The British Grand Prix Star Who Flew the Flag for Nazi Germany

Handsome, brave and talented, Richard Seaman was among the brightest stars of inter-war grand prix racing, but today he is largely forgotten in Britain. That is in no small part down to his close links with Hitler and Nazi Germany.

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Jan 19 2017, 9:53pm

PA Images

This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.

Shortly after James Hunt died from a heart attack in 1993, the former F1 champion was cremated at Putney Vale Cemetery. Set amid more than 70 acres of south-west London parkland, it served as a quiet final stop for Hunt, a uniquely colourful character who was never keen follow in another man's footsteps.

He was not the first world-class British racing driver to be taken to Putney Vale, however. In fact, another contentious figure from the sport's past preceded him by more than half a century. But while Hunt flirted disinterestedly with controversy thanks to his hedonistic lifestyle, Richard Seaman's legacy is considerably more complicated. Among the finest talents of his time, Seaman became the darling of Nazi Germany's racing programme at a time when Europe was edging towards a devastating conflict.

Known as Dick by his friends, Seaman came from a very comfortable background. His father, William Beattie-Seaman, made a fortune from the distilleries business and married a much younger woman. Dick was their only child, born in February 1913. Mrs Lilian Beattie-Seaman has been described as a "ferociously pompous grande dame of absolutely the stiffest corset". Nevertheless, the indulged Master Seaman tended to get his own way.

As a child he was dispatched to private school, then on to Trinity College Cambridge. But by his late teens he had become considerably more interested in motor racing than his studies. His parents hoped he'd shake this off and go into the diplomatic service, then later become an MP, but Dick's new hobby was increasingly becoming an all-consuming passion.

His father in particular was aghast at what he saw as an expensive waste of time. During the twenties and thirties, motor racing was an amateur pursuit in Britain, a hobby for wealthy men with no sense of purpose or direction. While Dick was certainly well off, he did not lack ability or commitment. In a letter to his son, William Beattie-Seaman called motor racing "an amusement" that would "lead to nothing". Though his father did not live to see it, Dick would prove him very wrong.

Despite their reservations, in 1933 Dick's parents were convinced to purchase him a Bugatti, though they may well have been misled as to its intended purpose. The following year he quit university to join a professional racing team, scoring his first result of note with third at Pescara in Italy. In the Prix de Berne, contested in the forests of Bremgaten in Switzerland, he achieved his first major victory. But this event was marred by the death of a teammate, and it is said that when Seaman's father read a report of the race he thought his son was the fatally injured man. He suffered a heart attack and, though he survived, was now fully set against racing.

Seaman (left) pictured at the British circuit Brooklands // PA Images

But this did nothing to dent Dick's enthusiasm for the sport. Racing historian and Seaman biographer Chris Nixon believed that the son "ran roughshod over his parents". Dick was particularly adept at manipulating his mother, who doted on her only child. When he convinced her to buy him an aeroplane, she did so in the hope that it would distract him from racing; in fact, he would use it to travel to overseas events. The author and racing historian Doug Nye, who has also written about Seaman, says that he possessed, "a degree of selfishness, self-interest and self-obsession". Unattractive as they might seem, these attributes aren't exactly rare in successful racing derivers, or indeed any top-level athletes.

Perhaps his father recognised these traits. In ill health and concerned by his son's career, William Beattie-Seaman threatened to write Dick out of his will. There would not be time for this, however: he collapsed and died on 3 February 1935, the day before Dick's 22nd birthday.

Following the death of his father, Seaman could indulge in his passion with less parental opposition. His mother was easier to extract money from, and he would need funding for a little while longer.

Dick had wisely elected to race abroad very early on, understanding that British amateurism was no match for continental professionalism. Italy and particularly Germany were considerably more advanced than Britain at this time.

Seaman had first contested a grand prix in 1936 when he raced in Germany, but his car was uncompetitive. The dominant force that day were the Auto Union team, with the Nazi flag raised above the podium for winner Bernd Rosemeyer.

Like so many other aspects of life, motor racing became a tool of propaganda in Nazi Germany. The Reich displayed their engineering prowess to the world by building the fastest racing cars and crushing opposition across the continent. Initially, Hitler allocated 500,000 Reichmarks a year to the Mercedes-Benz racing programme, then split this fund with the rival Auto Union firm. The competition between the two would help achieve new levels of excellence. The teams were ultra professional, while the cars were well ahead of their time and duly blew the opposition out of the water. With both racing in silver – having scraped the paint off to save on weight – the press dubbed them the Silver Arrows. And so this name – now used by the contemporary Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 team – has its origins in a programme funded by the Nazi state. (Mercedes sometimes use photos from the period, too, though the swastikas are airbrushed out).

READ MORE: The Life and Death of Formula 1's Pioneering Prince

In November 1936, a telegram arrived at Mrs Beattie-Seaman's home. It was from the Mercedes-Benz team, inviting Dick to try out for them at a test session. Initially she hid it, not wanting to encourage his racing career, but her conscience got the better of her. Dick was naturally delighted and travelled to Germany for the test, where he impressed the team and their boss, Alfred Neubauer. A comically portly fellow who might well have served as the inspiration for Thomas the Tank Engine character The Fat Controller, Neubauer oversaw a star-studded Mercedes-Benz line-up, led by the German Rudolf Caracciola. That Seaman should by hired by such a team demonstrates just how capable he was.

The deal could not be signed off immediately, however, as it required authorisation from the highest level of government. Finally, in February 1937, Dick was presented with his contract. As an outsider, his place at the team had been personally approved by Hitler.

He was now a professional driver on a good salary and, though part of Germany's propaganda machine, he was also a free man, no longer reliant on family money. He was paid £3,000 a year and a share of any winnings, but was forbidden from taking his earnings out of Germany and so lived in a rented chalet near Munich. Seaman was used sparingly in 1937, starting only one European Championship race, at the marque's home event in Germany. Still, he contested several non-championship races – he would finish fifth at the terrifying AVUS circuit, watched by Joseph Goebbels – and did enough to be retained by Mercedes-Benz into 1938. This was to be the crowning glory of his professional career.

It was also the year in which he met and married Erica Popp, a beautiful 18-year-old whose father was the co-founder of BMW. Having first encountered one another at a party in June 1938, their relationship developed quickly. A German partner – and one with roots in the motor industry – further strengthened Seaman's ties to the Fatherland.

Dick and Erica pose with one of his trophies in March 1939 // PA Images

He had already met the most famous man in the country. Earlier in the year, Dick attended the Berlin Motor Show. As a Mercedes-Benz driver he was presented to Hitler, who gave a 17-minute speech at the show. Quite what Dick thought of the Fuhrer is a point of contention. It has been written that Seaman was "a staunch anti-Nazi", though a letter to his mother in which he praises Hitler's effect upon the German people, and muses that the Fuhrer should take over Austria so that they would "sit up and pull themselves together" offers a viable counter argument. It is unlikely, too, that someone whose anti-Nazi views were staunch could sign for their officially backed team, with Hitler's blessing, and give the Nazi salute on the podium.

Whether Dick cared for him or not, he would soon win for Hitler's Silver Arrows on home turf.

Seaman was one of just two non-German drivers aboard either Mercedes-Benz or Auto Union cars at the Nurburgring that day (the other was the brilliant Italian, Tazio Nuvolari). There can be no doubt that the plan was for a German to win, but when leader Manfred von Brauchitsch's car caught fire in the pits Seaman assumed the lead. He had driven a smooth, calm race and managed his tyres well. After almost four hours he took the chequered flag as the winner, with 300,000 fans cheering him home. On the podium, Seaman twice gave the Nazi salute, albeit rather weakly.

There are two ways that this could have been interpreted from a propaganda perspective: either outstanding German technology had carried a Brit to victory, while the country's own cars were hopeless in comparison; or a British driver had beaten the supposedly superior German competitors on home turf.

Regardless, the win firmly established Seaman as a deserving member of the best team in grand prix racing – and made him something of a star in Germany.

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Not long after his triumph, Mrs Beattie-Seaman travelled across to visit her son and meet Erica. Dick's mother is said to have been "overwhelmed" when taken to a cinema to see newsreel footage of his recent race victory.

But she was concerned at the idea of Dick marrying a German, perhaps because of lingering tensions from World War I, or perhaps because she wished to be the only woman in her son's life. Despite this, the pair became engaged soon afterwards; a party was held at a friend's house, with Mrs Beattie-Seaman refusing to attend. The couple were married in December 1938 and lived in a chalet purchased by the bride's parents.

Meanwhile, Dick raced in the two remaining European Championship events of 1938, finishing as runner-up at the Swiss Grand Prix and retiring in Italy. Once again, he was given a renewed contract with Mercedes-Benz for the following season.

But the political climate was growing increasingly fraught. Germany had, as Dick hoped, annexed Austria, and tensions were escalating across the continent. Mindful of this, the team were again using him as a reserve. He began to seriously consider resigning his place at the team, but leaving would not be easy: following his marriage, his mother had cut all ties with her son, and he needed his wage from Mercedes-Benz more than ever. Friends in the sport advised him to stick at it, perhaps mindful that the opportunity to drive such advanced machinery did not present itself often.

Despite his fears of a reduced role, Seaman was called upon to drive at the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix, the first round of the European Championship, on 25 June. Held at the fearsome Spa-Francorchamps circuit, it was a race in which Seaman was determined to excel.

Seaman during his final race, at Spa in 1939 // PA Images

The weather was dreadful, rain drenching the Ardennes and making for treacherous conditions on the circuit. As if to make this abundantly clear Caracciola, who was known as a specialist in the wet, crashed out on lap seven. Seaman moved through the field, showing incredible control aboard his Mercedes-Benz, and eventually eased into the lead. Once out front he began to pull away. This was arguably his finest performance at the wheel of a grand prix car. The win in Germany had possessed an element of luck, but here Seaman was peerless, performing the equivalent of a high-wire act to keep his car on the circuit while lapping far quicker than his rivals. Unfortunately, on lap 22, his luck ran out when he slid off the circuit at high speed. The car struck a tree, which it appeared to wrap itself around, and then burst into flames. It took more than a minute to extricate the driver, who suffered severe burns in the accident.

Seaman was taken to a nearby hospital where he flitted between life and death. In a moment of consciousness he apologised to team boss Neubauer for the crash, saying it had been entirely his own fault, and told Erica that she would have to go to the cinema alone that evening. He died shortly after midnight. At his funeral, a huge wreath made up of white lilies was placed among the piles of flowers, adorned with with the name "Adolf Hitler". Whether he liked it or not, Seaman had died driving for the Reich.

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Richard Beattie-Seaman's death came on 25 June 1939. Just over two months later, Germany and Britain were at war. His mother passed away in 1947, while Erica remarried and moved to America, where she died in 1990. There are now few, if any, living connections to this pre-war racing great.

But, almost 80 years after his death, Seaman's grave at Putney Vale Cemetery is still tended. It is believed that Mercedes-Benz continue to pay a small fee each year, to ensure that their forgotten star retains at least some small form of recognition.

@Jim_Weeks