1939 Belgrade GP

1939 Belgrade Grand Prix: The Silberpfeilen’s Last Dance

Belgrade. September 3, 1939. The sun is shining in Kalemegdan Park as the Yugoslav flag drops. Manfred von Brauchitsch leads the field away in his Mercedes W154. It’s like any other Grand Prix, except that just a few hundred miles away the Wehrmacht are marching towards Warsaw.

This is the story of the 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix, the only European Grand Prix held during World War II.

Racing into war

Grand Prix racing had played a small but inextricable role in the rise of Nazi Germany. Soon after Hitler seized power, Germany began to pump enormous resources into motorsport. Under the oversight of Adolf Hühnlein’s NSKK (National Socialist Motor Corps), Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz were funded to the tune of 500,000 Reichsmarks annually.

It worked: ‘Deutschland über alles’ rang out around the race tracks of the world as the Silberpfeilen (’Silver Arrows’) dominated, piloted by the likes of Rosemeyer, Caracciola and Nuvolari.

There was a sinister side to the winning, wrote Motorsport Magazine’s Bill Boddy in 1940: “Motor racing, on the scale on which Germany played it for six seasons before the war, was used as world propaganda by a war-seeking nation”.

The Silver Arrows dominated pre-war Grand Prix racing, winning every European Championship race from 1935-1939 (Photo: Audi)

As the Silver Arrows conquered the race tracks of Europe, Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe itself escalated. The Nazis took back the Saar in 1935, remilitarised the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria and took control of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

By 1939, the specter of war loomed large over Grand Prix racing. Early in the season, Mussolini banned Italian drivers from racing in France over the latter’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War; by August, fuel was being rationed in Germany.

Mercedes and Auto Union continued to dominate, but on the first day of September Germany invaded Poland and suddenly motor racing didn’t really matter anymore.

The show must go on

But there was still the small matter of the Belgrade Grand Prix. Scheduled to take place in the Yugoslav capital on September 3 in honour of King Peter II’s birthday, the race would be held on a narrow, cobble-stoned 2.8 kilometre circuit surrounding Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park. Tram lines and a section of the track where cars would get airborne added to the difficulty.

Alfa Romeo and Maserati didn’t show—forbidden from leaving Italy due to the geopolitical situation—but the German teams were either already in Belgrade or on their way as German troops breached the Polish border. Mercedes entered Hermann Lang, Manfred von Brauchitsch and reserve Walter Bäumer; Auto Union brought along Paul Müller, Tazio Nuvolari, and reserves Hans Stuck and Ulrich Bigalke.

On Friday morning, news of Germany’s invasion of Poland broke, and some drivers and team personnel left for their home countries. Amongst them was von Brauchitsch who was boarding a Lufthansa flight at Bežanija airport when team manager Alfred Neubauer intervened and told him: “if you wish war, you can wait for a few hours”.

Back behind the wheel, von Brauchitsch qualified quickest on Saturday and put his W154 on pole ahead of the sister car of Lang, with Müller and Nuvolari (who had only arrived that morning after being stuck in Italy until the German authorities became involved) third and fourth in their Auto Unions. The only other entrant was local driver Bosko Milenkovic, who would start fifth in his comparatively agricultural Bugatti T51.

The last Sunday

On the morning of the race, the sun was shining in Belgrade but the dark clouds of war were gathering as 50,000 spectators descended on Kalemegdan Park. Mid-morning, as the crowd enjoyed motorbike and sportscar races, news came through that Britain had declared war on Germany.

The race started just before 5:00PM—about the same time as France entered the war—with von Brauchitsch making the best start. He drove wildly over the first laps to defend from Lang, running wide and flicking a stone into Lang’s goggles, who was momentarily blinded. He was forced to pit, and handed his car over to Bäumer.

As Lang and Von Brauchitsch take their spots on the grid it’s hard not to notice the ugly specter of the swastika hanging over the course (Photo: Unknown)

Von Brauchitsch continued out in front building up a 14 second lead over Müller before spinning on lap 16 and handing the lead to Müller who himself surrendered the lead on lap 30 with tyre problems.

This handed the race lead to the great Nuvolari, who stayed out in front to take the chequered flag ahead of von Brauchitsch and Müller, with Milenkovich fifteen laps behind. Fittingly, the final race of the era had been won by the greatest of them all.

After the race, the German teams returned home via the back roads of Slavonia, Croatia and Slovenia. On arrival, their trucks were requisitioned by the German army. The Silver Arrows were no more. The golden era was over.

1939 Belgrade Grand Prix – Race Results

Kalemegdan Park, 50 Laps

  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. Boško Milenković (Bugatti T51) +19 Laps
  5. Hermann Lang / Walter Bäumer (Mercedes-Benz) Accident

Scott Russell
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