W Williams: Winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix faced racing and war fearlessly

W Williams: Winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix faced racing and war fearlessly


W Williams was a racer whose real name was William Grover.

The first Monaco Grand Prix, held in 1929, was won by a British racing green Bugatti T35B, driven by a rising star called W Williams, who beat Germany’s Rudi Caracciola driving a big white Mercedes. W Williams was not unknown; he had won the previous year’s Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, also for Bugatti.

“Some said he was a wealthy sportsman because he drove a magnificent town car, a Hispano-Suiza,” said rival René Dreyfus. “Others thought that he was one of the livery men who operated from the Place de l’Opéra in Paris and hired out his car and his services as a chauffeur to wealthy clients. No one knew for sure. What we did know was that he was a charming, but very reserved, gentleman. A lovely man.”

The truth was that he had been a Parisian chauffeur, but he became a wealthy sportsman thanks to his successes in racing. 

His real name was William Grover. His father, Frederick, was English, but moved to France in the 1890s to assist a prince in his breeding of horses. Frederick was an expert. His son William, known as Willy, was born in 1903, grew up in France and spoke fluent French—but still thought of himself as English.

Racers battle for postion at the start of the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix.

When he was 11, the first World War broke out, and the Grover family moved to Monte Carlo. It was there that his sister Lizzie married a young British engineer named Richard Wright Whitworth, who had run the Rolls-Royce service depot in Paris. He became Willy’s hero and taught the youngster to drive; not many men could drive, so Willy became a chauffeur on the Côte d’Azur when he was only 15. The family moved back to Paris when the war ended, but Willy was not interested in school. He bought an ex-U.S. Army Indian motorcycle and started racing, using the name Williams so as not to upset his family.

He found a job working as the chauffeur of the well-known artist William Orpen, who owned a Rolls-Royce and kept a mistress, Yvonne Aupicq, in Paris. When Orpen went home to his wife in Ireland, Willy was allowed to rent out the Rolls-Royce to other clients and save all the money he made.

Then in 1925, Orpen broke up with Aupicq. He left her a house and the Rolls-Royce, and Willy had enough money to buy himself a magnificent secondhand Hispano-Suiza, the most luxurious and advanced car of the era. He was  22. 

W Williams crosses the finish line at the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix.

At some point along the way, Willy and Aupicq became lovers; they took the Hispano-Suiza on the 1925 Monte Carlo Rally and raced the heavy car up the hill climbs around Monaco. He needed a lighter car to be competitive, and, probably with help from Aupicq, he somehow acquired a Bugatti T35B. His efforts attracted the attention of Sunbeam Talbot Darracq, and W Williams was signed to drive in Grands Prix for Talbot in 1928. Things went wrong, however, when STD ran out of money and Willy had to duck and weave to convince Ettore Bugatti to lend him a factory T35B. His victory in the GP de l’ACF followed, and he won a second a few weeks after Monaco in 1929.

He and Aupicq married later that year and began calling themselves Grover-Williams, as a way of linking Willy’s real name with his racing pseudonym. In 1930, he had a big crash at a race in Rome, and although he won some minor races after that, he quietly dropped out of the sport, splitting his time between Paris and the Côte d’Azur and working as an ambassador for Bugatti at the showrooms on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris.


W Williams in action at the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix.

When war broke out in 1939, the former racer enlisted with the British Army in Paris and became a driver with the British Expeditionary Force. In autumn 1941, he was ordered to travel to London for a meeting, found himself recruited to the Special Operations Executive and began training to be a secret saboteur. In May 1942, he parachuted into France and made his way to Paris where, with the name Charles Lelong and code name “Sebastian,” he began his new life, in an apartment at the Trocadéro, posing as an engineer. His orders: quietly prepare a sabotage organization that would help the Allies when D-Day occurred. 

For the next 14 months, the Chestnut network, as it was called, operated quietly in and around Paris. They received five parachute drops of weapons and carried out several sabotage attacks, notably at a Citroën factory in Paris, seriously reducing the production of military vehicles. Willy recruited Robert Benoist, head of Bugatti’s Paris operations, and other Bugatti employees; Ettore Bugatti provided paperwork for the resistance group.

W WIlliams, winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix.

Following the collapse of another SOE network, Prosper—and the arrest of its chief, Francis Suttill—in summer 1943, some of the Chestnut group were arrested.

Willy and Suttill were interrogated violently in the notorious German security headquarters on the Avenue Foch. They were then designated as Nacht und Nebel prisoners and were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. For the next 15 months, they lived in solitary confinement in adjacent cells. 

In the final weeks of the war, the two were taken away and, according to available records, executed on March 18, 1945. 

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