The unit was the GC3 (Groupe de Chasse 3 or 3rd Fighter Group) in the Free French Air Force, first commanded by Jean Tulasne (the 's' is silent). It fought in three campaigns on behalf of the Soviet Union between March 22, 1943, and May 9, 1945, during which time it destroyed 273 enemy aircraft and received many orders, citations and decorations from both France and the USSR, including the French Légion d’Honneur and the Soviet Order of the Red Banner. Joseph Stalin awarded the unit the name Niemen for its participation in the Battle of the Neman River (1944).
The first campaign of GC 3, equipped with the Yakovlev Yak-1 fighter-plane, lasted until October 5, and encompassed the area of Russia between Polotniani-Zavod and Sloboda/Monostirtchina. From an initial aerial victory over an Fw 190 on April 5, the tally rose dramatically and the squadron became the focus of much Soviet propaganda, so much so that Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel decreed that any French pilot captured would be executed.
Tragedy struck the squadron with the much-decorated Tulasne reported missing-in-action after combat on July 17, requiring Commandant Pouyade to take command. In spite of the loss, GC 3 started to receive many Soviet unit citations and decorations as well as French awards. On October 11, de Gaulle accorded the groupe the title of Compagnon de la Libération. By the time GC 3 relocated to Tula on November 6, 1943, only six pilots remained from the original groupe, which had accumulated 72 aerial victories since joining the fighting.
1944 witnessed the expansion of the groupe to become a régiment, with a fourth escadrille joining its ranks. After completing training on the more advanced Yakovlev Yak-9D fighter-planes at Tula, the new regiment rejoined the front line for its second campaign. This lasted until November 27, and took in the area between Doubrovka (in Russia) and Gross-Kalweitchen (in East Prussia, Germany). During this campaign Joseph Stalin ordered the regiment to style itself Normandie-Niemen in recognition of its participation in the battles to liberate the river of that name. On October 16, the first day of a new offensive against East Prussia, the easternmost part of Germany, the regiment’s pilots destroyed 29 enemy aircraft without loss. By the following month, the regiment found itself based in German territory. By the end of the year, Pouyade had been released from his command of the regiment and he, along with other veteran pilots, returned to France.
January 14, 1945, saw the Normandie-Niemen regiment start its third campaign (from Dopenen to Heiligenbeil), concentrating in the East Prussian part of the German Reich, until the formal announcement of victory in the east on May 9, the day after V-E Day in western Europe. By the end of the war, the regiment had shot down 273 enemy aircraft and had received many citations and decorations. The USSR expressed its gratitude to the regiment by offering 37 of the unit’s Yak-3 fighters to France. The pilots returned to a heroes' welcome in Paris on June 20, 1945.
Its flag bore the testimony of its battle experience, with names such as Bryansk, Orel, Ielnia, Smolensk, Königsberg (later renamed Kaliningrad by the Soviets), and Pillau. It received the following decorations: from France, the Légion d'Honneur, the Croix de la Libération, the Médaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre with six palmes; from the USSR, it received the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Alexander Nevsky, with eleven citations between the two orders. Individual pilots Marcel Albert, Marcel Lefèvre, Jacques André and Roland de La Poype were appointed Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The remaining Yak-3 fighter aircraft have now dwindled down to one which is on static display at Le Bourget's Air and Space Museum/Musée de l’air et de l’espace.