Racer, dancer, soldier, spy
He won the first Monaco Grand Prix. He was executed by the Gestapo in 1945 for spying. The 'Williams' story does not need embellishing, so why have some people tried, wonders Bill cash?
Charles Frederick William Grover was virtually unknown outside historic motor racing circles — until very recently. To prewar racing buffs, he was best known as the mysterious British winner of the 1929 Monaco GP.
Held on April 14, this was the inaugural race around the world's most glamorous street circuit. At the wheel of a green, privately owned Bugatti T35B, 'Williams', as he liked to style himself, was one of 16 entrants.
He took the lead early, and the 100-lapper developed into an exciting duel between this determined amateur Englishman and the brilliant young Rudi Caracciola, who was working miracles in a monstrous Mercedes-Benz SSK. They diced until an inordinately long pitstop for fuel dropped the German to an eventual third behind Williams and the Bugatti T35C of Georges Bouriano.
Williams' victory was no fluke. Between 1928 and '33, he won seven grands prix — all of them at the wheel of Bugatiis. Admittedly, this tally included a hat-trick (1931-33) in the Grand Prix de la Baule, a sand race, and a victory over a meagre field in the 1928 French GP, which was run to sportscar regulations. But it also included a win in the 1929 French GP at Le Mans, defeating the Peugeot of a determined Andre Boillot, and a memorable success in the 10-hour Belgian GP of 1931. On the latter occasion, shrewd tactics saw his Bugatti T51, co-driven by Count Caberto Conelli, defeat the Alfa Romeo 8C of Tazio Nuvolari and Baconin Borzacchini, no less. All of which makes Williams arguably the most successful — if perhaps not the best known — British racer before WVVII.
There was an outing in a Bugatti T59 in the 1936 Monaco GP, but Williams had, to all intents and purposes, retired from racing by 1933. With his French wife Yvonne, he moved to a large house in the chic Brittany resort of La Baule, where he played golf, tennis and polished his collection of cars, and Yvonne bred Aberdeen terriers. It was a leisurely retirement — until war broke out. Williams, a patriotic Englishman, immediately went to London and signed up for the Royal Army Transport Corps.
The subject of his exact fate, after being captured by the Gestapo while he was working for Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Paris, has recently become the subject of a controversial debate. There had long been Lord Lucan-style sightings. In the 1960s, motor-racing historian Doug Nye remembers being told that Williams was alive and well and running a greengrocers in Godalming. But when Nye rang the shop he discovered the man spoke no French and knew nothing about cars.
Still, acting on such racing gossip, journalist Robert Ryan, in conjunction with film-maker Jack Bond, came up with the idea of writing a fictional novelised version of Williams' life, entitled Early One Morning. In this, Williams is not executed by the Nazis in Sachsenhausen concentration camp during 1945.
In a seven-page Sunday Times Magazine cover story published
earlier this year, Ryan claimed to have unearthed new evidence from secret SOE files; there was also a George Smiley-esque interview at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge with legendary intelligence officer for the French section of SOE, Vera Atkins. She claims that, in addition to being a racing driver who became a WWII spy, Williams "had a top secret life beyond the grave".
According to Ryan, Williams escaped the concentration camp, was given a new identity and was turned into an MI6 undercover operative in France after the war; calling himself Georges Tambal, he then moved back in with Yvonne at her house in Evreux.
This 'resurrection' theory does have Williams dying at the hands of Germans; only in 1973, after being knocked off his bicycle in Agen by a car driven by West German tourists.
But this new evidence is flimsy.
A 'neglected' letter found in the MI6 archives, and dated May 10, 1947, mentioned that operatives had happened upon a chap claiming to be the former Bugatti racing driver Williams, and that he was asking for help in relocating to America. After WWII, lots of people with suspect war records were desperate to reinvent themselves and often fabricated such stories. Williams had been a famous sporting figure, so would have been a natural target for would-be imposters, especially as people would have known that the Nazis, normally meticulous record-keepers, very deliberately did not file away their concentration camp execution lists.
Bond and Ryan also alluded to the 'encouraging' fact that, whereas Robert Benoist's widow had received a war pension — the former Delage and Bugatti racer had been strangled by Nazi piano wire in Buchenwald in 1944 — Williams' widow had not. Surely this proved that Williams did not die in 1945?
Unfortunately for Bond and Ryan, their theories have been discredited: by Williams' brother Frederick, a former professor in Canada, and by the Bugatti Trust, in whose extensive archives Ryan spent many hours.
"I can assure you that the kernel of Ryan's argument did not find any evidence to support it here," says Richard Day, curator of the Bugatti Trust. "We're certain Williams died in the concentration camp. As far as we are concerned, what has been reported about him surviving the war is pure fantasy."
The Bugatti Trust was founded by respected marque expert Hugh Conway. While compiling his Bugatti papers, Conway visited Yvonne in France, where he even met Georges Tambal. According to Conway's son, Hugh Jnr, the idea that his father could have met Williams, without knowing it was him, is absurd.
Moreover, Williams was intensely proud of winning the first Monaco Grand Prix and doted on the impressive silver trophy he had received. Yvonne travelled to England to present it to the Bugatti Owners Club (BOC) in the 1960s; the idea that Williams would have parted with his most prized personal possession 10 years before his own 'death' was described to me by one BOC committee member as, "One of the most implausible suggestions I have ever heard".
The real truth about Williams is more prosaic. According to his old friend Rene Dreyfus, another pre-war Bugatti team driver, Williams' clothes and possessions were returned to his family after the war in a paper parcel. Dreyfus was luckier, and went on to open a famed New York restaurant. One evening there, he bumped into Frederick Williams at the bar. Frederick confirmed to him his brother's fate at the hands of the Nazis.
More recently, Bugatti historian John Staveley, who has spent the last eight years researching a biography of Williams, tracked down Frederick in Canada: "He only accepts that Williams died at the hands of the Gestapo. Nobody ever contacted him to inform him otherwise."
Even minus this 'extra' chapter, Williams' life is very Bay's Own — and not without mystery or intrigue. Exactly who was this man who had a reputation for sitting alone in French cafes, for wearing dark glasses, smoking cigarettes and saying little? Did he have a secret past to hide?
He was born in France in 1903. His mother was French, his father English. There is some dispute concerning his father's occupation. According to Frederick, he originally bred horses in Berkshire for a wealthy Russian prince called Troubetzkoy, who was a consul at the Russian Embassy in London. When Troubetzkoy transferred to Paris, Williams' father followed him, and while there somehow fell into the upmarket end of the chauffeuring business, being, what Staveley calls, a chauffeur de grand remise, i.e. a luxury car owner-driver for hire. It was a business his son also entered. And it was in this capacity that Williams befriended Benoist, who was working in Bugatti's Paris showroom.
Aged just 23, Williams acquired enough capital to buy himself his first racing Bugatti, and his earliest notable result was a second (or third, depending on the source) place in the 1926 Grand Prix de Provence at Miramas.
"One can only assume that he must have been a fairly wealthy man," says Staveley. "By what exact means he made that wealth, I would love to know."
Possibly Sir William Orpen, his society portraitpainting patron, was simply a very generous man. Orpen had been an official war artist in WWI. After hostilities had ceased, he settled in a studio at the Hotel Astoria in Paris, where he mainly catered for rich American clients touring Europe. By 1923, the Rolls-Royce that he had had to sacrifice to the 'war effort' had been replaced by a new model driven by young Williams.
By the mid-1920s, Williams was also chaperoning Orpen's mistress Yvonne (Eve) Aubicq. The striking blonde daughter of the Mayor of Lille, she lived in the house on Rue Weber which Orpen had given her, having been Sir William's model and muse for a number of years.
But the suave Williams was her beau; she loved the adrenaline rush when he drove his cars at speed under railway barriers. They married in November 1929 and were a real High Society couple, winning several dancing prizes at grand hotels along the ate d'Azur.
During the late 1930s, they owned a villa near the casino in the fashionable resort of Beaulieu-sur-Mere, not far from Monaco. According to Williams' niece Jessie, they used to drive around Monaco in separate cars, and although Yvonne would often be stopped for speeding, the police always turned a blind eye to Williams.
It is only when WWII begins that accounts of Williams' life diverge. It is known that, on joining the army, he was signed up as a driver to a British general, who recruited him in 1941 for S OE. Originally code-named 'Vladimir', he would eventually operate under the name of Sebastien'.
After intensive training, Williams was parachuted into France on a clear night in 1942. His task was to set up resistance cells, arms supplies and a sabotage network — to be code-named 'Chestnut' — in and around Paris. He had been chosen for this perilous mission because of his influential French contacts and ability to pass himself off as a local. He lived with Yvonne in her house in Paris.
According to SOE files, one very successful sabotage hit orchestrated by Williams was at Citroen's Paris factory. But in the main, his efforts to establish Chestnut were hampered by the inability of the British to supply him with a radio operator. And he also had a rival SOE network, called 'Prosper', to contend with.
When he finally received his radio operator, things began to move forward. Five arms drops were parachuted by the RAF, and Benoist helped him to smuggle the weapons to his country house in Auffargis.
But in July 1943, Prosper was betrayed and Williams' operator was captured. The trail quickly led to Benoist's house, which is where Williams was arrested the following day. Benoist escaped, and made it back to England he was recaptured in 1944 on his return to France but Williams was subjected to brutal torture at the Gestapo's Paris headquarters. He was then transferred to Sachsenhausen in Germany where, the official records state, he was shot on March 18, 1945.
"He gave nothing away," says Staveley. "He told the Germans nothing at all, their own records show that. So he had nobody to be afraid of because he had betrayed no-one. In fact, it was Williams who was betrayed, almost certainly with the knowledge of the British Government, who were becoming increasingly worried by the end of the war that the Resistance had too many links with Communism."
The main reason Staveley and other Bugatti historians are quick to dismiss the theories of Williams surviving the concentration camp is the transcripts of interviews with Sachsenhausen's Commandant. In his original statement ("for fear of being implicated in the Nazi war trials"), this senior Nazi official said that Williams had "left" the camp in January 1945, apparently being moved to Berlin for fluffier "interrogation". But, crucially, he altered his story in 1946.
Staveley: "When it became apparent that he would not be sent to Nuremberg, he admitted he had signed Williams' death sentence and had personally seen him taken out to his execution."
That, sadly, is the truth; the resurrection theory doesn't add up.
Just ask yourself why Williams would want to go into hiding for all those years. There was nothing he needed to cover up. It makes no sense. And the idea that he was sent back to work for MI6 is absurd: S OE and MI6 hated and mistrusted each other."
Staveley, like many others in the Bugatti world, is incensed that Williams' memory is being exploited: "He was a war hero awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and a very great racing driver."
Nothing more, surely, need be added.