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 Bugattis. 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.
Before the race start in Monaco ’29
ullstein bild/Getty Images
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.
‘A letter found in the MI6 archives mentioned that operatives found a chap claiming to be Williams’
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.