Monday, February 12, 2007

Book of the Month

This self-published book by Joe Saward details the lives of the famous racers Grover-Williams, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Although it covers the driving careers, the main thrust of the book is concerned with their activities in the French Resistance and with the Special Operations Executive. Benoist was executed at Buchenwald in 1944, Williams survived at Sachsenhausen until March 1945 while Wimille - perhaps the leading driver in the years immediately before the World Drivers Championship came into being in 1950 - was killed during practice for the Buenos Aries Grand Prix of 1949.

The book claims that Benoist's arrest was the result of information obtained by the Germans from SOE heroine Violette Szabo. This is a controversial claim and I would like to read some reviews of Saward's evidence from experts in this field, at present the only reviews I have seen come from the motor racing side. Saward quotes a conclusion by SOE historian Michael Foot which to my uninformed eyes seems very unfair to Szabo "the ghastly story of Violette Szabo's suffering is so far as I can ascertain completely fictitious". I have read that Foot's SOE history was written purely from documents held by the SOE and that he conducted no interviews with surviving agents. Subsequently Foot was successfully sued by SOE agent Peter Churchill and also by R. J. Minney, the author of the book about Szabo "Carve Her Name With Pride". Far from Szabo's suffering being "completely fictitious" her cellmate at Limoges reports that Violette was raped by her interrogators. By the time he wrote his Dictionary of National Biography entry on Szabo, Foot seems to have revised his opinion of Szabo's treatment, he writes "brutal interrogations got nothing out of her but contempt." None of this is mentioned by Saward.

Grand Prix Saboteurs has Szabo betraying the Paris safehouse where Benoist was arrested. The evidence for this were German documents seen by Benoist and others while under arrest and interrogation at the Gestapo's Avenue Foch headquarters. Why did the Germans allow these documents to be read? A second question, how do we know that Benoist was able to see these documents? The source is Benoist's son-in-law Andre Garnier, who seems to have been able to speak to Benoist at the Avenue Foch. I find this all unconvincing.

Joe Saward has done motor racing history a service by detailing the heroic lives of Grover-Williams and Benoist. I look forward to reading some informed reviews of this book.

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