Features - Historical

SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

"Williams" - the forgotten hero


A solitary RAF bomber swept low across the English Channel late on the moonless night of May 30 1942. It carried no bombs but, huddled inside the fuselage, were two of what were referred to among the Special Duty Squadron pilots as 'Joes' -- secret agents.

A solitary RAF bomber swept low across the English Channel late on the moonless night of May 30 1942. It carried no bombs but, huddled inside the fuselage, were two of what were referred to among the Special Duty Squadron pilots as 'Joes' -- secret agents.

These Joes were codenamed 'Sebastien' and 'Charles'. They were "specially employed" by a service so secret that even they did not know its name.

They had never met before and had been warned to avoid conversation. They sat quietly through the tense hours in the air.

Finally at 01:30 the plane circled the dropping zone. The pilot checked the location and then signalled the 'Joes' to depart. 'Charles' went first followed by 'Sebastien'. A suitcase was thrown after them.

The plane disappeared into the night, the engines fading to silence as the three parachutes floated quietly down.

That evening the two agents arrived in Paris. The French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was back in business in Paris.

It would be many years before the British government would be willing to admit the existence of the SOE. It was an independent British secret service.

Its task, Winston Churchill told his Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, was "to set Europe ablaze" with subversive warfare in the occupied territories.

It was not a professional military organisation and recruitment in those early days was a difficult for the job required special skills and nerve.

'Charles' was a young Royal Marine officer Christopher Burney. His fellow traveller was a 40-year-old Anglo-Frenchman with a receding hairline and fashionable Ronald Colman moustache. His name was William Grover-Williams.

Under the pseudonym "Williams", he had attracted international fame by winning the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929. He had gone on to join France's greatest racing team -- Bugatti. In the record books he remains one of Britain's most successful racing drivers between the wars.

In his racing days even his contemporaries knew little about him. Who was the mystery man?

His real name was William Grover. His father was a horse-breeder from Berkshire -- a close friend of the Russian Prince Troubetsky, who was Consul in London and later Paris. When Troubetsky moved to Paris his English friend went with him, married a French woman and settled in France.

William Grover was born in Paris in 1903. He grew up speaking perfect French. From an early age he was fascinated by anything mechanical. When the First World War broke out his family moved to Monaco where the under-aged 'Willy' became a chauffeur.

Immediately after the war he bought a motorcycle.

"It was American army surplus," remembers his brother Frederic. "He would take it apart and all the parts were everywhere and he would put it all together again. He was a very good mechanic."

Unknown to his family he began racing this motorcycle, using the pseudonym "Williams". He lied not only about his name, but also his age.

Soon afterwards Willy went to Paris, where he became the chauffeur of the celebrated Irish painter Sir William Orpen, once a war artist and later the official artist of the Versailles Peace Conference.

Orpen kept a studio in the Hotel Astoria in Paris and had a young mistress by the name of Yvonne Aubicq. Grover, dressed a in smart dark brown uniform and peaked cap, would drive the pair around in Orpen's open-topped black Rolls Royce.

Grover's urge to race grew and in 1925 he somehow managed to buy a Bugatti. The following year he finished third in the GP de Provence at Miramas -- behind the Talbots of Sir Henry Segrave and Jules Moriceau.

He also competed on the Monte Carlo Rally in an Hispano-Suiza.

"They travelled a lot in Spain at that time," remembers Frederic. "Being frustrated at constantly having to stop at railway crossings, Yvonne told me that my brother would shout 'Duck' and they would pass through at speed!"

"Williams" the racer was gaining increasing fame. Driving an underpowered Talbot in the 1927 French Grand Prix at Montlhery he impressed the huge crowd, but the World Champion Robert Benoist, won the race in a Delage.

The following year the young chauffeur won the French GP at Comminges driving for Bugatti. He would become a member of the company's factory team and a close friend of the Bugatti family.

By now Orpen'a affair with Yvonne was ending and, when they parted, the artist gave his mistress a house in the Rue Weber in Paris, his Rolls Royce -- and his chauffeur.

In April 1929, driving a British racing green Bugatti 35B the mysterious "Williams" won the first Monaco GP, beating the huge 7.1-litre Mercedes of Rudi Caracciola.

In November he married Yvonne.

"One talks always of the crazy twenties," recalls Frederic Grover, "but they were very much like that. Willy and Yvonne danced very well and they won all kinds of prizes at big hotels. He was gifted for sports. He played tennis well -- and golf."

"Williams" continued his racing career, winning the 1930 French GP at Le Mans and the 1931 Belgian GP. That same year he and Yvonne bought a large house in the fashionable Brittany resort of La Baule and settled down as the Grover-Williamses and concentrated on breeding Aberdeen terriers.

They retained their house in Paris and Willy worked from time to time for Bugatti.

"Many of the people who bought those expensive cars could not drive them at speed," remembers Frederic. "They had to be shown and he did it."

In this role he became a close friend of his old rival Robert Benoist who, by this stage, managed the Bugatti showrooms on the Avenue Montaigne.

In the late thirties, Willy's racing career now over, the Grover-Williamses moved into a villa in Beaulieu, near Monaco.

"They used to drive around Monaco in two cars," remembers his neice Jessie. "Willy would be in the first and Yvonne in the second. Yvonne would be stopped for speeding. She would say: 'What about him. Why don't you stop him?' But the police would say: 'He is Williams, we don't stop Williams'."

And thus it remained in the care-free days of the thirties.

Although he was a rare visitor to England Grover-Williams was a patriot and when war broke out he quickly joined the British Army in Paris, taking on the anonymous rank of Driver with the Royal Army Service Corps.

As luck would have it, he was given the job of chauffeuring around a General during the German invasion of Belgium. When France fell Grover-Williams and his General were cut off from Dunkirk and escaped with other British troops from Brittany after a hair-raising escape across France.

For a time Grover-Williams remained a driver but, prompted by the General, he was recruited by the SOE in 1941. To retain his anonymity he became 'Vladimir'. After rigorous training he emerged, in the Spring of 1942, a fully-fledged secret agent. He was appointed an officer and, with his fellow trainees, waited to be parachuted into France.

"We were on standby," remembers a fellow agent Bob Sheppard. "We really had nothing to do. Vladimir and I decided to have lunch together at the Cafe Royal. We knew we would both be going to France within 48 hours or so. He was very easy-going. I didn't know where he went on leave or his friends in London or anything like that.

"It was during lunch that, for the first time, without telling me who he was, and without knowing who I was, Vladimir suddenly said: 'We never know what is going to happen, but we must meet after the war'.

"He asked me if I knew the Bugatti showroom on the Avenue Montaigne.

"He said: 'Look, just opposite there is a bar where I used to go. At the first occasion you are in Paris after the liberation, leave a message. We will meet for a drink'."

"We shook hands and went our separate ways. I didn't even find out that he had been a racing driver until after the war was over."

A few days later 'Vladimir' had become 'Sebastien' and was in Paris, reunited with Yvonne. He settled quietly into a flat near the Trocadero, while she continued to live in their house on the Rue Weber.

His task was to establish an SOE network in and around Paris. All the earlier networks had been broken by the Germans in the autumn of 1941. Chestnut was to be the first of a second wave.

Initially Grover-Williams waited for more agents to arrive from England. They never reached Paris. While he waited Grover-Williams helped other SOE agents in trouble. One of these was Burney who had arrived in France to find the network he was to join destroyed. They met several times, Grover-Williams trying to organise Burney's escape.

"He would sit at the back of the terrace (of the cafe) with his tinted glasses, black moustache and reserved expression stamping him as a suspicious character, yet endowed with a respectability which made suspicion seem too simple," remembered Burney.

Just before his escape was due to take place Burney was arrested.

Without any helpers from London Grover-Williams decided to fall back on his Parisian contacts and in July he telephoned his old friend Benoist and arranged a meeting. Benoist agreed to help. They recruited Commandant Albert Fremont.

Williams, Fremont and Benoist worked quietly to establish Chestnut but, as Madame Fremont recalls, things were "delayed by the difficulty in getting a radio from England."

Grover-Williams continued to travel organising other cells, smuggling arms and helping fellow agents in trouble.

As Chestnut began to take shape, another SOE network was already forming in Paris. It would grow rapidly and become known as Prosper -- the codename of its chief Francis Suttill.

Finally on March 18 1943 Chestnut finally received a wireless operator, Lt Roland Dowlen. In the months that followed Chestnut received five arms drops from London.

Benoist, using the codename Lionel, borrowed lorries from Bugatti to help move the weapons from the dropping zone in the Foret de Rambouillet to his country home at Auffargis.

"Grover-Williams worked untiringly in the Paris region where the strength of the Gestapo and police forces and the numerous controls made clandestine activity particularly difficult and hazardous," reported SOE chief General Sir Collin Gubbins. "In spite of all the risks Grover-Williams built up a successful circuit. He formed a number of sabotage cells and reception committees for parachute operations, of which he received a large number. He established a particularly effective sabotage group in the Citroen factory in Paris, where successful sabotage was carried out, which could not be traced to the group."

Chestnut's fortunes, however, would be tied to those of the larger Prosper network. This was infiltrated by the Germans and in June 1943 the Gestapo moved in. By July Prosper had been destroyed and, as Gestapo vigilance increased, Chestnut too was trapped. At the end of July the Chestnut radio operator was arrested. The following day the Benoist home at Auffargis was raided. Grover-Williams was captured.

Benoist was fortunate and, with the Germans on his tail, he survived a series of breath-taking escapes before finally reaching to England.

Benoist would later return to France on two occasions, becoming one of SOE's top agents and working with another famous racing driver Jean-Pierre Wimille. Just days after the D-Day landings in June 1944 he was captured in Paris. He was later executed by slow-strangulation at Buchenwald.

Grover-Williams disappeared after his arrest. He was interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters in the Avenue Foch in Paris, but he gave nothing away. Finally he was deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. There he was held in solitary confinement in a cell next door to that of Suttill.

"The health of these men can well be imagined on a diet of wurzels cooked in water," reported Paul Schroeter, a prisoner employed as an orderly. "They never received any Red Cross parcels. They were very emaciated.

"The cells were fairly dark as the small windows were glazed with frosted glass covered on the outside with fine wire mesh. Captain Williams received the most brutal treatment."

Grover-Williams and Suttill were last seen at the end of March 1945.

"They were transported by ambulance car to the Industriehof where they were most certainly executed by either hanging, shooting or lethal chamber," Schroeter told allied investigators.

It was only a matter of weeks before the war in Europe ended.

Bob Sheppard, Grover-Williams's friend from SOE training survived Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps. When he returned to London he tried to trace 'Vladimir' but was told that his fellow agent was dead.

"Twenty years after the war, I was in London on business," remembers Sheppard. "I went to have lunch at the Cafe Royal. There was a table full of German businessmen, joking and drinking happily, and they reminded me of my last lunch there with Vladimir.

"I asked the waiter for the same table we had had before and, with an empty seat facing me, I had a drink to my old friend Vladimir -- who never came back."