The Times is following the European press with a prominent account of the latest developments in the disappearance of the villa’s most famous graduate.
(Obscure journalistic note: The Times writer, John Tagliabue, is the brother of the former NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue.)
April 11, 2008
Clues to the Mystery of a Writer Pilot Who Disappeared
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
MARSEILLE, France — After the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the demise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on a reconnaissance mission in World War II has long ranked as one of aviation’s great mysteries. Now, thanks to the tenacity and luck of a two amateur archaeologists, the final pieces of the puzzle seem to have been filled in.
The story that emerged about the disappearance of Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator, author and émigré from Vichy France, proved to contain several narratives, a complexity that would likely have pleased the author of several adventure books on flying and the charming tale “The Little Prince,” about a little interstellar traveler, which was also a profound statement of faith.
On July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry took off from the island of Corsica in a Lockheed Lightning P-38 reconnaissance plane, one of numerous French pilots who assisted the Allied war effort. Saint-Exupéry never returned, and over the years numerous theories arose: that he had been shot down, lost control of his plane, even that he committed suicide.
The first clue surfaced in September 1998, when fishermen off this Mediterranean port city dragged up a silver bracelet with their nets. It bore the names of Saint-Exupéry and his New York publisher. Further searches by divers turned up the badly damaged remains of his plane, though the body of the pilot was never found.
“I had just seen ‘Titanic’ and after a few glasses of pastis I reflected, ‘We’ll make a movie, and the dollars will rain,’ ” said Jean-Claude Bianco, 63, on whose boat the bracelet was discovered.
The film, was never made but news of the bracelet prompted Luc Vanrell, 48, a diving coach and marine archaeologist, to inspect more closely some marine wreckage he had noticed years before, buried in sand in 170 feet of water near the remains of Saint-Exupéry’s plane. An engine block serial number and a Skoda symbol, for the Czech company that was an unwilling German supplier, proved it to be a Daimler-Benz V-12 aircraft engine.
In 2005, after enduring numerous bureaucratic delays, Mr. Vanrell and another diver, Lino von Gartzen, lifted the motor and shipped it to Munich for study by German experts. It turned out to be part of a series produced in early 1941 — the oldest sparkplug was from March 1941. It had been modified in 1943 with the addition of a Bosch fuel injection pump.
The researchers deduced it had powered a Messerschmitt fighter plane, part of a training unit stationed in southern France from 1942 to 1944. It had been flown by Prince Alexis von Bentheim und Steinfurt, a 22-year-old who was shot down by American planes in late 1943, on his first and last solo flight. The tale might have ended there, with the death of the prince and of the Little Prince’s author. Yet Mr. von Gartzen was not content. Consulting archives and with the help of the staff of the Jägerblatt, a magazine for Luftwaffe veterans, he tracked down veterans who had flown in Prince von Bentheim’s unit, the Jagdgruppe 200. He contacted hundreds of former pilots, most now in their 80s; hundreds more had already died.
Then in July 2006, he telephoned a former pilot in Wiesbaden, Horst Rippert, explaining that he sought information about Saint-Exupéry. Without hesitating, Mr. Rippert replied, “You can stop searching. I shot down Saint-Exupéry.”
Mr. Rippert, who will be 86 in May, worked as a television sports reporter after the war. It was only days after he had shot down a P-38 with French colors near Marseille that he learned of Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance.
He was convinced he had shot him down, though he confided his conviction only to a diary. In 2003, when he learned that Saint-Exupéry’s plane had been located, his suspicion was confirmed. But still, he said nothing publicly.
Over the years, the thought that he might have killed Saint-Exupéry had troubled Mr. Rippert. As a youth in the 1930s, he had idolized the aviator-turned-author and had devoured his books, beginning with “Southern Mail,” in 1929, an adventure tale written while Saint-Exupéry was flying the Casablanca to Dakar route.
When Mr. Rippert’s identity was finally made public in March, the storm of interview requests and efforts to contact him was such that he withdrew from sight. “The last days have been terrible, with phone calls and doorbells ringing all hours of the day and night,” said his wife, by telephone, before hanging up.
Evidence to support Mr. Rippert’s claim is lacking because documents, like flight logs, were destroyed in the war. But Mr. Rippert described in detail to Mr. von Gartzen how in the summer of 1944 German radar had alerted his fighter squadron at Marignane, near Marseille, to a group of Allied reconnaissance planes over the Mediterranean. Mr. Rippert, who was then 22, found a P-38 with French colors and shot it down.
He described the odd, evasive loops flown by Saint-Exupéry, who at the time was 44, overweight and in pain from fractures sustained in numerous flying accidents. Several days later, when German radio intercepted American reports of a search for Saint-Exupéry, he suspected he might have shot down his idol. When Mr. Rippert told him of learning that Saint-Exupéry was missing, “he had tears in his eyes,” Mr. von Gartzen said.
The lack of evidence, beyond circumstances, has prompted some to express mild disbelief, Mr. von Gartzen among them. “It’s beyond the normal principles of probability,” he said, adding: “It nonetheless remains a hypothesis that is well founded.”
In Paris, Saint-Exupéry’s grandnephew, Olivier d’Agay, who is a spokesman for the family, said that Mr. Rippert’s version of the events was credible. “All he said was that he hit and brought down a P-38 in that region on July 31 — he never said he shot down Saint-Exupéry,” Mr. d’Agay said. “Of course, he asked himself if it were true, though he kept it to himself.
“Rippert said he often felt desperate,” he said. “If he had known what he was doing, he never would have done it.”