A different danger - three champions at war
- Richard Armstrong
- May 12, 2002
- Delage - A World Champion manufacturer, by Leif Snellman/Josh Lintz
- Jean-Pierre Wimille - The uncrowned king of the forties, by Mattijs Diepraam
Robert Benoist & Jean-Pierre Wimille
Bugatti T57G 'Tank'
1937 Le Mans 24 Hours
Unaware of their combined war efforts to come France's old hero and new promise lined up together in a 'Tank' to win the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours. They could have used a real tank a couple of years later. This victory for France wasn't one without drama, as the pair survived a huge multi-car pile-up and a furious thunderstorm to open up an 11-lap lead. Cruising to the finish with 4 hours to go, Benoist in the final race of his career failed to circumnavigate a backmarker and entered into an off-track excursion which ended up with the Tank being stalled - in an "unsafe place". This led to marshalls pushing it out of the way, allowing Benoist to kickstart the car and continue.
The recent publication of the novel Early One Morning by Robert Ryan has thrown into the limelight an almost forgotten aspect of motor sporting history - the role of three great drivers in the French Resistance. As members of the Special Operations Executive, Robert Benoist, William Grover-Williams (who raced as "W. Williams") and Jean-Pierre Wimille continued to take extraordinary risks with their lives - as racing drivers they were used to brushes with death and it stalked them throughout their careers. Of the three, only Wimille is known to have survived the war and he was later to die at the wheel of a racing car - a Gordini, in practice for the 1949 Buenos Aires Grand Prix.
Early One Morning is fiction, but based around real characters. However, many of the events depicted in it are fictional too, so I have attempted here to set down, from various sources, what is known about the Resistance work of these three men and some of their associates. There is a danger that the myth may become entangled with the truth - sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case the fiction may overcome the truth.
But firstly - their racing achievements. "Williams" was the first winner of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, bur even before that he was well-known on the racing circuits of Europe, and especially of France, his adopted homeland. He was actually born and brought up in France, of an English father and French mother, and entered motor sport in 1926 with a Hispano-Suiza, which he drove in the Monte Carlo Rally. Fascinated by cars and all things mechanical from an early age, this son of a horse-breeder became a chauffeur and by 1923 he had secured a post with the noted portrait painter Sir William Orpen. Grover-Williams won the affections of Orpen's mistress, Eve Aupicq, and in an unusual financial settlement Orpen sent the two on their way together with his blessing and not a little money, some of which they used to further his racing career. Back in 1926 he had already acquired a Bugatti, which he used to set FTD in the hillclimbs at La Turbie, Mont-Agel and Esterel. He won the French Grand Prix in 1928, a feat he repeated in 1929: at the end of that year he married Eve. 1930 was a barren year, but in 1931 he shared the winning Bugatti with Conelli in the ten-hour Belgian GP and scored the first of three successive wins in the important La Baule GP. He later joined the works Bugatti team, but by this time the Bugatti star was fading and his only other significant achievement was a sixth (with Veyron) in the 1936 French GP. He retired from racing shortly afterwards, putting his experience on the track to good use by teaching Bugatti owners how to handle their machines. On the outbreak of war he volunteered for the British Army, determined, like so many, to "do his bit". He was already 36 years old.
Robert Benoist was one of the great stars of French motor racing in the inter-war years. Seven years older than "Williams", he had been a pilot in the Great War and started racing in 1921, piloting rally cars and, in 1922-3 a Salmson cyclecar, which he used to win a number of important races in France, Britain and Spain. After two years with the Salmson, he joined Delage as a works driver, scoring several hillclimb wins and a number of good placings in circuit races in the years 1924-6. In 1927 Benoist and Delage carried all before them - he won the four major races of the year, bringing Delage the World Championship and earning himself a Légion d'Honneur. Delage withdrew from racing at the end of the season, but Benoist eventually managed to get a drive with Bugatti and immediately placed one of their cars second in the 1928 San Sebastian GP. The following year he won the Spa 24 Hours with Attilio Marinoni in an Alfa Romeo, going into virtual retirement after a run at Le Mans in a Chrysler. He was tempted back in 1934 to drive sports cars for Bugatti, scoring several good placings before winning Le Mans in 1937 with his compatriot Jean-Pierre Wimille. This time he retired for good, to concentrate on running the Bugatti showroom in Avenue Montaigne, Paris. When war broke out, he once again enlisted, this time in the French army, attaining the rank of Capitaine.
The youngest of our trio was Jean-Pierre Wimille. Born in 1908, he was a Parisian, and burst onto the racing scene in 1930 when he ran a Bugatti in the French GP at Pau. His first major success was the 1932 Lorraine GP in an Alfa Romeo Monza - he also won the Oran GP that year in a Bugatti. In the next three years, his only major victory was the 1934 Algerian GP but in 1936 (here he is seen at Comminges), when all the big French races were for sports cars, he won four, including the French GP (with Sommer) - all in Bugattis. As noted above, in 1937 he won Le Mans, a feat he repeated in 1939, this time with Pierre Veyron. When the war came later that summer Wimille joined the French Armée de l'Air.
Williams had joined the Royal Army Signal Corps as a driver but in early 1941 was "spotted" as a potential SOE operative and, no doubt, followed the familiar "cloak and dagger" route which involved a meeting in a hotel with an anonymous civil servant who would sound him out as to his suitability and willingness to serve. Intensive training followed a successful application, much of it in England's New Forest and based at Lord Montagu's home at Beaulieu. Beaulieu is today the home of the National Motor Museum of course but in the 1940s it was SOE's finishing school. After intensive training in survival and fighting techniques at Arisaig in Scotland SOE operatives would spend their last weeks in Britain at Beaulieu, learning and perfecting their cover stories before they took up their dangerous work. As a demolition specialist, Grover-Williams almost certainly also spent time at another SOE school, Brickendonbury Manor in Hertfordshire, learning from George Rheam, who has been described as "the founder of modern industrial sabotage" - Rheam taught his pupils how to disable a factory with a few small, strategically-placed charges.
After training, Grover-Williams, now working under the cover-name Vladimir, was dropped "blind" into occupied France in the early hours of May 31st 1942. There was no reception committee, no established group for him to contact - his orders were to start a new network from scratch. This network was known as Chestnut and was to be primarily a sabotage group - it was brought into being as an insurance policy against the expected collapse of Pierre de Vomécourt's Autogiro network, which had been betrayed by Mathilde Carré (La Chatte). Another agent was dropped at the same time as Grover-Williams - this was Christopher Burney, a Royal Marine officer whose task was to contact Autogiro and try to salvage something from the mess. Unfortunately, unknown to London, Autogiro was already smashed beyond all help and Burney found himself alone in France with no contacts and no means of escape. He made his way to Paris, where he later managed to contact Grover-Williams again.
Grover-Williams, meanwhile, had become Sebastien and had begun the process of setting up Chestnut. His wife had joined him in Paris although for the sake of security they lived apart - he in a flat near the Trocadero, she in their house on the Rue Weber. Initially, he had expected further agents to arrive from London, but for some reason they failed to appear - he was also hampered by his lack of a radio operator - nevertheless he busied himself in helping other agents in trouble, Burney amongst them. Indeed, Burney's escape was imminent when he was captured by the Germans - he described his later harrowing experiences in a book with the self-explanatory title Solitary Confinement.
Whether by accident or design, Grover-Williams was a good choice to head up a network based in Paris. The respected SOE historian MRD Foot describes him as "a thoroughly English racing driver", but he had spent almost his whole life in France, spoke the language with the fluency of a native and had long lived in motor racing circles in Paris - those motor racing contacts were now to stand him in good stead and amongst the trusted friends he contacted were Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Chestnut moved its base from the centre of Paris to the Benoist family estates South-West of Paris and Grover-Williams and Benoist began working to establish a number of small cells while awaiting arms and munitions from London.
Instructions to the group were to lay low and to carry out minimal operations. This may seem strange, but in the context of the times they were eminently sensible. SOE had received its directive of aims for 1942 from the Chiefs of Staff only three weeks before Grover-Williams parachuted into France: the overall Allied strategy of the time envisaged a gradual build-up of forces while coastal and air raids were carried out, followed by the seizure of the Cotentin Peninsula as a springboard for a more general invasion of Western Europe in the Spring of 1943. SOE's task was to recruit, equip, arm and train an underground army, while at the same time preventing premature large-scale uprisings of patriots until the full invasion.
Eventually, Chestnut received their radio operator, Robert Dowlen, who arrived by RAF Lysander on the night of March 17/18th 1943, and in the following weeks they received several arms and equipment drops, which were spirited away to hiding places on the Benoist estates, often in lorries borrowed from the Bugatti factory or from Robert Mazaud.
General Sir Colin Gubbins, the head of SOE, later wrote of Grover-Williams that he "worked untiringly in the Paris region where the strength of the Gestapo and police forces and the numerous controls made clandestine activity particularly difficult and hazardous. In spite of all the risks Grover-Williams built up a successful circuit. He formed a number of sabotage cells and reception committees for parachute operations, of which he received a large number. He established a particularly effective sabotage group in the Citroen factory in Paris, where successful sabotage was carried out, which could not be traced to the group." But in general, it must be said that Chestnut's existence was unremarkable - there were no spectacular coups de main and no shootouts with the Gestapo while careering along straight French roads in traction-avant Citroëns or Bugattis.
The end for Chestnut came suddenly and abruptly in the wake of the collapse of the large Prosper network. There is no direct evidence that Chestnut was compromised by the hand of Prosper, although Benoist and Grover-Williams were in contact with Francis Suttill, the head of Prosper, and had used some of his radio facilities. Perhaps crucially, both networks had used the services of the infamous double agent Henri Déricourt, and Dowlen had also worked for Prosper, due to a shortage of "pianists". In addition, Grover-Williams' wife was, in Foot's words "mothering" Madeleine (Noor Inayat Khan, Prosper's own "pianist") - Noor was to escape this time, but she was later captured and executed.
Dowlen was caught at Pontoise by a German radio direction finding team on July 31st 1943. 36 hours later, Robert Benoist's brother Maurice was arrested at his flat in Paris: under duress, Maurice, accompanied by a party of Germans, went to the family chateau at Auffargis on August 2nd, whereupon they arrested Maurice's wife and father, all the servants and, worst of all, Grover-Williams.
Three days later, Robert Benoist, who had been away visiting a mistress at the time of the arrests, was apprehended in a Paris street by the Germans. He quickly made the first of several remarkable escapes: four men had bundled him into a car and drove off at high speed. Although he was seated in the centre of the back seat, flanked by two others, Benoist had not been handcuffed and had noticed that one of the doors had not been secured properly. When the car took a sharp left turn, Benoist flung himself against one of his captors and forced the door open, rolling out into the road and escaping down the narrow Passage des Princes at the northern end of the Rue de Richelieu. He reached the home of a friend for a change of clothes, but left again almost immediately for another - from there he calmly telephoned his chauffeur to arrange to be picked up outside! However, a brief reconnaissance showed eight men in belted raincoats outside so he abandoned this plan and escaped over the roof at the back. Next he called a garage where he kept a car and some petrol against just such an eventuality but the Germans had already found and removed it the day before. Accordingly he hid in his secretary's flat until Déricourt could arrange a flight to England.
The collapse of Prosper had been a major disaster for SOE - hundreds of members of the group were arrested - but because Chestnut was so much smaller, and comparatively secure, the consequences were almost negligible. No doubt Grover-Williams was subjected to the usual Gestapo methods of "persuasion", but it appears that only one of the several large arms dumps they had established on Benoist's estate was discovered, while the majority of members of the circuit remained at large. Leaderless and with no means of contacting London they were largely ineffective, but, crucially, they were still free and in June 1944 Benoist was to at least get some work out of them. Prosper and Chestnut were both broken by the same German counter-espionage team and their leaders would eventually occupy adjacent cells in solitary confinement at the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Benoist, meanwhile, was spirited out of France on the night of August 19/20th in an RAF Hudson, along with several other SOE notables including Victor Gerson and Tony Brooks (no relation to the racing driver as far as I know). After debriefing and training, he returned to France in another Hudson on the night of October 20/21st, with orders to set up another new network called Clergyman. Based near Nantes, his initial mission as head of Clergyman was to blow up the pylons carrying electricity cables linking the Pyrenees and Brittany, while as a secondary objective he was to plan attacks on the rail system around Nantes. He was also expected to do what he could to prevent the Germans damaging or destroying the facilities of the port in the event of a retreat.
However, Clergyman's mission was compromised almost before it began - Benoist's radio operator Dubois was arrested just a fortnight after Benoist arrived, depriving him of any means of ordering supplies. He did pay a daring visit to his father's estate to collect some of Chestnut's arms, but could not locate any explosives for use against the pylons.
Accordingly, he arranged to return to London and flew back on the night of 4/5th February 1944. A month later, he was back in France once more, this time accompanied by a new radio operator, Denise Bloch. Still with the same targets in view, they again headed for the old Chestnut arms dumps and re-established contact with Wimille and other trained fighters. The detailed operational order for this mission is preserved in Benoist's SOE file and reprinted in Foot's SOE in France. Benoist had soon revived the old Chestnut network as part of Clergyman and was soon to claim that he could raise a force of 2000 men in the Forest of Rambouillet.
Benoist was arrested once more on June 18th, while visiting his dying mother in Paris - the following day Denise Bloch and Mme Wimille were taken at another Benoist chateau. Jean-Pierre Wimille escaped this rafle by dodging between the massed cars in the drive so that no-one could get a clear shot. He plunged into a stream and remained submerged with just his nose above the surface until the Germans had gone - a remarkable escape, even by SOE standards. A few weeks later his wife found herself among a milling crowd of deportees at the Gare de l'Est in Paris - spotting a cousin at the wheel of a Red Cross van she managed to sneak into the vehicle and donned a white coat. She handed out sandwiches to her fellow-prisoners until she could be driven to safety. Denise Bloch was not so fortunate and was taken eventually to Ravensbrück, where she was executed, along with two SOE colleagues, Violette Szabo and Lilian Rolfe, in February 1945.
Robert Benoist was taken to Büchenwald - by the autumn of 1944 about forty SOE agents were incarcerated there, including Burney, who we have met before. On September 6th 1944 a group of fifteen were summoned to the camp office, ostensibly for some administrative purpose. They never returned and by the following day information was received from Polish crematorium workers that they had been executed. A second group, Benoist amongst them, was summoned on September 9th - they too disappeared. As far as can be ascertained, Robert Benoist was hanged on that day, although some sources claim that he was executed on the 12th - the truth will probably never be known. Burney, by dint of subterfuge, was one of the very few to survive.
Wimille, after his miraculous escape from the Germans, survived the war and was a participant in the first motor racing meeting of the peace, in the Bois de Boulogne on September 9th 1945, a year to the day after the supposed execution of Robert Benoist, whose name was given to the first race of the day, won by Amedée Gordini in the Simca which had won the Index of Performance in the last pre-war Le Mans 24 Hours. Arriving very late, Wimille was unable to practice for the final and biggest race of the meeting, the Coupe des Prisonniers, but, starting from the back of the grid in a works-supported Bugatti he drove through the field to win - a fitting finale to both the meeting and his career in the Resistance. Jean-Pierre Wimille probably lost the best years of his motor racing career to the war; nevertheless he was one of the first post-war stars of the sport and it is arguable that had there been a World Drivers Championship in 1947 and 1948 he would have been champion in both those years. In the Formule Libre year of 1946 he took a fitting victory in the Coupe de la Résistance alongside three major wins in a works-supported Alfa Romeo 8C-308 and in 1947, the first year of the new Formula, as a works Alfa Romeo driver he won both the Swiss and Belgian Grands Prix. In 1948 he did even better, winning the French and Italian Grands Prix, together with two lesser European races, the Monza and Valentino Grands Prix. He was also second in the Swiss race, ceding the win to his team-mate Trossi as a tribute to Achille Varzi, who had been killed in practice for this tragic event which also claimed the life of Christian Kautz. Alfa Romeo chose not to participate in the Argentinian Temporada series in early 1949 so Wimille opted for a Simca-Gordini, for whom he had already won the 1947 Coupe de Paris. He won the Rosario Grand Prix, but in practice for the Buenos Aires race he was apparently blinded by the sun and his car left the road, hitting a tree. Wimille died shortly afterwards.
It is also worth recording here the efforts of Robert Mazaud: as noted above he had provided lorries and fuel, at some personal risk, to aid Benoist in gathering and transporting his arms drops. Post-war, Mazaud raced a Maserati 4CL alongside Harry Schell in the Ecurie Franco-Americaine - he was developing into one of France's most promising racing drivers when he was killed in a tragic accident in a race at Nantes on July 28th 1946.
But we must return to Grover-Williams: we left him in solitary confinement at Sachsenhausen and until comparatively recently, it has been accepted that, like Benoist, he was executed, by firing squad, on March 18th 1945. But there were always rumours, unsubstantiated of course, that he had survived - in the 1950s there was a mysterious man who signed autographs at race meetings as "Williams" and it was even suggested that he was running a greengrocer's shop in Godalming. None of this had any basis in fact, but it made a good story for the myth-makers. However, in the early 1990s, more concrete evidence seems to have surfaced, according to an article by Robert Ryan published in December 2001 in the Sunday Times Magazine. One researcher discovered that while Mme Benoist had been awarded a war pension, Eve Grover-Williams had only been reimbursed for funds spent on Resistance work. That might be explained by the fact that Benoist was a French citizen, whereas Grover-Williams was British, of course. But in 1947 a man claiming to be Grover-Williams had contacted an MI6 office in Berlin, seeking help in getting to the USA - so who was he? Research into SOE is severely hampered by the almost indecent speed at which it was disbanded and the fact that many of its records were destroyed in a fire in February 1946 but one of the senior administrative officers, Vera Atkins, has made it her life's work to find out the fate of many of the men and women who fought the war to, in Winston Churchill's words, "set Europe ablaze". Initially she too believed that Grover-Williams had died at Sachsenhausen, but she had interviewed an SS officer called Kurt Eccarius who had claimed that Grover-Williams and another SOE officer had been taken to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin in January 1945. Why the Gestapo would have wanted him is unclear - France was already liberated and SOE's job in Europe was to all intents and purposes over, although they were in contact with left-wing railway workers in Southern Germany, supporting them in sabotage work, and a number of anti-Nazi ex-prisoners were infiltrated into Germany on sabotage missions at this time.
Further research turned up evidence that Grover-Williams might have been taken to Rawicz, a prison camp in Poland which was abandoned as the Red Army advanced towards it and from which most of the inmates walked free. There is also some speculation that in some way, like some other SOE operatives, he may have been able to buy his freedom with promises of leniency.
So - what had this man who claimed to be Grover-Williams been doing for two years? Again, it's only speculation, but it seems possible that he may have immediately rejoined the intelligence services, which were frantically recruiting Germans and others to help in the coming Cold War - MI6 have admitted that they know what happened to him, but are not prepared to reveal it, a statement tantamount to admitting that he was actually working for them (or some other security service). An air photograph of Sachsenhausen has been discovered, annotated in a hand very similar to Grover-Williams' - again not conclusive, but perhaps another piece in the jigsaw.
Among the researchers working on this story was Robert Benoist's granddaughter, Beatrice van Lith. She discovered that in 1948 a mysterious man called Georges Tambal had moved in with Eve at her house in Evreux. Tambal had arrived from America, via Uganda, whence he had brought some exotic animals to restock the depleted zoos of France. Grover-Williams had family in America and a sister in Uganda. Eve said that Tambal was her cousin - curiously his date of birth was the same as Grover-Williams' and one old-established resident of Evreux has said they acted more like lovers than cousins. Tambal bore what looked the scars of severe beatings about the head, was very knowledgeable about cars of all sorts and drove a stylish Peugeot convertible (a Darl'Mat perhaps?). There are photographs of Tambal, which might or might not prove the theory one way or the other - the jury is still out. But there is one more curious fact regarding Tambal - when the mayor of Evreux pestered him to register at the mairie as required by French law, he received a message from Paris telling him to "lay off" the mystery man. So, no signature on file either…
Eve had continued her hobby of dog-breeding and showing which she had started before the war and became a judge at Cruft's - she died in 1973. And Tambal? On Eve's death he sold up and moved to Agen, near to where Grover-Williams had been born: in 1983 he died in a road accident when he was knocked off his bicycle by a car driven by a German tourist. A mystery to the end.
Bibliography & sources
- Burney, Christopher: Solitary Confinement (Macmillan, London 1952)
- Carré, Mathilde-Lily: I was the Cat (Four Square, London 1961)
- Cunningham, Cyril: Beaulieu: the finishing school for secret agents (Leo Cooper, London 1988)
- Foot, MRD: SOE in France (HMSO, London 1966)
- --- SOE (BBC Books, London 1984)
- Fuller, Jean Overton: Double Agent? (Pan, London 1961)
- --- Madeleine (Victor Gollancz, London 1952)
- Nicholas, Elizabeth: Death be not Proud (Cresset Press, London 1958)
- Stafford, David: Secret Agent (BBC Books, London 2000)
- Verity, Hugh: We Landed by Moonlight (revised edition, Crécy, Manchester 2000)
- West, Nigel: Secret War (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1992)
- Sheldon, Paul: A Record of Grand Prix and Voiturette Racing Vol 4 (St Leonards Press, Bradford 1993)
- Georgano, Nick (ed): The Encyclopaedia of Motor Sport (Pelham, London 1971)
- The Hero who Died to Live by Robert Ryan (Sunday Times Magazine article, 16/12/2001)