Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"The Grand Prix Saboteurs" By Joe Saward - A Book Review

To say that The Grand Prix Saboteurs is long awaited is perhaps an understatement. I first became aware that Joe Saward was working on the story of "Williams", the winner of the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix, when he mentioned in passing that there was as interesting story he was researching about him for a book, in one of his Globetrotter columns, back in 2001.

Apparently, though, he has been working on this story since the late 1980s, when his editor at Autosport suggested that he might want to look into the story of W Williams. After 18 years, he was finally able to tie up the loose ends in the story to his own satisfaction but was unable to interest a mainstream publisher in the story. In the end, unwilling to let nearly two decades of work go to waste, he published the book himself.

For those not familiar with the story, William Grover Williams and Robert Benoist were racing drivers in the late 1920s and 1930s, who went on to serve with the Special Operations Exective, directing the French Resistance, during the Second World War. Its not the only time that the worlds of motorsport and espionage and subterfuge have collided (Don Nichols was rumoured to be a CIA agent before, and perhaps after the time he spent running the Shadow F1 team in the 1970s) but it is hard to imagine say, Michael Schumacher or Jenson Button acting as special agents in Iraq or Afghanistan today.

The first part of the book concerns itself with the racing careers of William Grover-Williams, who raced under the pseudonym Williams to ensure his family did not find out what he was up to, and of Robert Benoist, the French gamekeeper's son who achieved a fair measure of success driving for Delahaye and later, for Bugatti. This section of the book is well enough researched, and gives plenty of background on both Benoist and Williams, but somehow does not really capture the spirit of the era in the same way that, for instance, Robert Edwards captures the feel of the racing scene in the 1950s in his biographies of Moss and Scott-Brown, or Gerald Donaldson does with the late 1970s in his books on James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve.

To be fair though, the racing careers of Benoist and Williams are not the central focus of this book. Had they only been racing drivers, their stories might have been reasonably diverting, but they probably wouldn't really merit a book (at least not until someone has written a really definitive biography of Dick Seaman, but that's for another day). In fact, the opening section of the book is most interesting for the light it sheds on why racing drivers of the 1920s might have turned out to be ideal material for underground operations in France during the second World War. The willingness to take life-threatening risks, but also the cool, calculating mindset required to avoid taking or gratuitous or unnecessary chances would have been equally useful on pre-war racing circuits and in undetaking sabotage missions in occupied France.

In places, the book reads almost like an Ian Fleming spy thriller. The story of Robert Benoist's escape from German Secret Police in Paris after being arrested for the first time could have come straight from a Bond film and the book brilliantly captures the tension and uncertainty that Williams must have felt when he was parachuted into France for the first time in May 1942.

Saward has clearly done his homework on the broader politics and history of the French Resistance. There are numerous tales of double agent and double crosses, not to mention Saward's discovery that Benoist was probably betrayed to the Germans by Violette Szabo, Britain's most celebrated World War 2 spy. He goes to some length to explain the modus operandi of the Resistance - their preference for low key, subtle sabotage over the big explosions and shootings which would have served only to encourage the Germans to take revenge on the local population, and to turn them against the Resistance.

He does well, too, in drawing out the grey lines between those who had to give the appearance of co-operating with the Germans in order to avoid arousing suspicion, and those who were either playing both sides, or who were actively collaborating. In some cases, notably that of the mysterious Henri Dericourt (who surely merits a book in his own right) its not always even clear if he knew for sure himself which side he was really on. Matters were often complicated by the fact that, after the war, many suspected collaborators claimed to be double agents who were working under cover and that the only people who could vouch for them had been killed. Some were probably telling the truth. Others were not. (Incidentally, though Saward never mentions him by name, former FIA president Jean Marie Balestre's war record is decidedly murky, to the point where nobody really knows for sure who he was working for).

Inevitably, the book takes on a darker, more sombre tone when Benoist and Williams' luck ran out and, as the allied advance through France proceeded, the action shifts from Paris to the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. In this part of the book, Saward debunks the romantic notion that Williams, at least, survived and lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name in southern France (as Robert Ryan appears to suggest in his fictionalised account of their story, Early One Morning).

Unfortunately, the readability of the book is in places compromised by the inclusion of too much detail which is ultimately somewhat extraneous and tangential to the story. It is almost as if Saward (a history graduate who has spent a long time researching this book) is desperate to make use of literally everything he was able to uncover in the national archives. There were times, too, when I wondered whether he couldn't quite make up his mind whether he was writing principally about Benoist, Williams and (to a lesser extent) Jean Pierre Wimille, or about SOE operations in France more generally. The result is an ever so slightly messy compromise between the two. One suspects that this is a pitfall of self-publication, and that a good editor might have helped to tidy the book up in this respect.

In the end, I can't quite recommend the book unreservedly, but when compared with the endless dull production line biographies of racing drivers whose lives really aren't that remarkable (and in some cases, whose careers have barely begun- step forward Brian Belton with "Lewis Hamilton: A Dream Comes True) this is certainly a much more worthwhile and interesting read. It might not be for every racing fan, but if the subject matter intrigues you at all, you really ought to check it out.

Endnote: If you're interested in what happened afterwards at all, I really ought to put in a good word for Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper's Paris After The Liberation which picks up the story after the D-Day landings. I took this book on holiday with me last year and found it utterly engrossing - and it gives a very good summary of the fallout from the war years under occupation).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me that Saward's evidence against Szabo is pretty weak.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Joe Saward's Grand Prix Blog said...

Joe Saward is now writing a blog:

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

It would be very interesting to read the book

7:16 AM  

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