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The Venlo Incident was a covert German Sicherheitsdienst (SD-Security Service) operation where two British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agents were abducted on the outskirts of the town of Venlo, the Netherlands, on 9 November 1939. The incident was later used by the German Nazi government to link Britain to Georg Elser's failed assassination attempt on German Chancellor Adolf Hitler at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany, on 8 November 1939 and to justify Germany's invasion of the Netherlands, while a neutral country, on 10 May 1940.
- 1 Background
- 2 Covert meetings
- 3 German motives
- 4 Press reports
- 5 Sequence of covert meetings
- 6 Kidnapping of the British agents
- 7 German account of the kidnapping
- 8 Relationship with failed assassination attempt
- 9 Fallout
- 10 Imprisonment of the British Agents
- 11 Radio and TV
- 12 Fictional portrayals
- 13 Bibliography
- 14 References
Even after the British declaration of war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was still interested in seeking a comprise peace with Germany before too much blood had been spilt.
The British government were well aware of the existence of widespread opposition among the top of the Germany army. During the autumn of 1939 the German opposition was throwing out feelers to the British government all over Europe. In October the Munich lawyer Josef Müller got in touch with the British through the Vatican with the connivance of Colonel Hans Oster. Theodor Kordt, the younger brother of Erich, pursued similar objectives in Berne. The Swedish industrialist Birger Dahlerus tried to establish peace through an early form of shuttle diplomacy, partly performed on Dutch soil. And in early October the Dutch minister in Ankara, Philipp C. Visser, was communicating peace proposals on the line of the Dahlerus proposals, made by Hitler's former Deputy Chancellor and then ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, to the British ambassador Sir Hugh KnatchbuIl-Hugessen.
All diplomatic efforts to avoid the Second World War during the days preceding the German invasion of Poland in 1939 had come to nothing. So when a German refugee named Fischer succeeded in winning the confidence of the exiled Catholic leader, Dr Karl Spiecker, a British intelligence informant in the Netherlands, the British SIS became interested in the information Fischer was offering.
In early September 1939 a meeting was arranged between Fischer and the British SIS agent Captain Sigismund Payne Best. Aged 54, Best was an experienced British Army intelligence officer who worked under the cover of a businessman residing in The Hague with his Dutch wife.
Subsequent meetings included Major Richard Henry Stevens, a less-experienced intelligence operative working covertly for the British SIS as the Passport Control Officer in The Hague, Netherlands. To assist Best and Stevens in passing through Dutch mobilised zones near the border with Germany, a young Dutch officer, Lieutenant Dirk Klop, was recruited by Chief of the Dutch Military Intelligence, Major General van Oorschot. Klop was permitted by van Oorschot to sit in on covert meetings but not take part due to the neutrality of the Netherlands.
Fischer brought to the early meetings participants posing as German officers who supported a plot against Hitler and were interested in establishing Allied peace terms should Hitler be deposed. When Fischer's success in setting up the meetings with the British agents became known, Sturmbannführer (major) Walter Schellenberg of the Foreign Intelligence (Counter-Espionage) section of the Sicherheitsdienst began coming to the meetings. Masquerading as a "Hauptmann (captain) Schämmel", Schellenberg was at the time a trusted operative of Heinrich Himmler and was in close contact with Reinhard Heydrich during the Venlo operation.
At the last meeting between the British SIS agents and the German SD officers on Wednesday November 8, Schellenberg promised to bring a general to the meeting on the following day. Instead the Germans brought the talks to an abrupt end with the kidnapping of Best and Stevens.
For different Germans, the covert meetings might have meant different things. Dutch historian, Bob de Graaf wrote: "Hitler, who was kept informed, might have hoped that sooner or later Dutch neutrality would be compromised. Himmler, continually on the outlook for a peace settlement with Britain, might have had hopes that the contacts with MI6 would lead to a compromise, whereafter the Soviet Union, in Himmler's mind Germany's real enemy, could be faced with confidence. To Schellenberg the game meant gathering information about British intelligence activities in Germany. By studying the files he had become especially interested in a so-called 'observer corps' the British were running against the German Luftwaffe. What Schellenberg expected from the meetings were names, as many names as possible of agents working for MI6. To Heydrich, who liked intelligence games for the sake of it, the Spiel with Best and Stevens might have meant anything. But in the light of his continuous efforts to get at Canaris' throat, he might have hoped for revelations about a connection between British officials and a German opposition, which was rooted in Wehrmacht circles".
The Venlo Incident was first reported in the British Press on November 10, 1939, as follows:
ONE DUTCHMAN KILLED AND SEVERAL WOUNDED
Shooting Affray Follows Clash With German Officials.
OMINOUS BORDER INCIDENT Amsterdam, Thursday---One man was shot dead and a number of Dutchmen were kidnapped and taken into Germany after an amazing incident at Venlo, on the Dutch-German frontier this evening, following an armed clash between German Officials and Dutchmen. A German motor car crossed the frontier when a Dutch car was approaching the Dutch barrier, ten yards from the German customs House. It is presumed that the Germans wanted to continue their journey into Holland [sic] in the Dutch car. German officials and Customs officiers, partly uniformed and all armed, ran across the Dutch frontier menacing Dutch onlookers, and ordered customers at the nearby café to move inside from the windows. A wild shooting affray followed, and one man, believed to be a Dutchman in the Dutch car, was killed, the body being dragged back into Germany. Several other Dutchmen who were in the car were likewise kidnapped, and, with their car, hauled into German territory. The Dutch authorities have ordered an immediate Inquiry.
While the British press were unaware two British SIS agents were involved in the border incident, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, was not, for he recorded in his diary:
- November 10. Our men, who met, or were to have met, Gen[eral] yesterday, bumped off on Dutch-German frontier. Discussed matter with H. [Lord Halifax] and Menzies [Stewart Menzies]. ... Numerous reports of imminent invasion of Holland.
Sequence of covert meetings
The covert meetings leading up to the kidnapping as remembered by Captain S. Payne Best in his book "The Venlo Incident" are summarised below.
- Best met with Fischer at an unspecified location in the Netherlands at the beginning of September, 1939.
- At the second meeting Fischer brought a Major Solms to meet Best. Best believed Solm was a major in the Luftwaffe. They met at a small hotel in the town of Venlo. (Date unspecified)
- Best met with Fischer and Major Solms a week later. (Location and date unspecified) Solm told Best there was a conspiracy to remove Hitler from power in which some of the highest-ranking officers of the Wehrmacht were involved. Solms could give no further details as the 'ringleaders' would only deal directly with Best. But before they would meet they required certainty Best was a bona fide British agent and requested he arrange for a certain paragraph to be broadcast in the German News Bulletin of the BBC. This was done twice on October 11, about the same day Best was informed by Major Solms he feared he was being watched by the Gestapo and needed to 'lie low'.
- On October 20, together with Fischer, Major Stevens and Lieutenant Klop, Best met with two German officers, Captain von Seidlitz and Lieutenant Grosh, in a private house owned by a friend of Best in Arnhem. The meeting was interrupted by Dutch police and little progress was made. 'The two Huns seemed scared out of their wits and it was very difficult to get anything out of them except that they wanted to go home,' Best recalled.
- On October 30, Best, Major Stevens and Lieutenant Klop met with three German officers: Lieutenant Grosh, Colonel Martini and Major Schaemmel at The Hague. (Klop had collected the three Germans near Dinxperlo after they were arrested by Dutch police near the frontier) Schaemmel, speaking for the Germans, outlined current conditions in Germany and the losses of men and material in the Polish campaign and how it was imperative the war be ended quickly. Schaemmel went on to say Hitler would not take advice from his General Staff and needed to be got rid of, though his assassination could only lead to chaos. The intention was to take him prisoner and force him to give orders authorising a junta of officers to start negotiations for peace. 'We are Germans and have to think of the interests of our own country first. Before we take any steps against Hilter we want to know whether England and France are ready to grant us a peace which is both just and honourable,' Best recollects Schaemmel saying at the meeting. To facilitate further dialogue a wireless transmitting and receiving set was given to the Germans. Stevens referred Schaemmel's question to London, and a day or two later a non-committal reply came back. More messages were exchanged on a daily basis by wireless before another meeting was arranged.
- On November 7, Best, Major Stevens, Lieutenant Klop met with two German officers: Lieutenant Grosh and Major Schaemmel. Klop was instrumental in holding the meeting in the Cafe Backus on the outskirts of Venlo, as the venue better suited the Germans, being close to the border crossing. Best and Stevens gave the Germans a verbal résumé of London's answers to their questions. Though the answers appeared not to come up to their expectations, the Germans said they would pass them on to their 'chief' and proposed a meeting with him the next day as he was anxious to entrust 'secret papers' to Best and Stevens for safekeeping if the plot against Hitler failed.
- On November 8, Best, Major Stevens and Lieutenant Klop met only with Major Schaemmel at the Cafe Backus. Major Schaemmel said the general who was to have come had been called by Hitler to urgent meeting in Munich to consider an appeal for peace made by the Queen of the Netherlands and the King of Belgian. Schaemmel asked Best and Stevens to meet again on the following day at the same venue to enable the general to be present, adding that as an 'attempt' against Hitler was to be made on Saturday, tomorrow would be the last chance for a meeting.
- On November 9 the meeting was planned for 4 pm. As for the last meeting, Klop arranged for a Dutch police guard to be present at the border. Unlike previous meetings Best and Stevens armed themselves with Browning automatics in case something went wrong. It did.
- Fischer was known to Best as Dr Franz, a German refugee. According to Martin A. Allen, Fischer's real name was Morz, a former follower of Otto Strasser, who was coerced by threat of death to be an agent of the SD (Agent F479).
- Major Schämmel was the alias of Walter Schellenberg as stated above.
- Major Solms was the alias of Johannes Travaglio, a German major in Division 1 (Air Reconnaissance) of the Abwehr in Munich, the head of which was a close collaborator and friend of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
- Colonel Martini was the alias of Prof. Dr. Maximinus Friedrich Alexander de Crinis, an SS officer involved in the euthanasia program "mercy killing", in the Central Tiergartenstr. 4, in 1939-1941.
- Captain von Seidlitz was the alias of SS-Sturmbannfuher von Salish, a long-serving SD officer trusted by Walter Schellenberg
- Lieutenant Grosch was the alias of SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Christian, a long-serving SD officer trusted by Walter Schellenberg.
- Lieutenant Klop was given the name of Captain Coppens by Best and Stevens to pass him off as a British officer.
Kidnapping of the British agents
Early on 9 November 1939, Schellenberg received orders from Heinrich Himmler to abduct the British SIS agents, Best and Stevens. German SS-Sonderkommandos (SS Special Units) under the operations command of SD man Alfred Naujocks, carried out the orders.
Best was at the wheel of his car when he drove into the car park at the Cafe Backus for the meeting planned for 4 pm with Schellenberg. Stevens was sitting beside him while Lieutenant Klop and Jan Lemmens (Best's Dutch driver) were sitting in the back seat. Before Best had time to get out Naujock's SD men arrived in an open car. In a brief shootout, Klop was mortally wounded. After being handcuffed and stood against a wall, Best and Stevens, together with Jan Lemmens were bundled into the SD car. Klop was put into Best's car and both cars were driven off over the border into Germany.
Best recalls a full body search was performed on him when they reached Düsseldorf en route to Berlin. At Düsseldorf one of the men who had taken part in the kidnapping told Best the reason for the action was to catch some Germans plotting against the Führer who were responsible for the attempt on his life the night before.
Lieutenant Dirk Klop was admitted to the Protestant Hospital in Düsseldorf. A doctor on duty recalled years later Klop was unconscious when admitted and died the same day from a gun wound to the head.
German account of the kidnapping
A different account (with conflicting details) of the Venlo Incident is told by Günter Peis in "The Man Who Started The War", and by Walter Schellenberg in his memoirs. For instance, Best did not know that Schellenburg, still posing as Major Schämmel, was waiting at Cafe Backus at the time of the kidnapping by Naujocks and twelve SD men. When one SD man mistook him as Best, Schellenberg narrowly escaped being shot.
Relationship with failed assassination attempt
Prior to the assassination attempt at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on 8 November, Naujocks and his squad had been sent to Düsseldorf to support Schellenberg. Even before his private train had returned from Munich to Berlin, Hitler ordered the British SIS officers in the Netherlands be brought to Berlin for questioning. Himmler issued the order to Schellenberg early in the morning on 9 November.
Though Georg Elser, a suspect being interrogated in Munich by the Gestapo, insisted he had acted alone, Hitler recognized the propaganda value of the assassination attempt as a means to incite German public resentment against Great Britain. On 21 November Hitler declared he had incontrovertible proof that the British Secret Service was behind the Munich bombing and that two British agents had been arrested near the Dutch border. The next day German newspapers carried the story. On the front page of Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung there were pictures of the conspirators named as, Georg Elser, 'Kaptain Stevens' and 'Mr Best'.
Years later Walter Schellenberg recalled in his memoirs:
"He (Hitler) began to issue detailed directives on the handling of the case to Himmler, Heydrich, and me and gave releases to the press. To my dismay, he became increasingly convinced that the attempt on his life had been the work of the British Intelligence, and that Best and Stevens, working together with Otto Strasser, were the real organizers of this crime. . . Meanwhile a carpenter by the name of Elser had been arrested while trying to escape over the Swiss border. The circumstantial evidence against him was very strong, and finally he confessed. He had built an explosive mechanism into one of the wooden pillars of the Beer Cellar. It consisted of an ingeniously worked alarm clock which could run for three days and set off the explosive charge at any given time during that period. Elser stated that he had first undertaken the scheme entirely on his own initiative, but that later on two other persons had helped him and had promised to provide him with a refuge abroad afterward. He insisted, however, that the identity of neither of them was known to him. . . I thought it possible that the "Black Front" organization of Otto Strasser might have something to do with the matter and that the British Secret Service might also be involved. But to connect Best and Stevens with the Beer Cellar attempt on Hitler's life seemed to me quite ridiculous. Nevertheless that was exactly what was in Hitler's mind. He announced to the press that Elser and the officers of the British Secret Service would be tried together. In high places there was talk of a great public trial, to be staged with the full orchestra of the propaganda machine, for the benefit of the German people. I tried to think of the best way to prevent this lunacy."
The Nazi press reported that the Gestapo had tricked the British Secret Service into carrying on radio contact for 21 days after Best and Stevens were abducted using the radio transmitter given to them. Himmler is accredited to quipping, 'After a while it became boring to converse with such arrogant and foolish people'.
The British Foreign Office believed Himmler was involved in the secret Anglo-German contact of autumn 1939, and that the discussions, involving Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, were bona fide peace negotiations. Historian, Callum MacDonald, shared this view.
The Venlo Incident exposed the fact that the Chamberlain government was still seeking to do a deal with Germany while exhorting the nation to a supreme war effort. This outraged Winston Churchill to the extent he was against providing support to German opposition to Hitler for the rest of the war.
Hitler used the Venlo Incident to claim The Netherlands had violated its own neutrality. The presence of the Dutch agent Klop, whose signature on his personal papers was gratefully misused by the Germans, provided sufficient 'proof of cooperation between British and Dutch secret services, and justify an invasion of The Netherlands by Germany in May, 1940.
Walter Schellenberg gave evidence against other Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials. He died in 1952 aged 42.
Imprisonment of the British Agents
After interrogation at the Gestapo Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse headquarters in Berlin, Best and Stevens were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Both were held in isolation in the T shaped building reserved for protected prisoners of the Gestapo.
In January 1941 Stevens was moved from Sashsenhausen to the bunker at Dachau concentration camp where he remained until evacuated with Best and other protected prisoners in April, 1945.
In February, 1945, Best was transferred briefly to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to the 'bunker' at Dachau concentration camp on April 9, 1945. Coincidently this was the same day Georg Elser was killed at Dachau.
On April 24, 1945, Best and Stevens left Dachau with 140 other protected 'high-profile' prisoners in a convoy bound for South Tyrol. At the lakeside Prags Wildbad Hotel near Niederdorf, South Tyrol, they were liberated by the advancing US Army on May 4, 1945.
Radio and TV
The Venlo Incident was described in episode 1 of BBC Radio 4's "MI6: A Century in the Shadows", broadcast on Monday, 27 July 2009.
The Venlo Incident is the inspiration for the ending of the first episode in the BBC comedy-drama Private Schulz. It was also used by William Boyd in his 2006 book, Restless. Venlo and Klop are renamed, respectively, Prenslo and Lt. Joos. The two SIS officers are not named. Café Backus is named.
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