“Tomorrow, we of France will enter into the night of defeat. May my country still exist when day dawns again.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
It is May 1940 – and it may be The End.
As Nazi tanks, planes and soldiers pour into France like a deadly cancer, Captain de Saint-Exupéry, a pilot with Group 2-33 of the dwindling French Resistance, is being sent on what amounts to a suicide mission.
He and Lieutenant Dutertre, along with a man identified only as “Gunner” have been ordered to fly their aircraft alone over the Nazi-held city of Arras and do a low-altitude reconnaissance sortie, taking on heavy fire from machine guns and rapid-fire cannons on the ground, while at the same time photographing German tank positions. If the impossible happens and they somehow survive the ordeal, they are to turn tail and bring the camera film, their aircraft and themselves (in descending order of importance) back to base – which for the moment, happens to be an old farm.
That is, of course, assuming anyone is still there.
That alone may be wishful thinking. As Saint-Exupéry writes in the opening pages of this memoir, Group 2-33 began with 23 airplane crews, each consisting of three members: pilot, observer and gunner. In the previous three weeks, 17 of those crews have vanished – all going on “awkward” sorties. Sorties just like the one he’s about to go on now. There are only six crews left.
“We had reached the last days of May 1940, a time of full retreat, of full disaster,” Saint-Exupéry laments. “Crew after crew was being offered up as a sacrifice. It was as if you dashed glassfuls of water into a forest fire in the hope of putting it out…we knew perfectly well there was nothing for us but to go on flinging ourselves into the forest fire…an immense forest fire raging, and a hope that it might be put out by the sacrifice of a few glassfuls of water. They would be sacrificed.”
But it’s worse than that. It is one thing to sacrifice yourself to achieve a great victory: to save a life, to take out an enemy tank garrison, to change the course of the war. But this flight – even if successful – will do none of these. They are one lone plane against the might of the German Luftwaffe. There will be no bombing runs, only photographs hastily snapped.
No lives will be saved by their mission. The thousands of evacuating French civilians jamming the roadways, drowning in an “asphalt sea” of broken down vehicles, will still wilt under the cruel machine gun shower provided by the occasional sadistic German pilot. The screaming infant who hasn’t eaten in days – one of many heartbreaking voices amid miles and miles of starving refugees – will still be silenced. The pregnant mother, brutally forced into labor in the bed of a broken down truck, will still die, whether Saint-Exupery is successful or not.
And the one thing that sticks in his crawl more than anything is this agonizing question: Even if these three airmen do return alive and manage to once again rendezvous with their group – assuming it hasn’t been forced to retreat yet again – who will review their intelligence? Group 2-33 is on its own. The roads are jammed. The telephone lines are cut. There is no “Staff” of superiors to develop their precious reconnaissance photos, review them, and strategize accordingly. When they return – if they return – the precious film canisters they’ve risked their very lives for will not be received by the hands of generals. They will be deposited, undeveloped, on some farmer’s shelf, or in some dark corner of the barn where his group is hunkered down, where they will be promptly forgotten.
It’s all so futile, according to Saint-Exupéry. It’s all a waste. The French Resistance is simply going through the motions – and the “motions” it’s going through just happen to be dying.
“We stand to the enemy in the relation of one man to three,” he remarks. “One plane to 10 or 20. After Dunkerque, one tank to 100. We have no time to meditate upon the past; no time to say to ourselves even this – that 40 million farmers must lose an armament race run against 80 million industrial workers. We are engaged in the present. And the present is what it is. No sacrifice, at any moment, on any front, can serve to slow up the German advance.”
That is the hopeless backdrop against which Saint-Exupéry and his two companions embark on their harrowing mission – the events of which comprise the bulk of this book.
And harrowing it is. The pilots of Group 2-33 don’t get to enjoy the luxuries of pressurized cockpits. Even before they get to Arras, Captain Saint-Exupéry, Lieutenant Dutertre and “Gunner” are suffering from hypoxia, overexertion and freezing temperatures (at 32,000 feet, the temperature is a frigid –55), kept alive only by a sea of rubber oxygen tubes.
“I am attached to the plane by a rubber tube as indispensable as an umbilical cord,” Saint-Exupéry notes. “The plane is plugged in to the circulation of my blood. Organs have been added to my being, and they seem to intervene between me and my heart.”
But “Flight to Arras” is not just a blow-by-blow account of what befalls these three men on what is likely to be their final mission. Saint-Exupéry isn’t just a skilled aviator, he’s also a philosopher – a combination we don’t always see in aviation literature – and this memoir seeks to answer the one question that is gnawing at his insides:
“Where is the sense, I ask you, in sending a crew out to be murdered for the sake of intelligence that is sure to be useless and will never reach the staff anyway, even if one of us lives to report it?”
Before the end of his mission (and the book), Saint-Exupéry will reach a conclusion – but it will require a lot of introspection. While in the air, he will relive childhood memories. He will visit the governess of his youth. He will ponder the nature of the human soul, France, and God Himself. And most of all, he and his companions will come face-to-face with their destiny when they finally reach the flames of Arras.
At the same time, some obviously important details will be glaringly omitted. “Gunner” will never get a real name – and we will never learn what type of plane they are flying.
If this is your first encounter with Saint-Exupéry as a writer – as it was for me – you’re in for some surprisingly well-written prose. He has a way with words. He describes the German destruction of France as, “the secrete gnawing of bacteria.” The French refugees trapped on the roadways are, “drowning in old iron.” And the tracer bullets speeding past his window are not mere “tracer bullets.” They are “a thicket of lance strokes,” “a thousand elastic rosaries,” “tears of light,” and “the slow vortex of seed, swirling like the husks of threshed grain.”
I should also note that this is not a writer who merely researched his topic. The book is autobiographical. He was there. Saint-Exupéry actually flew this mission with the French Resistance – indeed, flew many more missions – and there are details in this book that only an experienced aviator living in France in 1940 could provide. There is the chilling observation that all the clocks of France are wrong. The story of the exhausted pilot, out on the wing of his own airplane as the engine bursts into flames, who must decide whether to peer over the edge of the wing and ride it to his death, or gently slide off of it and take his chances with his parachute. There’s the astute observation that, as shells explode all around you, your aircraft rings like a tuning fork, “with a sound that is almost musical.”
As grim as the situation is, however, there is also room for humor. When a proud Saint-Exupéry schools a French farmer about the various instruments a pilot must consult – obviously hoping to win the civilian’s respect and worship – the simple old man remarks that some of the instruments must be missing.
“The ones you win the war with,” he scoffs.
I have read this book twice. The first time was simply for the sake of reading it. The second was to gather information for this review. Both times I was struck with a sense of reverence. These are the words and the thoughts of a man who has been to a place I would hardly dare to go. He has been to the very edge of death and peered over the side, so to speak, then returned to tell us what he saw.
I would never have known of this book, save for a round robbins telephone interview I and other journalists once did with Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. During that interview, she told me that this was one of only two books she would be taking with her (in print) to the International Space Station. After reading it, I first thought it an odd choice, (Why, after all, bring a book about a suicide mission?) but after reading it, I think I understand. Cristoforetti and her crewmates, American astronaut Terry Virts and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, are all test pilots for their respective air forces – and this book, in a sense, is the test pilot’s creed. In fact, it could be the creed for anyone in the military.
Anyone who wears the uniform – and many who do not – may be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, for a variety of reasons. For Christians, guidance on this point is found in Scripture, particularly John 15:13 (“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,”) and Matthew 16:25 (“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”)
It is unlikely, based on what we know of Saint-Exupéry’s life story, that he had a saving knowledge of Christ. But he did have a firm grasp – certainly more than I do – of the Christian concept of self-sacrifice.
And it’s one he follows through on. Four years after his fateful mission over Arras – and roughly two years after this book was published – Saint-Exupéry disappeared while flying a sortie. No doubt an “awkward” sortie. His plane was never found.
He leaves behind him a wealth of literature. And this book stands as a shining testament to his bravery.
Travis K. Kircher is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at email@example.com.