Flying Soviet Yak-ovlev "Yak" fighters on behalf of the allies, Squadron Leader Marcel Albert became France's top fighter pilot ace on the Russian front during the Second World War, shooting down 24 German fighter planes in dramatic duels.
While the RAF's Hurricane and Spitfire pilots are well-recognised for their bravery in the Battle of Britain, their counterparts in General de Gaulle's Free French Air Force also played a vital role in the war as Hitler's army pushed towards Stalingrad backed by Luftwaffe bombers and fighters.
In all, the 96 pilots of Albert's four-squadron Groupe de Chasse [Fighter Group] Normandie-Niemen flew 5,240 missions over the Russian front and shot down at least 273 German fighters, mostly Junkers, Focke-Wulfs, Messerschmitts and Henschels, between 1943 and 1945. The Yak won a reputation as the finest fighter aircraft on the eastern front, favourably compared with the Hurricanes and Spitfires that had dominated the Battle of Britain.
Of those 96 French airmen, trained by the RAF, 42 never made it back to their liberated homeland. Stunned by the French pilots' successes over Russia, Nazi Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel famously issued the order: "any French pilot captured should be immediately executed."
Albert had flown 47 mostly peaceful missions in RAF Spitfires over the UK or France as a Free French Air Force pilot in 1941-42 before volunteering to back up Soviet pilots over the eastern front. He carried out 199 missions in the east from 1943-44, flying Yak-1, Yak-3 and Yak-9 aircraft and shooting down seven German planes in October 1944 alone. For his bravery he became one of a few foreigners to be named Hero of the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin and received multiple French awards, including, earlier this year, the nation's highest, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. The only French pilot who may have outshot Albert was the legendary Pierre-Henri "Clo Clo" Clostermann, said (though the figure has been disputed) to have accounted for 33 enemy aircraft. He, however, was flying Spitfires with RAF 341 and 602 Squadrons on the western front.
The Normandie-Niemen group, known fondly as le Neu Neu by the French, had been named simply "Normandie" by De Gaulle. It was Stalin who insisted on adding "Niemen" after the French flyers scored spectacular successes against the Luftwaffe over the River Niemen in what is now Belarus. The French group was one of only two units from western Europe to fight alongside Soviet pilots. The other was 151 Wing of the RAF – comprising Nos. 81 and 134 Squadrons and led by the New Zealander, Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes Ramsbottom-Isherwood. They flew Hurricane fighters in defence of the Soviet Union after Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's June 1941 invasion.
Marcel Olivier Albert was born to a working-class family in Paris's 13th arrondissement in November 1917, when the Great War was still raging. Fascinated by aeroplanes, he received a government grant for flying lessons while an apprentice metal worker and gearbox mechanic at the Renault plant in Boulogne-Billancourt, western Paris. Gaining his pilot's licence from the Istres flight school, he signed up with the Armée de l'Air, the French Air Force, on 7 December 1938. With France still at peace he flew Bloch 152s, Morane-Saulnier MS 406s and Hawk 75 fighters on routine missions and became a flight instructor at Chartres while still only 22.
When the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, Albert was assigned to Groupe de Chasse 1/3 in Reims and, flying a Dewoitine D-520, scored his first "kill", shooting down a German Dornier DO-17 bomber over Suippes, in the north-east of his country. A few days later he put a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter out of action.
After Marshal Philippe Pétain set up the collaborative Vichy government, Albert was assigned to Oran, Algeria, where he found himself theoretically at war with the RAF but wisely stayed out of the way of British fighter planes. While on a routine patrol over the Mediterranean on 14 October, 1941 – "refusing both defeat and inactivity," as he put it – he flew his Dewoitine D-520 to Gibraltar to defect and, after being briefly arrested as a potential spy, was shipped to England on a Royal Navy corvette. He recalled that several ships on the convoy were hit by German Stuka dive-bombers and that he itched for revenge and for the liberation of his country.
After meeting De Gaulle at the resistance leader's London headquarters, Albert joined the fledgling Forces Aériennes Françaises Libres (FAFL), the Free French Air Force, in December 1941, training first at the Old Dean camp in Camberley, Surrey, then at RAF Turnhouse in Scotland as part of the new RAF 340 (Free French) Squadron which called itself Ile de France. Later based at Redhill near Gatwick and RAF Biggin Hill, he flew Spitfire Mk 1 fighters emblazoned with the Free French Cross of Lorraine, mostly on defensive sorties across UK airspace but occasionally over occupied France. He learned that he had been condemned to death for treason by a French tribunal in Algeria.
On 20 June 1945, Albert and his remaining Normandie-Niemen comrades flew into Le Bourget airport, Paris, to a hero's welcome in their Yak fighters, donated to them by Stalin for their achievements. After the war, with the rank of Captain, he served as an instructor and test pilot at the Brétigny flight centre near Paris before being appointed French air attaché to Czechoslovakia in 1948. It was in Prague that he met his American wife, Frieda, and they moved to the US in the 1950s. He became a US citizen and spent the rest of his life there, mostly in Chipley, Florida, where he became president of a consortium which ran a chain of hotels in the Sunshine State.
After his wife died in 2008, a Texas-resident former post-war French Airforce pilot, Jean-Marie "John" Garric, known worldwide as a restorer of Yak aircraft, brought him to Harlingen, Texas, to look after him and it was there, in a nursing home across the Rio Grande from Mexico, that he died. There is now only one survivor from the Normandie-Niemen group – Roland de la Poype, now 90, who often flew as Albert's wingman.
A few months ago, to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Russia's consul general in Houston visited Albert to give him a commemorative medal and a bottle of fine vodka, with gratitude from the Russian people.
Captain Marcel Albert, pilot and businessman: born Paris 25 November, 1917; married Frieda (died 2008); died Harlingen, Texas 23 August 2010.