Flight to Arras: Saint-Exupery’s Reconnaissance of the Moral Landscape of France
David K. Vaughan
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a philosopher at heart. He saw the airplane as a vehicle of intellectual as well as geographical exploration. Evidence of this statement is easily produced. One has only to think of the philosophical aspects of the essays in Wind, Sand and Stars, or the observations about the human condition that lie at the heart of The Little Prince. His final, posthumous work, Wisdom of the Sands, is an extended philosophical discourse about human nature and the responsibilities of the ruler. Saint-Exupery, or “Saint-Ex” as he was usually called, based his philosophical discourses on the hard physical realities of his life as a pilot. The events and the ideas of Night Flight, The Little Prince, and Wind, Sand and Stars are based on his experiences as a mail pilot flying for Air France in Africa and South America in the 1920s, the north African crash of his Simoun monoplane in 1935, and the harrowing events of the Spanish Civil War.
Throughout his life Saint-Exupery explored concepts of civic duty and social responsibility in increasingly greater detail, ideas which found their earliest expression in his first work, Southern Mail, larger development in Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars, and which culminated in Wisdom of the Sands. The work in which these issues are focused in an intensely personal context, however, is Flight to Arras.
Although Saint-Exupery was involved in several accidents throughout his career as a pilot, his most dangerous flying duties were those associated with his tour as a reconnaissance pilot for the French Air Force in the Spring of 1940, and later, after the fall of France, for the Free French forces flying as a unit of the U. S. Army Air Forces in the Mediterranean in 1943 and 1944. He was at work on Wisdom of the Sands (Citadelle) when he failed to return from a P-38 mapping mission to Lyon on July 31, 1944. It seems as if he needed the impetus of flying activity to spur his writing efforts, as if only the pressure of dangerous flying experiences could bring the necessary urgency to his creative processes.
In Flight to Arras, published in 1942 after he had survived the disastrous collapse of France in May and June of 1940, Saint Exupery drew on his combat flying experiences to create a carefully-constructed expression of a troubled but finally triumphant statement of patriotic faith and devotion to duty. Combining events of several combat missions spanning a period of time from 24 March to 24 May 1940, he synthesized his experiences in these sorties into one composite fictional mission which contains not only vivid descriptions of combat flying but also a complex and deeply personal statement of his cultural and philosophical beliefs as they are reflected in the condition of his native country, over which he is flying his reconnaissance missions.
Although Flight to Arras is an imaginative treatment of personal experiences, it is perhaps more moving as a testament to faith than it would have been if Saint-Exupery had written it as a factual narrative. By recognizing the two aspects of the work–its factual basis and its imaginative development–we can more fully appreciate the true value of Saint Exupery’s assimilation of his many combat experiences. Though we always have the sense that Saint-Exupery is standing shadowily behind central figures of his other works–Jacques Bernis in Southern Mail, Fabien in Night Flight, the nameless narrator in The Little Prince–, in Flight to Arras the two images come more closely together. In the narrator of Flight to Arras we find the unique characteristics of Saint-Exupery himself–his earnestness, his emotion, his intellectual movement towards and away from the subject under examination, his moodiness, his exuberance, his self-doubt, and his confirmation of purpose. These traits mark the character of the narrator of Flight to Arras as Saint Exupery’s much more individually than in any of his other writings.
Critical assessment of Flight to Arras has varied since the time it first appeared. Philip Toynbee, an early English reviewer, felt that “in the flood of words which end the book” he could discover “only a confused Whitmanism, an affirmation of the value of the individual, far too repetitive to be effective” (Cate 453). In contrast, one of the most recent readers has called the work “the supreme description of aerial warfare” (Schiff 332). One scholar has acknowledged that the book is “as difficult to summarize as it is to define” (Robinson 104).
Although some readers have described Flight to Arras as a novel (McKeon 1085), I am hesitant to do so, for the word carries with it connotations of imaginative construction which, though normally not objectionable, are unnecessary here. Saint-Exupery did not invent any of the crucial incidents which serve to structure his narrative; in fact, because the events that occur are factual, the philosophic message becomes especially significant. I prefer to think of Flight to Arras as a structured memoir, as slightly rearranged history, or to use the phrase popular today, creative non-fiction. To understand the strength of Saint-Exupery’s philosophic message fully, however, we need to review briefly the key episodes that occurred during the time that he flew in combat with the French Air Force in the winter and spring of 1940.
On August 20th, 1939, after promoting the American printing of Wind, Sand and Stars in New York City, Saint-Exupery departed New York for Le Havre; he was deeply concerned about the fate of France in the face of the German war threat. He was called up to duty on September 4th, three days after the German invasion of Poland, and was initially scheduled to undergo training in long range bombardment. However, he did not care for this kind of duty, and with the help of friends was reassigned to a reconnaissance unit, the II/33rd Strategic Reconnaissance Group. Saint-Exupery reported for duty early in December and was billeted in the little town of Orconte, some one hundred and fifty kilometers east of Paris (Cate 370-82).
During the early months of the “Phoney War,” from December of 1939 through April of 1940, the pilots of the II/33rd flew sporadic training missions, for bad weather hampered their flying activities; from December through February, Saint- Exupery’s schedule was filled with more social than military events. In March, the unit received the first few aircraft of a significantly improved reconnaissance type–the Bloch 174, which was intended to replace the aging workhorse of the unit, the Potez 63. The Bloch 174 was a twin-engine aircraft that held a crew of three (pilot, navigator/observer, gunner); it could reach altitudes of 30,000 feet and speeds exceeding 300 kilometers an hour.
Perhaps because of his age–thirty-nine, an advanced age for a combat pilot–or perhaps because of his fame, Saint-Exupery was among the first of the unit’s pilots to be checked out in the new aircraft, and on the 29th of March he flew the unit’s first mission in the Bloch 174. Unfortunately, a cloud layer interfered with the high altitude filming mission, and it was not successful. However, two days later he flew a two-hour mission over Aachen, Dusseldorf, and Koln at 27,000 feet. The next day, the first of April, he filled in on short notice for an ailing pilot and flew another two-hour mission over Bonn and Koblenz. On this flight he and his crew observed a German fighter which came within one kilometer and fifteen hundred feet of intercepting them.
On May 10th a flight of German Dornier 17 aircraft bombed their airfield at Athies-sous-Laon, and the “Phoney War” was at an end. Saint-Exupery was not with the unit at that time, however, for he was recovering from an attack of fever and rheumatism brought on by his high altitude missions of the previous month. When he finally rejoined his unit, it had been relocated in the vicinity of Paris–first at Le Bourget and then at Orly–and the aircrews and aircraft dispatched to fly reconnaissance sorties were being lost to the German forces at an alarmingly high rate (Cate 394-6).
On the 23rd of May Saint-Exupery was tasked to fly a low altitude sortie to Arras to report on the progress of German tank movements in that area (Cate 400-2). Saint-Exupery departed Orly early in the morning and landed at the town of Meaux, where the unit commander, Major Alias, was waiting to brief the crew on the details of the mission. On board the aircraft with Saint-Exupery were Lieutenant Jean Dutertre, navigator/observer, and Sergeant Andre Mot, gunner. Departing Meaux after noon, they rendezvoused with their fighter escort, but bad weather soon caused the fighters to become separated from them. From then on to Arras and back (Arras is some one hundred and fifty kilometers north of Paris), Saint-Exupery flew from 500 to 1000 feet above the ground, low enough to be within easy range of ground fire and too low to enable him to take adequate evasive action if attacked by fighter aircraft diving from above. Fortunately, the bad weather prevented interception by German aircraft.
When they spotted the town of Arras, it was “smoking like a volcano,” a visual effect heightened by the dark storm clouds overhead. As they approached the beseiged city, German anti-aircraft fire tracked them with tracer-interlaced ground fire that looked like “tears of light,” like “golden bubbles” rising from a slimy river bottom (Flight to Arras 171). Saint Exupery stepped alternately on the left and right rudder pedals to help the aircraft nose its way through the deadly fire as particles of metal struck the aircraft. Suddenly an anti-aircraft shell burst immediately beneath them. According to the Curtis Cate account,
Saint-Exupery had no time to be afraid–he was too busy weaving and dodging. But instinctively he looked at the instrument panel. An oil-gauge was flickering wildly. The flak burst had pierced an oil tank. Putting the plane into a steep bank he ducked into the nearest cloud. There was nothing they could do now but hope to make it back before the overheated engines burned out their bearings. Flying blindly on instruments, according to the compass readings given to him by Dutertre, Saint-Ex brought the Bloch out of the clouds as they overflew the Seine. A few minutes later they were taxi-ing to a safe stop on the Orly field. (Cate 402)
Saint-Exupery flew another mission three days later and flew three more missions (at high altitude) between then and June 10th (Cate 403). By that date the collapse of France was almost complete, and the men who survived in his unit had made their way to Algiers (Cate 407). Saint-Exupery eventually made his way to the United States, in January 1941, after several visits to Vichy France. In February 1942 Flight to Arras appeared; on July 27th, 1943, he was in combat again, flying P-38 aircraft with his old unit. On July 31st, 1944, he was listed as missing in action when he failed to return from a reconnaissance flight over southern France.
Flight to Arras, written for the most part in New York City in 1941, describes the account of an unnamed narrator, but clearly intended to be Saint-Exupery himself, who flies a single reconnaissance mission, a combination high and low altitude mission, north to the town of Arras. The work is based largely upon events he experienced on his flight on 23 May. But there was no high-altitude segment on the 23 May mission. In describing his flight as a combination of high and low altitude segments, Saint-Exupery diverges from the true sequences of events that he experienced in his flights with the II/33rd and creates a composite mission specifically designed to convey ideas more complex than those associated with the re-telling of a particularly harrowing mission.
Curtis Cate has effectively summarized the narrative structure of Flight to Arras:
In its construction Pilote de Guerre [Flight to Arras] was anything but a literal recapitulation of the flight Saint-Exupery had undertaken on May 23, 1940. . . . That had been a low altitude mission from start to finish, whereas Flight to Arras was the narrative of a high altitude reconnaissance which ends in a low altitude return. The composite experience of several months was thus telescoped into a single flight, symbolic of them all, and the hardships of high altitude flying conveyed to the reader with dramatic density. (Cate 450)
As Cate says, Saint Exupery’s most dangerous and most dramatic mission was his low-level reconnaissance flight over Arras. Of all the missions he flew in the Spring of 1940, this was the most hazardous; it is not difficult to see, therefore, that it should have become the central event of his story. What is less clear is why he should have felt the need to fictionalize the mission he flew, and how these two elements, the high and low altitude sorties, provide the narrative structure for such a deeply personal and complex philosophical essay.
To appreciate the design of the book it is first necessary to understand the movement of its philosophical issues, a task that might seem to be a large one, for many readers have found it difficult to state the book’s philosophic message simply–or even to agree that it has a unified and coherent philosophic point. And I have noticed, when I have taught the book, that students are reluctant to construct a synthesis between the between the factual narrative incidents and the philosophic observations which those incidents frame. But the key to establishing that synthesis, to seeing meaning in the “flood of words,” is to recognize the profound change in outlook that comes over the narrator during the course of events described in the book. Briefly stated, the narrator begins the account of his hazardous mission in a dispirited and pessimistic frame of mind, experiences an essential feeling of self-renewal in the crucial portion of the flight over Arras, and returns to his home field filled with a spirit of re-dedication to his cultural heritage and to the people of France.
While waiting for the fateful mission briefing, the narrator reflects that “We had reached the last days of May, 1940, a time of full retreat, of full disaster. 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 (Flight to Arras 14).” During the mission briefing, the narrator longs for the arrival of the following night, so that, if he is still alive then, he “might discover why it is” he “ought to die” (24).
On the flight out, at high altitude, the narrator copes with the cold temperatures, the lack of oxygen, frozen aircraft controls, and wearily considers that he is “playing a game that we call war,” a game like “Cops and Robbers” (55). His aircraft is chased for a period of time by a flight of six German fighters, but the superior speed and altitude of the French aircraft enable it to escape. Eventually the isolation of his high altitude flight causes him to reflect that, like the sky through which he is flying, “the earth is empty. Look down on the earth from thirty-three thousand feet, and man ceases to exist” (78).
When we recall that the original mission was flown at low altitude, in bad weather, we begin to see what Saint Exupery might have had in mind in changing his flight profile. He describes his sensations in looking down upon the features of France from a great height before he views its features at a closer perspective. Certainly he had many opportunities to do so, flying more than five high-altitude missions from March to May of 1940.
When the navigator/observer informs the narrator that it is time to begin their descent–“You may drop down, now, Captain”–the narrator thinks that the descent will be “like tumbling into a ruin. We shall have to splash about in their mud. We shall have to live with those below in their barbarous dilapidation. Below us lies a world in decomposition.” They face a return to their “native sordidness” (114-5). But this intimate contact with the “sordidness,” “the world in decomposition,” enables the narrator to emerge from the shell of isolation in which he has been living.
As the aircraft approaches Arras at low altitude, the narrator sees the earth in a new perspective: “The earth here looks like an orchard. A moment ago it seemed to me skeletal, inhumanly dessicated. But I am flying low in a sort of intimacy with it” (159). Soon he is “part of the countryside” (163). Then he sees the anti-aircraft fire: “We had been swaying heavily through this blue swamp already drowned in night. We had stirred up this silent slime; and now, in tens of thousands, it was sending towards us its golden bubbles” (171). The narrator envisions the aircraft as flying through a sea of mud: “There never was such muck as this murky smoke,” he says, “this mess as grimy as a heap of filthy rags” (175).
When the German anti-aircraft fire strikes the aircraft, the narrator thinks of himself as “naked and running the gauntlet” (177); the flames of Arras and the shock of the anti-aircraft fire “strip away the flesh” and “the worship of the flesh too” (181). The narrator experiences a kind of renewal, a baptism under fire, in the hazardous skies above Arras. The fire that is destroying Arras is purifying it, and its effect is felt upon the narrator as well:
Arras was glowing dark red like iron on the anvil, a flame fed by . . . the sweat of men, the inventions of men, the arts of men, the memories and patrimony of men, all these braided in the ruddy ascension of that single plume that changed them into fire and ash, borne away on the wind. (187)
At this moment he realizes that “what I bring back from this sortie is not a matter for a report. . . . Unhappiness is behind me. It fled in that instant when the shell bursts began to drum upon the plane. Had I turned back one second before, I should have missed knowing myself” (191). What the narrator learns over Arras is that now that he has “come down out of the clouds,” he can see that he is “bound to that mob on the highways,” the mob fleeing the German advance, a group he no longer sees as a mob, but as a “people.” He observes, with some feeling, that “we dwell in the rot of defeat, yet I am filled with a solemn and abiding jubilation, as if I had just come from a sacrament” (205).
The figure that the narrator sees in the flames of Arras becomes a pervasive symbol for the crisis of personal and national confidence with which the book is primarily occupied. When Saint Exupery first observes the fires of Arras, he says that “Arras is not a town”; it is little more than “a red plume against a blue background of night” (164). Then it becomes “the gleam of a lamp that might be smoking a bit”; finally he envisions
something almost solid that the wind stirs from time to time and bends as it bends a tree. That’s it: a tree. Arras is caught up in the mesh of roots of this tree. And all the pith of Arras, all the substance of Arras, all the treasures of Arras leap, now become sap, to nourish this tree. (165)
From this point the narrator returns to the image of the tree, using it as the focus for the issues associated with his philosophic struggle. In the final portion of the narrative, the image represents the regenerative spirit of the people, the animating force of reconstruction. In speaking of the “common denominator that integrates all the qualities” of the people of his renewed civilization, the narrator says that “there exists a principle, an animating force, out of which everything once emerged–root, trunk, branches, fruit. That principle was once a radiating seed in the loam of mankind” (229-30). The tree becomes one of the unifying symbols of the book, and more importantly, of the intellectual struggle which lies at the core of the narrative. “A tree,” says the narrator finally, “is an object of order, despite the diversity of its roots and branches” (251).
Other symbols are featured prominently in the narrative; most important is fire, the fire that is consuming the town of Arras. But to the narrator the fire becomes an image of eventual renewal, not of total destruction. The third central symbol is that of the cathedral, which symbolizes the structure that a healthy society can build: “He who bears in his heart a cathedral to be built is already victorious” (129). The final central symbol is that of wheat, wheat which will provide the bread of communion. For the narrator, flying over what at first seems to be a barren, lifeless landscape, a transformation in vision occurs, in which all the elements of the land below become organic, filled with the potential of life, capable of renewing the society that lives on that land. But that society must reject its outdated, stale vision if it is to grow and prosper. That is Saint-Exupery’s message to the reader and especially to the French people.
When he and his crew return safely from the mission, the narrator expresses a thought that summarizes the conclusion of his philosophic debate: “I shall fight for Man. Against Man’s enemies–but against myself as well” (252). At this point the narrator/Saint-Exupery and the author/Saint-Exupery have begun to merge, for the struggle to help the French people maintain their unity and pride in the face of defeat was an issue that engaged his creative efforts to the time of his death. In his attempt to account for the loss of hope and purpose in the narrator/Saint-Exupery, the author/Saint-Exupery tries to focus the attitudes and feelings of the French people as a result of the May 1940 disaster, and to suggest to himself and to them–his French readers–a way of perceiving victory in defeat, of envisioning new life, like the legendary Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the community that was Arras.
With such a perspective, then, we can see more clearly how and why Saint-Exupery modified the sequence of his missions with the II/33rd Group during the Spring of 1940, for in Flight to Arras he has constructed a moral landscape over which the narrator flies a symbolic mission profile. Beginning in weariness and despair, then climbing to the dry and frozen isolation of high altitude, the narrator finds himself distanced from the earth below. Forcing himself to descend through discipline and dedication, he becomes reacquainted with the “mud” and “slime” of humanity in “decomposition,” yet finds that the impact of that encounter brings him to a larger awareness of his purpose and his kinship with his people. His flight through the German anti-aircraft fire creates an increased appreciation of life through contact with the forces of death, and this heightened awareness allows him, in turn, to bring his message of the potential for renewal to the French people.
We should note finally that the philosophic change of heart that the narrator experiences is appropriately revealed to us during the recounting of a reconnaissance mission, a mission of re-seeing, of re-knowing, the countryside over which the narrator flies. Although the information that Saint-Exupery and his crew originally sought–a status report on German tank movements in the vicinity of the town of Arras–was of little value to the helpless French intelligence staff that asked for it, the experiences he encountered on that flight and the insights those experiences provided became the most valuable results of the mission, for it was out of those insights that he created his complex and thought-provoking narrative.
Cate, Curtis. Antoine de Saint-Exupery: His Life and Times. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
de Saint-Exupery, Antoine. Flight to Arras. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.
McKeon, Joseph T. “Saint-Exupery, The Myth of the Pilot.” PMLA, 89 (1974): 1085-93.
Robinson, Joy D. Marie. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Twayne World Authors Series No. 705. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Schiff, Stacy. Saint-Exupery: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.