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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) was a pioneer of civil aviation. Gifted with literary talent, he has recounted his experiences in several books (Courrier Sud, Vol de nuit, Terres des hommes) in which he expresses his humanism and his ideal of greatness and solidarity between men. Endowed with a poetic sense, he is the author of one of the most famous works in the world, The Little Prince, published in 1943. He mysteriously died during an air mission in 1944.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, dreamy aristocrat and pilot
Born June 29, 1900 in Lyon, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has aristocratic origins and received a neat classical education. His mother, although prematurely widowed (Antoine's father died in 1904) brought up their five children with remarkable devotion and enthusiasm. Within the Antoine siblings, a curious and sensitive child is quickly noticed by his intellectual vivacity. One day in 1912, in Ain, he discovered what would become his great passion: aviation. Having befriended the mechanics of the Ambérieu en Bugey aerodrome, he made his first flight at the age of 12! The experience inspired him to be the first in a long series of poems devoted to the intoxication of flight.
A relatively undisciplined and often mediocre student, Saint-Exupéry nonetheless shines through his literary talent, which enabled him to obtain the baccalaureate in 1917, but not to look to the future with serenity. His military service (where he was an aviation mechanic, he took flying lessons on his own) confirmed him in his passion for aeronautics. Yet he leaves the memory of a dreamy and distracted aviator, more famous for his wacky poems and drawings than for his aerobatic exploits. However in 1925 he was hired by the Latécoère company to carry out mail transport flights. The myth of airmail is about to take off ...
His beginnings as a commercial pilot gave Saint-Exupéry the opportunity to publish his first book: The Aviator. They also allow him to bond with a certain Jean Mermoz. Having become station manager at Cap Juby in Morocco (Latécoère operates a Toulouse-Dakar route, with many stopovers), he experiences his first exotic adventures when, after a forced landing, he owes his survival in the desert only to the help of Trappist monks. An experience that he will relate in his famous South Mail.
The founding of the Aéropostale general company in 1927 opened up new horizons for the pioneers of aviation. This time, it is no longer a question of connecting Europe to Africa, but of crossing the Atlantic to deliver mail to South America. This is a strategic issue for the development of commercial aviation, but above all a formidable technical and human challenge. Saint-Exupéry is enthusiastic about this project and will join Mermoz in South America, in particular to develop the lines to this end of the world, Patagonia.
This Argentinian experience earned him the birth of his novel Vol de Nuit (1931), which was a huge success. An unprecedented commercial and human adventure, the Aéropostale will however be overtaken by the financial (and political) reality and dark between 1931 and 1933 to be reborn as part of Air France. Saint-Exupéry, not very enthusiastic about this development, then tried his hand at a career as a reporter. The latter allows him to reconcile his two passions, flight and writing. He will notably be sent to Spain to cover the civil war there. This stay will inspire him to Terres des Hommes, which will earn him the grand prix for the novel of the French Academy in 1939.
The Little Prince and the war pilot
When World War II broke out, the famous writer was mobilized as an aviator in a reconnaissance group (the famous 2/33). Although considered by the Air Force Command to be unsuitable for combat missions, it nevertheless performs its task with courage. Thus his reconnaissance missions over Germany and Arras (during the capture of the city by the Germans) earned him the Croix de Guerre. It was during this first phase of the war that Saint-Ex lay down the first lines of what would become his masterpiece: the Little Prince (to be published in 1943).
Demobilized in August 1940, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went to the United States like many French artists. His ambiguous attitude towards Vichy (which is no different from that of many French people) does not prevent him from using his fame for the benefit of the cause of the United States entering the war against the Third Reich. He nevertheless fears a fratricidal confrontation between French, which earned him mistrust of the Free French. From 1941 to 1943, he stayed in New York, using his notoriety to plead the cause of the French resistance to the Americans.
In 1943 after the shift of North Africa into the Allied camp (following Operation Torch) he returned to Tunisia to resume service. The military authorities are quite skeptical of the abilities of this whimsical writer, in poor health and known to be depressed. Nevertheless, thanks to his numerous connections and his stubbornness, Saint-Ex ended up being reinstated within the famous 2/33. Its first missions since 1940, are punctuated by incidents (technical but not only) which suggest the worst.
The mystery of the death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
July 31, 1944, Corsica. At the controls of his twin-engine P-38 Lightning the commanderAntoine de Saint-Exupéry takes off at 8.45 am from Poretta airport in the vicinity of Borgo. The famous aviator, who has not been at his best for a long time, must carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Dauphiné and Savoy. The Allied command was then in the midst of preparing for the landing in Provence and such missions proved invaluable. What was supposed to be just a routine theft, however, will cost Antoine de Saint-Exupéry his life. Somewhere off the coast of Provence, his P-38 his plane crashes into the sea. One of the most emblematic careers of 20th century French literature has just come to an abrupt end ...
What happened on July 31, 1944? The mystery remains. It was long claimed that he had been shot down over Castellane by an Fw-190. This theory was undermined in 2000, when large pieces of debris from his aircraft (which can be found at the Musée du Bourget) were found off the coast of Marseille. Was it more of a suicide? Or was he the victim of this Me-109 pilot: Horst Rippert (who became a sports journalist after the war) who claimed in Provence in 2008 to have shot down, to his great regret, one of his favorite writers.
We will probably never know what happened that day. This certainly contributed to the popularity of this writer, a solitary pilot often lost in the foreign skies of his imagination ...
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, biography of Alain Vircondelet. Bibliography Julliard, 1994.
- Antoine de Saint Exupéry: The oasis to be conquered, by Thomas Fraisse. Transboréal, 2014.