Formula One: Uncovering the mystery of William Grover-Williams

International man of mystery? Grover-Williams in his Bugatti at the Nurburgring in 1931. Picture: Getty
International man of mystery? Grover-Williams in his Bugatti at the Nurburgring in 1931. Picture: Getty
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Richard Bath discovers that the first winner of the Monaco GP was an amazing man who went on to be a spy and met a grim end – or did he?

WHEN you watch the Monaco Grand Prix this afternoon, spare a thought for an obscure figure called William Grover-Williams, the most remarkable Formula One driver you’ve probably never heard of. And if you are aware of the Englishman, then the chances are that all you’ll know of him is that he won the first Monaco Grand Prix, back in 1929.

Yet there is so much more to this man of mystery who enthralled his contemporaries and who remains an enigma to this day. A brilliant yet aloof motorsport figure in the Roaring Twenties and the depression era, during the Second World War he became a spy and Resistance fighter who ran a network of agents in Paris, helped by two fellow racing drivers. He remains a fêted French hero – and a controversial figure about whom the real truth may never be known.

The son of a French mother and well-to-do English horse breeder Frederick Grover, who had moved to Paris at the turn of the century, Willy Grover grew up in Monte Carlo, where his 15th birthday present was an Indian motorcycle, and where he learnt to drive in his sister’s boyfriend’s Rolls-Royce.

Mechanically gifted and obsessed with speed, he was soon winning motorbike races and rallies, lying about his age and competing as “W Williams” so that his mother wouldn’t find out. He was also becoming wealthy. Not only was he winning prize money but, when he fell in love with Yvonne Aubicq, the beautiful mistress of celebrated Irish artist Sir William Orpen, for whom Grover worked as a chauffeur in Paris, Orpen gave their marriage his blessing, plus a large house and his open-top Rolls-Royce. Grover was also gaining fame as a driver, especially after the 1927 French GP, when he pushed world champion Robert Benoist all the way in an underpowered Talbot. The following year he won the French GP at Montlhéry after talking his friend Ettore Bugatti into selling him a second-hand Bugatti at a knockdown price.

Grover and Yvonne were an impossibly glamorous pair. They would race their powerful his-and-hers Hispano-Suiza cars around Monte Carlo at breakneck speed and dance endlessly at its best clubs, while Willy was a champion tennis player and golfer. The other drivers were captivated. “Some said he was a wealthy sportsman because he drove a magnificent town car,” said F1 driver and rival René Dreyfus. “Others thought he was one of the livery men who hired his car and his services as a chauffeur to wealthy clients. No one knew for sure.”

His fame hit new heights in 1929 when he won the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix. The race, the brainchild of cigarette baron Anthony Noghès and supported by Prince Louis II and the leading Monégasque driver Louis Chiron, was a remarkable event. There had been races in Tripoli, Antibes, Cannes and Algeria but Monaco was different, not least because the winner collected 100,000 Francs, a small fortune. Despite being drawn on the second row of the grid in the ballot, Grover-Williams, in his Bugatti, dominated the race, averaging over 80kph and finishing the 100 laps in a little under four hours, over a minute ahead of Frenchman Georges Bouriano and red-hot German favourite Rudolf Caracciola in his 7.1-litre Mercedes.

Although he stopped racing in 1936 having won six grands prix, Grover was already rich. He had a house in Paris and a villa in the fashionable Riviera resort of La Baule and topped up his income by teaching new Bugatti owners how to handle their powerful cars. All of that was to change in 1939 when war broke out. Despite being born and raised in France, Willy answered England’s call and enlisted as a driver.

In 1940, Willy, driving for a British general, smoothly effected a hair-raising escape via Brittany after they got cut off from Dunkirk. Combined with his fluent French, it marked him out and, after an intensive Special Operations Executive training course, on 31 May, 1942 the 36-year-old, code-named Vladimir, was dropped into France to try to establish a new Resistance network ahead of D-Day after the Germans had smashed the previous one in late 1941.

On landing, the first people he contacted were his wife and his old friend and rival Robert Benoist, who had been a pilot in the First World War. They also enlisted another F1 driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille. Their aim was to recruit, equip and train an underground army ahead of the expected invasion.

After performing many low-level acts of sabotage, particularly at the Citroën factory, Grover and Benoist were eventually caught when they were betrayed by Benoist’s brother Maurice.

Benoist effected a remarkable exit from a car filled with four Gestapo men by flinging himself and one guard out of the moving car, then escaped from a flat surrounded by eight more Gestapo pursuers before eventually making it back to Britain.

Grover was not so fortunate. Tortured and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he was systematically beaten and starved, and his wife was later told that he had been executed by firing squad alongside legendary British agent Francis Suttill just weeks before the end of the war. Nor did Benoist or Wimille meet happy ends. Benoist returned to France twice before being captured in Paris in June 1944 and executed in Buchenwald. Wimille survived the war but died in a ball of flame during a practice run for the 1949 Buenos Aires Grand Prix.

Yet there are many who believe that Grover survived. One rumour had a mysterious man signing autographs at race meetings as “Williams”, another insisted he lived on as a grocer in Surrey.

Recently released government documents report that, in 1947, a man named Grover-Williams was relocated to the USA by MI6 officers in Berlin, which would fit with the testimony of SS officer Kurt Eccarius, who insisted that Grover-Williams was taken to Berlin in January 1945 and then to Rawicz prison camp in Poland just before it was overrun by the Red Army.

Some historians have speculated that he was used by MI6 from 1945 to 1947, pointing to a photograph of Sachenhausen apparently annotated in his handwriting. MI6 says it knows what happened to him but refuses to provide any more detail. Beatrice van Lith, Robert Benoist’s granddaughter, is convinced that Grover-Williams survived. Her research revealed that, in 1948, a man named Georges Tambal – who shared Willy’s birthday, had a gift for mechanics and who bore marks of severe beatings on his head – moved in with Willy’s wife Yvonne at her Evreux home, where locals said they lived like man and wife. Tambal said he’d come from America via Uganda, two places where Willy had family ties (he picked up two giraffes on the way, which he sold to a local zoo). Finally, when the mayor of Evreux asked Tambal to sign the register at the town hall, as required by law, he got a visit from the Gendarmerie ordering him to waive the requirement.

If Tambal was Willy, then his death would have been unusually poignant. Moving to Agen on Yvonne’s death in 1973, he died ten years later when he was knocked off his bike – by a German tourist driving a Mercedes.