Valor Friday

| June 17, 2022

Marcel Albert

I have another in my series of men who fought in more than one army.

Marcel Albert is a Frenchman aviator who would served his native France, Vichy France (briefly), the British, and the Soviets. All during World War II.

Born in 1917 in Paris to a working class family, in early adulthood Albert would be a mechanic. While building gearboxes for French auto manufacturer Renault, he was accepted for flight training with the French Air Force in 1938.

Albert’s family had a history of service. His father and four uncles served in the Great War. “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.”

After earning his wings, he flew pre-war French fighter planes and the American-built Curtiss P-36 Hawk. An enlisted aviator, he held the rank of sergeant after finishing his training.

The P-36 Hawk saw only limited service with the US Army Air Corps, but was a successful model on the export market due to its low cost. It would be the basis for the much better performing Curtiss P-40 Warhawk (made famous by the Flying Tigers).

Dewoitine D.520

In early 1940, Albert was posted to a wing flying France’s best fighter, the Dewoitine D.520. The D.520 was a near match for the Germans’ Bf-109, but was not produced or fielded in enough numbers to allow the French Air Force to made a dent in the coming Blitz.

A few months later when Nazi Germany invaded France, Albert’s squadron would fly out of Reims air field near the Belgium border where the Axis forces were flowing. On 14 May, 1940, Albert had a confirmed kill of a German Do 17 bomber. This was his first combat mission, France having been invaded only four days previously.

Albert also claimed a Bf-109 (unconfirmed) and an He 111 bomber (listed as probable) before France signed the armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940.

Now that France was nominally neutral but allied with Germany, Albert’s squadron (now part of Vichy France) was deployed to the African Theater. Flying from Algiers, he participated in combat against British forces near Gibraltar for a year.

By the latter half of 1941, Germany was now at war with the Soviet Union, and Britain had held their own against the Luftwaffe. It also seemed as if the Americans would be entering the war at any time. The opportunity to safely leave the Vichy Air Force was ripe.

Not agreeing with the collaborationist Vichy government, Albert and two fellow pilots defected to the British on 14 October 1941. With their planes surrendered, they were debriefed and moved to England. There, the experienced pilots would join other Free French pilots and fly with the Royal Air Force.

With the rapid fall of so many governments in those early days of the war, Britain became the host of several governments-in-exile. All of them contributed experienced military personnel during the Battle of Britain. The RAF Roll of Honour notes that 574 pilots from 15 foreign countries flew at least one operational mission in defense of the UK between 10 July to 31 October 1940.

Supermarine Spitfire

Albert would arrive too late to participate in the Battle of Britain, but he was assigned to the RAF’s 340 (Free French) Squadron when it was raised in November 1941. Becoming operational on the 29th of that month, they flew Spitfires Mk I and later Mk Vb models.

Flying mostly escort and combat patrol missions, Albert only once encountered an enemy fighter. He claimed to have put some holes in his wings, but the enemy aircraft was flying so fast it soon disappeared.

On 4 July 1942, Albert was part of an historic mission. This would be the US Army Air Forces’ first combat sortie against the Germans. Albert helped to escort six American Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and six RAF A-20s (known as Bostons in RAF service) as they hit targets in occupied Netherlands. This was the first bomb run of the soon-to-be legendary Eighth Air Force.

Douglas A-20 Havoc

Albert later recalled, “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.”

Albert would fly 47 missions with the RAF. The 340 (Free French) Squadron would receive the French Order of Liberation (Ordre de la Libération) as a unit award for their services to securing the freedom of France. They were only one of 18 units so honored.

In late 1942 Albert joined another new unit being raised. Fighter Squadron 2/30 Normandie-Niemen was organized to go to Russia. “I recall thinking that Russia was so far away that by the time we got out there the war would be over,” Albert said. The Normandie Group, as it would be popularly known, would serve on the Eastern Front in the Allies’ war against Germany.

Normandie Group would be unique as it was one of only three Western Allied units to fight with the Soviets on the Eastern Front, and the only one to fight with them until the end of the war.

Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, thought it was important that Frenchmen fight on all fronts of the war. They already had been heavily involved in the Western Front in Europe, the Mediterranean and African Theaters, as well as in the Pacific.

Soviet Yak-1 with Free French markings of the Normandie Group

Albert’s new group entered combat in April 1943. Offered Western Aircraft the Soviets had from Lend-Lease, they turned down offers of British Hawker Hurricanes or American P-40 Warhawks. Instead, they would fly Soviet Yak-1 fighters and later the more advanced Yak-9 and Yak-3 fighters. By the end of the war just over two years later, the Normandie Group had credit for downing 273 enemy aircraft. They received the French Legion of Honor, and the Soviet Order of the Red Banner, among other honors. They would receive the name “Niemen” from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for their performance at the Battle of the Niemen River in July 1944.

Normandie Group Yak-3

Fighting on the target-rich Eastern Front, Albert scored his first kill over a German Focke-Wulf Fw 189 Uhu reconnaissance aircraft on 16 June 1943. A month later he took out three enemy fighters (a Bf-110 and two Fw 190s) over the course of two sorties. Thus earning him the title of “Ace.”

Albert once recalled, “On [one] occasion…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 approached 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.”

By the end of October 1944 he’d logged 23 confirmed kills over virtually all of the German Luftwaffe’s frontline aircraft types. This made him the second-highest scoring French ace of the war, behind only the legendary Pierre Closterman (an article for another day). Albert had logged 262 combat missions before war’s end.

During his airborne heroics, Albert would be given command of the group’s 1st Squadron on 4 September 1943 and would be promoted to lieutenant. The Normandie Group would also receive the Order of Liberation as a unit award. They also received the Legion of Honor (France’s highest honor), the Military Medal (analogous to an American Silver Star), and the Croix de Guerre (War Cross) with six palms as unit awards.

Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union

On 27 November 1944, the Soviet Union awarded Albert the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union. This was the highest honor bestowed by the Soviet Union and was very rarely awarded to foreigners. In fact, among the ~12,000 Heroes of the Soviet Union, only 44 of them were foreign. Of those 44, only 20 were awarded to military personnel or partisans, with only four being French (all of them aviators of the Normandie Group).

Interestingly, one of the French pilots that Albert defected with was Marcel Lefèvre. Lefèvre would go on to serve in the Normandie Group as well and was one of the four men from the unit awarded with the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the 26 year old lieutenant who had seen four years of war on three fronts died from wounds on 5 June 1944. During 128 combat missions, Lefèvre tallied 11 official victories, 3 probable and 2 aircraft damaged.

The other pilot that Lefèvre and Albert defected with also joined them in the Normandie Group. Lieutenant Albert Durand died in action over Yelna on 1 September 1943. In 180 combat missions he shot down 11 German aircraft. He was known for flying a Yak-1b, numbered “6”, with shark teeth painted on the lower part of engine cowling. He was only 24 at the time of his death.

Insignia of the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor

Marcel Albert individually received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor (the highest grade within the highest honor of France), the Order of Liberation (only awarded to 1,028 people and one of the highest awards for combat bravery during the war), the Croix de Guerre with 15 palms and three silver gilt stars (indicating three mentions in dispatches at the corps-level and 15 at the army-level), and the Resistance Medal (the second-level award for contributions to the liberation of France, ranking just behind the Order of Liberation, and awarded to only 24,463 people).

In addition to Albert’s Hero of the Soviet Union, the Russians also awarded him the Order of Lenin (co-awarded with the Hero of the Soviet Union) and the Order of the Red Banner. He also received the Czechoslovak War Cross for his contributions in fighting fascism and liberating their country.

Albert in 1985 was among the many veterans of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet/Russian name for World War II) to receive the Soviet Order of the Great Patriotic War. Originally a valor decoration similar to an American Bronze Star Medal, it was awarded to all surviving veterans on the 40th anniversary of the end of the European War.

Albert remained in the Air Force after the war. He served as a test pilot until 1946 when he was sent to Czechoslovakia to serve as air attache. While there he met his wife, an American working at the US embassy there.

In 1948 Albert left the military. He and his wife moved to the US. He opened a chain of hotels. In the mid-50s he bought a paper cup making machine. He went into business making cups. He named his business the Normandie Cup Company in Virginia. His wife Freda took up a career in the legal field. In 2008 they moved to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where Albert died in 2010 at age 92 from complications of cancer.

The Normandie-Niemen Group started with about 100 French pilots. Of that initial group, nearly half died in action. As a result, despite his many accolades, Albert rarely spoke about his wartime experiences. His nephew, at the time of his death said, “All his friends died in Russia.” It would be more than 40 years before he could even bring himself to attend reunions of his old unit.

Albert saw the sacrifices as worth it. He’s quoted as saying to The Valley Morning Star of Harlingen, Texas, “The world isn’t in trouble at all. The world has already been stable for over 50 years.”

Category: Air Force, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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Wow. Take the war to your enemy, no matter where they are. That such men lived, indeed. Maybe some reasons that the French lost their Warrior Gene Pool was so many being killed off in “The Great War” and others beating feet after WWII.

Great story, Mason. Thanks!


Thank you, Mason, for keeping these stories alive.

I have heard reports, from a reliable source, of the spiritual descendants of Marcel Albert & Co still defending freedom someplace in Africa.
The French leadership may be pantywaists, but not necessarily all French are so.


Some people pack a whole lotta living into a few years, and the world is made better by heroic deeds such as these.

Rest easy, Dear Sir. May your and your comrades’ sacrifices never be forgotten.


Thanks again, Mason.