General (air) Joseph RISSO, member of our Federation's honor committee, was born at Cadolive, Bouches-du-Rhone. He joint the Air Force in 1938, and entered the Caudron d'Ambérieu Aviation School the same year. In 1939-1940, he completed his training in the Istres school.
After the 1940 armistice, he escaped from Nouvion (Algeria) on board a Simoun to Gibraltar. After a forced landing in Linea, he succeeded to assemble the Free French Forces in Gibraltar and later on in England.
A night fighter pilot in the R.A.F., he was one of the very first soldiers of fighter unit n° 3 "Normandy". He arrived Ivanovo, U.S.S.R., in October 1942 and remained in the unit till 1948.
He subsequently occupied several posts in the Air Force, notably at the headquarters of the 5th air region in Algiers, at the 11 th Fighter Squadron as second commander, and at the 13 th all-weather fighter squadron as commander.
He equally served as auditor at the N.A.T.O. Defense College before being transferred to the directorate of military security. After attending the Advanced Military Studies Center and the National Defense Advanced Studies Institute, he was made director of the Air Defense Operations Center in Taverny. By then he was brigadier general.
Normandy-Niemen : Origine and creation
Late 1941, Colonel LUGUET rallied the Free French Forces. Following a discussion with General De Gaulle, the latter, in agreement with the national committee of the Free French Forces, proposed to the Soviet government to have a French combat unit deployed in Russia. Thus came the creation of the fighter unit CG3 Normandy, which later on became "Normandy-Niemen" regiment, the only Western force to have fought on the eastern front.
Negotiations which had been started in February 1942 lingered on. Meanwhile, recruited French volunteers thronged in from all over to rally in the Middle East. Only sixty of them were short listed by Major POULIQUEN for the creation of a complete operational squadron. The name of the "Normandy" province was retained as the squadron's legendary name. It was on the day of the liberation of Paris that, on STALINE's instructions, the squadron had its name appended with "Niemen" to finally become "Normandy-Niemen".
On November 12, 1942, the unit of 61 Frenchmen (14 pilots and 47 fight engineers) flew from Rayack to Bassora. After a rather rough crossing of the Iraqi desert and the Iranian mountains, the squadron finally landed in Teheran on November 18, 1942. These airmen were warmly received on arrival by the Soviet ambassador and Iranian civil and military authorities as well as members of various communities.
They took off from Teheran on November 27, 1942, and the following day they arrived Goriev, along the Caspian coast where, for the first time, the Frenchmen laid foot on Soviet soil in view of their battle against German troops.
On November 29, 1942, they arrived Ivanovo, which became the squadron's training ground. After a three-month intensive training, the squadron was now fully prepared to carry on with combat operations. The French chose the Yak 1 among the wide range of airplane models at their disposal. On March 22, 1943, the entire unit arrived a battlefield known as Polotniani-Zavod, where they integrated the 303rd fighter division within which they fought all through the war.
For thirty-one months, the "Normandy-Niemen" French airmen lived the warfront experiences of all Soviet Air force squadrons: waiting moments, missions, risks, battles, the joy of victory and the agony of losing a buddy. The pilots slept in small houses or dachas and were transported to the field in trucks, which every now and then had to be gotten out of ruts, especially as thawing had come rather so abruptly. As for the engineers, they built for themselves makeshift shelters on bare ground using branches and leaves or simply made a hole in the ground. The command post was buried in a "zimlia", a huge two-meter deep hole covered with tree trunks and branches, with an entrance comprising a staircase made of tree trunks split into two.
What memories of this period bring to mine include: the succession of missions, the July 1943 tough Battle of Orel (during which many pilots lost their lives in just a few days), the successive arrival of small reinforcements to fill the gaps and take part in the next battles, finally the rallying at Toula during Winter of 1943-1944 with the arrival of heavy reinforcements and the transformation of the small squadron into a four-squadron regiment.
Deux des vétérans de l'escadrille.
Le vicomte de la Poype à droite, et son ami Risso
à Nikountani où les grenouilles empêchent de dormir.
Musée des Andelys - Collection PC FNCV
Their saga covers three periods :
First Campaign, March to November 1943
After they arrived in Ivanovo led by Major POULIGUEN, the pilots went into training under Major TULASNE's supervision. In March 1943, they arrived Polotniani-Zadov, the first battlefield, and where they encountered their first difficulty: thawing. April 5 was a day of exultation as "Normandy" scored its first victories. But barely a week later, on the 13, came their first shock. Three pilots were reported missing; a heavy toll despite the three FW190 enemy planes shot down. May 7, yet another pilot reported missing. Now only 10 of them were left…
Finally, the boreal nights of June came as well as the first reinforcements. Then they were integrated into General ZAKHAROV's 303rd division.
Suddenly, a huge artillery preparation went underway and on July 10, the Orel Battle started. Fighting was so intense - utter hell on the ground and a real carousel in the skies.
The Germans having, of course, detected the presence of French airmen at the front, mobilized heavy contingents with the best pilots and inflicted a deadly blow on them. That was on July 14, the French National Day.
On July 17, 1943, that is over 60 years ago, the squadron could boast already of 30 victories, but at what cost? Just between July 13 and 17, six pilots were reported missing. These included Major TULASNE, Captain LITTOLFF, Second Lieutenants BERNAVON, De TEDESCO and CASTELAIN as well as Senior Officer Cadet VERMEIL. Missing Major TULASNE was replaced by Major POUYADE, under whom, in the space of four days, "Normandy" made 112 outings and 17 planes were shot down.
On August 1, the survivors of the unit flew to Smolensk after some reinforcements had come in in the course of the month. The French fight engineers returned to the Middle East. On September 22, 1943, an eleven-Yak patrol took a group of Stukas off guard. During the brief battle, the French brought down nine enemy planes without incurring a single loss on their side.
On October 11, the "Normandy" unit was made Fellow of the Liberation with over 50 officially recognized victories. On November 6, 1943, the first campaign ended with a total of 72 victories and a loss of 23 men.
From November 1943 to May 1944, "Normandy" took up base in Toula.
Second Campaign, May to December 1944
With the arrival of many new pilots, the unit was transformed into four squadrons (Rouen, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Caen).
On May 25, 1944, they left Toula on board their Yak 9 for Dubrovka. On June 26, they scored a victory during which they lost one man. The intensity of the offensive was such that the front was pushed over a distance of 400 km. On July 15, they took off for Mikountani, Poland, and on the 29, they headed for Alitous, along the Niemen banks. Early August witnessed a huge number of extremely violent confrontations, during which the number of their victories rose to 12 and that of their losses to six, since the beginning of the second campaign. It was at Alitous that they received the first fleet of Yak 3, celebrated the liberation of Paris and, by STALINE's order, received the name "Niemen".
On October 16, the offensive in the east of Prussia, towards Königsberg, began. It was during this offensive that, in just one week, an unforgettable week, the "Normandy-Niemen" regiment enriched its record of achievements with 95 victories (29 of them on October 16 alone) without a single loss. On October 22, they were at a new front in Stierki-Didvige along the Lithuanian–Prussian border.
The month of November turned out to be relatively calm. On December 9 came General De Gaulle's visit and they participated in a military parade at the French Embassy. On December 12, they were back to the front for a third campaign.
Third Campaign, December 1944 to June 1945
On December 18, 1944, they returned to the front. Their base was located on the territory of the 3rd Reich, near Königsberg. They made several outings; victories scored over the Gumbinnen, Interburg and Bladiau battlefields were not without heavy losses.
In February 1945, it had been a few days since they had been persistently watching the Baltic shores whenever they were in the air. They fought over Königsberg.
On April 10, the city surrendered. A fortnight later, it was the turn of Pillau, the ultimate hideout and last refuge of enemy air squadrons.
Late April, 13 new pilots came in to provide backup, but arrived rather too late when fighting was already over.
On May 31, they went to Moscow and Soviet authorities decided to reward the "Normandy-Niemen" pilots for their feats of arms by allowing them return to France with the planes the used at the front.
"Normandy-Niemen" regiment's record of achievements at the end of the war showed 273 official victories, 37 probable victories and 45 planes destroyed for a total of 869 battles. Unfortunately, this could not be without a price - 42 pilots sacrificed their lives.
A Heroic Return to France
On June 15, they took off from Elbing and headed westward, returning to Paris via Posen, Prague and Stuttgart.
On June 21, they finally entered French airspace, flew pass over Champs-Elysées at 6:15 p.m., and landed at Bourget at 6:40 p.m..
There is a building in Moscow, quai Kpopotkine, called "Normandy-Niemen block", where the general who is the French military attaché lives. In front of the building is a commemorative board on which the names of the 42 airmen who died have been inscribed. This board, battered by age, was replaced with a new one on July 7, 2003, which was unveiled by Madam ALLIOT-MARIE, French Minister of Defense, in the presence of senior Russian and French authorities.
Each year, several commemorative ceremonies are organized. In April 1989, the Rhone section of the FNCV went and laid a wreath on the monument as homage to the memory of their fallen comrades-in-arms, thanks to whose blood our Country's freedom was restored.
The saga of this heroic unit was and will remain a magnificent page in the history of the French Air Force.
In their memory, we will simply echo General De Gaulle's words :
" Heaving your last sigh, you said ' Long live France ! '
Rest in peace, France shall never die for in her place you did."