“I’m an artist, the track is my canvas, and the car is my brush”

Motorsport and WWII - The 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix

By Scott Russell

Although the World Drivers Championship was not established until 1950, pre-war Grand Prix racing was in many ways the ‘Golden Era’ of motorsport. Machines like the beautiful Auto Union and Mercedes Silberpfeilen (’Silver Arrows’), circuits like the daunting Nürburgring-Nordschleife (’Green Hell’), and drivers like Italian ace Tazio Nuvolari were the hallmarks of this golden age.

Unfortunantly the ugly spectre of WWII (1939-1945) put a premature end to this grand era. As the German Wehrmacht conquered Europe, events like the Tour de France, Olympic Games, and Football World Cup were cancelled as sports and leisure time were lost to the war effort. Motorsport was no different. Racing took a big toll on manpower and resources, and in wartime, this was not a luxury that could be afforded. And so, cars were put into storage, research and development ceased (with a notable exception … ), and some drivers joined the frontline. But not before one last Grand Prix. On September 3, 1939, as the Germany continued her invasion of Poland, a small field of cars competed in the Belgrade Grand Prix. This is the story of the only Grand Prix during wartime.

Grand Prix Racing became propaganda in the Third Reich.
Image source: unknown - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Five years before WWII the actions of the Third Reich influenced the world of motorsport. In 1934 Adolf Hitler - a keen auto racing fan - decided Grand Prix racing was the ideal platform to showcase Germany’s finest engineering. The Third Reich would fund German marques to conquer the circuits of Europe.

Mercedes-Benz was Hitler’s marque of choice, but to absolutely gaurentee success the Third Reich would also support the then newly formed Auto Union (which included Horch, Audi, DKW and Wanderer). Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union received major grants and subsidies from the Nazi Government. One quoted figure suggests Auto Union was at one stage receiving 300,000 Reichmarks annually. and there was even a Government Department for Motor Racing, headed by Adolf Hühnlein.

Hitler’s plan was a raging success. German cars became the dominant force in Grand Prix racing. The best in the world raced for Germany: Tazio Nuvolari, Hans Stuck, Richard Seaman, Bernd Rosemeyer, Hermann Lang and Rudolf Caracciola racking up win after win for Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. These drivers became mega-stars in Germany. Swastikas adorned the cars, drivers gave Nazi salutes and celebrated to the strains of “Deutschland über alles”. This is not to say the drivers were Nazi supporters - Richard Seaman famously commented that he would have rather won for a British team. But that did not matter, for Hitler had the magnificant propaganda he had envisaged. In the big picture it was just one way war and politics changed the face of motorsport.

Like the years that preceeded, 1939 was all about the German makes. At the German Grand Prix in May, German cars filled the top seven places. On September 3, the last Grand Prix of the pre-war era was held at Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Often incorrectly referred to as the Yugoslavian Grand Prix, the Belgrade Grand Prix was held on a cobbled 2.8km street-course in the picturesque Kalemegdan Park. Sponsored by Yugoslavia’s King Peter II, the event attracted huge interest—as many as 100,000 spectators lined the circuit on raceday.

Just five cars contested the Grand Prix—two works Mercedes-Benz W154s, two works Auto Union Ds, and a privateer Bugatti T51. Maserati and Alfa Romeo had entered two cars each, but failed to show, and as British nationals had been advised not to travel abroad in August, there were no British contestants either.

In qualifying, Manfred von Brauchitsch duly put his Mercedes Benz W154 on pole position. Second fastest was Hermann Lang (Mercedes-Benz W154), ahead of Hermann Paul Müller (Auto Union D), and Tazio Nuvolari (Auto Union D). The only other entry was local driver Bosko Milenkovich, and his ancient Bugatti T51, starting fifth and last.

On September 1, Hitler’s Germany began an invasion of Poland. The United Kingdom and France issued an ultimatum demanding the German Army withdraw. They did not, and on Belgrade Grand Prix raceday, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France declared war on Germany. The world was at war for the second time in the 20th century.

Main: Aerial shot of the Kalemegdan Park circuit today. Inset: 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix grid.
Image source: Google Earth (main) / unknown (inset). Photos reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

But in Belgrade, there was still a race to be run. After hearing about the war situation, von Brauchitsch went to the airport with the intention to fly to exile in Switzerland. But his team boss, Alfred Neubauer, coaxed him back to the circuit for the race. There were some calls for the race to postponed or abandoned due to the events in Poland and lack of entries, but organisers insisted it go ahead to avoid financial losses.

In the early laps of the race, Lang and von Brauchitsch fought until a stone from von Brauchitsch’s car flicked up and broke Lang’s goggles—he pitted and Bäumer took over the car, leaving von Brauchitsch out in front, ahead of Muller and Nuvolari. Von Brauchitsch suffered a setback when he stalled, and restarted by illegally rolling his car back down a hill, against the flow of traffic. After pitting for fuel and tyres, Nuvolari held on to take the Chequered Flagy. Von Brauchitsch and Müller completed the podium. The local driver, Milenkovich, came home fifteen laps down after struggling with overheating.

Appropriately, the very last of the pre-war era Grand Prix races had been won by the greatest of them all.

Interesting, the race remains the only Grand Prix for cars to have been held in Yugoslavia. There has been Grand Prix in Yugoslavia again—but for motorbikes. Interestingly, the post-war Communist Government effectively erased the Belgrade Grand Prix from Yugoslavia’s official history as it presented the King in a good light. To this day the average Serbian does not know Grand Prix racing came to Belgrade.

After the Belgrade race, Grand Prix racing stopped. It would be six years before Grand Prix style racing would resume. However, it is not true to say Motor Racing stopped entirely throughout the duration of war.

The United States did not enter WWII until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Until then, life in the United States retained some normalcy, and events like the AAA Championship and Indianapolis 500 continued as usual. However, by July 1942, motor racing was wound down as the war effort stepped up.

Mauri Rose and Floyd Davis won the 1941 Indy 500 while Europe was at war.
Image source: Indy 500 - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

In Germany, Grand Prix racing stopped. The German motor racing authorities declared Hermann Lang the 1939 European Champion despite the cancellation of numerous races. Thereafter Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union continued to develop machines beyond 1939, with the blessing and financial support of the Government. But gradually, the burden of man and resource shortages forcibly ended the project.

In the United Kingdom, there was near universal cancellation of major races—the 1939 Tourist Trophy, Donington Grand Prix and Shelsey Walsh Hill Climb were all immediately cancelled.

An anomaly in Europe was Italy, which retained a status of neutrality under Benito Mussolini until September 1940. Until such time, motor sport continued and during 1940 many major events continued, including the Tripoli Grand Prix (in Libya, occupied by Italy at the time), the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia.

In Australia and New Zealand speedway, hill climbs and race meetings continued with some frequency until 1940, and sporadically after that.

In South America Grand Prix racing continued in Brazil and Argentina, with alcohol substituting for fuel, which was in short supply. There were Grand Prix races in 1940-1942, as well as the gruelling Gran Premio del Norte, a race almost 10,000 kilometres long. It was here, during the war, that Juan Manuel Fangio enjoyed success.

After the end of six years of World War, motor racing resumed slowly. The war had taken a big toll—many cars had been lost, destroyed or damaged in storage, many drivers killed or injured, and many circuits were beyond repair.

But it did not take long for the first Grand Prix style races. In the last months of 1945, three races were held in France, including the “Liberation Cup” and “Prisoners Cup”. The grids were made up entirely of pre-war vehicles. For 1946 a more complete Grand Prix calendar was staged, largely on temporary and street circuits, with pre-war cars and drivers.

Jean-Pierre Wimille in his Bugatti at the Prisoners Cup in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 1945. This was the first post-war Grand Prix event.
Image source: 8W - photo reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’.

Slowly the “classic” events would return: the first post-war Le Mans 24 Hour was held in 1946; the first Swiss, Belgian and Italian Grand Prix in 1947; and the first British Grand Prix in 1948. In 1950, just five years after the world had stopped fighting, the first Grand Prix World Championship was held. In 1951, Germany (which had been banned from international competition until then) held her first Grand Prix since 1939.

However, the fall-out from war continued to haunt Grand Prix racing. When British Racing Motors developed their first racing car, quality resources were so scant that the car was made from low-grade resources and consequently was extremely unreliable. The division of Europe into East and West was a hurdle which was not entirely overcome until the fall of the USSR in 1991. Not until 1986 was there a World Championship Grand Prix East of the Iron Curtain. But that is another chapter altogether.

Results - 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix

50 Laps / Kalemegdan Park / Dry

1. Tazio Nuvolari (Auto Union) 1:04:03.8
2. Manfred von Brauchitsch (Mercedes-Benz) +7.6s
3. Hermann Paul Müller (Auto Union) +31.6s
4. Bosko Milenkovic (Bugatti) +15 Laps
DNF Herman Lang/Bäumer (Mercedes-Benz)

Fastest Lap: Müller and von Brauchitsch - 1:14.0
Pole: von Brauchitsch - 1.14.2

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