French and British Heroes Fight Radical Evil

The late actor Steve McQueen, the “king of cool” -- relaxed, detached, self-confident -- is best remembered for his frenetic car chase through the streets of San Francisco as Bullitt, a detective in pursuit of Mafia villains. The recent republication of a novel Early One Morning by Robert Ryan, inspired by real life heroes, rekindles memories of similar cool characters, daring racing car drivers who became members of the French Resistance during World War II. Their true story of heroism, romance, and betrayal is even stranger than fiction.

The real account is of two courageous and resourceful individuals, one French, one British, and a third person, a slightly younger Frenchman who played a less important role. Successful in their racing car careers, they then endangered their lives by engaging in underground operations against the German Nazis occupying France. Interestingly, the qualities displayed by the three racers, as by the fictional Bullitt, were those suitable for such dangerous wartime operations. In both cases their behavior involved taking risks, but their exploits were done in a cool fashion and minimizing chances of misfortune or mistake.

The two key individuals, William Grover-Williams, an Englishman with an English father and a French born mother, and Robert Benoist, a French citizen, were rivals on the racing car circuit, and, for a time, for love of the same woman. The third person was Jean-Pierre Wimille, a junior partner of Benoist. These three men, the fastest men in the world at the time, were to risk their lives and become heroes in the fight against Hitler.

Grover-Williams (GW) was brought up in France and Monaco and was fluent in two languages. In 1923 he became the chauffeur to the well-known and successful Irish portrait painter, Sir William Orpen. In a curious arrangement, Orpen ended the employment, giving GW a handsome settlement and his even more handsome mistress Yvonne Auricq, the daughter of the mayor of Lille, who got a large house in Paris and a Rolls Royce. GW soon married Yvonne who was also wooed by Benoist.  Parenthetically, Orpen’s portrait of Yvonne was found and revealed on May 9, 2010 in London and estimated to be worth £250,000.

Grover-Williams, fascinated by cars from a young age, was accustomed to drive over 120 mph, and to cruise at about 90-95 mph. Driving a Bugatti, and calling himself W Williams, he won the French Grand Prix in 1928 and 1929. He also won the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, for which he received 100,000 francs, a small fortune at that time, and then won other races in Le Mans and La Boule. 

At the beginning of World War II he left France for England where he volunteered for the British Army and joined the Royal Army Signal Corps. He then trained to become a member of SOE (Special Operations Executive), formed in July 1940, learning how to conduct espionage and to arrange for industrial sabotage. In March 1942 he was dropped by parachute into France where he organized a network, codenamed Chestnut, to engage in sabotage operations.

Previous networks had ended after the Germans had discovered them in late 1941. Grover-Williams created a number of sabotage cells and aided parachute operations. The network was first located in central Paris, but then moved to an estate southwest of Paris. The group was instructed to keep a low profile. Though at first he lacked a radio operator, GW aided other agents who had difficulties. In August 1943, Grover-Williams was caught by chance by the SD, the major Nazi intelligence agency. He was tortured, sent to Berlin, and executed at the Sachsenhausen Concentration camp on March 18, 1945. Though this is the official account of his life, and appears to be accurate, curious rumors persisted that he had survived the war since a mysterious individual resembling him physically had moved after the war into a farmhouse where Yvonne lived.

The Frenchman Robert Benoist had been a pilot in World War I and then became a racing car driver, winning a number of circuit races and then driving for Bugatti, for which he was the sales director in Paris in the late 1930s. At the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the French Army with rank of captain. After the defeat of France he joined the SOE. Among other activities, he organized a resistance group which carried out sabotage at the Citroen factory. He helped move weapons dropped by British planes from their drop site to his country home in Auffargis. Benoist was captured, jumped from a speeding car when arrested by the Gestapo and escaped, and left for England. He returned to France a month later in March 1944 accompanied by a new radio operator, a young French Jewish woman born in Paris named Denise Bloch. 

Benoist became one of the top agents of SOE. He set up another network, called Clergyman, based near Nantes. The functions of the new group were to destroy the pylons carrying electric cables near the Spanish border, to attack the rail system around Nantes and slow down the movements of German troops, and to prevent the Nazis from destroying the port. Benoist was recaptured in June 1944 and was executed, hanged by piano wire, in Buchenwald in September. Bloch was also captured and executed in Ravensbruck in February 1945.

Both GW and Benoist were betrayed to the Gestapo, though the betrayer, possibly Benoist’s brother, Maurice, who was arrested in Paris and led the Gestapo to the family home at Auffargis where GW happened to be staying, or possibly a double agent, was never identified. Not coincidentally, at a trial after the war, Maurice Benoist was convicted of collaboration and served five years of a ten-year sentence.

The third heroic figure was Jean-Pierre Wimille, another Parisian and racing car driver who, driving a Bugatti, won a number of races and the Le Mans races in 1937 and 1939. He also joined the French Army later that year. He managed to escape arrest by a daring maneuver and survived the war but ironically died while practicing for the Grand Prix in Buenos Aires in 1949.

The most intriguing and puzzling part of this story of the heroic trio relates to allegations about whether French enterprises did take part in producing the deadly Zyklon gas. The issue is relevant to the exploits of Grover-Williams. Though it is not absolutely certain, Grover-Williams is alleged to have assassinated the head of the French chemical company that was part of the group alleged to be producing the core elements of Zyklon B gas for the Nazis. The group included a number of French companies, including Ugine and Durferrit- Sofumi, that were associated with German companies Degesch and Group IG Farben.

There were certainly shareholder links between these companies, and Zyklon B or prussic acid was produced at them. However, Ugine claimed that it thought the chemicals were only intended for use as pesticides to clean up POW and other camps, or as a delousing agent. Much of the arguments and the assertions about the French companies are based on the writings of the historian Annie Lacroix-Riz, but most other historians dispute her conclusions. Perhaps further research on the issue will lead to an acceptable and conclusive judgment.

Meanwhile, at this moment when France and the rest of the West is facing the Islamist threat, it is well to honor the memory of the three brave fighters against the Nazis who sought to impose their ideology on the rest of the world. A small part of the memory exists in the video game The Saboteur released in 2009 that is inspired by the deeds of Grover-Williams. Those deeds, and those of his two companions, symbolically illustrate the importance of a heroic stand and defense of democratic values and humanism against radical evil, actions that are vital today.

 Michael Curtis is author of  Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.