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 adrenaline 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 April 30, 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.” Grover-Williams 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 Grover-Williams drifted towards the French 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 and 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 Second World War, 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. He was even more mysterious now.
What few people knew was that Grover-Williams had 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 motorcars 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 teammates, 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, shortly before the Germans dominated the track. 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 1939 alongside Pierre Veyron, and then World War Two started.
As teammates, the Grover-Williams, Benoist, and Wimille were a force to be reckoned with, battling wheel-to-wheel with the likes of Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola.
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. In the second week of June, 1940, Benoist 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, it 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 Benoist to return with them to Paris. But when the convoy slowed for an obstruction the racing driver 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, Benoist was out of range.
At that very moment, Grover-Williams was crossing the English Channel by sea. Landing in Falmouth, Cornwall, he had 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, he was drafted into the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), given a new identity, and tasked with building a resistance network in France to help the Allies win the war. Transferring between comfortable country houses in the south of England and a punishing training center on the wintery west coast of Scotland, Grover-Williams learned the essentials of espionage, signals, safe-cracking, demolition, assassination, and close-quarter combat. At R.A.F. Ringway near Manchester, he learned to parachute from low-level barrage balloons, wearing darkened motorcycle goggles to simulate nighttime.
The F-Section briefing officer gave him his final orders at the S.O.E.’s London headquarters in Portman Square; in a black-tiled bathroom, they used a loo 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.
Networking, French Style
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 Benoist, who was a trusted friend to both—as well as being clever and courageous, he also 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 other than manufacture the small vans the Germans insisted he build for them. He suspected Benoist was a part of the Resistance and was willing to give him the authorizations he needed to—on the face of it—service Bugatti clients across the whole of France.
The focus of their operations, however, was another auto manufacturer: Citroën. Grover-Williams’s network managed to infiltrate its Paris factory and, using the sabotage skills he’d acquired 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.
Benoist’s family owned a secluded property in Auffargis, 30 miles southwest of Paris, 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.
The focus of their operations, however was not Bugatti but Citroën. Grover-Williams and his gang succeeded in halving Citroën’s Nazi-ordered production of cars.
However, after assembling an almighty arsenal for the resistance, Grover-Williams’s luck ran out. On August 2, 1943, the Auffargis property was raided by the S.S., led by Hauptschar-führer Karl Langer, a caricature who strutted around in a shiny black trench coat, barking orders. Grover-Williams was taken to the SS’s counter-intelligence headquarters 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.
Benoist had been away when the Auffargis bust occurred and, as he scrambled for information, realized 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 S.O.E. 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, but three Gestapo surrounded Benoist and strong-armed him into a car.
The gas-powered Hotchkiss and its four occupants made their way west along the Grands Boulevards. Crammed in the back of the car between two scowling minders, Benoist realized 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, Benoist 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, Benoist was sprinting up a small arcade and out of sight.
His S.O.E. contact had arranged for him to be picked up by the R.A.F. between Angers and Le Mans. Such were the frequency of pick-ups and drop-offs near the village of Soucelles that it was known among frequent fliers as The English Airport. Benoist was flown to the U.K., 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.
Le Mans and La Guerre
Once back in Paris, Benoist visited his old Le Mans teammate Jean-Pierre Wimille, about whom Grover-Williams had had reservations: the Humphrey Bogart lookalike had political ambitions and was chummy with members of the Vichy government. Up until this point, Wimille had enjoyed a 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 Île Héron, 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 June 6, 1944.
Benoist’s parents had been imprisoned following the Auffargis raid and, although she had been freed by now, his mother had never recovered from the ordeal. Informed that she was on her deathbed in hospital, her son raced to her bedside. As Benoist was leaving the network’s safe house in Sermaise, 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 Benoist reached the private Clinique Bizet, after 35 miles of rapid driving to Paris, his mother had already died. Heartbroken, he dragged himself to his flat on the rue Fustel de Coulanges, opened the door and found himself on the wrong end of a Luger pistol.
Together, Benoist and Wimille banjaxed the railways and demolished bridges, so that, when the Nazis in the area tried to respond to the D-Day invasion, they were snookered.
A very long and uncomfortable night at 84 Avenue Foch ensued. Benoist knew he had to keep the address of the cell’s Sermaise safehouse from the S.S. long enough for the others to scarper. The resistance group was enjoying a post-Nantes celebration, oblivious to the soldiers bursting through the gates. Only Wimille managed to escape, running for his life and hiding between the roots of a tree in a stream as the Nazis rounded up his colleagues, beat them, and set the house ablaze.
It was later alleged that Maurice Benoist had tipped off the S.S. about his brother’s Paris address and that of his parents in Auffargis. Maurice had been a frequent visitor to Avenue Foch over the past three years—notably, never in handcuffs. After the liberation of Paris, he took a new identity and disappeared. Just 10 days before the Allies stormed Paris, Benoist 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 September 9, 1945, Paris hosted a motor race on a temporary circuit in and around the Bois de Boulogne in honor of Benoist. Le patron, Ettore Bugatti, was in attendance.
Driving a six-year-old Bugatti 59/50B, which had been hidden away by Benoist during the occupation to keep it from the Nazis, Wimille was quick to re-familiarize himself with the car’s controls. Starting at the back, having missed qualifying due to air-corps commitments, 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, Wimille was joined by Jacqueline Garnier, Benoist’s daughter, who placed the winner’s wreath over his shoulders. Then, to his surprise, their old friend Albert Fremont—now frail, with a shaven head, having survived Buchenwald—joined him at 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 win five Formula One world titles, raced Wimille as his tea mate—and lost. Had Wimille not been killed at the wheel practicing for the Argentinian Grand Prix in 1949, a year before the inaugural Formula One World Championship, it is likely he would have been crowned champion.
Following that sunny afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne, Le Monde printed Wimille’s victorious photograph. The newspaper stated, “Each spectator understood the moral winner of the day was France herself.”
Adam Hay-Nicholls is the author of Smoke & Mirrors: Cars, Photography, and Dreams of the Open Road