Antoine de Saint Exupéry

(1900-1944)

Updated  07/11/2004

 

A Poet of aviation 

and

a Father of Air Transport 

The real aviators were those who faced the wild elements of nature in the air piloting machines that are out of the reach of our imagination today . It was , however , the power of the soul , rather than the one of the engine to provide the thrust , it was the spirit and the dreams to be used as a guide rather than the non existing radio aids . There had to be some fools to pave the way towards the reign of this mighty transport tool of our centuries , the aircraft . It was expected that a few would die ; there was a price to pay . Antoine de Saint Exupéry , before he too perish , succeeded in imprinting the feelings and effort of these pioneers using the aircraft as his inspiring instrument . 

He has known the world in his plane in as much the same way as a farmer knows the land that resists his daily effort in taming it . His book "The Land of People" surpasses in greatness and human simplicity a huge number of others that search the meaning of life . He would 'see' the deeper human feelings with some "different eyes" , those of the heart :

 

" The essential is invisible to the eyes , we can not truly see but with the eyes of the heart "

( "L'essentiel est unvisible pour les yeux , on ne voit bien qu' avec le coeur " )

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

 His full aviation career , however , is not very well known as his reputation of the writer soon overshadowed his other achievements . He still is , however , one of the most important European pioneers of Civil Aviation with an historic contribution to continental flights and he will also take part into the air warfare during the WW2 over France winning some honorary distinctions . He will die during a military mission in 1944 over the Mediterranean waters . The place his plane was lost is still searched today in the hope of finding the remaining of his plane and maybe some trace of his body , something not really done for any other aviator until now . His books have been translated in 23 languages and one of them , "The Little Prince" the most known of all , is to be the number one ever on the top of the universal publications . It scored more sails that any other in the world preceded only by the "Bible" and "The Capital" of K.Max  

An important number of schools and streets bear his name mostly in French speaking countries, and some of his early photos are decorating the museum of Air France . His portrait appears at the entrance of a European aviation Institute in Luxembourg on a street that bears his name  

 

The poet of aviation

I love flying because it relieves my mind from the tyranny of petty things

                        Antoine de Saint Exupéry

The father of Air Transport

Transport of mail , human voice and images , in this century these highest achievements have only one unique aim , bring people together 

                         Antoine de Saint Exupéry

 

 

Find many particular details on this site 

www.saint-exupery.org

in French language 

The 'Book' of his Life    

The Films made from his books

His childhood

His full name is Antoine-Jean-Baptiste-Marie-Roger de SAINT-EXUPÉRY  born on the 29/07/1900 in Lyon .

He was raised between 4 brothers and sisters in a warm family environment under an aristocratic tradition . Despite the early death of his father when he was 4 , he would never forget the world of his childhood . His mother , thanks to her strong personality and some initial wealth , will support him with a good education where his talents had a chance to flourish at an early stage

Exupéry was born in the times of the first steps of aviation when the deeds of Bleriot dazed the world when he was flying his bicycle-like air machine over the Channel . It was really a special moment for mankind .

 Little Antoine was stricken by those events up to the point where he tried almost the same ! By putting some carton wings to his bike he was driving up and down the large garden of his house imitating the famous airman in his own way . The thundering moment , though , was to come when he was 12 years old . He was watching some engineers trying to fix an aircraft at a nearby ground . The young boy used to watch them hypnotised for hours . This group of aviators could not but feel his scrutinizing presence up to the point that felt obliged to invite him to fly with them when the plane was ready . He will later write , remembering this thrilling experience :

" The winds were screaming in the air flow , the music of the engine was embracing my soul and the sun was casting his dazzling rays on me "

It is fair to say that this experience in particular has moved tremendously and for ever young Antoine ; in a short time he will win a literature price at school , a genuine sign of the future writer . Aviation and literature will from then on cradle together in his soul .

For a short period his family will move to Switzerland where he learns some German from his nurse maid . In 1918 he graduates high school and falls in love with a girl named Louise Villerban , a young lady close to his family to whom he is getting engaged . In 1919 he is impressed by the new record of the aviator Didier Dorat who joins for the first time Toulouse and Rabat in Morocco by plane . In 1920 he has to leave his home to leave with a cousin . His family is facing difficult economic problems and he has to make a living . He does whatever is available , among other things he plays small theater roles 

 

Pilot in the Army

 

In 1921 he is drafted . The traditional preference of an aristocratic family is the navy but he fails the entry exams . Then , there are no seconds thoughts , he joins the Air Force and he is posted on the 2nd Fighter Wing based in Strasbourg , initially as an engineer . He will pay to be trained also as a civil pilot in the hangars of a small local air company the "Compagnie Transaérienne de l'Est". He flies the Farman-40 and he has his first solo on the 09/06/1921 . He later joins the standard fighter pilot training on a Sopwith biplane with the registration FCTEE then a SPAD - all of them were WW1 fighters .

Young NCO in 1922

When he is accepted as a fighter pilot he is posted to the 37th Fighter Squadron in Morocco . In 1922 he is posted to Marseilles at Istres (LFMI) where he flies the Caudron G-3 and he wins the strips of a Corporal and by the April of this year he is fully qualified as a fighter pilot . The next posting is to Bourges for Air Reconnaissance training in the 34th Fighter Squadron and by October he is promoted to Second Lieutenant . The next posting is Paris Le Bourget where he will experience his first accident ; he hits badly on the head and escapes death by miracle . The family of his fiancée seemed to be extremely worried and threatened with the cancellation of the engagement especially when Antoine declared that he wanted a steady career in the Air Force . This , however , seemed to be rather an excuse ; the parents of Louise did not consider the aviator's profession to be up to their aristocratic standards taking additionally into account the present poor economic state of his family despite its previous aristocratic roots . Antoine gives in and quits the Air Force only to become a mediocre merchant employee in order to save his engagement . At no avail ! In September Louise officially breaks all relations with Antoine only to get soon married to another more wealthy aristocratic person from her neighbourhood . Exupéry feels deceived , betrayed and hopeless

 

Civil pilot , writer and press reporter

 

The period between 1922-24 passes with deep bitterness . He will quit his employee job to find one as bookkeeper then later as a car dealer . His only escape is the plane . Up there he can see the world in a different way while at the same time he finds consolation into writing . In 1926 he writes his first work "The Flyer". Its success is significant in that he becomes known to a circle of important writers of his days like Jean Prevost . Soon he completes the necessary flying hours he needs to get his pilot license which leads him into the aviation profession : He is employed by the cargo airline of "Latecoere" that flies the daily post from Toulouse to Dakar . The great moments of his life are to begin . When he reports for service he falls upon Didier Dorat who is now his supervisor ; he shows him directly the way to the hangars ! These days in France pilots are supposed to have engineering knowledge on aircraft as the mechanical accidents are more than often and pilots are required to find a solution of their own on site. There , with hands full of oil in an environment of spare parts and gears he will never stop writing . There he will mate with other famous french pioneer flyers like Jean Mermoz and George Guillamé . He will later remember with ardor those days which marked his life : The devotion to the team , the profession , the common fight against odds and the challenge of aviation . Moments of emotion will imprint for ever on his sensitive soul the sentiments that will follow the life of a dedicated flyer and writer 

 

 

The Breguet-14 was one of the first biplanes with a strong engine and structure made for long range flights  . It was extensively used by Aeropostale on the Southern routes.Other Europeans flyers dared a number of long flight records with. Already out dated in 1936 , saw some military action as a bomber during the spanish civil war

 

His supervisor becomes a figure to him symbolising the duty , as if he was leading a suicide squadron with a complete sense of devotion . There is only one motto : The mail will pass no matter what . There are many engine failures , pilots are facing death in the deserts , the sand storms are very often and impossible for those light aircraft . Once two of these pilots will fall dead under the fire of local tribes when they had to do a forced landing . The rest of his colleagues are afraid to continue and go on strike . Dorat , will decisively put on his flying gear and goes to fly the plane : The mail will pass ! It is Exupéry who will carry those immortal pictures into his next work: "The South Courier" . There he explains that people are united when they orient themselves to a common objective as the objective itself is what brings meaning to the higher human achievements

He describes moments of cockpit fraternity on these long flights . He speaks also about a particular loneliness when pilot and co-pilot fly next to each other for hours having only a simple radio contact with the rest of the world . It is not that the radio helps navigation but it does help them feel they are not alone in this world . And then the minds poses some silent questions : What are those people feeling down there in these small houses whose lights we subtly see from up here ? What raises the soul of people ? We read an extract : "If you need to have people building boats , do not make a fuss cutting wood and assigning jobs . You should only talk to them for the greatness and immensity of the sea ! "

His next book the "Night Flight" , written within the same emotional sense gains more recognition and is also published in the USA when aviation is a beloved theme in Hollywood ! Few will remember of the present generation that MGM brought it to the cinema in 1932 using the famous actor Clark Gable as the starring figure !

It is 1927 that Dorat will propose him a posting in the Spanish Sahara as the companies agent on the aerodrome of Cap Juby . There Exupéry will find a chance for self concentration , studies more the human nature together with the local Arabs whose language he learns.

 
In the mean time his company expands and becomes the "Aeoropostale" the first long range cargo and passenger carrying company in France flying with the new models of the Latecoer-24 monoplane . These planes have a closed fuselage , carry about 10 passengers and cargo , have a stronger engine and link Paris to most of the capital cities around . Pictures of these aircraft exist today in the Air France museum and some others decorate few  walls of the Brussels Int. Airport. It was a symbol of the beauty of the early civil aviations days , remembered even in some popular songs (Henri Salvador , the 'Mon Jardin d'hiver') 

The Latocoere 24 (La 24) One of the first airliners of the world

 
In 1929 he is sent on a mission with Mermoz and Guillaumé to Argentina on the purpose of expanding Aeropostale in Southern America . Exupéry is now the head of this new department . They start flights between Buenos Aires to Patagonia through the stormy and full of snow high mountains . One of these terrible nights Guillaumé is lost . For 5 days there are no signs of life . The details of the story are breathtaking : Guillaumé escapes death by miracle as his plane is turned upside down by the wind but then the upper wing works like a slate , slips him deep into a ravine . Although alive Guillaumé has no illusions : survival is impossible , he'd better take his own life . There was , however , a condition that the wife of a pilot will not receive a compensation from his life insurance unless his body is found - to prove his death   

"Exupéry and Guillaumé in front of a Latocoer-24 . They will be the only 2 french pioneer aviators to survive the heroic civil aviation period of 1930-40 . They will be both killed , however , before the war ends"

 

To facilitate people who would search for his dead body , he tries to build a land mark with stones where he then lies on , waiting for the end ! The continuously falling snow will make him soon realize though that it will be probably get covered entirely under a thick frozen layer which will only melt in summer and by that time the wild animals will first find his body to leave only the bones for those who would still insist to find him ! That is why Guillaumé decides to live ! He has to return alive . Exupéry will cry in tears when finally his friend is saved and he is shocked by those words that described this torture : " There is nothing a wild animal would have done to survive that I did not do ! " . That was the stuff aviation people were made of , those pioneering days ! This adventure we had the pleasure to see in 1995 ! in the cinema , under the title : "The Wings of courage" in a 3-dimensional screen of SONY-pictures , a french-american production with very realistic special effects , by the french-american director Jean-Jacques Annaut . 

The expansion of the french wings to South America has been finally highly estimated by the government and Exupéry is awarded the medal of the Legion of Honour in the field of the civil aviation. Jean Mermoz will also be praised for many crossings of the Atlantic braking new records . It is in 1930 when he will meet a woman that impressed him . He conquers her on a strange flight over Buenos Aires . He intentionally stalls his plane and demands a kiss from her to bring it back to level flight , else ...  ! Their relationship will keep on until 1931 when returning to Paris he marries this lady named Consuello Sounsin . Bad days are , however , coming for the economics of Aeropostale this period of turmoil and political scandals 

The Late-24 of Exupéry over Rio . A picture used for the publicity of the local annex of Latecoere in South America

 

Exupéry will defend the owners of the company but that will not avoid its bankruptcy . Aeropostale is bought and from its ashes the Air France company is born in 1933 . There is an immediate bad reflection to the life of the flyer because he is practically broke . As a writer , however, he is winning a compensating fame : he receives  a literature prize for his "Night Flight" and some important money from the Hollywood production that help him survive . He is seeking a job again in the aviation and he is hired as a test pilot . They try to convert the Latocoer-24 to a hydroplane type , the Latocoer-28, for the flights between Marseilles and Tunis . The wheels are replaced by floaters but that changes the  center of gravity which destroys the stability of the aircraft . Exupéry has a nasty crash for which he takes most of the blame togther with some deep scars on his body to carry for life. He stays away from flying until next year when in April 1934 he is called by the Air France company to experiment on the long-haul flights between Paris and Saigon . It is essential for the politics of colonialism to prove that the metropolitan country is 'not so far away' from the colonies and air transport seems to be the only means of proving it . Exupéry will succeed but then another ,less serious, crash will again happen . He insists on proving that these flights can become regular and he buys his own plane the SIMOUN registered as F-ANRY .

Before the long flight to Saigon , the SIMOUN is tested all over the Mediterranean between 1934-35 . Many cinematographic news-reels will often display his deeds on the large screen ; Exupéry becomes therefore famous as a pioneer of civil aviation. In 1936 however while executing a new crossing to Saigon he is lost somewhere in the Lybian Desert , SIMOUN crashes and he will survive only thanks to the help of the Bedouins who found him inconcience . His successive failures keep him away from aviation and his financial state gets worse again . This time he will use his pen and his fame to work as a reporter to the papers and the radio . Later he is sent to the front of the Spanish Civil war in Lerida (Catalunia) to report on the battles . He is an obvious supporter of the Republican cause against Franco. In December this year Mermoz is lost over the Atlantic . He dedicates a number of radio broadcasting to his pioneer friend from the days of the South Courier . He is very sad that he alone and Guillaumé are surviving those heroic years . His only consolation is the fact that his book of the South Courier is shot as a film in France as well as a small novel called "Anne-Marie" . 

 

Ready for Saigon . The 'SIMOUN'

In 1937 he is triggered by the money he has collected from books and movies to launch a new adventure into aviation ; he buys a second SIMOUN registered as F-ACNK and flies on behalf of the Air France the lines of Casablanca - Tumbuctu - Dakar along the African west coast . Encouraged by his success he then goes to America to start a line between New York and Guatemala . On one of the take-offs , however , he miscalculates badly the weight and the take-off speed and has a terrible crash when the plane stalls . His body suffers terribly , he is hospitalised for a long time and when standing up on his feet again , he leaves for France .

In 1939 he is almost a failed aviation businessman without a future but this is the time he becomes even more known as a writer and gets some distinctions : He is awarded the "Officer of the Legion of Honor" and then the French Academy gives him the prize for his excellent book " The Land of People " . This work is actually by far the most profound in philosophical meanings and represents the author more than any other . The book crosses rapidly the Atlantic as Hollywood is deeply interested to make a movie out of it . It finally goes on the cinema under the more 'commercial' title of "Wind , Sand and Stars" while the book itself wins the American National Book Award . The film was impressive under the acting of the famous Clark Gable again ; the scenes of the South Courier will revive on the large screen but unfortunately no copy survives to our days . Just before 1940 he is back to the States hoping to inaugurate a permanent line between Paris and New York with Guillaumé . He is also having serious thoughts of getting into the scenario business for Hollywood. It is easier for him to write , he earns more and risks less . But while he is making up some plans , the 2nd World War is knocking the door of his mother country and for him there is only one thing to do : Go and fight !

A Pilot in War

 
Returning to France he dashes to the nearest recruiting office for the Air Force having the intention to become a fighter pilot . The doctor who examines him , looking at all his scars from the accidents and his age can only reject him or propose a trainer's job . He is furious ! He will have to pull some strings and finally his fame and citations achieve some compromise . He is accepted as a pilot in a reconnaissance squadron , the 2/33 . 
The press is waiting to immortalise the scene when he appears in a Captain's uniform . No one dared to reject the most famous ever alive pilot in France , although medically he is definitely unfit for the job . He is sent to the airfield at Orcont near Reims . He flies a Potez-63 , a bimotor plane of the 30s designed as a bomber and presently used for reconnaissance only .  The first days , the war on the french-german border is almost non existing . They call it the 'ridiculous war' ( "drôle de guerre" ) .

The airfield at Orcont - Reims equipped with  Bloch-174 
He spends his time in keeping up the spirit of his fellow men with songs and card games . He becomes easily a friend with everybody , as well as with his commander Rene Gavoile.They all feel proud to have Exupéry among them . When the first missions starts he faces one problem after another with the outdated Potez-63 and the general army disorganisation . His rich experience of the past makes him invent many practical solutions for which he surprises pilots and engineers . The Potez-63 , however , has proved already its inefficiency and the squadron receives the more modern Bloch-174 . He himself will try the first ones delivered to the 2/33

 

Potez- 63 

A bomber of the 1933-39 period very early outclassed by technology . A typical bi-motor with poor altitude performance and bomb load.  Exupéry has flown with these planes when he joined the 2/33 Sq.

 

Bloch- 174 

The successor of the weaker Potez-63 was able for a ceiling of 20.000 ft . Its speed however could not match the new monoplane fighters making already 350 Kt . They were eventually converted to reconnaiscance planes  Most of those remained were later transferred to the French colonies in N. Africa Exupéry has flown such a plane during the flight over Arras

 

Dewoitine 520

This excellent design will not find the glory it deserved . Some called it the 'French Spitfire' . At a speed of 360 Kt and high maneuverability it was a potential threat for the german bombers but it came too late on the front . Those remained were given mostly to the training schools of the german and italian air forces. Exupéry was occasionally escorted by this fighter planes during his missions

 

The Time of the Battle

 

On the 23rd of May 1940 Exupéry will take part in one of the worst air battles on the collapsing french front . It is one of those battles that not much ink will be devoted on them . France is facing its worst crisis , its army is swept by the Germans despite its theoretical numeric superiority . The french pilots have no time for victories , they only try to hold with few planes ; the entire front from Luxembourg to the Atlantic is the responsibility of the  2/33 , left at half strength after a Stukas. Their efforts , mostly in vain , offered 'a chance for bravery' , as the writer would say smiling bitterly , meaning of course ... a certain death .In 108 sorties made only on that day , 20 crews are lost . There is not much left from the 2/33

At that time general Weygan is searching desperately to find a hole in the german lines to throw a counter attack and stop their advance . He has to rely on a pilot to spot it . It is Exupéry who takes his own chance for glory escorted by initially 9 then only 5 Dewoitine available fighters left . His Bloch-174 again designed as a high level bomber was supposed to fly at 24000 feet to avoid flack , at 400 Kmh , but this is too high and too fast to provide a good detailed view . Instead he has to fly at 10000 feet where his speed is dropping considerably and the plane becomes an easy pray to the german fighter Me-109 ! On top of that all , Exupéry knows that whatever information he may collect will arrive only too late , if ever , to the french HQ due to lack of good communication lines !

The area of the mission is Arras . Exupéry can only see thick smoke all over , people fleeing out of their homes in desperation , flooding the roads of the country side . He has to get even lower to see where the germans are when 6 Me-109s appear . Exupéry will later write that if he was to turn to escape he would only shorten the distance between him and the pursuing fighter which anyhow was faster. When one of them approaches dangerously a spray of bullets hits his plane and one especially makes a hole on the tank . To slip away he forces his plane into a steep dive that stiffen all controls while the ground is approaching rapidly . He escapes the last moment gaining some altitude and returns back while both the german fighter pilot as well as his friends consider him already dead ! This bravery will win for him the medal of the War Cross . Near the end of May he accidentally sees through the thick foliage of the Ardennes the german troops approaching Sedan . He calls as soon as he lands to awake the french HQ who considered this move as impossible . It is of course too late for the french generals but the fact that he was the first pilot to report it never became known before the war ; this information as probably many other never arrived to their  destination .

The french troops now are retreating to Abeville . A tank brigade is trying to hold the germans receiving information from one pilot , Exupéry ,  observing and reporting to the french commander below , who is called Charles De Gaul . No one can imagine at this time that these two will become later strong enemies . The final fall is coming and the french prime minister Reynault hopes to move the american opinion for an intervention . He selects Exupéry as his emissary due to his fame but France is running out of time . The Vichy people are on the move , Reynault is committing suicide and a new government is formed that favours the germans . The armistice is signed and Exupéry is posted to the aerodrome of Bordeaux-Merignac . Upon arriving there he is speechless in front of what he sees : A huge number of Devoitines and Bloch-174 parked side by side that were never called to battle . His feelings become a rage against the incapability of the french HQ and politicians . His bitterness of all the futile effort of this period is described on his new book the "Flight over Arras" ( its original french title is "Pilot at War" - Pilot de guérre  ) . He endorses the opinion that France has been proved insufficient in planning and organising itself against the war despite its numerical superiority that is discovered afterwards . Everybody blames the politicians and the HQ and loose confidence in any effort to fight back despite the call of De Gaull from London . He is soon approached by some friends who propose him an escape to join De Gaull but Exupéry believes that only USA could reverse the tide against Germany . He insists that he will not take sides unless there is a reasonable hope for something serious 

 

Back to USA

 

In his book "Flight over Arras" Exupéry will accuse the French administration during the war . It is the first book written from a warrior and it becomes quickly known outside France . The Vichy government is basing its reasoning of being exactly on the same cause and people approach Exupéry to convince him to join this government . He will resist vehemently : He considers the strong man of Vichy , Laval , as a traitor and a ruthless social climber ! Vichy is stricken by this attitude but feels not strong enough to start a fight with the most famous french pilot . He is posted away from the french soil to Tunis while his book is banned ! Just to make things worse in his mind De Gaull is inevitably supporting Britain that sinks the important french fleet at Mers-El-Kebir . There are 1200 dead french sailors . Exupéry is frustrated and declares that he would follow De Gaull under the aim to kill Germans , but not ...French ! This will enrage even further De Gaull whose entourage considers Exupéry as a ....coward and a traitor ! The writer sees no way out and decides to escape to USA . He will have a difficult journey via Morocco and Portugal ,trying to avoid Franco's Spain where he is considered a ...communist and Vichy who believes he wants to join De Gaull . Again people close to De Gaull will try to change his mind but he stays firm , becoming an enemy of all fighting sides and more closed to himself .

In USA there are some french people working for the cinema who know him and will tend a helping help . He intents to continue writing , maybe some new scenarios for Hollywood , why not . While he starts getting back to himself he will hear the bad news : Guillameé is dead. He was shot down , probably by mistake , by an italian pilot while he was flying a slow Farman cargo plane in the Mediterranean (The markings of french and british aircraft were similar enough). Exupéry is now the only one remaining of those pioneers . He will say in deep bitterness : " All became nothing but death .....with whom can I share now my memories ? No one is left from those days in South America . No one ...." .

But his mood will get worse when he is joined by his wife Consuelo who had managed to escape from France with his help . She is talking ceaselessly about the jewels and furs lost during her fleeing from Paris under the german invasion . She looks less worried about him and his feelings . Emotionally they seem distant and things will only get worse . He throws himself more into writing . He sleeps during the day and works during the night using one of the first voice recorders available to help his secretary with typing 
He soon falls sick with high fever and doctors explain that his old wounds are often infected . He realises the ruthless truth : He is 42 , physically weak and unable to fly , his only hope is writing ! He then decides to stay permanently in USA and he finishes the most famous literature book : "The Little Prince" . It is actually an autobiography well disguised under a 'fairy tale' of high level philosophy . In Hollywood they welcome it and they want to make a film based on its content  . Exupéry earns some good money which is soon scattered by Consuelo . He is very sad if not desperate . He tells her that he always thinks of his friends of The South Courier . "But they are all dead" , replies Consuelo ! "It is us who are dead" , replies Exupéry devastated !  

The cover of "Little Prince" as well as many of the drawings used in other pages were made by Exupéry himself

 

 

In the battlefield again !

 

In the mean time the war situation is different . USA has joined the war and the embarcation to N.Africa is a fact . The Vichy officers there , move easily to the Allied side . The only worry is that none of them has followed De Gaul , something that does not escape the general's attention . The american government wants to avoid this quarrel between the french troops and prefer general Giraud instead . Exupéry has now a reason to come back and he does so again to avoid his own emotional impasse . Giraud asks Eisenhower himself to allow the return of Exupéry to his old unit again to solidify the spirit among all frenchmen fighting again together . Exupéry arrives to 2/33 on the 10th of April 1943 while Giraud and De Gaul , for the time being , have to agree under Roosevelt a mutual peace ! The hatred will not stop though . De Gaul will never forgive the officers that did not follow him. Some members of the Gaulist side prompt the general for a gesture to Exupéry . He replies with disdain : " Enough ! Let him scribble his papers " !

People , however , close to Exupéry keep a different attitude . They love and respect him and try to protect him like his previous commander Gavoile who is there too . The doctor responsible for his pilot qualification can only ...reject him . 

The P-38 was a difficult aircraft for a 44 year old 

civil aviation veteran

 

He contacts the american Air Commodore Keast who is the supreme commander of the french fighting air forces that he is not fit to fly the P-38 Lightning - the new aircraft of the 2/33 . The age limits of the american pilots end at the age of 33 ! Keast consults his french subordinates and proposes that Exupéry will only fly 5 missions and then will be grounded . They do agree but ... nobody dares to tell him so ! It is only Gavoile who will try to find a proper occasion to stop him from flying . Besides , the ominous signs are there : Exupéry is not comfortable in the cockpit , his wounds are in pain and he loses easily attention due to age . Still unfamiliar with this aircraft will confuse his feet movements and will fail to press the brakes on time during a landing . 

Yet , Gavoile will not dare to ground him . Additionally there is again another blow for the writer . De Gaull decides to ban his books , as Vichy did in the middle of the war ! Exupéry is desperate again : He says : " When I fly over the Alps at the mercy of any german fighter I still ware the uniform of my country who considers me as its enemy . Oh , these Gaullists ...their expressions , their pride and their super-patriotism do brake my nerves " .

He must be really shattered as he even expresses some thoughts that one of these days he will get killed . Gavoile can understand some of his fears due to his bad physical state during flying but he is panicing when a day the writer gives him the manuscripts of his new unfinished work the "Citadel" asking him to ...keep them ! . He decides to take advantage of any given chance to declare him unfit for flying and actually .... save him from committing , maybe , suicide . He will have a very good chance on the 27th of July when Exupéry declares an emergency and returns back to his base cursing his inability to move in the cockpit , complaining for the intolerable pains of his wounds . But again Gavoile is hesitating ...and does nothing . Then 3 days later an extraordinary thing happens ! On the birthday of his 44 years Exupéry comes back from a mission and the people who develop the films he took over the enemy territory understand what happened . He flew far away from his real target near Grenoble , actually over Genoa and Torino . He has understood nothing ! But others did ! While flying at 30000 feet and for a long period the oxygen becomes weak and pilots lose their senses . 

Exupéry lands with his P-38 'Peggy Back' on Corsica (1944). His very figure can be distingushed in the cockpit

 

It happened already with some younger pilots who survived only due to a particular characteristic of the P-38. While they loose their senses they fall on the controls , the plane then pitches down , the increase of the air flow strikes then on its long tail wing which lowers producing a sudden pitch up that ...wakes up the pilot as the control wheel slams back on its face ! It is now that Gavoile reacts and Exupéry is grounded and removed from the missions list ! For the next 3 days Exupéry remains deeply frustrated up to the point that Gavoile is again afraid that he will commit suicide . This is why he himself removes the restriction again . 

The 2/33 is moved to Corsica and Exupéry flies now a P-38 carrying the name Peggy Back and the number 80 on the nose . He is selected for reconnaissance missions over Lyon-Grenoble where he is familiar with the area having lived there his childhood . At times the roof of his old house appears on the pictures taken . 

In the summer of the sunny Corsica Exupéry finds again his mood . He often goes to the little taverns near the sea for a drink and young people ask him to narrate the stories of the stars and sand . His moral is now better . Additionally his colleagues in the squadron declare willing to take his place in the missions ; everyone is supporting him . Exupéry , however , needs to believe in himself and denies the proposal of Gavoile to quit flying permanently . The writer says that he does not abandon the squadron and its men . It seems that this is the only group of people he feels related to .

The above 'Peggy Back' plane on a side view. You may distinguish the silhouette and markings of this rare type with the French AF. The upper surfaces are painted gray-sky blue

 

 

"I will never abandon my squadron" , he said . The last family of the writer and pilot , the Reconnaissance Group 2/33 , few days before his death. The writer and pilot depicted in the center , the one with 'few' hair on top

 

 

Missing over the Mediterranean

Fate has written however it own pages . The missions continue and some negative facts are occurring . The 26th , Exupéry flies over Nice and St Tropez to an area where an invasion is prepared . The Allied Command has forbidden all flights over there afraid that any pilot shot down and captured will eventually reveal the secret . The rule however is not applied with Exupéry and Gavoile will have to provide explanations later ! On the 30th Gavoile himself flies with another american P-38 flown by lieutenant Meredith over Annecy-Grenoble ( the border between Switzerland and France near Geneva ) . Returning to base Meredith is heard over the frequency to report an attack of a enemy fighter : "I am getting in ...Oh...He got me ! " ...then silence . His traces will never be found despite the searches . Everybody is surprised as no enemy activity was expected in an area where the Spitfires and the Thunderbolts P-47 of the Allies are dominating the skies . The appearance of the german fighter , though , is fully explained today and keeps no mysteries . The Germans had news of the embarcation plans and have sent a reconnaissance Me109 from Orange escorted by one FW190 from Avignion . The second one has shot Meredith to protect his Me109 ; the pilot could not have known that this P-38J vesrion of this fighter was an unarmed plane. There is no report for any other sortie on the 31st . Years later an ex Luftwaffe officer named Hermann Korth will remember having recorded into his archives a kill of a P-38 but it was actually the one happened on the 30th . The archives were lost during the battles that followed the embarcation . The german pilot , Robert Heichele , who shot down Meredith will not survive the war as he is fatally wounded by a mine and eventually we do not have any testimony from witnesses . Whatever information was available was again cross checked in 1992 and there is no doubt on these facts today .

Just to make things worse , Gavoile is told that the lead of his camera opened accidentally the film was destroyed and another mission is requested on the same sector . This mission is arranged for next day on 0900 and lieutenant Ziegler is asked to do it , on the mission list , however , the name of Exupéry is appearing - it is his turn to do it . No one remembers or they all avoid to remember that he was supposed to be grounded on his 5th mission . This one is the 9th . Gavoile hopes that 0900 is too early for Exupéry who is writing all night and sleeps until 1000 in the morning . Still , out of a sudden , Exupéry is there already from 0800 ready to fly and Ziegler keeps his mouth shut to avoid any sad reactions . So at 0900 Exupéry , at Borgo base Corsica, is heading for an aircraft carrying the number 233 with the typical green-gray of the american camouflage but carrying french insignia . The mission callsign is Dress Down Six ! and the one of the base is ...Colgate ! . So Exupéry is calling :

 

" Colgate from Dress Down 6 , requesting taxi and take-off "

Preparing for the 'Last Mission'

A minute later the P-38 is dashing into the skies following a NE heading and near the coast switches off the IFF . It is expected to return at 1230 . His fuel duration is until time 1430 . At 1530 , Dress Down Six is reported missing in action . Ever since all hypothetical explanations have been used for the reasons of his loss : Shot down by fighters ? Lost in the sea or over land ? Did he commit suicide ? Gavoile is afraid of the last , especially as he opens the room of Exupéry to find an unused bed ! The writer did not sleep that night ....quite unusual of him !

The hypothesis for a suicide does remain strong , however , especially if we take into account some of his lines written few days before :

"It makes all the same to me if I die at war . The question is what will remain from whatever I loved . When that happens I'll only look dead but dead I will not be ......a day I'll be lost crucified on a cross called Mediterranean"

 

The plane Exupéry was killed with

It took me some 3 years research to 'identify' the full coloring and camouflage of the aircraft that Exupéry flew his last mission. It was no doubt a Lightning P38J type F-5B allocated to the GR-233 (GR= Groupe de Reconnaissance) newly reformed after the war. The americans have converted a long range  J type to the F-5 version for high altitude Reconnaissance. This type , however , was not to stay for long , introduced in March 1944 was soon replaced end of October same year by Spitfires then the squadron was renamed SAVOIA and those Lightnings were removed. It was not known for a long time what were its exact colors  and most people believed it was a typical all silver version. . I have used the analysis of some B/W pictures of the GR-233 Squadron that do indicate a darker color over the upper surfaces, so it was not a pure all silver painting. The american high altitude Reconnaissance planes during this short period were painted grey sky blue on top and silver below - the same was kept by the french. The above profile should correspond most probably to the one of the last mission.

JM

The above poster animates the plane of the 'Last Mission'


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