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Secret histories

Long before I was ever involved in Formula 1 I was a student of history. I loved to go into a library and bury myself in books for entire days, coming out after many hours researching feeling that only a few minutes had passed. My speciality was international history, specializing in diplomacy - I gave that up when I started writing about F1, being diplomatic about some people is simply not possible - and my dissertation was on the covert activities of the CIA in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. You may think that this sort of thing is not much use in motor racing but, over the years, it has proved to be invaluable when trying up with the machinations of F1.

The combination of secret services and Grand Prix racing also gave me the chance to discover one of the most extraordinary stories about racing drivers. One day I will get round to writing a book about it but for the last seven years it has been my little research project and I have met some remarkable people who have told me their secrets. I am not about to tell all of you what I have discovered but every year I cannot go to Monaco without thinking about the book that will one day be written.

Formula 1 people do not care much for history. History is not considered to be important. History is yesterday. Today F1 is all about what happens today - hopefully with the TV cameras of the world focussed on you. Any publicity stunt is a good publicity stunt.

The greatest exponent of this at the moment is Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, who has made himself the constant target of TV cameras by wearing his baseball cap backwards and playing up to the cameras. This is thought to be an original thing to do.

Original it is not. Wearing one's hat backwards is a motor racing tradition which dates back long before Benetton started making jumpers. And the story of the man who did it first is one which modern drivers might care to hear - and be humbled by.

The man in question was called William Grover, who is the only British driver other than Stirling Moss, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart to have won the Monaco Grand Prix. History remembers him as the mysterious "Williams" - an Englishman who lived in France and who won the first Monaco GP in 1929 in a British Racing Green Bugatti.

Grover's story begins with horsepower of a very different kind. His father was a horse breeder from Berkshire who knew many of Europe's rich and famous, notably a Russian Prince called Troubetsky. The pair shared an interest in cross-breeding Anglo-Arabs horses with the hardy Cossack stock. Mr. Grover spoke fluent Russian was even in Russia for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. When Troubetsky moved to Paris, his English friend went with him and there met a French girl who became his wife. In the fullness of time William Grover was born in Paris. He was an Englishman but his upbringing was entirely French. When he was 11 war broke out and the Grover family moved to Monaco. Although he was only a teenager he was granted a driving licence towards the end of the war and did a lot of chauffeuring in the Principality.

When the war was over the Grovers went back to Paris where - because of the shortage of manpower and because the family was not wealthy - young Grover found work as a chauffeur for Paris's rich and famous. One of these was the famous Irish portrait painter Sir William Orpen, who had been the official British government war artist and the official artist of the Versailles Peace Conference. Orpen kept a studio in the Hotel Astoria in Paris and lived for part of the each year in an apartment in the Hotel Majestic. He was fond of weekending in the chic resort of Dieppe and Grover drove him there in Orpen's magnificent Rolls Royce. For the 17-year-old Grover, Orpen's patronage was an important moulding influence but it would be Orpen's 24-year-old mistress Yvonne Aubicq who would play a more important role in Grover's life. She had modelled for some of Grover's most famous pictures and their affair lasted from 1917 to 1928.

Grover's driving skills and connections enabled him to buy a magnificent Hispano-Suiza in the mid-1920s and it was with this machine that he began his motor racing career on the 1925 Monte Carlo Rally. He used the pseudonym "Williams" because he did not want his family to find out he was racing. At the same time the pseudonym served to disguise his background as a chauffeur. The motor racing world thought "Williams" was a wealthy gentleman racer like the other pseudonymous driver of the day "Philippe" - Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

For the 1927 season Grover somehow managed to get his hands on a Bugatti 35B and it was with this car that he began to earn the reputation of being an ace driver.

His trademark was a floppy cap worn back-to-front.

He was quickly signed up to race for the factory Talbot team but the company pulled out of racing and so "Williams" moved to Bugatti for the 1928 season. That year he won the French GP at Comminges in a factory Bugatti.

In 1929 he bought his own Bugatti, so he could race even if the Bugatti factory team did not want him. This was painted British Racing Green and this machine which he took to victory in Monaco, beating the Mercedes SSK of Rudi Caracciola.

A few months later Grover married Yvonne, who had split with Orpen in 1928. Orpen was generous at their parting, giving Yvonne his Rolls Royce and an apartment in Paris.

The couple moved to the fashionable Brittany seaside resort of La Baule, where they began to use the name Grover-Williams. Later they would move on to the beautiful village of Beaulieu, just along the coast from Monaco. They kept a Paris apartment throughout and while "Williams" continued to race until the end of 1933 he also worked for the Bugatti company from time to time, showing its wealthy customers how to drive their expensive cars. When he retired he had two French GP and one Belgian GP victories to add to his Monaco win.

When war broke out in 1939 Grover-Williams enlisted in the British Army in Paris. He was assigned to the British Expeditionary Force as a driver and was among the British forces which scrambled to escape in May 1940 when the Germans invaded France. Yvonne was left in Paris.

In England Grover-Williams was miserable. He wanted to return to Paris and felt that driving staff officers from place to place was not doing much for the war effort. In the middle of 1941 the British began - very discreetly - to look for fluent French-speakers to join the secret Special Operations Executive, established by Winston Churchill in 1940 with the mission to "set Europe ablaze".

Grover-Williams's name was passed to the recruiters by a senior staff officer and after a series of interviews to ascertain whether he might be suited to the job he began training just before Christmas 1941. The 11 potential agents were trained and assessed at the same time. They were taught sabotage techniques, unarmed combat and weapons training. They then went on to more rigorous training at a special commando training school in the rugged countryside of the Arisaig Peninsular in Scotland. There was a parachute training course at Ringway before the five surviving agents were sent to the "Saboteurs' Finishing School" at Beaulieu Abbey in the New Forest. At the end of May 1942 Grover-Williams (alias Charles Lelong) was parachuted into France. Posing as an engineer, he settled into an apartment in the Trocadero quarter of Paris, not far from his wife's apartment. She joined his band of resistance fighters and for the next 14 months the "Chestnut" network operated in and around Paris. They received five parachute drops of weapons and carried out several sabotage attacks, notably at a Citroen factory.

"Paris was far and away the most dangerous place in which to work," recorded the head of the SOE's French section Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. "It was swarming with Germans and with security police of every description."

Although Chestnut maintained a very low profile, another network was growing around it. This was called "Physician" and would become the most famous of the SOE networks - not because it was a great success but because of its disastrous collapse in the summer of 1943.

It seemed for a few short days that "Chestnut" might survive the collapse of "Physician" but a German radio-detention unit picked up a transmission from the "Chestnut" radio operator and within hours Grover-Williams and most of his gang had been arrested. The Germans quickly realized that they had struck a major blow against the British underground in Paris - in fact, it had been all but wiped out - but they wanted to know as much as possible about the SOE and so Grover-Williams and the leader of "Physician", Francis Suttill, spent many weeks being interrogated in the notorious German security headquarters on the Avenue Foch. It was not until the late autumn that the pair were sent off to Germany and incarcerated in the special solitary confinement block at Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin. This was a camp for special prisoners and there they stayed - living for the most part in solitary confinement in adjacent cells - for the 15 months.

According to witnesses who survived the war the pair lived on a diet of wurzels cooked in water and never received any Red Cross parcels unless a fellow prisoner was able to smuggle something to them. They were allowed out for 15 minutes exercise a day but never at the same time as other prisoners.

At the end of March 1945 - as the Russian armies raced towards Berlin - Suttill and Williams were taken away from their prison by the Germans and disappeared. No-one who survived the war knows what happened to them, but fellow prisoners later gave evidence to war crimes investigators that left no doubt that they had been executed. Their bodies were never found.

Williams was mentioned in despatches - secretly - but received no decorations from the British government. In the finest traditions of bureaucracy the names of the murdered SOE agents had to appear on a war memorial somewhere in the world and so they were carved onto an obscure memorial in Nijmegen in Holland. There is a memorial to "Williams" on the road leading to the Montlhery circuit in Paris. It has been defaced.

On the days when I work on my book I sometimes stop and wonder if perhaps the F1 stars of today - who take up most of my time - are not just a little over-rated.

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