As the black cloud of the Second World War descended, three grand prix drivers came together to fight the Nazis. Only one would live to return to the race track. Adam Hay-Nicholls recounts the thrilling and tragic tale of the Bugatti spies.
Willy Grover-Williams was buzzing. It wasn’t just down to the vibrations of the aircraft in which he was flying over night-time Normandy, it was adrenalin coursing through his veins. This was a rush he was more familiar with than most, and 20 months spent in Britain’s covert training schools was about to be put to the test. The date was 30th April 1942. In the cockpit, using a full moon to guide him, young Pilot Officer Frank ‘Bunny’ Rymills banked right over the glistening River Sarthe and yanked a lever to open the ‘Joe hole’. Willy sat on the edge of the parachute hatch, his eyes wide with focus, and within a split second of Rymills flicking the go light from red to green he was out.
A static line opened his chute and he drifted towards farmland below as the drone of the Halifax’s engines faded away. His landing was textbook. This had been a blind drop, so there was no reception party to meet him. He buried his chute in a deep watery ditch and covered a dozen miles cross country to Le Mans, reaching the city just as the sun was rising, making his way to the railway station. As he waited on the platform for the first train to Paris Montparnasse to appear, he pondered the last time he had visited Le Mans. That hadn’t been without danger either. Before the war, Willy Grover-Williams had been one of the world’s top grand prix drivers.
The inaugural Monaco Grand Prix was held in 1929 and the winner’s trophy was engraved with a single name: ‘Williams’. He was an enigmatic gentleman then, racing a handsome British racing green Bugatti Type 35B, and he was even more mysterious now. What few people knew was that he’d been born on the outskirts of Paris in 1903 to an English father and a French mother and was raised in both countries, meaning he had perfect fluency in both languages and a loyalty to both flags. He’d learned to drive in a Rolls-Royce, courtesy of his brother-in-law who was an engineer for Sir Henry Royce, and as a 17-year-old began a career as a professional chauffeur in Paris, ferrying the famous artist Sir William Orpen and other distinguished clients. Such was his passion for motor cars that in 1925 he purchased a Hispano Suiza and went racing. From there he upgraded to the lightweight Bugatti and won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. He became a factory driver for this prestigious French marque, racing alongside established star Robert Benoist and hotshot Jean-Pierre Wimille, who was barely out of his teens. As team-mates, the three were a force to be reckoned with, battling wheel-to-wheel with the likes of Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola.
Funded by the Third Reich, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were all-conquering in grand prix racing by the mid to late 1930s. Grover-Williams retired from motorsport aged 30, with many victories to his name, just before the Germans dominated. The elder Benoist took the reins of Bugatti’s competition department and together he and Wimille diverted into endurance racing, winning the arduous 24 Heures du Mans together for Bugatti in 1937 in a streamlined but enormously bonneted car they called ‘the tank’. Wimille would win Le Mans again in ’39 alongside Pierre Veyron, and then World War Two started.
Benoist, who was 44, had already been a pilot in the First World War and was brought back into the Armée de l’Air to fly a desk. Wimille, now 31, signed up to the flying corps, too.
Germany wasted no time invading France and the cities began to empty, with refugees fleeing for the countryside. On the second week of June 1940, Robert joined the exodus from Paris in his supercharged Bugatti Type 57C Special Coupé; a swooping art deco masterpiece painted two-tone black and pistachio green, which probably wasn’t the most incognito transport he could have chosen. He was nearly at Poitiers when a German convoy caught up with him and, after they’d salivated over his glorious automobile, the enemy soldiers ordered Robert to join their convoy back to Paris. The convoy slowed for an obstruction and Robert seized his opportunity. He floored the Bugatti, and the luxury car launched itself, down a small lane to the side, in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes. Before the Wehrmacht could raise their rifles, Robert was out of range.
Willy Grover-Williams was, at this very moment, crossing the English Channel by sea. Landing in Falmouth, he’d already enrolled in the Royal Army Service Corps, driving Generals around. He was about to get a promotion.
After a series of clandestine interviews and a background check by MI5, Willy was drafted into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), given a new identity, and tasked with building a resistance network in France to help the Allies win the war. Transferring between comfortable stately piles in the south of England and a punishing training centre on the wintery west coast of Scotland, Willy learnt the essentials of espionage, signals, safe-cracking, demolition, assassination and close-quarter combat. At RAF Ringway near Manchester he learned to parachute from low-level barrage balloons while wearing darkened motorcycle goggles to simulate night-time. The F-Section briefing officer gave him his final orders at the SOE’s London HQ in Portman Square in a black-tiled bathroom using a lavatory seat as a map table. The following night, after a good lunch at the Café Royal with fellow agents, he was floating down towards a moonlit field in occupied France.
Grover-Williams rented an apartment in Paris in the bourgeois 16th arrondissement and set about establishing his network of saboteurs. First on his list was Albert Fremont, a garage owner he knew. The second was Robert Benoist, who was a trusted friend to both. Robert was not only clever and courageous, he had the perfect cover. The pragmatic Ettore Bugatti was no fan of the Nazis, but as the Italian owner of a French company there wasn’t much he could do but manufacture the small vans the Germans insisted he build for them. He suspected Benoist was a part of the resistance, and he was willing to give whatever authorisations Robert needed to, on the face of it, service Bugatti clients across the whole of France.
The focus of their operations, though, was another auto manufacturer: Citroën. Willy’s network managed to infiltrate its Paris factory, and using the sabotage skills he’d learned in Britain he and his gang succeeded in halving Citroën’s Nazi-ordered production of cars, military trucks and half-tracks for the next couple of years.
Robert’s family owned a secluded property in Auffargis, 30 miles south west of the capital, and it was here that the network had the Allies drop weapons and medical supplies. The guns and explosives were hidden in wells, and the canisters in which the deliveries were dropped were sunk in a nearby reservoir. However, after assembling an almighty arsenal for the resistance, Willy Grover-Williams’ luck ran out. On 2nd August 1943, the Auffargis property was raided by the SS, led by Hauptscharführer Karl Langer, a caricature who strutted around in a shiny black trench coat, barking orders. Willy was taken to the SS’s counter-intelligence HQ at 84 Avenue Foch, a house of unimaginable horrors, where he refused to give his interrogators any useful intelligence. He was later sent to the Sachsenshausen concentration camp near Berlin, where he was executed.
Robert Benoist had been away when the Auffargis bust occurred, and as he scrambled for information he realised he was on his own. He changed Paris apartments, moving in with his brother Maurice in the east of the city, and used a telephone kiosk at the post office on Place Gambetta to try to warn those members of the network he could. Then he rang his emergency SOE contact and put an extraction plan in motion. As he put the receiver down and walked back towards the apartment he heard a man call his name. He pretended not to hear, sensing danger. Then three Gestapo surrounded him and strong-armed him into a car.
The gas-powered Hotchkiss and its four occupants made their way west along the Grands Boulevards. Robert was crammed in the back of the car between two scowling minders and realised that if he stretched his arms wide behind their heads he could pull the leather straps that opened the door latches. At the junction of rue de Richelieu the car made a sharp left turn, and at that moment Robert pulled the right-hand strap and pushed hard to his right, tumbling out of the Hotchkiss’s open door onto the cobblestones and using the Gestapo man to break his fall. Before the Nazis were on their feet and knew what was going on, Robert was sprinting up a small arcade and out of sight.
His SOE contact had arranged for him to be picked up by the RAF between Angers and Le Mans. Such were the frequency of pick-ups and drop-offs near the village of Soucelles, it became known among frequent fliers as ‘The English Airport’. Benoist was flown to Blighty where he was inducted into the British Army and given a crash course in spy mastery before being sent back to France to establish a new network. His mission was to destroy communications and transport links in the port city of Nantes ahead of and during D-Day.
Once back in Paris, Robert visited his old Le Mans team-mate Jean-Pierre Wimille. Willy had had reservations about Wimille, because the Humphrey Bogart lookalike had political ambitions and was chummy with members of the Vichy government. Up until this point Jean-Pierre had had a very comfortable war. He’d married a beautiful heiress and acquired a sybaritic villa on the Riviera. But he wanted to fight the Germans, and Benoist trusted his instincts.
Together they sabotaged the electricity pylons on the Ile Heron which served Nantes, took out the city’s telephone exchange, banjaxed the railways, demolished bridges and felled trees across roads, so that when the Nazis in the area tried to respond to the D-Day invasion they were snookered. In total, there were 950 resistance attacks across France on 6th June 1944.
Robert’s parents had been imprisoned, following the Auffargis raid, and although she’d been freed by now his mother had never recovered from the ordeal. Informed she was on her deathbed in hospital, Robert raced to her bedside. As he was leaving the network’s safe house in Sermaise, though, he warned his co-conspirators that if he wasn’t back by noon the following day he must have been compromised and they’d have to bolt.
By the time he reached the private Clinique Bizet, after 35 miles of rapid driving to Paris, his mother had already passed away. Heartbroken, he dragged himself to his flat on the rue Fustel de Coulanges, opened the door and found himself staring at the wrong end of a Luger pistol.
A very long and uncomfortable night at 84 Avenue Foch ensued. Robert knew he had to keep the address of the cell’s Sermaise safe house from the SS long enough for Wimille and the others to scarper. But the resistance group were enjoying some post-Nantes celebrations and were oblivious that evening to the soldiers bursting through the gates. Only Jean-Pierre managed to escape, running for his life across the property and hiding between the roots of a tree in a stream as the Nazis rounded up his colleagues, beat them, and then set the house ablaze.
It was later alleged that Robert’s brother Maurice Benoist had tipped off the SS about Robert’s Paris address and that of his parents in Auffargis. Maurice had been a frequent visitor to Avenue Foch over the past three years and, notably, never in handcuffs. After the liberation of Paris, he took a new identity and disappeared.
Unfortunately for Robert, ten days before the Allies stormed Paris he was carted off to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, from which he never returned.
Four months after the war in Europe had ended, and a week after the Japanese finally surrendered, on 9th September 1945 Paris hosted a motor race on a temporary circuit in and around the Bois de Boulogne in honour of Robert Benoist. Le Patron, Ettore Bugatti, was in attendance.
Driving a six-year-old Bugatti 59/50B that had been hidden away by Benoist during the occupation so as to stay out of the Nazis grasp, Jean-Pierre Wimille was quick to re-familiarise himself with the car’s controls and his natural technique. Starting at the very back, having missed qualifying due to commitments with the air corps, he had soon overtaken the whole field and claimed a thrilling and jubilant victory.
As the cars pulled off the track a lone bugler sounded The Last Post and the crowd rose to a minute’s silence in memory of Benoist. On the podium, Jean-Pierre was joined by Jacqueline Garnier, Robert’s daughter, who placed the winner’s wreath over his shoulders. And then, to his surprise, their old friend Albert Fremont – now frail and with a shaven head having survived Buchenwald – appeared next to the rostrum with a special silver trophy, the ‘Williams’ Cup.
Wimille’s instant return to form saw his racing career reignited and he went on to win many more races, including the 1948 French Grand Prix. At one point, Juan Manuel Fangio, the great Argentine driver who would go on to win five Formula One world titles, raced Jean-Pierre as his team-mate – and lost. Had Jean-Pierre not been killed at the wheel practising for the Argentinian Grand Prix in 1949, a year before the inaugural Formula One World Championship, it is likely he would have been crowned F1 champion too.
Following that sunny afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne, Le Monde printed Jean-Pierre’s victorious photograph. The newspaper stated that “each spectator understood the moral winner of the day was France herself.”
For attacking the road, the fastest drivers in the French Resistance chose to fight at the wheel of a Bugatti.
BUGATTI TYPE 35B
This grand prix car won over 1,000 races in its day. The Type 35 was victorious on the fiendish Targa Florio for five consecutive years between 1925 and 1929. The ‘B’ version was the best of all, with a supercharger fitted to its 2.3 litre engine. William Grover-Williams used his British Racing Green example to win the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix and the French GP twice towards the end of the Roaring Twenties.
BUGATTI TYPE 57G TANK
Together, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist won the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours in this car, known as ‘The Tank’, beating their rivals by seven laps. Three cars were produced and only this one survives today. The third car was involved in a road accident which killed Ettore Bugatti’s son, Jean, in 1939. He was 30.
BUGATTI TYPE 57C SPECIAL COUPÉ
Designed by scion Jean Bugatti, this grand tourer from 1938 features some of the marque’s most flowing art deco coachwork, its teardrop fenders and low headlights giving that iconic horseshoe grille even more prominence. Benoist managed to escape the Nazis in this car and keep it out of their hands. It was also used by Ettore Bugatti and Wimille.
BUGATTI TYPE 59/50B
Raced before and after the war, the 59/50B boasts a 3.3 litre engine developing 250bhp. Only eight were built, one of which Benoist was able to squirrel away while the Reich were marching down the Champs-Élysées. Indeed, it was designed to take on the better-funded German competition of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union in the late 1930s.