The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (2024)

Stay informed on all the biggest stories in Formula One.Sign up hereto receive the Prime Tire newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday.

To reach legendary status in Formula One, you must win the Monaco Grand Prix.

From the 1960s dominance of “Mr. Monaco” Graham Hill to Ayrton Senna’s record six victories and the more recent successes of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Monaco has been and remains the F1’s best-known, most exalted event, where the greats put their stamp on the sport.


But the achievements of William Grover-Williams go far beyond winning the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, as he put his stamp on more than a sport. The courage he displayed behind the wheel was only a foretaste of the spirit he would show as part of the resistance efforts against Nazi Germany in World War 2.

The first Monaco Grand Prix

In the late 1920s, as increasing numbers of grand prix racing events were popping up across Europe, the wealthy residents of Monaco decided they wanted to be part of the action.

Off the back of its successful running of the Rallye Monte-Carlo, first held in 1911, the Automobile Club de Monaco moved to establish its first grand prix. Antony Noghès, the president of the club, received the blessing of Prince Louis II to create a race around the streets of the harbor, setting a layout to which the modern circuit has stayed largely true over the last 95 years.

Following the main straight, drivers would go uphill past the church at Sainte Devote and swing left toward the Casino before the tight, downhill section through Mirabeau and Portier before reaching the coastline and passing through the tunnel. After a long straight, they would take a tight left at Tabac before a hairpin corner looped back to the start-finish line.

The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (1)

The first Monaco GP used a layout to which the modern circuit has stayed largely true over the last 95 years but without barriers keeping the cars from the sidewalks, lampposts, and harbor. (National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A 100-lap race was set for a total distance of 318 km (198 miles) — 58 km (36 miles) longer than the modern-day length — that appealed to the great drivers and manufacturers of the interwar era. French driver Philippe Étancelin, a regular winner of national events, and Germany’s Rudolf Caracciola, who would later become an icon of 1930s grand prix racing for Mercedes-Benz, were two of the biggest names in a field that included cars from Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and a sole Mercedes-Benz.

Bugatti, the French manufacturer, had the biggest presence with eight of the 15 starters in a version of its Type 35 car that would dominate the European racing scene until the early 1930s. The random draw to set the grid put Étancelin on pole alongside two other Bugatti cars for the start of the inaugural Grand Prix Automobile de Monaco, the flag dropping at 1:30 p.m. on April 14, 1929.


The only British driver in the field was “W. Williams,” who had been drawn to start the race in fifth place but would go on to write history around the streets of Monaco.

From William Grover to ‘W. Williams’

William Grover-Williams’ journey into motorsports had been an unconventional one. Born in France as William Grover in 1903, he became fascinated with cars at a young age and worked as a private chauffeur through the early 1920s. He started to enter some races under the name “W. Williams” to keep his racing efforts a secret from his family.

Early success paved the way for Williams to come to meet Ettore Bugatti, the founder of his eponymous car brand, and start to enter races driving the Frenchman’s cars. He won the 1928 French Grand Prix at Saint-Gaudens, and later secured an entry to the first Monaco race.

With no protective barriers keeping the cars from the sidewalks, lampposts and the water of the harbor, the Monaco layout proved challenging. As was often the case in the formative years of grand prix racing, the reliability of the vehicles would prove decisive, with only nine cars running by the end, the last of which was 13 laps behind.

The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (2)

Grover-Williams out-dueled Germany’s Rudolf Caracciola to win the 1929 race. (National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The race turned into what Motor Sport Magazine’s May 1929 issue described as a “terrific duel” between Williams, who took the lead early, and Caracciola, who had moved up the order despite starting 15th. The pair exchanged passes shortly before the halfway point of the race, but when Caracciola had to complete a long pit stop for fuel and to have two new rear wheels fitted, Williams moved into a comfortable lead.

Williams stayed at the front through to the 100th lap, crossing the line after three hours and 56 minutes to become the first winner of the Monaco Grand Prix, with an average speed of 50.23 mph — some 39 mph slower than Max Verstappen’s average when winning last year.


It was an achievement that was celebrated back in the UK, with a Pathé News newsreel documenting the race titled “Another British Triumph!” It also put Williams firmly in the conversation as one of the finest racers of his time. He went on to win the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in 1931 alongside Caberto Conelli, sharing a Bugatti, before retiring from racing a few years later.

Behind enemy lines

The end of Williams’ racing career coincided with the rise of German dominance of the European racing scene through the 1930s, which was backed by the Nazi state, serving as part of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine.

Following the start of the Second World War in 1939 and Germany’s occupation of France in the summer of 1940, the British government formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage and sabotage organization to aid resistance efforts across Nazi-occupied Europe.

His racing days now behind him, Grover-Williams had been enlisted by the British Army. Standing out for his fluency in English and French, he became involved with one of the SOE’s operations. He parachuted into France at night near the town of Le Mans — where he’d previously raced for Bugatti — in May 1942 as part of its Chestnut network under the code name “Sébastien.” According to a post-war report by the head of the SOE, Major-General Colin Gubbins, Grover-Williams’ mission was “to organize resistance in the Paris area” — over 100 miles away from Le Mans.

That left Grover-Williams to undertake “a dangerous journey across France soon after his arrival, carrying a large sum of money and compromising documents,” according to Gubbins’ report. Despite being stopped and searched en route to Paris, he avoided arrest, reportedly displaying “great coolness and self-control” to reach his destination in Paris.

From there, Grover-Williams played an integral role in the resistance effort. He worked under aliases including Vladimir Gatacre and Charles Frederick Lelong (Charles and Frederick being two of his middle names) while forming sabotage cells and groups to receive parachuted supplies, all while dealing with the sizable Gestapo presence in Paris.

Gubbins highlighted Grover-Williams’s role in the successful sabotage of a Citroen factory in Paris, which had been given over to Germany’s wartime production and could not be traced back to his group.


‘A gallant and courageous officer’

In early August 1943, Grover-Williams was arrested by the Gestapo in Auffargis on the outskirts of Paris. Gubbins’ report claimed he was then “severely interrogated and beaten up, but it appears certain that he gave nothing away” before he was deported to Germany a few weeks later. He was initially taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, then to Sachsenhausen in the east of Germany.

In March 1945, one month before the advance of the Soviet Union’s Red Army prompted the evacuation of Sachsenhausen, and two months before the end of the war in Europe, Grover-Williams was shot dead.

The significance of Grover-Williams’ contributions to the resistance effort is clear from the war records. Gubbins’ report, written in September 1945, praised the “gallant and courageous officer” who “performed outstanding work over a long period in organizing clandestine resistance” and recommended he be posthumously made a Member of the British Empire.

Presuming this could not be granted, Gubbins asked for Grover-Williams to receive a Mention in Dispatches, typically reserved for acts of valor by military servicemen. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French honor for those involved in the wartime effort.

There remains a nod to Grover-Williams’ racing merits in Monaco. On the inside of the first corner sits a bronze statue of “W. Williams” leaning out from his Bugatti T35B, working the wheel as though he’s speeding uphill through the right-hand corner.

A lasting legacy to a driver who’ll forever be part of the history of F1’s most famed, historic race.

(Top photo of William Grover-Williams: Getty; Heritage Images, Science & Society Picture Library; Design: John Bradford, The Athletic)

The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (3)The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (4)

Luke Smith is a Senior Writer covering Formula 1 for The Athletic. Luke has spent 10 years reporting on Formula 1 for outlets including Autosport, The New York Times and NBC Sports, and is also a published author. He is a graduate of University College London. Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeSmithF1

The Monaco GP winner who died a WWII resistance fighter (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated:

Views: 5956

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (62 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.