Bravery in a racing car does not necessarily translate into the bravery of the battlefield. In the case of Robert Benoist, William Grover (‘Williams’) and Jean-Pierre Wimille, it did. When Hitler invaded France these three grand prix drivers, two Frenchmen and one French-domiciled Englishman, took up the fight in that most dangerous arena, the Resistance. Only Wimille survived the war: Benoist and Grover were killed after being captured during their campaign of sabotage.
A new book by Joe Saward uncovers the whole story of the trio’s underground network and the dangers these men ran in the name of liberty. Here we present an extract, beginning as the German army rolls towards Paris. Grover has joined the British army; Benoist, an officer in the French air force, is still in France…
Willy Grover became a member of the Royal Army Service Corps, being posted to the Central Purchasing Board as a driver. It was not the most glamorous work that the British Army had to offer, but Willy was happy to do it. After a couple of months in Paris he was posted north to work as a driver with Major General Roger Evans’s 1st Armoured Division, which was part of the British Expeditionary Force.
Willy was based at Doullens, his job being to drive staff officers to meetings. He had been in Doullens for only a couple of days when the Nazi invasion began. The German army ignored the French fortresses on the eastern frontier and attacked through Holland and Belgium. The local defence crumbled in the face of the Blitzkreig. Within days General Heinz Guderian’s Panzers had smashed through the French defences at Sedan and, turning west, raced towards the Channel ports, cutting behind the bulk of the British forces. The Allies were disorganised. There were rifts between French and British commanders and matters were not helped when General Gaston Billotte, commander of the French First Army Group, was killed when the staff car in which he was travelling collided with a truck.
The roads were highly dangerous.
Within a few days Guderian’s tanks had reached Abbeville and the 1st Armoured Division was badly mauled by the Panzers while attempting a counter-attack at Abbeville. South of the German lines, outside the trap, communications had broken down. The Allies tried to organise a counter-attack and Willy drove to Paris, delivering staff officers to meetings there. It gave him a chance to see his family.
“He came to have lunch,” remembered his niece Jessie Teager. “He told us that we were losing the war and that the Germans were coming. Luckily my father [Richard Wright Whitworth] had already gone to England.”
Willy’s brother Frédéric also remembered that visit. “He came at the end of May and told the family not to stay, saying that it was finished and it would be better for them to go to the south.”
While Willy was in Paris the Allied forces trapped on the Channel coast began evacuating from the beaches of Dunkirk. Ships of every kind came across from England to save the army. By the time the evacuation was over nearly 340,000 soldiers had escaped through the Dunkirk pocket. Seventy thousand had been killed, captured or were missing. At lunchtime on June 3, as the last battles were being fought at Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe bombers turned on Paris. At Le Bourget, large numbers of French warplanes were destroyed on the ground. The Air Ministry on the Boulevard Victor received several direct hits and the railway junctions at Versailles and St Cyr were seriously damaged.
German armour began moving south towards Paris. France’s military organisation folded and, by the weekend of June 8/9, German guns could be heard from Paris as the invaders broke through the French lines on the River Aisne. The French authorities parked vehicles across the great Parisian boulevards to prevent gliders landing and an unprecedented exodus of people began, as the population headed out of the city across the Pont de Sèvres and down the RN10 to Versailles and on to Chartres. They used whatever means of transport was available and the road quickly became clogged with cars, trucks, limousines, taxis, hearses, tractors and even hand carts. The traffic moved at barely walking pace and along the road all shops were stripped of provisions. Petrol was almost impossible to find.
On the Monday morning the French government pulled out of Paris. Robert Benoist received orders to leave Le Bourget and report to an air base near Blois. He was given permission to make the journey in his Bugatti 57 Atalante,
one of the most dramatic sports cars that Bugatti had ever built. The traffic jams meant that Benoist made slow progress although he took the opportunity to stop briefly to see his parents at Auffargis, the house being just a short distance from the highway.
On Friday, June 14 the Germans took control of Paris and the following evening, meeting in the Hôtel Splendide in Bordeaux, the French cabinet voted 14 to 9 in favour of asking the Germans for peace. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned and 84-year-old Maréchal Henri Philippe Pétain was appointed the new head of state. The German advance continued and as the armies advanced towards Blois, Robert received orders to head south again and report to an air base near Tarbes, in the shadow of the Pyrenées.
The refugee convoys were slower than ever, the roads blocked and the verges strewn with abandoned vehicles. Pétain went on the radio telling the French that it was time to stop the fighting.
For the British units which had been left behind in northern France, the only escape route was to head west to the Atlantic coast ports of Cherbourg, Saint Malo, Brest and Saint Nazaire, 400 miles from Dunkirk. Ships were sent to rescue them. Willy Grover ended up in Cherbourg and escaped on June 17. Under heavy attack from German bomber aircraft, Willy’s vessel slipped away in the night and he arrived at Falmouth the following day.
In France, Robert tried to stay ahead of the German advance but his progress to Tours and Châtellerault was slow. On the night of the 18th, broadcasting from London, General Charles de Gaulle, France’s under-secretary of state for defence, appealed to Frenchmen and women to continue the fight. Not many heard him. At Saumur, the 2000 officers and pupils of the famous Cadre Noir cavalry school held up the German advance for three days in desperate actions to defend the bridges along a 20-mile stretch of the River Loire.
Robert was nearly at Poitiers before a German convoy, its sirens blaring as it tried to get through the refugees, finally caught up with him. The Germans paid little attention to most of the refugees but the unusual Bugatti sports car, being driven by an officer in the Armée de l’Air, attracted their attention. Benoist was pulled over and ordered to join the German convoy. That evening they stopped in a field beside the main road. A stream of admiring German soldiers came to look at the Bugatti and that night Robert slept in the car. He was woken at dawn and given some fuel for the day ahead. Soon the convoy was moving again, heading towards Angoulême, but progress was slow and Robert began to consider his alternatives. He had no desire to remain a prisoner and wanted to try to make an escape before his fuel ran low.
As the convoy slowed for yet another obstruction, Robert spotted a small lane off the main road. Without a second thought he floored the throttle of the powerful Bugatti. The car launched itself across the road and disappeared into the country lane. The move was so swift that it took the Germans completely by surprise.
Worried that the Germans might try to send a plane to look for him, Robert drove very quickly, aiming for the country estate of one of his friends, where he knew he would be able to hide the car in a barn.
After that, like most of the French nation, he waited to find out what the Germans were going to do next. The French government was collapsing, and on June 22 France’s General Charles Huntziger signed an armistice at Rethondes, near Compiègne. It came into effect just after midnight on June 25. The French army was disbanded and French citizens were instructed not to fight the Germans. Benoist was free to go home to Paris.
Bugatti 57 Atalante, Chassis 57392/456
Surprisingly, the Bugatti 57 Atalante in which Benoist escaped from a German patrol has survived. Built in May 1937 as No392, it was initially used by Jean-Pierre Wimille, who with Benoist ran the Paris Bugatti showroom. Sold in January 1939 as No456 to Albert Prejean, an actor, it seems to have returned to the showroom in Autumn 1939. After his high-speed escape Benoist sold it in April 1941 to a Mme Stoquer in St Nazaire, though he was still driving it when the Gestapo arrested him in 1943. The car reappears in Paris, where it was sold in July 1949 to Gaston Docime. In 1957 Belgian dealer Jean de Dobbeleer passed it to a Mr Haines in the US, and in 1960 Judge John North added it to his impressive collection, where I was able to inspect it in September.
Intriguingly, a T57 ‘Tank’ ran at Le Mans in 1937 with chassis No456, and restorer Chris Leydon reports this car has been hard used. Could it be the racer rebodied? Over to the experts… GC