Robert Benoist: the bravest of the brave

Robert Benoist was a world champion driver before the war, and a resistance leader during it. Phil Llewellin looks back over the too-short life and times of a true superhero

MONTLHERY, FRANCE - NON DATE: Le pilote automobile Robert Benoist s'entrainant sur sa Bugatti sur le circuit de Montlhery, France. (Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Benost: hero on the track, in the air and undercover

Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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Daniel Perdridge recieved his orders from the top-secret Special Operations Executive in London on 29 February 1944. The objectives of Operation Clergyman in territory that had been under Nazi Germany’s jackboot since July 1940 were outlined in the first of the document’s seven main sections. Perdridge was told: “We have discussed with you carefully the possibilities of your returning to France to carry out a mission you were originally given when you left for that country in October 1943.

“You have made it quite clear to us that in your view nothing prevents your returning to the same area to carry out the same tasks.

“These were, in particular, the bringing down of high pylons over the river Loire at Ile Heron, and the preparation of railway blocks on the lines converging on Nantes. You have told us you have reconnoitred the pylons and await material to carry out the job, and that railway teams are being organised in the Nantes district, and will be capable of action as soon as necessary materials are received”.

Daniel Perdridge was not the agent’s real name. Documents carried on an earlier mission identified him as Roger Marcel Robert Bremontier. But that, too, was a nom de guerre. What made this agent exceptionally vulnerable, in a world of shadows where few could be trusted, was his renown as one of France’s greatest sporting heroes, Robert Marcel Charles Benoist, awarded the Legion d’ Honneur in 1927 for becoming world champion racing driver. Ten years later he retired after winning Le Mans in a Type 57SG Bugatti whose co-driver, Jean-Pierre Wimille, was destined also to become a member of the same cloak and dagger network.

Robert Benoist with a cigarette, leaning against a Delage 15-S8, 1927. A group of mechanics stand to the right of the car. The racing drivers Albert Divo and Edmond Bourlier stand to the left of Benoist; Divo immediately to the left of him, and Bourlier to the left of Divo. In 1927 Benoist won the French, Spanish, European and British Grand Prix in a Delage 15-S8. (Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Benoist (in centre, leaning against car with cigarette) in 1927, three years after he made his racing debut

National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Benoist’s story has fascinated me since I started reading about cars. His career as a driver would have been enough, but wartime exploits worthy of the Boy’s Own Paper made him an even greater and more immediate hero to a boy born in 1940. Years later visiting Montlhery for the first time, I was delighted to find a monument between the N20 and the track honouring Benoist and another of France’s champions, Georges Boillot. What niggled me was the conviction that my knowledge of Benoist was less than 100 per cent accurate.

Many references to his life after 1940 were a little too colourful to ring true, but I knew he was born near Rambouillet to the south-west of Paris, on 20 March 1895. He inherited his father’s love of hunting, becoming an excellent shot, but a passion for cars made him abandon ‘serious studies’ and become a mechanic with Gregorie. He joined the infantry at the start of the Great War, but soon became a pilot, having the first of several close encounters with death when his Moraine crash-landed between the lines. He crawled to safety as gunfire ripped the aircraft apart. Benoist later flew Spads and Nieuports and was mentioned in dispatches three times.

Having won his spurs in the air, Benoist made his sporting debut in 1921, driving nothing more gung-ho than a de Marcay cycle-car. The Paris-Nice Touring Trial must have seemed a stroll in the park after flying fighters, but was enlivened by hillclimbs and a dash along the Promenade des Anglais. Benoist soon joined the Salmson team, making his mark by winning a speed trial in the Bois de Boulogne; he then contested the 200 mile race at Brooklands and prepared for the glory years with Delage. After winning the 1925 French Grand Prix at Montlhery, he placed the victor’s laurels on the corner where Antonio Ascari had earlier been killed.

From the archive

Benoist’s ability was complemented by that of Albert Lory, the ex-Salrnson designer whose supercharged 1.5-litre straight-eight endowed Louis Delage’s low-slung racers with 170bhp at 8000rpm. The only drawback in 1926 was that the exhaust system turned the cockpit into a fume-filled, foot-frying furnace. In 1927, after Lory modified his jewel of an engine, Benoist was proclaimed world champion after winning every race he entered, notably the Grands Prix staged at Montlhery, San Sebastian, Monza and Brooklands.

Delage’s decision to stop racing ended Benoist’s career as a fully fledged works pilot, but those were times when good men could get competitive drives on a relatively casual basis. His later outings included tackling Le Mans in a Chrysler and an Itala, winning the 1929 Spa 24-hour race in an Alfa Romeo, several Grands Prix at the wheel of a Type 59 Bugatti, record-breaking runs at Montlhery and the Le Mans victory, at record-breaking speed, which achieved a great personal ambition as well as ending his career on the highest of notes.

The quest for reliable information about his wartime adventures revealed two enthralling books, Special Operations Executive 1940-46 and SOE in France. Their author, MRD Foot, told me Benoist’s SOE file had survived in the depths of Whitehall. I would not be allowed to examine it myself, he explained, but could ask questions. Much of what follows is based on answers to those questions.

MONTLHERY, FRANCE - NON DATE: Le pilote automobile Robert Benoist travaillant sur sa Bugatti avec son mecanicien, a Montlhery, France. (Photo by Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Benoist with mechanic

Keystone-France\Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Benoist was working for Bugatti in Paris in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland detonating the Second World War. He was recalled to the colours but, considered too old to fly, twiddled his thumbs until the eight-month lull before the storm ended. Using blitzkrieg tactics, epitomised by fast moving tanks and screaming dive bombers, Hitler’s spearhead thrust across France in a few days, driving the British Expeditionary Force home from Dunkirk.

Determined to escape, Benoist headed south in a Type 57S Bugatti, and, according to one account, was in Poitiers when his rakish car caught a German officer’s eye and was herded into a convoy. Next morning, the Frenchman decided his moment had come when the column reached a junction, out in the country. Convinced he could drive faster than the surprised Germans could shoot, Benoist floored the throttle, turned off the main road and drove as if his life was at stake. Which it was.

The situation in France was so chronic he was able to return to work at Bugatti’s headquarters in Paris. There he was eventually approached by an old friend, William Grover, better known as the famous Bugattiste ‘Williams’, winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix. An Englishman who’d lived in France for years, Williams was now a leading light in the Resistance. Benoist often borrowed his employer’s trucks to transport guns, ammunition and explosives to hideaways that included a disused well outside his parents’ home. But the group disintegrated when several members were arrested, leading to Williams’ eventual execution. The fate that awaited “all terror and sabotage troops of the British and their accomplices” was to be “ruthlessly eliminated”, according to an order issued by Hitler in October 1942.

Benoist’s father, mother and sister-in-law were taken to Fresnes Prison in Paris. The temptation to flee must have been irresistible, but nothing concerned Benoist more than his parents’ welfare. Needing to discuss the situation with a colleague, but not wanting to compromise the friends who were courageous enough to shelter him in Paris, he went to a public call box in the Rue Wagram. Then he was approached by “an English-looking man with a very bad French accent” who greeted him by name. Robert Benoist denied being Robert Benoist, but was suddenly flanked by two Germans and ushered into the back of a waiting car. Sitting between his captors, Benoist noticed the right-hand door was not properly closed. Cooler than cool, he risked waiting until the car turned sharp left. The door opened and the driver braked hard as the nearest German tried to pull it shut, but Benoist pushed him hard enough for both of them to tumble into the street. After reaching a friend’s apartment, bruised and tattered, he arranged for fresh clothes and other essentials to be taken to an address in the Avenue Hoche.

FRANCE - JANUARY 18: The racing drivers Robert BENOIST and Jean-Pierre WIMILLE receive flowers for their victory at the 24h of Le Mans, on June 20, 1937. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

With Jean-Pierre Wimille (on right) after winning Le Mans 1937

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The situation became even more perilous when his friend reported that eight men were lurking at the entrance to the building. Benoist reacted by taking to the rooftops for several hours, clambering from building to building before breaking into an office and eventually tip-toeing out into a quiet street. He was flown to London, trained as an SOE agent and became Captain Benoist. The file describes him as “A very keen, enthusiastic and capable student who in view of his standing in French Industry could become a first-class organiser. Has a sound knowledge of explosives… Amusing, kindly personality though at times obstinate”.

The first of two missions started in October 1943, when a Hudson landed him near Angers, in a field used so often for clandestine operations it was nicknamed “the English airport”. Benoist’s objectives included building up a new circuit of agents in the Nantes area and preparing to demolish pylons that carried power from the Pyrenees to Brittany. He was due to spend two months in France, but remained until February 1944, unable to carry out his mission as most of his contacts in Nantes had been arrested.

From the archive

Two survivors were with him when their truck was stopped by a policeman in Chartres. Deciding to take them to his headquarters, he lifted his bicycle into the back of the truck and would have climbed in after had Benoist not suggested he travel in comfort alongside the driver. Benoist volunteered to ride in the back, from which he soon jumped.

SOE flew ‘Daniel Perdridge’ back to France on 2 March 1944. His brief was to destroy the electricity pylons, then listen for coded instructions about other targets. For instance, the railways were to be attacked when the BBC broadcast, in French: “It was the sergeant who smoked his pipe in open country”.

At the end of May his wireless operator, Denise Bloch, called London to say Operation Clergyman’s leader was ready to attack the objectives. Benoist also reported contacting 2000 members of the French Forces of the Interior near Rambouillet, while a further 10,000 were awaiting orders to the north of Paris.

Robert Benoist, pilote automobile, en France en 1935. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Benoist lost his life in September of 1944 at Buchenwald

Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

With D-Day making the Germans more resolved than ever to crush French opposition, many of Benoist’s comrades were arrested on 15 June. Three days later, Benoist was caught after travelling to Paris to visit his dying mother. We do not know who betrayed him, but suspects include his brother, Marcel. The Gestapo tried to arrest Jean-Pierre Wimille, who jumped from a window and hid in a stream. Denise Bloch was sent to Ravensbruck and shot. About 75,000 of the French who died in death camps “belonged to one resistance movement or another”, according to SOE in France.

Benoist was tortured at Gestapo headquarters in the Avenue Foch, then taken to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Almost 60,000 people were found alive in this nightmarish place when it was liberated in April 1945, but Captain Robert Marcel Benoist was not among them. He had been hung by the neck from a piano wire on 14 September 1944.

My favourite Benoist anecdote epitomises the man’s coolness and courage, and may be true because his SOE file makes reference to the incident. He had reached the last of those Parisian rooftops when he noticed an open door and a stairway; at the foot of the stairs he saw the concierge, club in hand. “I am not a housebreaker,” he said quickly. “No,” said the concierge, “but I believe you are a Robert Benoist. Come to my room and have a drink.” They had their drink, exchanged memories, then the concierge explored the streets, found them to be safe and Benoist was sent on his way.

He was the bravest of the brave.