to the head, another was buried alive at Verdun—five casualties of war in the same family, that’s a hell of a lot.”
A decade after the war, 11-year-old Marcel drove a truck to earn money for his family. “We had a little farm near Orly Airport, and they later made us close the farm to expand the airport,” he remembered. “At that point, I decided to join the air force. I passed the examination at the Sorbonne in Paris. They took in 156 enlistees from France and the colonies, and I was sent to the École Caudron, one of five schools in the Paris area where they were training military pilots. After graduating, I was sent to Istres for seven or eight months of fighter training. When I finished in July 1939, I had the rank of sergeant. After training a little more, I was assigned to Groupe de Chasse [fighter group] I/3, or GC.I/3, which was about to be equipped with the Dewoitine D.520C.
“It was a good, sensible airplane. It handled and climbed well and dived like a stone, but it was not quite fast enough. France had not kept up with fighter development over the past eight to 10 years. The Hispano-Suiza engine could produce 860 hp in 1930, and in 1940 it was still producing 860 hp. That’s why the De woitine was still too slow. It was a bit better than the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406, but it had the same motor.”
Albert trained on the new fighter at Cannes from February to May 1940. “We trained until May 13,” he recalled, “by which time the Germans had begun their invasion of France. The next day, with 20 Dewoitines in two escadrilles [squad rons], GC.I/3 began operating from Rheims.
“On May 14, I shot down a Dornier Do-17 during my first mission,” Albert continued. “A Morane came along, the pilot saw me, thought I was a Messerschmitt and took off. In order to confirm my claim, I needed a witness, so I followed the Morane and got its pilot to bear witness—and he ended up being credited with a share of the Dornier. During my second mission of the day I shot down a Messerschmitt Me-109. I saw the German pilot open his canopy, but the authorities claimed that nobody else saw it go down, so it was not confirmed.”
GC.I/3 was credited with a number of victories in the course of the next few days, but by May 17 the Luftwaffe had practically bombed it out of existence. Albert and some squadron mates went to Toulouse to obtain replacement aircraft for the unit. “On May 20, I shot down a Heinkel He-111,” he recalled. “I remember he was smoking real bad—it is hard to remember more amid that atmosphere of fright. I flew 17 missions in May and 20 in June. Then, on June 18, I flew to North Africa.”
France capitulated four days later. “We had lost the war, and the politicians were just blaming the soldiers, who had gone to die for them,” Albert said. “Those politicians were a bunch of dummies, and if there could have been a revolution against them, I was ready to lead one.
“At first, I did not know what to do,” he recalled. “We thought, ‘The British aren’t going to defeat the Germans.’ Britain did not have many aircraft, it was all alone—it seemed pretty hopeless. At that time, Vichy was France, so I continued serving with GC.I/3 for more than a year in North Africa. I was angry when the Royal Navy attacked the French fleet in Mers-el-Kebir Harbor, near Oran, on July 3, 1940. Twelve hundred French sailors were killed there—and now that damned Winston Chur chill, who never liked the French a bit, has a statue on the Champs Elysées! On the other hand, the British held out during the Battle of Britain, de Gaulle was there, the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941—and it looked like the Americans might be coming into the war later. It looked good, so on October 14, 1941, I and two friends, Albert Durand and Marcel Lefèvre, decided to deviate from our patrol route and go to Gibraltar.”
Two months later, Albert, Durand and Lefèvre were in the RAF, learning English and training in Spitfires at Heston, under the command of Free French officer Maurice Choron. “He had been training pilots in England since 1940 and he was a terrific fellow,” Albert recalled. “One afternoon we were flying those Spitfires and he said, ‘Make some aerobatics over the officer’s mess.’ A couple of days later he left, saying: ‘I’ve got to go in the first mission of 340 Squadron. I’ve got to go. It’s my friend, Michael Robinson, who is the squadron commander.’”
On April 10, 1942, Wing Commander Robinson, an 18-victory ace who had recently been appointed leader of the Tangmere Wing, led No. 340 Squadron on its inaugural sortie—only to be jumped by Focke Wulf Fw-190A-1s of II Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 26. Robinson, Choron and another squadron member were shot down and killed.
Asked his impression of the Spitfire Mark Vb, Albert said: “It was easy to fly, like the Dewoitine, but it wouldn’t climb. German fighter pilots like Adolf Galland were playing with them during our fights over the Channel. I flew the Spitfire Mark IX after the war, with both long and clipped wings, and that didn’t impress me so much either—not after having flown the Yakovlev Yak-3. The Yak-3 was something like the Caudron of the 1930s—a racing airplane.”
During May Albert flew his first of 47 combat missions in the Spit, mostly participating in convoy patrols and sweeps. “I met a German once,” he remembered. “He was either on a weather flight or lost, and he was going so fast that he soon disappeared. I know I put a few bullets in his wing, and I saw my bullets hitting the water, so I knew how low he was. But I had no gun camera, so I had to report him only as damaged.
“On July 4, 1942, I escorted the first raid of the U.S. Army Air Forces against the Germans in France. There were six Douglas Boston Mk.IIIs, borrowed from No. 226 Squadron, RAF, with Eighth Air Force crews. Twenty squadrons—250 Spitfires—were in on the day’s airstrikes, and it is in my logbook that I was on close escort for the Americans. Two Bostons were shot down at Fressing, Holland, by anti-aircraft fire, and I was 50 feet from them when it happened. Afterward my CO said: ‘I saw you go upside down. I thought they got you too.’ I remember the gunner in the back of one of those Bostons—he was shooting at the Germans on the ground and then giving me the thumbs up sign.”
After a sweep over Le Havre and one more mission, Albert was told, “You’re going to Russia.” When de Gaulle proposed sending French pilots to the Soviet Union late in 1942, Albert had expressed an interest in serving there. Now the time had come.
“I recall thinking that Russia was so far away that by the time we got out there the war would be over,” Albert said. “Otherwise, I wasn’t worried—after all, we were all fighting against Adolf Hitler. We learned a bit of Russian, but we had interpreters, so we didn’t need to use it much. They gave us a choice of fighters, including such Western Lend-Lease types as the Hawker Hurricane and the Curtiss Kittyhawk. We said, ‘OK, we’ll take the Russian planes.’ We couldn’t go out there and tell them we wanted somebody else’s airplanes. So we took the Yak-1. Ours had good power and could go 600 kilometers per hour, faster than the Messer. It didn’t have much armament: one cannon and one machine gun.”
Albert flew his first combat mission with the Normandie Group from Polotniani-Zavod, south of Moscow, on March 22, 1943. “There were supposed to be eight of us,” he said, “but the snow was melting and six planes got stuck, so by the time we took off there were only two—Joseph Risso and I. We escorted Russian dive bombers over the Dniepr River. We all dived; they hit the bridge, and at that time my motor cut off. That was the worst time of my life in the whole war. I was looking down at a little village in the snow and figuring I was in bad shape. Then I remembered the emergency fuel pump. I started pumping by hand, and it restarted, then stopped—the propeller was still turning, but the motor was dead. I pumped some more and it started again, and I want you to imagine my relief. I was 150 kilometers behind German lines— that would have been a nasty place to end up on my first mission.
“As I flew back, I never looked behind once until I landed at the first airfield I found, since I was lost. The Soviets gathered around my plane—brand-new, white-painted. They had never seen anything so nice. I was wearing a Russian jacket, but when I told them, ‘Ya Frant suski,’ they asked, ‘Do you have some identification card or papers?’ I said yes—it was as big as a page from a newspaper. They asked if I had money; I had 600 or 700 rubles, brand-new. And they still thought I was a Fritz. They made a lot of phone calls, until finally they got an interpreter and a French representative out there, and then they gave me something to eat. Even then they still were not convinced that I was not a very clever spy. That night they took my pistol, and they asked me the next morning: ‘Do you know you only have three bullets in your gun? Why?’ I asked them, ‘What am I going to do, take on an army with it?’ And when I left they gave me 25 liters of gasoline. You can’t go far with six gallons of gas, but my airfield was not far—that was the idea. Risso wondered what had happened to me until I made my way back. I think the Russians had been testing us to see if we would satisfactorily accomplish our first mission—so we did.”
On June 16, Albert scored his first aerial victory since 1940 in concert with Albert Preziosi, nicknamed “Précieuse.” “Pré cieuse was my No. 2—he was a captain, but he could not turn his head, so I led him,” Albert recalled. “We had an observer on the ground, and I heard him say over the radio, ‘There is a Fritz who’s taking pictures at the railroad station.’ I looked and saw a Focke-Wulf Fw-189. I came at him from underneath, shot him in all parts of the fuselage, then the engines. He turned back toward Germany until he went down to crash, and we left him there, burning and smelling bad. The Russians gave us the confirmation.”
Albert and his fellow pilots enjoyed a relatively quiet spell in their sector until July 5, when the Germans launched Operation Citadel, their great offensive on the central front against the Soviet salient between Kursk and Oryol. “At the same time,” he said, “we got our first Yak-9s, which were faster and climbed better than the Yak-1s. The Yak-9 was rough and good to fight in.”
Moving to Vibetsk, the Normandie Group flew its first sortie of the Kursk campaign on July 12. “On July 14, the Russians cracked the German front,” Albert recalled, “while in the air we were shooting at so many planes you wouldn’t believe it. I took off with two wingmen that day—Jean de Tedesco, who was back from England, and Preziosi—when three Messerschmitt Me-110s passed under us at 12:20 p.m. De Tedesco was not paying attention to what he was doing—he dived through the middle of them, and they shot him down and killed him. I stayed with those three Me-110s for quite a while, with Preziosi above and behind me. As I started firing, they turned very tight, but I cut inside them and got two of them at the same time. Pierre Pouyade and Didier Beguin also claimed one, though I didn’t see them there. The Russian infantry, however, reported two Me-110s shot down by Yaks, so I gave one to Pouyade and Beguin, and took the credit for only one.”
Fighting around Kursk remained in tense. “We lost three guys on July 16, including 14- victory ace Albert Littolf,” Albert said. “I led three missions on the 17th. On the first we escorted eight Il yu shin Il-2 Sturmoviks to Bryansk and ended up 500 feet over an airfield of Fw-190s. They came down on us 10 minutes later and shot three of us down. During the evening mission we encountered 30 Fw-190s and I saw our commander, Jean Tulasne, go down. By then, we only had 12 planes left. Commandant Pouyade took over the group, and on July 19 I teamed up with Captain Paul de Forges, Gérald Léon, Maurice Bon and Risso to shoot down a Junkers Ju-88.”
By the end of July, the Red Army was on the offensive, which the Ger mans would delay but never again reverse. “On August 31, I attacked a Junkers Ju-87D, which was a very fragile plane and went down easy,” Albert said. “Its left side was burning, and I was 20 feet away when I saw the gunner turn his two machine guns and put two bullets in my plane. I went back and got the fellow. That was the last time we saw Ju-87s in Russia. The next day my friend Durand, who was credited with 10 victories, was killed in action, but Roland de la Poype and I downed an Fw-190.” Albert shot down another Fw-190 on September 17, and a third on the 22nd.
October was a busy month. “On October 4,” he recalled, “Pouyade was up with Roger Denis, Henri Foucaud, Bon, de la Poype and me when we spotted a Henschel Hs-126 photographing the area of Krasno, 60 kilometers east of Smolensk. Everybody got a piece of that one, which burned on the ground. On October 12, I was with Fou caud, attacking He-111s over Gorki, when we spotted two Fw-190s coming down. I pointed my nose at one of them and fired—and he blew up. Well, later that day Pouyade told me, ‘Albert, you got a big one today.’ Radio interceptions from the German side indicated that they were upset because Major Hans Philipp, a 206- victory ace, had been killed.
“On the 15th I flew my first mission against Ju-88s, and Lefèvre, Foucaud and I shot down two of them. During my second or third sortie of the day, we ran into 15 to 20 Fw-190s and had a wild dogfight, with fighters turning in every corner. We shot down five or six, one of which was credited to me and Foucaud, the other to me and Lefèvre. But we lost three guys, including Maurice Bon, whose score then stood at six.”
The Normandie Group stood down for a time after that, while Pouyade went to Algeria to press Generals de Gaulle and Henri Giraud to expand the group into a regiment. “That was authorized, and we were equipped with 40 aircraft by the time we returned to action in April 1944,” Albert recalled. “We didn’t have much to do during the summer of 1944—there were few Germans to beat up at Vitebsk, but on June 5 we lost Lieutenant Marcel Lefèvre, who by then was credited with 11 enemy planes. At the end of August, Josef Stalin gave us the title of Normandie-Niémen Regiment because of our defense of that river sector. Late in August the Russians brought us a dozen Yak-3s and said, ‘That’s what you’ll have.’ ”
The Yak-3 was essentially a smaller, stripped-down, lightweight redesign of the Yak-1. “It was still made primarily of wood,” Albert pointed out, “though later ones after the war were made of aluminum. At 690 kilometers per hour, the Yak-3 was the fastest Soviet fighter of the war, but it also came down real fast—230 kilometers per hour, the maxi mum speed during World War I, was our landing speed. When it came to maneuverability, there was no comparison with the D.520, the Spitfire or even with the previous Yaks—a very agree able airplane.”
On August 13, 1944, the first Soviet army elements entered East Prussia, which Hitler ordered his forces to defend at all costs. “On October 13,” Albert re called, “tanks of the Soviet II Tank Corps appeared on our airfield with a barrel of vodka, and they told us they were going into Königsberg and we were supposed to cover them. There was yelling—‘Bravo!’
“On October 16, I joined de la Poype, Robert Marchi, Gaël Taburet and Roger Sauvage in shooting down a Ju-87 over Pillupönen, and then Sauvage and I downed another. We also fought seven Fw-190s southeast of Stallupönen, and at least six went down, although the Soviet infantry only reported seeing five. I saw one leaving and went after that one. The Fw-190 went down once and up twice, until I closed to 15 feet behind him. He was turning when I fired, and then crack—down he went. The regiment shot down 29 planes that day.”
Roger Sauvage, a black comrade of Albert’s, distinguished himself over East Prussia. “He was born in Paris,” Albert said, “but his father was from Martinique and was killed in action during World War I. For a while he was my No. 2. Sauvage had downed two Germans over France in 1940, and he got five more between October 14 and 17, 1944. His total stood at 16 by the end of the war.”
On October 16, Albert’s flight spotted Henschel Hs-129Bs that were about to strafe some Russian troops. “The Hs-129 had two little 700-hp motors, and it didn’t have a machine gun in the back, but it was armored, and our 12.7mm rounds had to go through a lot of steel,” he said. “We were firing 1,200 rounds a minute—I got one with Lieutenant Maurice Amarger and another with Captain Léon Cuffaut and Yves Fauroux. They didn’t last long, and the Russkis were happy to be rid of them. Later that same day, with Amarger, I surprised an Fw-190 and downed that as well.
“On another occasion, while flying with Marchi, I saw a fighter-bomber version of the Fw-190 near Tilsit which was so dirty that I almost failed to see the poor fellow. I came up on him, but I ap proached too fast, overshot and ended up by his left wingtip. I was in a bad position to attack, so I just waved. The German’s mouth opened wide, then he laughed. I waved bye-bye and let him go.”
On October 23, Albert and Marchi shared credit for downing an Me-109. “Then, on the 26th,” Albert recalled, “de la Poype, Robert Iribarne and I saw some shiny new Me-109s. They were turning under us, and we attacked one. I was on top of him—he made a right turn, which was not the thing to do. My Yak cut inside his turn, I shot pieces of metal off him. He went down and that was the last one. He had black bands on him and was all shiny—poor Fritz.
“On April 12, 1945,” Albert continued, “Georges Henry scored his fifth victory over an Fw-190, but was then shot down by groundfire and died of his wounds in the hospital a few hours later—our last loss in Russian service, poor fellow. For us, the war was finished on May 9, not the 8th. I had flown the unit’s first mission, and I flew the last one. They had been shooting like hell the day before, just 20 miles away. On the 9th I was sitting in my plane when the Russians told us that there were some Germans who didn’t want to surrender, so we had to fly a support mission. As I took off on my first mission at 12, I told myself, ‘The war is over—I’m not going to fool around too much.’ Before my second mission that day, the Russian general told us to turn off our motors—the German surrender was official.”
After returning to France, Albert served at Le Bourget and later at the Armand Testing Center at Oranges, flying German as well as American aircraft. “Later I put in for aerobatic school,” he said, “where I took off in a D.520 and the engine caught fire. I parachuted into a farm, a little burned and cut in the head, and they brought me to the hospital in a coffin on a wagon.
“After two or three days, I went to Paris and told them I wanted to do something without flying for a while. I was sent as air attaché to Prague, Czechoslovakia, where I first made the acquaintance of Freda, who was working as a secretary for the U.S. ambassador. I left the working for Air France. I met Freda again in New York in 1948, and we married.
“In 1954-1955 I went into manufacturing paper cups. I bought a machine from Helmut Meyer, a former Waffen-SS man, and established the Normandie Cup Company in Virginia. I earned a small businessman of the year award, while Freda pursued a legal career.”
It was some 40 years before Marcel Albert began to attend reunions of his old unit in France. In June 2002, he traveled to Paris for the dedication of a new statue of de Gaulle, when he was reunited with the only remaining Normandie-Niémen aces besides himself: Roland de la Poype and Joseph Risso. As of this writing, he is the last living ace of aces of any WWII combatant nation.
For further reading, Aviation History research director Jon Guttman recommends: French Eagles, Soviet Heroes: The Normandie-Niemen Squadrons on the East ern Front, by John Clarke; and French Aces of World War 2, by Barry Keltey.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.