Sigismund Payne Best
Captain Sigismund Payne Best OBE (14 April 1885 – 21 September 1978) was a British Secret Intelligence Service agent during the First and Second World Wars. He was captured by German Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) men on 9 November 1939 in what came to be known as the Venlo Incident.
Although he used the surname Best, his actual surname was Payne Best. So when he published his memoirs in 1950, for example, he published under 'Best, Sigismund Payne', while his second and third wives bore the official name of Margaretha Payne Best Van Rees and Bridget Payne Best.
He was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the son of the physician George Payne Best and his wife Catherine Sophia Allison. The father was the grandson of a relationship of an Indian maharajah with a British woman. After studying science in London Best first worked as a businessman. In 1908 he went to study violin at the Music Academy of Lausanne. He then studied economics and musicology at the University of Munich, graduating in both in 1913. In Munich, he acquired an excellent knowledge of the German language. Back in England, he went as a volunteer into the army. His first wife, Dorothy Hallwood Adams, died in 1918.
First World War intelligence work
Best served in the First World War as an intelligence officer on the British Army General List. In 1917 major Ernest Wallinger of the GHQ's Wallinger London service sent him to set up an intelligence network in the Netherlands where he controlled agents in German-occupied Belgium. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
Life in the Netherlands
After his demobilisation in 1919 Best had returned to the Netherlands, where he and his partner in business and intelligence P N van der Willik set up a British firm, called the Continental Trade Service, also called Pharmisan. It was both a trading company, mainly in pharmaceutical products, and a consultancy agency for British businessmen.
Living in a prime residential location in The Hague, he was known as a serious British businessman. Best's cover was however a very thin one. Although married to a Dutch wife, Best's distinguished tall figure, his spats and his monocle made him in the eyes of many Dutchmen the prototype of a British spy. At times Best would think it safe to confide that this presumption was wholly justified.
From 1938 he was a member of Haag'schen Golf Club and had good relations with the Dutch royal family. On Friday afternoons he regularly played music with his neighbors Prince Hendrik, Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and husband of Queen Wilhelmina. His wife, who he called 'May' was a relatively well-known artist, and portrayed Queen Wilhelmina.
In December 1938 he undertook with his wife May and his foster son Enzo Bonopera an extended trip to Germany, Switzerland and France.
Second World War intelligence work
Following demobilization Best settled in the Netherlands, pursing his business interests. But with war looming in 1938 he was recruited into Claude Dansey's ‘Z’ organization, a new branch of the SIS. Best already knew Dansey, having served with him in the Netherlands in 1917. The Hague was an important place in the Z-network, Dansey having established the regional headquarters of his network in the two neutral countries where he had worked during the First World War: the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Best's operations in the Netherlands stood at the crosswinds of a political storm. He had, on the orders of London but against all tradecraft, combined his NOC operations with those of Major Richard Henry Stevens, a less-experienced operative who operated from the British Embassy as the head of a notional "Passport Control Office". The PCO (which, like Section Z, operated throughout Europe) was compromised before its operations were combined with those of Section Z, and thus it was a simple matter for the Germans to mount sting and counterintelligence operations against British agents throughout Europe.
A young Nazi lawyer, Walter Schellenberg, had joined the SD in August 1939, and the ambitious SS-Sturmbannführer later became head of the SD counterintelligence department of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. In that capacity, he proposed a false flag operation against Best and Stevens. Best was approached by a Dr. Fischer, a double agent in the employ of the SD, who pretended to represent a disaffected cadre of high-ranking military officers.
Best, Stevens and Dutch Lieutenant Dirk Klop (pretending, for neutrality's sake, to be a British national) began a series of meetings, which, despite Best's misgivings about Fischer and his putative friends (who were in fact SD agents), culminated in what pretended to be an agreement to form, post-Hitler, a united German-British front against the Soviet Union. The agreement included a period in which Adolf Hitler would be kept as a figurehead, then a restoration of democracy and legal protection for Jewish citizens.
In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, having seen Hitler violate the Munich agreement by seizing Czechoslovakia, was more than ready to foment a German coup. However, Best's suspicions that their German contacts might be double agents had been passed up the intelligence chain and the operatives were warned to stay away from the German border. In Britain, the top secret talks were seen by many — including the new First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill — as another Munich.
In any case, not only were the talks a complicated German bluff, but the entire operation was brought to an abrupt end. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had decided, over Schellenberg's objections, to have the British operatives abducted; the attempt by Georg Elser to assassinate Hitler at the Bürgerbräukeller, believed by Himmler to be the result of British machinations, forced the matter. The next day, in a daring and violent abduction, Best and Stevens were kidnapped from the Café Backus on the outskirts of Venlo — Klop was fatally wounded in the shootout with German agents — and rushed to Berlin. Under interrogation, Best and Stevens gave up detailed information on British espionage activities. Worse, Stevens was carrying on him a plain text list of SIS agents in Europe.
Best was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen between 1940 and 1945, and for a few months of 1945 in the Dachau concentration camp. Being fluent in German and having the protection of the Gestapo, he was able to make life in Sachsenhausen as palatable as he could, collecting a good wardrobe of clothes, a library of books and a radio to keep himself informed with the progress of the war.
During his imprisonment, Best came into contact with a number of famous figures, including not only Elser, but also the famed theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose last message he relayed to Bonhoeffer's friend Bishop George Bell. Bell and Bonhoeffer's efforts to interest the British government in supporting German anti-Nazi forces failed in large part because of Churchill's distaste for Chamberlain's actions and the fear of another Venlo Incident.
Life after World War II
In 1953, his marriage to May ended, not least as a result of the heavy burden of the long years of captivity in Nazi Germany. After the separation, Best married his third wife Bridget Payne Best and moved to Calne in Wiltshire, England.
In 1950, with permission from Stewart Graham Menzies, head of SIS ('C'), Best published his memoirs under the title The Venlo Incident that became a bestseller.
- D. Cameron Watt, ‘Best, Sigismund Payne (1885–1978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Sigismund Payne Best, www.venlo-zwischenfall.de (German)
- Sigismund Payne Best, www.venlo-zwischenfall.de (German)
- de Graaff, Bob. "The Venlo Incident, World War Investigator 13/1990, London 1990, S. 2-13".
- "Bob de Graaff: The Venlo Incident". mythoselser.de.
- Lumsden, Robin. A Collector's Guide To: The Allgemeine — SS, p. 83
- Peter Koblank: Geheimakte "Venlo Incident", Online-Edition Mythos Elser 2009 (German)
- The Times, The Venlo Kidnapping, 19 February 1948
- Sigismund Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London 1950, p. 16
- Sigismund Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London 1950
- The Times, Sept 27 1978
- Andrew, Christopher. "The Mobilization of British Intelligence for the Two World Wars" in the Collection Mobilization for Total War: The Canadian, American, and British Experience ISBN 0-88920-109-9
- Owen, David. Hidden Secrets: The Complete History of Espionage and the Technology Used to Support It ISBN 1-55297-564-9
- venlo-zwischenfall.de - English and German sources (German)