The Grand Prix Saboteurs
The Grand Prix Drivers who became British Secret Agents
During World War II
London: Morienval Press, 2006
Paperback, 363 pages, ISBN 978-0-9554868-0-7
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
Anyone with an interest in twentieth-century British History cannot fail to be struck by the central place which the Second World War continues to occupy as fact or fiction in the media – with for instance ITV’s recent decision to launch another ‘season’ of Foyle’s War(1) ‘by popular request’ – and in the publishing industry in the widest sense.(2) Besides the great University presses and the major academic publishing houses, a number of ‘specialist’ popular publishers – A. Barker, Robert Hale, William Kimber, Frederick Muller(3) or the Souvenir Press(4) in the past; Grub Street or Pen & Sword today – continue to offer reprints of ‘WW II Classics’ as well as newly-commissioned material. And of top of this constant output by the Big League, there is a steady flow of self-published wartime memories (or editions of Granpa’s PoW Diary) – some authors like Saward coming to the ‘war publication business’ via their interest in other fields, connected with war activities at some stage.
In this particular instance, the author is a motor-racing enthusiast – so much so that he made his hobby his profession, becoming a specialised journalist with Autosport magazine and later founding an Internet company associated with Formula 1 news.(5) The connection between his own field of expertise and interest – grand prix drivers – and the Second World War is not so tenuous as one might have feared before opening the book, and after reading the totally irrelevant first three pages, on Heydrich’s assassination in Prague in 1942.
The story is built around two central characters, two famous pre-war racing drivers, who became actively involved in the underground work of the British Special Operations Executive in Occupied France during the war and finally lost their lives in the process. Saward appropriately reminds the lay reader that the Resistance had two main branches: the purely French one, eventually federated around General de Gaulle, and the British-led one, with the F (for French) section of SOE only one of several clandestine organisations planted by the British in the various countries of Occupied Europe. The agents of the F section were either French-born or French: this was the case of Robert Benoist – or bilingual (usually from Anglo-French parentage) British citizens: this was the case of William (or ‘Willy’) Grover (now known in France as Charles Grover-Williams), who raced under the name of W Williams. ‘He had been born in France [in 1903] but never felt like a Frenchman. He was an Englishman but he never lived in England’, Saward writes of this extraordinary character, who in a way inherited Sir William Orpen’s stunningly beautiful French mistress(6) and made her his lifelong wife. The wealthy and generous artist(7) had left her his Rolls-Royce – which of course Grover put to good use. Grover was fascinated by fast cars and racing, soon making a name for himself by winning the French Grand Prix (1928), followed by the new one in Monaco the next year.
Robert Benoist, born in 1895, became an aeroplane pilot during the First World War and finally found his way to the racing circuits, winning the British, French, Italian and Spanish Grand Prix in 1927 for the celebrated Delage firm. His last race was at Le Mans in 1937, and he won it with his team mate Jean-Pierre Wimille (born 1908), who came first again with another partner in 1939.(8) Wimille, who survived his SOE activities only to die ironically of a car crash during trials in 1949, does not receive the same attention as Benoist (killed at Buchenwald on 9 September 1944)(9) and Grover (shot at Sachsenhausen on 23 March 1945)(10).
After France was occupied, the three friends agreed to join the SOE, following differents paths which are excellently reconstructed by Saward. From then on, the book moves on from being a primer on pre-war motor racing to a complicated thriller full of spies, daredevils, traitors, double agents (with some in between, i.e. impossible to identify as working for either camp, like Henri Déricourt(11)) to-ing and fro-ing between Paris and their hideouts in remote rural areas, or between precarious improvised air fields (in the literal sense), sometimes blocked by obstinate cows, and RAF air bases in Britain. In this world, radio operators were at a premium – if only because they did not long survive if they did not take the utmost care to move all the time – and you could not even trust your own brother, as Benoist discovered to his cost. In this impossibly dangerous cat-and-mouse game, it was not always the sinister Germans of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – Security Service) or the enthusiastic collaborators of the French Gestapo who played with the lives of the F Section agents: Saward suggests (though nothing will ever be proved in this area) that some SOE authorities knowingly sent a number of them to their death as the necessary price to pay to preserve the ‘cover’ of others, more numerous or more useful in the long run.(12)
Saward also examines the case of two ‘untouchable’ heroines of the F Section, Violette Szabo (née Bushell, executed in Ravensbrück, 25 January 1945)(13) and Noor Inayat Khan (executed in Dachau, 13 September 1944).(14) Both have been the object of best-selling biographies;(15) Violette Szabo’s action was made into a cult film;(16) but Saward has many reservations. ‘Madeleine’, as Noor Inayat Khan was known in SOE circles, made many serious and inexplicable mistakes, the worst being that she had kept her codes, which the Germans put to good use to mislead the British after she was arrested. Even more ‘revisionist’ is Saward’s lengthy and informed discussion of ‘the legend of Szabo’, as he calls it. Documents declassified in 2003 show that there is no technical impossibility in the suspicion that she may have revealed the address of Benoist’s hideout to the Germans – but they also clearly incriminate his brother Maurice. So, as Saward concludes, ‘we will probably never know’, though his personal research confirms the views of Elizabeth Nicholas(17) and M.R.D. Foot(18) that there is undeniably a ‘fictitious’ dimension in ‘the legend of Szabo’. Curiously, however, another recent book on the subject by a young academic historian seems to bolster rather than debunk the legend.(19) One reason why ‘we will probably never know’ is the bleak fact, pointed out by Saward, that so many Resistance fighters were killed(20) that it was often impossible to prove or disprove a suspect’s story because no witnesses were left to indict him – in which case the benefit of the doubt played in favour of the accused, which must have spared many traitors and double agents who had infiltrated the networks. The Formula 1 community will be relieved to learn that Saward did not identify or even suspect any of the ‘Grand Prix saboteurs’ among them.
This is obviously not an “academic” book in the classic definition of the term – and Saward would be the last to claim that it is. Still, it is clear that it rests on serious documentary sources even though there are no notes and the slipshod Bibliography was evidently compiled in haste. Saward was in such a hurry to publish the book that he had no time to read the proofs – hence the enormous number of typographical errors, sometimes very serious as they make the sentences meaningless or deform names almost beyond recognition. Likewise, French accents seem to have been attributed at random on the words which require them: obviously Saward (who apparently lives in France) never found the time to open a Petit Larousse to check them. He was evidently far more careful in the choice and captioning of his excellent and mostly little-known photographs. Clearly a book written by an enthusiast for other enthusiasts with little regard for the conventions of serious publishers – but an uncannily attractive book for anyone interested in British operations in aid of the French Resistance.
(1) See two excellent analyses of the first episodes of the series. Chapman, James. ‘Policing the people’s war : Foyle’s War and British television drama’. In Paris, Michael [Editor]. Repicturing the Second World War : Representations in Film and Television. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 : 26-38. Nicholas, Siân. ‘History, revisionism and television drama : Foyle’s War and the “myth of 1940” ’. Media History 13-2/3 (2007) : 203-219 (Reprinted in Nicholas, Siân ; O’Malley, Tom & Williams, Kevin [Editors]. Reconstructing the Past : History in the Mass Media, 1890-2005. London: Routledge, 2007 : 83-100).
(2) Nicholas (‘Nick’) Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Leader, said in 2002, as European MP: ‘All nations have a cross to bear, and none more so than Germany with its memories of Nazism. But the British cross is more insidious still. A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off’. Reported in The Independent, 23 April 2010.
(3) The latter two figure recurrently in Saward’s Bibliography.
(4) Which continues to have a shop in Great Russell Street, just across from the British Museum – but it no longer publishes ‘popular’ memories of the war.
(6) See The Refugee, 1 & 2:
(7) See H-Museum review of the major 2005 Orpen Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum :
(8) Photographs of the three drivers are visible on a site managed by the Yvelines Department :
(9) See Special Forces Roll of Honour site :
(10) See Special Forces Roll of Honour site :
(11) See Fuller, Jean Overton. Dericourt : The Chequered Spy. Wilton : Michael Russell, 1989.
(12) A recent Daily Telegraph obituary also suggests that sometimes these authorities simply gave essential information to the Germans out of sheer stupidity :
(13) See Special Forces Roll of Honour site :
(14) See Special Forces Roll of Honour site :
(15) Violette Szabo has benefited from several biographies, the latest by her daughter (born in 1942): Szabo, Tania. Young Brave and Beautiful : The Missions of Special Operations Executive Agent Violette Szabo, George Cross, Croix de guerre avec étoile de bronze. Foreword by Jack Higgins. Jersey: Channel Island Publishing, 2006. Noor Inayat Khan’s ‘standard’ biography has gone through several editions: Fuller, Jean Overton. Madeleine : The Story of Noor Inayat Khan. Foreword by Selwyn Jepson. London: Victor Gollancz, 1952 (Revised: Born for Sacrifice : The Story of Noor Inayat Khan. Pan Books, 1957. New Edition: Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (Madeleine), George Cross, MBE, Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. Foreword by Dame Irene Ward. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1971). More recent treatments: Basu, Shrabani. Spy Princess : The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Stroud: Sutton, 2006 ; Lahiri, Shompa. ‘Clandestine mobilities and shifting embodiments : Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan and the Special Operations Executive, 1940-44’. Gender & History 19-2 (2007) : 305-323.
(16) Carve her Name with Pride (1958), directed by Lewis Gilbert, with Virginia McKenna as Violette Szabo. The film was itself the adaptation of a best-selling book, still available: Minney, R.J. Carve her Name with Pride. London: Newnes, 1956. Reissue: Battleground Europe Series. Barnsley: Leo Cooper/Pen & Sword, 2006. There is also a Violette Szabo Museum in Wormelow (Herefordshire).
(17) Nicholas, Elizabeth. Death Be Not Proud. London: Cresset, 1958.
(18) Foot, M.R.D. S.O.E. in France : An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France, 1940-1944. London: HMSO, 1966 (Third Edition. Government Official Histories Series. London: Frank Cass, 2004).
(19) Pattinson, Juliette. Behind Enemy Lines: Gender, Passing and the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. Cultural History of Modern War Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.
(20) Pattinson gives a full table of the SOE men and women sent to Occupied France and what became of them. The figures are markedly different for men and women. Out of 441 male agents, 104 were captured and transported – for female agents, the figures are 15 out of 39. 69 men and 12 women did not survive deportation.
Cercles © 2010