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Pioneers; Saint-Exupéry

by David Hopwood

If your parents named you Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry, then a) you’d take forever to fill in a visa application form b) no one would believe you and c) great things would be expected!

Commonly known as Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist and pioneering aviator was born in Lyon on 29th June 1900. He first flew at the early age of 12, setting him on a path that he followed to the end of his life.

During the first World War he was sent to boarding school in Switzerland and after returning to France in in 1917 Saint-Exupéry attempted to enter the naval academy but being a poor student, failed the entry examination and instead studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He was obliged to undergo compulsory military training in France, and it was there that he gained his pilot’s licence in 1922.

Antoine Saint-Exupéry

His engagement to a young woman resulted in him leaving the air force but after that relationship failed, he returned to flying and began to write stories, inspired by his love for aviation. His first work, ‘The Aviator’ was published in 1926, the same year when he began flying for Aéropostale (the predecessor of Air France) in Toulouse, covering routes between France, Spain and North Africa.

In 1927 Saint-Exupéry was put in charge of an airfield in the Sahara Desert and this was to be his inspiration for his first novel ‘Southern Mail‘ and a later work,’ Night Flight‘, both celebrating the courage of pilots. ‘Night Flight’ was his first real literary success and became a Hollywood movie in 1933.

He married in 1931 and would remain with his wife, the Salvadorian writer Consuelo Suncin for the rest of his life, although the relationship was strained as he was unfaithful and was often away from home. His most eventful trip took place in 1935 when attempting the speed record between Paris and Saigon in Vietnam. (at the time a colony of France) En route, after nearly 20 hours aloft he crashed in the Sahara and he and co-pilot André Prévot wandered lost in the desert until rescued by a Bedouin after nearly dying from thirst and exposure. His memoir,’ Wind, Sand and Stars’ contains an account of the experience.

‘Wind, Sand and Stars’

Despite his many injuries from flying, Saint-Exupéry couldn’t remain grounded. When the second World War began, he became a reconnaissance pilot until the German occupation forces him to flee. He moved to New York City, where he lobbied the US government to join the war, while continuing to write, publishing ‘Flight to Arras’ in 1942 and ‘Letter to a Hostage’ in 1943.

His most famous work was published at this time; the children’s story for adults; ‘The Little Prince’, a fable of a pilot stranded in the desert and his conversation with a young prince from another planet. The Little Prince has since been translated into 250 other languages.

Unable to resist serving France, he returned in 1943 and insisted on flying despite his age and injuries. He re-joined his old squadron and on 31st July 1944 left Corsica in a Lockheed Lightning P-38 for a reconnaissance mission over occupied France. He never returned. His body and aircraft were not discovered, and his disappearance evolved into a mystery. Various theories were suggested; the most obvious was that of being shot down, but perhaps just a simple loss of control, or even suicide.

In 1988 fishermen off Corsica dragged a silver bracelet up with their nets, which bore the names of Saint-Exupéry and his New York publisher. A subsequent dive in the area discovered some remains of his aircraft although the body was never recovered.

In 2005, two divers discovered and lifted an engine block of a Messerschmitt fighter from the Mediterranean. After establishing the Luftwaffe unit operating in southern France and after conducting intensive investigations, the divers Luc Vanrell and Lino von Gartzen contacted a Mr Horst Rippert in Wiesbaden. Rippert admitted that while he couldn’t prove it, he was convinced it was he who had shot down Saint-Exupéry. Rippert had idolised Saint-Exupéry writing as a child and after hearing American intercepts of the search for the Frenchman, was convinced it was he who had killed his hero.

Monument to Aeropostale & Saint Exupery at Cape Juby, Morocco © Yaroslav Blanter

Saint-Exupéry occupies a unique role in modern French history. Whilst being a pioneer of aviation he wrote some of the most enduring literature and his mysterious disappearance in the service of his country gave him an addition reputation. He was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest French order of merit and was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice.

 

The airport in his hometown is officially Lyon-Saint-Exupery Airport and the main TGV train station, Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupéry.

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