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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 14, Issue 3

3 Grand Prix drivers who became wartime saboteurs

Formula One special report
By Joe Saward Published: May 23, 2008 on www.iht.com - International Herald Tribune

As the Formula One cars rush down on Sunday to Sainte Dévote, the first corner on the Monaco circuit, they will pass a sculpture of a Bugatti racing car. It is a monument to W. Williams, who in 1929 was the winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix.

In those days, Grand Prix heroes were different than today's Formula One heroes. At the time, the sport needed men who did not calculate the odds, for death was ever present. The men who survived would seem perfect recruits for special duties when World War II broke out.

That may seem at best far-fetched, at worst a bad film script, but there were in fact three top Grand Prix stars who worked as British secret agents in occupied France during the war.

In the espionage world of the Special Operations Executive, they were known Sébastien, Lionel and Gilles. To racing fans, they were known as W. Williams, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Williams is the best known, in part because he won the first Monaco Grand Prix and because the mystery surrounding him played no small role in giving the race its glamorous cachet. Yet for decades the true story remained untold.

Writing his memoirs in the 1980s, René Dreyfus, a fellow racing star from the 1920s, provided all the details that were known of W. Williams.

"Some said he was a wealthy sportsman because he drove a magnificent town car - an Hispano Suiza," Dreyfus recalled. "Others thought that he was one of the livery men who operated from the Place de l'Opéra in Paris and hired out his car and his services as a chauffeur to wealthy clients. No one knew for sure."

The driver known as W. Williams was actually William Grover, born in Paris in 1903 to a French mother and an English father, who had moved to Paris to help a Russian prince breed horses. With the outbreak of World War I, the family followed the prince to neutral Monte Carlo and it was there that the boy, known as Willy, learned to drive when he was 14.

Manpower was short and Grover found no shortage of work as a chauffeur. When he returned to Paris in 1919, he became the personal chauffeur of an Irish artist, William Orpen.

Grover loved speed. He raced motorcycles, but to hide the fact from his mother he raced under the name W. Williams. He kept using the name when he switched to car racing in 1925.

When the Sunbeam racing boss Louis Coatalen saw W. Williams race a Bugatti in the Grand Prix of Provence at Miramas in the summer of 1925, he knew he had found a new star. He signed him that afternoon. But the Sunbeam team did not have room for him until 1926, and then the team closed down after only a few races.

Grover had made his mark, though, and was able to talk Ettore Bugatti into lending him cars. He paid Bugatti back by winning Monaco, two French Grands Prix and one Belgian Prix.

He then retired with his wife, Yvonne (who had once been Orpen's mistress), to live the life of a gentleman-sportsman, with a house in Paris and a villa in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, on the French Mediterranean coast near Monaco.

Grover had always considered himself to be an Englishman, and when World War II broke out, he enlisted as a private soldier in the British Expeditionary Force. He chauffeured officers around northern France until the German occupation, then fled to England.

A year later, the Special Operations Executive stumbled upon him in a transport camp in Scotland. It had been looking for French-speakers who were willing to fight behind enemy lines. Grover passed all the tests, was trained in underground warfare and was parachuted into France in June 1942. He headed for Paris, where all the other special operations agents had been arrested.

"Paris was far and away the most dangerous place in which to work," his chief, Maurice Buckmaster, wrote years later. "It was swarming with Germans and security police of every description."

Grover's orders were to create a sleeper network to attack specific targets in the days before the Allied invasion. He turned to his old racing friends, including Robert Benoist, France's top racing star of the 1920s. Benoist had won every major Grand Prix in 1927 and had led Bugatti to victory in the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours, organizing the team and sharing victory with Jean-Pierre Wimille.

Williams and Benoist put sabotage teams in place and embarked on sabotage operations themselves. They played a significant role in slowing production at the Citroën factory in Paris, where in 1942 the Germans had built 9,320 army trucks. The following year, production was halved.

By then, the war was changing. Winston Churchill had been to Moscow in the summer of 1942 and had promised Stalin that British undercover forces would stir up trouble in France. He ordered the Special Operations Executive to go into action with a network known as Prosper. The British officials put all their resources behind Prosper, leaving Grover's team struggling and without the tools it needed to achieve more.

Then came disaster. In the summer of 1943, the Germans infiltrated Prosper. Hundreds were arrested and within a month Grover had been betrayed. He was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Benoist, too, was captured, but escaped to England, where special operations officials recognized him as a valuable asset to replace the captured leaders.

Benoist was trained and flown back to France to start a new undercover network. His primary goal was to prepare attacks on the port of Nantes, but once his teams were ready, he was free to attack the Germans wherever he could.

Benoist recruited his racing teammate Wimille to help. In the weeks before the June 1944 D-Day invasion, Benoist's groups paralyzed Nantes and he began organizing an armed insurrection south of Paris. But the Germans were after him. They discovered the address of one of his safehouses in Paris from the legendary French-British agent Violette Szabo, who had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Benoist walked into a trap.

Grover and Benoist were marked men. Hitler had ordered that all saboteurs should be killed, and in the last months of the war both, like Szabo, died in German concentration camps.

The sculpture at Sainte Dévote honors the victory of W. Williams at Monaco in 1929, but for those who know, it stands for a great deal more.

Joe Saward is the author of the book: "The Grand Prix Saboteurs," the story of Grover, Benoist and Wimille.

Top picture: Brian McMorrow

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