We are not in favor of terrorism, and we feel that for one state to sponsor international terrorism against another is among the highest of international crimes. Of course, state sponsored terrorism against Nazis, well, that's a little easier to defend; they were quite clearly the bad guys (let alone the losers). Perhaps because of the taint of terrorism, there were some special operations performed by Britain in World War II which are still officially kept secret. Joe Saward is a journalist who writes about Formula 1 racing and had written some reference books about motor sports, but he was up against the secrecy as he was doing research for his book _The Grand Prix Saboteurs: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the Grand Prix Drivers Who Became British Secret Agents in World War II_ (Morienval Press). Part of the reason for the continued secrecy may have been that the British government did not want to burden families with distressing stories of how the agents were found, tortured, or exterminated, but at the same time, the families did not get to hear about how heroically the agents had performed and what a difference they had made. Saward spent almost twenty years researching this book, and only in the past few years have secret records opened up enough for him to complete his story which concentrates on three racing drivers and their covert efforts behind the lines. It is an exciting story, and a reminder of the importance of espionage work by those who were not originally spies in overcoming Nazism.
There was indeed a prejudice against the newly recruited spies of the Special Operations Executive, but SOE was an idea of none other than Winston Churchill, who was not interested in doing things the usual way. He wanted secret agents sent to Europe to bomb, assassinate, and prepare for uprisings simultaneous with an invasion of Europe. William Grover had raced motorcycles and then automobiles, becoming a representative for the Bugatti firm, and winning the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929. When he became an SOE agent, he looked for contacts, and among the men he trusted was a previous rival, Robert Benoist, the top French driver of the 1920s. He was a member of the Rothschild family and had served as a fighter pilot in World War One. He had won the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours, and his co-driver was Jean-Pierre Wimille. Grover had distrusted Wimille's pre-war politics and had not contacted him to be an agent, but Benoist eventually did. The first part of Saward's book is devoted to motor racing before the war, a time when much of the equipment and many of the courses were so new that racing was a far more dangerous sport that it is today. When the war broke out, Grover joined the British army as a driver, but his skill with mechanics and his fluent French led to his recruitment by the SOE, which led to the eventual recruitment of the other two drivers. He was trained in obvious techniques concerning explosives, but also less obvious ones like the application of a stealth weapon developed by SOE, "abrasive grease" which could be applied to locomotives and cause their machinery to wear out prematurely. Trainees learned how to jump from moving trucks, and how to parachute.
There were different ways of getting into France, with parachuting being the least risky. Returning to Britain was harder, with secret flights out of France not from airfields but from ordinary fields, hazarded by horses and cows, who could not be shouted away because silence was needed. Within France, the agents were key in providing to the resistance arms and explosives often dropped by parachute, and organizing cells of resistance fighters. There was as much danger as they had faced on the racing track, because the Nazis had gotten good at intercepting and counterfeiting radio transmissions back to SOE in England, and were adept at watching the contacts the SOE members made. There was never a more deadly cat-and-mouse game, and both sides played well. The description of resistance life given here is exciting, and the extent of SOE efforts is admirable, as, of course, is the heroism of the former drivers. There was treachery, even from Benoist's brother and perhaps from SOE members previously regarded as heroes, and only one of the drivers profiled here survived the war and raced again. The harrowing ends for the others within concentration camps are sad indeed. The men were sports stars that everyone knew in Europe before the war. Their contributions to the war effort had to be kept secret long beyond their deaths. Saward's fine book has no flashy writing, but takes a mass of material from a confusing period and brings these forgotten heroes deserved recognition.