Luc Vanrell is a diver, photographer and underwater explorer, credited with the discovery of famous author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s P-38 “Lightning”, which was shot down by a German fighter aircraft over the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944. The remains of the aircraft are located at a depth of 83 meters in the Bay of Marseille.
Question: Tell us how did you discover the P-38
It was in the late 80s when I first spotted this wreck. Back then, I thought it was a German aircraft. A first attempt to identify it in 1989 failed.
It is the discovery of a silver bracelet bearing the name of Saint-Exupéry in 1998 by Jean-Claude Bianco, a local fisherman, which revived my investigation.
Question: Have you located other World War II wrecks?
Yes, Marseille has been the scene of numerous tragedies and various shipwrecks.
Its strategic importance during the Second World War was great, therefore there are many wrecks at sea, for those who can recognize them.
I was able to discover several wrecks of aircraft and ships of this period.
Question: What were your thoughts when you learned that it is the aircraft of Saint-Exupéry, what were your feelings?
At the beginning of my research it was just a working hypothesis related to the discovery of a silver bracelet, bearing the name of the famous author, by a fisherman.
So gradually, over the site investigation, that hypothesis turned into certainty, to the indisputable proof.
It was first necessary to confirm that the remains on this sector belonged to a “Lightning”.
It was not simple, because two similar planes crashed there and their remains are scattered across the sea bottom. The depth of the wreck, lying at 83 meters and the lack of resources have also complicated the investigations under water.
I wanted to identify the “proof”, a unique piece that could only be on the aircraft of Saint-Exupéry. But, I had to find it in the wreck.
Until that moment, it remained a possibility. So it is under water, while I dived to see if that unique piece still existed, when finally the “possible” becomes suddenly a certainty.
And as always in such cases, these old pieces of rusting metal suddenly become human and tell us a drama that unfolded on this day of 1944, the death of a man and what man, the great Saint-Exupéry himself!
Question: It is one might say, a world tragedy since Saint-Exupéry was a great writer. What is your opinion
Personally I found that there was little point in searching the wreckage of Saint-Exupéry, simply because it is after all only a historical anecdote.
The cultural riches that Saint-Exupéry has offered, are in his books, not in the remains of his aircraft.
Moreover, having been an avid young reader of Saint-Exupéry, I found that his disappearance (like the Little Prince) was what suited him best.
It was my love for wrecks and archaeology that led me to question about the possible links between Saint-Exupéry and the aircraft remains.
Question: Have you met the German pilot who killed Saint-Exupéry? He once said in a BBC interview a few years ago, that if he knew Saint-Exupéry was flying this P-38 he would not have killed him.
I started researching these relics back in the 80s. Then Jean-Claude Bianco fished the bracelet in 1998 which reactivated my research. Philippe Castellano, a French historian, joined me in 2000, then Lino von Gartzen Bavarian archaeologist in 2005.
It was then that the investigation into the circumstances of the death of Saint-Exupéry were in full swing and lead us to German pilot Horst Rippert in 2006. Mr. Rippert recognized the facts but refused to testify his experience. We (Philip Lino and me) decided to remain very discreet and limit contact.
Only Lino met with Mr. Rippert, Philippe and I just had telephone communications. Mr. Rippert, after almost 2 years without betraying his secret, eventually accepted the idea of a filmed interview.
We argued that our testimony after his death would be bland and it seemed important to us to film his very moving testimony, which was done at his request by ZDF, his former company, as after the war he became a respected journalist.
The images were to remain in archive until his death. But we managed to convince him to use the interview while he was still alive, since this disaster was after all a fact of war between soldiers.
Mr. Rippert had learned to fly before the war, motivated by the readings of his hero, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry …
Horst Rippert: “If I had known it was Saint-Exupéry I would never have shot him down.”
“He knew admirably how to describe the sky, the thoughts and feelings of pilots”, he added.
“I didn’t target a man who I knew. I shot at an enemy plane that went down. That’s all.”
Mr Rippert said he spotted the author’s twin-tailed Lightning P38 while flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over the Mediterranean near Toulon, and was amazed it was flying alone.
“He was below me. I saw his markings and manoeuvred myself behind him and shot him down”, said Mr Rippert, who brought down 28 planes during the war, and became a radio sports journalist afterwards.
Question: Where are the recovered pieces of the plane today?
Much was dispersed by fishing, while the rest still lies under water on site, and the recovered part is currently at the Air Museum at Le Bourget.
Question: What is your strongest impression when you think of your dives?
Peace, serenity, vastness, loneliness and original beauty.