A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Williams Grover-Williams

William Grover-Williams in his Bugatti T35B during the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix

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He was one of Britain’s greatest prewar racing drivers but little was known about the man who called himself ‘Williams’. Shaun Campbell reports

In April 1929 the streets of Monte Carlo resounded for the first time to the sound and sight of Grand Prix motor racing. The Riviera resort for the very rich instantly became one of Grand Prix racing’s most celebrated venues, a circuit where legends were made from Nuvolari and Carraciola to Prost and Senna.

But the winner of that first Monaco Grand Prix, two-thirds of a century ago, remains a figure shrouded in mystery and myth. To describe him as an unknown who ‘lucked’ into a win because the race was held on the same day as the rather more important Mille Miglia is to do less than justice to the truth. But the truth at least as it concerns is not particularly easy to come by. Even his contemporaries considered him an enigma.

William Charles Frederick Grover was born on 16 January 1903 in Montrouge near Paris. His father was a well-to-do Englishman (some say a Scot) who bred horses from a farm in Berkshire and who was a close friend of the Russian prince Troubetsky, then consul in London. When Troubetsky was made consul in Paris, his friend moved to France with him, later marrying a French woman and settling down in France’s capital. William grew up as a French speaker.

The family and this is an indication of their influence and contacts rather than their wealth lived out World War 1 in the comparative peace of Monaco. Little is known about their life at this time, but when peace was restored at the end of 1918, young Willy as he was generally known had become fascinated by all things mechanical and was already driving cars and riding motorcycles, despite being well under age.

Precisely what he was up to in the years immediately after the Great War is still a subject for much research. It seems that he started racing a Douglas motorcycle under the pseudonym ‘Williams’, and that he also acted as a chauffeur for the Paris-based Irish artist, Sir William Orpen. Apparently he often ferried Orpen to clandestine meetings with his mistress, Yvonne Aubicq, the woman whom Grover would later marry.

If it’s by no means clear how Willy Grover or ‘Williams’ as he continued to style himself when racing earned his crust, certain rumours can be discounted. There is, for example, no evidence that he was a getaway driver for the Fenians (forerunners of the IRA) as some reports have suggested. What is clear though, is that he remained well connected, somehow managing to acquire himself a racing Bugatti in 1925.

It was in the following year that he first came to the attention of the motor racing press, driving a Hispano-Suiza in the Monte Carlo rally, and finishing third in his Bugatti T35 behind the Talbots of Sir Henry Segrave and Jules Moriceau in the GP de Provence at Miramas. The British motoring press took little account of him, considering him French rather than British in spite of his name and being in any case far more concerned with machinery than men. Yet in 1927 he made his one and apparently only appearance in England when he was nominated as the reserve driver for Count Caberto Conelli’s Bugatti in the RAC Grand Prix at Brooklands. Conelli ran out of fuel and pushed the car back to the pits, whereupon Williams took over the driving, had a mighty moment when trying to pass Malcolm Campbell, and thereafter continued at a more sober pace. The car failed to finish the race ‘flagged off’ as they said in those days though some reports of the race classify it as sixth. The winner was Robert Benoist, who would become a close friend of Willy and with whom his later life would be inextricably entwined.

In 1928 he became a more regular competitor and a more successful one. His biggest win of the year was in the French GP at St Gaudens, but that year the race was a shadow of its former self, being held for sportscars on a handicap basis. Williams’ Bugatti T35 was apparently the only works entry in the field. More impressive and proof that this Anglo-Frenchman could drive a bit was his performance in the Italian GP at Monza, where he raced wheel-to-wheel with Achille Varzi’s Alfa P2 and the Bugattis of Tazio Nuvolari and Louis Chiron until his engine blew.

By 1929 he was a regular competitor on the Continental scene and scored the biggest victory of his career by winning the inaugural Monaco GP. Although the conflicting Mille Miglia removed some of the strongest potential opponents, it was by no means an easy race, Williams fighting tooth and nail with the 7.1-litre Mercedes SSK of Rudi Caracciola before taking the flag. His Bugatti was painted green, yet another indication of his British ancestry, but the contemporary accounts in MOTOR SPORT and Autocar pay no more than lip service to his nationality. He also won the French GP, for the second year running, this time held at Le Mans and again attracting less than a top-class field, and he competed in the Ulster TT, his second and final racing appearance in the British Isles.

There were no results in 1930 to match those of the previous year, though he drove splendidly in the French GP at Pau, leading and setting fastest lap before the car broke down, handing victory to Philippe Etancelin’s Bugatti from Tim Birkin’s Bentley. The most significant win of his career came in 1931, when he shared a Bugatti T51 with Conelli to victory in the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. The Grand Prix formula for that year called for races of 10 hours in duration and for most of those 10 hours Williams and Conelli were locked in battle with the Alfa Romeo 8C Monza of Nuvolari and Baconin Borzacchini, which ultimately finished on the same lap. It was the first Grande Epreuve victory for a Briton since Henry Segrave had won the 1924 French GP for Sunbeam, but you would never have known it from reading the contemporary reports in the British specialist press, which preferred to dwell on Birkin and Brian Lewis’s drive to fourth place in an Alfa.

From there on the racing career of Williams started to fizzle out. He won at La Baule the Brittany seaside resort that was by then his home town in 1931, 1932 and 1933; he finished seventh at Monaco in 1932 and 1933, sixth in the French GP in 1931 and the Belgian GP in 1932. But by 1933 the Bugattis were less competitive in Grand Prix racing, and at the end of the season Williams retired, apparently to breed Aberdeen tethers. There was a brief comeback in 1936, when he drove a Bugatti T59 to ninth place at Monaco, and he also finished sixth in the French GP, sharing a T57G with Pierre Veyron. But the short racing career of this tall, ramrod-straight Anglo-Frenchman was now over.

What happened after is even more murky. When World War II broke out he enlisted in the British Army in Paris and became a driver serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, ferrying around a General of the British Expeditionary Force. The General had good reason to be grateful for the local knowledge and driving skill of his recruit when, after the fall of France, they were cut off from Dunkirk and had to make their way back to England via Brittany just ahead of the Werhmacht and Luftwaffe.

By 1941 he had been commissioned as a captain, under the name Grover-Williams, and recruited into the French section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret service charged, in the words of Winston Churchill, with “setting Europe ablaze”. He was parachuted back into France on 30 May 1942, with the task of setting up a new SOE network in Paris, the former networks having been broken by the Gestapo. By all accounts he was a successful agent, despite links with London being few and tenuous. In the absence of new agents arriving from England, Williams was forced to rely on acquaintances from his motor racing days, who were also active in the Resistance, notably Benoist.

In July 1943 Williams’ network was infiltrated and he was taken by the Gestapo at Benoist’s home. Benoist managed to avoid capture, only to be snatched in July 1944 and executed shortly after. Williams was interrogated by the Gestapo and then taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. In March 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the war, he was executed.

Like all the best true stories, the life of Williams exceeds anything the fiction writers could contrive. A great deal remains to be uncovered about his life, both as a racing driver and a special agent, but work is in hand to find out more. Indeed, a film of his life is being considered by a French company. This recognition of an extraordinary life may be coming a little late, but it would be good to find Britain more aware of one its most successful prewar racing drivers, a name to be reckoned alongside Segrave, Birkin and Seaman. Even if it wasn’t his real name…

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