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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 13:38 GMT
Wartime author mystery 'solved'
Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Paris, 1936 (file photo)
Saint-Exupery joined the Free French air force during the war
A former Luftwaffe fighter pilot may have ended the 64-year-old mystery surrounding the death of French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The author of The Little Prince disappeared during a wartime aerial reconnaissance mission in July 1944.

In 2004, wreckage from his plane was found off the coast of Marseilles, but there was no indication of how he died.

Now former German pilot Horst Rippert says he fears he may have shot down the author - though he cannot be sure.

I presented myself as doing research and he said: 'You can stop researching now because I shot down Saint-Exupery'
Lino von Gartzen
Historian who found Horst Rippert

French newspaper Le Figaro has published extracts of a book in which the former Messerschmitt pilot describes spotting a twin-tailed Lightning P-38 plane flying below him.

He went in pursuit and shot him down.

"I didn't see the pilot and even so, it would have been impossible for me to know that it was Saint-Exupery. I hoped and I still hope it wasn't him," he said.

'Little Prince'

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was best known for his book The Little Prince, a fantasy about a prince from an asteroid who explores the planets.

But his other works focused largely on his experiences in aviation. Although he moved to New York after the Nazis occupied France in 1940, he returned to join the Free French air force in Corsica.

His disappearance became one of the most enduring mysteries in post-war France.

Eventually, a bracelet belonging to him washed up in a fishing net off Marseille in 1998 and debris from his plane was later found by French diver Luc Vanrell.

With the debris was the engine of a German plane shot down a few months earlier.

Mr Vanrell then set to work with Lino von Gartzen of the Bavarian Society for Underwater Archaeology.

Big shock

Mr von Gartzen told the BBC News website that he made 1,200 phone calls to former Luftwaffe pilots and their families in search of the man who shot down the French writer.

Finally, he was told about a man who had a clear memory of the events of 31 July 1944, the date Antoine de Saint-Exupery disappeared.

"I presented myself as doing research and he said: 'You can stop researching now because I shot down Saint-Exupery'."

Lino von Gartzen said it came as a big shock: "I never thought I would find who shot him down. I was quiet for some minutes as this was too much for me".

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.

"He feels guilty and very, very sorry about it. He was very scared that the cheap press would massacre him."

In the published extracts, Mr Rippert describes being a fan of de Saint-Exupery's work. "In our youth, at school, we had all read him. We loved his books," he said.

After the war, Mr Rippert became a sports journalist. He is now 88.



SEE ALSO
Mysterious wartime death of French novelist
07 Aug 04 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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