April 1940.The RAF’s ‘so few’ were on standby. The Battle of Britain and London’s Blitz were a few months away, but That Light had definitely been Put Out! Neville Chamberlain was havering. The LDV was soon to ‘mobilise’, carving knives lashed to broomsticks, perhaps the odd dusted-down WWI Lee Enfield with, if you were lucky, one up the spout.
Bluntly, Germany’s fighting machine was unstoppable. Its whirlwind invasion of Norway had just been completed, the crucial supply of Swedish iron ore therefore assured. So the news was ‘good’ as the teams gathered for the GP di Brescia. This race carried Mille Miglia nomenclature, even though it was run over nine laps of a 100-mile triangular mad course (Brescia-Cremona-Mantua) as opposed to its usual round-Italy thrash. Mussolini had yet to join the hostilities, but the old-style race was deemed too big a security risk.
Squaring up to each other were Alfa Romeo and BMW. The latter had sent a five-car squad — a clear expression of the Third Reich’s supreme confidence, which is exactly how it was meant to be taken. Among their driver line-up was Walter Baumer, a freewheeling spirit who had spent the past three seasons on the fringes of the Mercedes-Benz GP squad as its test and reserve driver. He started at Berne and Donington Park in 1938, and took over from Lang at the ‘Ring that same year and in Belgrade in 1939. The mix of politics and motorsport stuck in his craw. He was a member of the NSKK, the Nazi Party’s elite driving corps, but his overalls were bereft of its Eagle (what else?) badge. Blessed with a quick wit, he always had a convincing riposte to fob off any bothersome party officials. He was a racer, not a politician.
His co-driver was a mix of both. Huschke von Hanstein, ‘The Racing Baron’, debonair and well-connected, was more of an opportunist, the quickwitted force that became the racing face of Porsche after the war, his astute tactical grasp and talent-spotting ability standing the marque in great stead. In 1940, his overalls bore the lightning flashes of the SS. Outdone was not a word in Himmler’s book: he wanted his own driving elite. Racing, though, was a cosmopolitan circus, while the SS was Teutonic in the truest sense, its inward-looking stance matching few drivers’ politics. The big names tended to stay away.
Von Hanstein was no fan either, but the SS provided him with a mechanic and a transporter, with whose help he became Germany’s hillclimb champion in 1938. An old arm injury meant he was unable to impress in his tests for Auto Union, so his racing tended to be closer to home. That suited the SS — and that suited him. He was their only nominated driver in Brescia, and was given the lead driving role in one of BMW’s 328 coupes. His co-driver felt snubbed, but at least he was racing again…