Last month I paid a visit to Dick Seaman’s grave for the first time in a few years. I had almost forgotten that February 2013 marked what would have been his 100th birthday, but this pre-war hero has been a constant companion over the years so it seemed an appropriate moment to catch up.
In fact it was thanks in no small part to the late Richard John Beattie-Seaman that I became a member of the accredited Formula One media. I wrote a little story about this young man who looked like the one character that Ralph Fiennes was born to play in what could be the most astonishing movie ever made. A few people liked it and soon enough I was on a plane to cover the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
Of course, we used to think that we knew everything about Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. We had contemporary newsreels and race reports but more than this we had the testimonies of the survivors, credulously recorded by the most esteemed scribes in motor sport.
The trouble was, of course, that many of the survivors didn’t half tell some whoppers. If you read their autobiographies, interviews and the great works of automotive literature that they inspired, the only insights on offer from the greatest sporting stars of the Third Reich were that Adolf Hitler was a curious little chap with an amusing moustache.
Then, in the late 1990s, came a change. For the first time a German writer, Eberhard Reuss, took an interest in the Silver Arrows. Here was someone with time to dig deep in archives written in his mother tongue, and who dedicated time and talent to follow evidence that was never going to be accessible to the mainly British chroniclers who preceded him.
Suddenly there was much less to laugh about… although that’s another story in itself.
Poor old Seaman never had the opportunity to tell tall tales of how he cocked a snook at the jumped-up little Austrian corporal and his cronies. He died from the severe burns that he suffered in a crash while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.
Today, his tombstone may be fading fast but the grave itself is conspicuously well kept – just as it always has been.
When the fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union heritage cars gathered for their over-blown ‘reunion’ at last year’s Goodwood Revival I was chatting with another historian and the subject of Seaman duly cropped up. ‘As far as I can tell,’ said he, ‘maintaining Seaman’s grave is probably the last of Hitler’s direct orders that is still being carried out.’
It’s one of those little comments that will always raise an eyebrow. It tantalises when, after all, the fact is now long established that appointing a British driver to the propaganda machine that was the ‘Silver Arrows’ required sign-off by Hitler himself.
That was in 1937, and for two-and-a-half seasons Seaman drove well while making himself at home in the Third Reich. Indeed, he even married the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of BMW’s founder Franz Josef Popp. This was exactly why he was approved: to underline Hitler’s good intentions toward Britain and display the virtues of the Reich to the British public.
Unfortunately for the Führer, nobody listened.
When Seaman took his first and only Grand Prix victory it should have been manna from heaven to the media. This dashing young Englishman beat a phalanx of all-conquering German drivers in their home race at the Nürburgring – with a spectacular fire in the pits to boot. But of the 14 daily newspapers in Britain only the Daily Mail gave it even a cursory mention.
Afterwards, in 1941, while the Luftwaffe’s bombs were raining down on British cities, the racing team owner Prince Chula of Siam wrote his biography Dick Seaman Racing Motorist. Even in those dark days he felt it important to emphasise that after Seaman’s death ‘…orders came from Berlin that he was to be given full honours.’
Indeed he was. The German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, stage-managed proceedings including liaison with Seaman’s widowed mother over the funeral arrangements. He also ensured that Mercedes-Benz’s British importers, headquartered in London’s Camberwell Road, ensured that portraits of the fallen star were prominent in all dealerships across the country.
At the service itself in Putney Vale, the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams were present along with Ambassador von Dirksen and other dignitaries. It was said that the German contingent kept a low profile but many accounts remarked upon the gigantic wreath of white lilies with a red sash and a swastika, bearing the inscription ‘Adolf Hitler’.
When leaving Putney Vale this year, I suddenly remembered my colleague’s allegation that Seaman’s grave was being tended at Hitler’s bidding. Thus a little detour was made to the cemetery offices and, after a bit of digging through files by the extremely accommodating staff, the answer came back: Mercedes-Benz has always tended the grave, they said.
Out of courtesy I called up Mercedes-Benz UK’s press office the next morning to find out more. “Oh! We had the cemetery on the phone yesterday,” said the helpful girl who answered. “Can we call you back?”
A short while later Angus Fitton from the Mercedes-Benz PR team rang to say that, in fact, they had no knowledge of who tends Seaman’s plot and indeed never had. “Since the question came up I’ve checked this with Stuttgart and can say categorically that Mercedes-Benz would not impinge upon the family’s private arrangements on such a personal matter,” he said.
I did remind Angus that the Beattie-Seaman family was effectively extinct. Dick left behind only an ageing mother and elder half-sister with whom he had no known contact throughout his life. His young German widow emigrated to the USA during the war and died in 1990 after two further marriages. Was he sure that they were somehow footing the bill?
“Richard played a very big part in Mercedes’ competition history of course, and we honour that memory at events like the Goodwood Revival last year,” Angus said. “But we would never directly involve ourselves in the private memorial of an individual driver.”
Golly! I thought. This was getting interesting.
Angus’s statement also came as news to the Official Mercedes-Benz Club, to whom I put in a call to check if they had anything about it in the archives. After all, Mercedes-Benz UK has only existed since 1990, so perhaps there might be a prior arrangement that the friendly young folk of Milton Keynes might not be aware of?
“Mercedes pays a small fee to the cemetery every year to keep it tidy,” was the response. “They always have done.”
Much as I would like to believe that there is a stack of post-dated cheques written in 1939 that gets passed, as some sacred rite, from each Superintendent at Putney Vale Cemetery to the next, I’m inclined to believe that payment is made annually. And that, despite protestations to the contrary, it is made by Mercedes-Benz.
I’m also inclined to believe that, despite such a ludicrous response, this is not in itself evidence that Hitler’s last unbroken order is carried out in a Surrey suburb each year. It is simply yet another example of the cack-handed airbrushing of history that has been going on throughout the German automobile industry for almost 70 years.
This story should have been a positive one for those involved. One unseen little act of kindness each year does not atone for the Third Reich, but it does reflect an enormous credit on those responsible. If only they had wished to accept it.