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Presidents salute heroic French war pilots

Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin have hounoured the legendary French pilots who fought in World War Two, unveiling a memorial to the Normandie-Niemen air regiment at Lefortovo Park in eastern Moscow.

The regiment was made up of French pilots who became Soviet war heroes during world War Two. They became the most decorated French fighter unit ever.

The regiment – originally called the Normandie squadron – was formed in 1942, when Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French resistance movement, sent more then 70 volunteers to fight with the Red Air Force on the eastern front.

The French pilots and mechanics spent a bitter winter learning from Russians how to fix and fly soviet Yaks. In late March 1943 the squadron finally headed to the front. By April it was upgraded to a fighter regiment.

The unit was given the honorary name Normandie-Niemen when the pilots protected the Red Army as they crossed the river Nemans between Russia and Lithuania.

By the end of the war the regiment was credited with bringing down 273 Luftwaffe aircraft. Their notoriety was such that Germans ordered Normandie-Niemen pilots be shot immediately on capture.

The human cost to the French force was great. Of the 96 pilots who served in the regiment, 42 lost their lives.

The Gallic aviators returned home as heroes in June 1945. The Soviets presented them with 37 of the Yak fighters they piloted during the war as a sign of gratitude.

In Les Andelys, about 90 km from Paris, there is a memorial to the regiment. There you can see a Soviet Yak fighter flown by Marcel Lefevre – a Hero of the Soviet Union and ironically the only pilot in the Normandie-Niemen regiment who was actually Norman.

Painted below its cockpit is the image of Pere Magloire, a character from Norman folklore who drinks a lot and smokes a lot but never gives up. Locals say that’s exactly the kind of man who would have been in the Normandie-Niemen regiment.