French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went missing on a reconnaissance flight from Corsica on 31 July 1944. Sixty years later, the wreckage of a Lockheed Lightning was found on the Mediterranean seabed and the aircraft has been identified as his.
In March 2008 a claim by former Luftwaffe airman Horst Rippert that it was he who had shot down Saint-Exupéry was reported by the media worldwide without — so it appeared — much in the way of background investigation.
Charles Bremner of timesonline writes that according to French authors Luc Vanrell and Jacques Pradel, German pilots:
"… appeared to have agreed on a pact of silence when they learned immediately from American radio traffic that the search was on for Saint Exupéry. That could explain why there was no record of a German mission in the Marseilles area on the day of the author's disappearance."
"Vanrell and Lino von Gartzen, a German expert on the wartime Luftwaffe, set out to trace surviving pilots who might have been involved. They ran into a wall of silence from members of squadrons that had been based in southern France."
The BBC reports of Herr von Gartzen that:
"…for another two years he continued to check Horst Rippert's story and is convinced by it. 'From my point of view as a professional historian it's a very, very good hypothesis and everything he told us seems to be true.'"
Lino von Gartzen has a book out and a TV documentary shown on 30 November 2008. He has been interviewed by the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as well as himself contributing an abridged extract from his book to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. These accounts (allowing for the fallibility of my translations) show some important differences from others' reports of what he has said. First, neither he nor his publishers describe him as an expert on the Luftwaffe but rather as "an expert in patent and document research" and as an underwater archaeologist.
Let us look at his own words:
"In about 1200 telephone conversations I tried … to collect as much information as possible about the unit — indeed hardly any documents exist."
In my own experience there is a considerable amount of contemporary documentation about Rippert's unit in Allied files (see below).
"In our view it’s practically impossible that someone explains something with that detail and mentions elements that were in no way typical for this situation without having been there himself. That’s to say: all the facts we have correspond exactly with Rippert’s statements. After a year and a half's examination, we were sure of it …"
"Many details of his statements corresponded with our researches. He described the events of 31 July in exact detail, orally and in writing. There are no documents preserved from the relevant German unit in the South of France, that give an explanation about that period."
This is worrying: there may be no original German documents but there is a mass of intercepted German communications in the archives. What then did Rippert's account correspond to? Herr von Gartzen continues:
"There would only have been an official confirmation of a victory in the event of finding a wreck or eyewitness evidence. Rippert was alone in the sky and the P-38 fell in the water."
A great many of Jagdgruppe 200's combats took place over the sea and the coast and aircraft they shot down fell into the water but the pilots were still heard calling their victories in over the radio; afterward they filed claims, had them accredited and those records survive. How did Rippert come to be "alone in the sky" when only the day before two Bf 109s had been scrambled to intercept a reconnaissance Lightning?
"Official documents to confirm Rippert’s statement are lacking. Therefore, from the scholarly point of view our results remain a hypothesis. But the data from the investigation of the wreck and Rippert’s statements confirm important information like time, place, aircraft type, flight behaviour. All the indications are that that is how it was."
It is a pity that the international media have not been as careful as Herr von Gartzen is here but perhaps in their eyes "Hypothesis" wouldn't make such a good headline as "Mystery Solved."
The date of Saint-Exupéry's disappearance, his time of take-off, the aircraft he flew and the location of the wreck on the seabed have been in the public domain for many years: they are not details known only to someone who was there. Horst Rippert was a successful fighter pilot operating over Southern France in the Summer of 1944, he probably knows better than almost anyone alive what it was like and could undoubtedly give an authentic description of air combat at that time. That does not prove he shot down this particular aircraft however.
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In contrast to most of the press coverage, this is a look at the evidence for Horst Rippert's claim in March 2008 that he probably shot down the aircraft flown by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on 31 July 1944.
All file references are from the National Archives, Kew London.
Article © Nick Beale 2008
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On trouvera une traduction de la version originale de cet article dans le magazine Aérojournal Nº 4 (Juin–Juillet 2008), disponible chez http://www.aero-journal.com/anciens.htm