Dick Seaman, the British F1 driver who raced for the Nazis then died at the wheel 

Dick Seaman, the British F1 driver who raced for the Nazis then died at the wheel 

After dying at a young age, Dick Seaman was stripped of his legacy unfairly, writes his biographer

Dick Seaman with Hermann Lang at the Nurburgring in 1938
Dick Seaman with Hermann Lang at the Nurburgring in 1938 Credit: Imagno

If anything was guaranteed to leave a troublesome stain on the legacy of a man who might have become one of Britain’s greatest sporting heroes, it was the arrival at his funeral one Friday afternoon in June 1939 of a wreath bearing condolences from Adolf Hitler. Six feet high and made of white Madonna lilies, the floral tribute required two men to carry it into the Knightsbridge church where the great names of motor racing were gathered to pay their last respects to Richard Seaman, who had died the previous Sunday, aged 26, after crashing while in the lead of the Belgian Grand Prix.

A year earlier, standing on the podium at the Nürburgring, with a swastika-bedecked ribbon entwined in his victor’s wreath of oak leaves, Dick Seaman had listened as “God Save the King” was played over the loudspeakers to a crowd of 300,000 Germans. He had just become the first British driver to win a major grand prix in 15 years. Yet at the moment of his greatest triumph, his sheepish expression betrayed very mixed feelings.

“Deutschland Über Alles” was played, too, to mark yet another success for the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz team. Surrounded by a forest of arms enthusiastically raised in the stiff-armed Hitler salute, Seaman reluctantly lifted his own right arm, bent at the elbow, with no more fervour than a man flagging down a No. 38 bus.

At a time when British feelings about Nazi Germany were still confused, no one at home thought particularly badly of him. Some were even enthusiastic. “Heil Seaman! Heil Mercedes!” ran the headline on Motor Sport magazine’s report of that race. After the war the mood had changed and photographs of the Nürburgring podium ceremony were often presented as prima facie evidence of his pro-German sympathies.

It was that image, as much as an admiration for his undoubted skill and courage, that made me want to investigate the story of Seaman’s life in order to determine once and for all where his true sympathies lay - of which there was enough to produce an entire book.

Racing driver Dick Seaman was the first British driver to win a major grand prix in 15 years. Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images 

Perhaps, too, I thought while writing, it would be worth rehabilitating the memory of a man who, had he survived the crash, might have joined his contemporaries Len Hutton, Stanley Matthews and Fred Perry in the pantheon of British sport.

The record shows us an Englishman driving for a team subsidised by the Third Reich as part of Hitler’s three-pronged national “motorisation” project: an autobahn network, a People’s Car, and complete domination of grand prix racing. He had set up home in Germany, on the shore of the Starnbergersee in Bavaria. Soon he would be married to an 18-year-old German girl, a relationship that had induced his mother to cut him off from the considerable fortune his late father had amassed as a director of several Scottish whisky distilleries and which he would have been due to inherit on his 27th birthday, along with Pull Court, a Tudor mansion set in a Worcestershire estate.

On the face of it, the former Cambridge undergraduate had forsaken Britain and embraced the new Germany. Last year a hitherto unknown and uncaptioned photograph emerged in an auction of a former diplomat’s property: it showed Dick welcoming the Duke of Windsor on a visit to the Mercedes factory in October 1937, the day before the Duke and Duchess’s tour of Germany – greeted everywhere with great enthusiasm but barely reported in the British press – reached its climax when the couple visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden.

The invitation to become the first British driver to race for the Mercedes grand prix team had been seen as a significant honour. Speed magazine congratulated him “on the very considerable compliment that has been paid to him – and through him paid to his country.” Nevertheless, given the political situation, he had taken soundings from Earl Howe, a former MP and president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, who gave his blessing.

Visiting home during his first year with the team, Dick praised the Führer’s rescue of Germany from the economic ruin of the Weimar years. “Hitler stands no nonsense,” he told his mother, the sort of opinion by no means uncommon among the British upper-middle classes. His own parents were from a generation terrified by the possibility of the Russian Revolution spreading its disruptive influence westward; it was easy for them to see Hitler as a bulwark against the conflated menace he called “Judeo-Bolshevism”.

It took a while for the reality to come into focus. But when Dick met Erica Popp at a dinner-dance in Munich in the summer of 1938, a fortnight before his Nürburgring triumph, he fell in love with a beautiful and lively girl whose father, the founder and chairman of BMW, was starting to fall out with the government.

Under pressure from Hitler and Hermann Göring to shift production away from cars and motorbikes towards engines for military aircraft, Franz Josef Popp demurred. He had gone along with the order to purge his staff of Jews (although the family continued to see their Jewish doctor), but this new demand threatened the company’s future: what if there was no war, and orders from the military dried up?

Erica, a keen skier, swimmer and horsewoman, had already been photographed in riding kit by a Berlin fashion magazine. But she had dropped out of school rather than accept the requirement to join the Bund Deutsche Mädel – the girls’ equivalent of the Hitler Youth.

Dick with his fiancee Erica Popp, whom he met at a dinner-dance in Munich in the summer of 1938 Credit:  Topfoto

She and Dick were married in a quiet ceremony at Caxton Hall register office in Westminster in December 1938 before setting off for a skiing holiday in Davos. Back in Germany a few weeks later, preparing for a new season against a background of heightened international tensions, Dick wrote again to Howe, asking if he should come home. The response, after consultation with high-level military and political contacts, was that war was by no means a certainty and he would do better to stay put and maintain at least this one link of friendship with Germany.

In February 1939 Seaman and the Mercedes team’s other three drivers – all Germans -- put on their racing kit and lined up with their cars outside the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, to be inspected by Hitler on the eve of the annual motor show. In a conversation with the author Chris Nixon before her death in 1990, Erica remembered Dick suggesting that perhaps he should phone the British government and tell them he was about to meet the Führer. “If I kill him,” he would say, “will you give me a million pounds?” She had almost been inclined to take him seriously.

Soon they would be making contingency plans to leave their new chalet, just outside Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, for a quick return to Britain with just their two cocker spaniel puppies, Whisky and Soda, and a couple of bags. A friend with whom Dick shared a love of jazz had been planning a summer visit on which he would bring over an amplifier specially made for Seaman’s gramophone; it was a sign of their readiness to make a run for it that they decided the bulky device should remain in England.

Nine weeks after Dick died from burns in the Red Cross hospital in Spa, Belgium, war was declared. As a qualified pilot since his university days, he would have made a natural leader of a fighter squadron. Instead, like the wreath from Berlin which caused such embarrassment at his funeral, his reputation was disposed of quietly and discreetly, erased from the public memory by the greater tragedy to come.

Richard Williams is the author of A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Britain’s First Great Grand Prix Driver, published by Simon & Schuster on March 19 (£20)