The Venlo Incident

Title:                      The Venlo Incident

Author:                  Sigismund Payne Best

Best, Sigismund Payne (1950). The Venlo Incident. New York, Hutchinson

LCCN:    51003485

D805.G3 B477


Date Updated:  March 7, 2017

In November 1939, the Nazis used the so-called Venlo Incident as a pretext for invading the Netherlands. Following orders from Himmler, two British intelligence officers, Sigismund Payne Best and Richard Stevens, were captured from the Café Backus in the town of Venlo. Best had been trying to contact German officers plotting against Hitler. The Netherlands had been an ideal ground for operations, because of its proximity to Germany and the fact that Dutch Intelligence was badly funded. When Best met the three agents including Walter Schellenberg he was carrying with him a list of British agents who were working in Europe. When he arrived at the café, which was just over the Dutch border, he realized he had walked into a trap. A Dutch intelligence officer who accompanied them, Dirk Klop, was fatally wounded. Best and Stevens were taken into Germany. After their Berlin interrogation and torture they were taken to the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Hitler used the incident together with the Elser bomb plot as an excuse for war with the Netherlands, claiming their involvement with Britain violated their neutrality. As Nigel Jones explains, the incident was crucial in making the British suspicious of dealings with anti-Hitler resistance.

A British Secret Intelligence Service officer in World War I, Captain Sigismund Payne Best[1] joined the Z Organisation in The Hague, where he was a well-known member of the British expatriate community in the late 1930s, running a business importing the very popular Humber bicycles. Supposedly assigned the task of collecting information from agents in neighboring Germany, he instead padded his expenses and fabricated intelligence from notional agents. Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939 he was directed by London to identify himself to the local SIS head of station, Maj. Richard Stevens, who worked under semitransparent Passport Control Office (PCO) cover. The objective was for the two organizations to combine their resources and thereby avoid wasteful duplication, but this also eliminated the compartmentalization that had insulated the Z Organisation from the hostile penetration that the PCO had experienced. Stevens, on the other hand, knew that Best, though well connected in Dutch social circles, being married to the daughter of a general, had a poor reputation and was considered rather too shrewd a businessman. Others took the view that Best was the victim of discrimination, his background being Anglo-Indian.

When Best declared himself to Stevens, he learned that the PCO had been in touch with a group of officers who claimed to be anti Nazis plotting to overthrow Adolf Hitler. Best later said he was suspicious of the intermediaries, but on 8 November he accompanied Stevens to the German frontier at Venlo to hold a rendezvous with representatives of the opposition. The meeting was a trap, and both Best and Stevens were abducted at gunpoint and taken into German captivity, where they remained for the remainder of the war, each undergoing lengthy interrogation.

Upon their release in 1945 Best and Stevens blamed each other for having disclosed too much detailed information about the SIS, unaware that the real culprit had been an SIS colleague, Dick Ellis. The SIS did not become aware of Ellis’s duplicity until 1966, by which time Stevens had died in ignominy and a bankrupt Best had tried to make some money by publishing his memoirs, The Venlo Incident Their interrogations had been handled with considerable skill by the enemy, who deliberately gave each the impression that the other was cooperating, without revealing the true source of the information. The loss of two such well-informed SIS officers so early in the war was a considerable blow for the Service and a significant coup for the Sicherheitsdienst, which had masterminded the operation. When he was questioned in I945, Walter Schellenberg acknowledged his role, as he did later in his memoirs, The Schellenberg Papers, but was unable to identify Ellis as the SIS officer who had caused so much damage.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[2]

The Venlo incident was the kidnapping of two SIS officers in Holland by German intelligence, specifically the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The luring of Captain Best, the author and chief of one of the SIS organizations in Holland, and Major Stevens, the Hague SIS station chief, was a unique event in the intelligence war of World War II. It had a precedent in World War I, according to Captain Henry Landau (see The Enemy Within[3]), when the Germans kidnapped two French intelligence agents on Dutch soil. More important was the incident’s effect on future British contacts with German dissidents, since the British officers were lured in the belief that they were making such a contact. Psychologically, the consequences of the German operation were almost strategic.

The title is misleading because only twenty pages concern the incident and little is provided of the background found in such other works as The Labyrinth by Walter Schellenberg[4] (who was involved on the German side) and Farago’s The Game of the Foxes[5]. The rest of the book is on Best’s five-and-a-half years of imprisonment. There is nothing of any length or substance on the interrogation the officers underwent, although it is pictured as disorganized and amateurish. Even after more than forty years, the full story from the British side has yet to be told, and it will not be for quite a while longer; Hinsley tells us in British Intelligence in the Second World War[6] that certain Foreign Office files on the matter are closed until 2015 because of references to individuals and technical matters. Best does give us the information that the SIS organization in Holland had been penetrated since 1935 and that this did not become known until the Venlo incident. A version of the German penetration of the British in Holland can be found in Farago’s work, mentioned above. Immediate damage to British intelligence interests resulted, according to Foot quoting the Dutch historian DeJong, because Stevens had on him at the moment of the kidnapping a list of the people he must make sure to get out of Holland. DeJong also claims that the officers’ interrogation by the Germans unraveled numerous SIS links in Holland and in Czecho-slovakia. Stafford (Britain and European Resistance, 1940-1945[7]) tells us that the British regarded any contacts with German dissidents with deep distrust after Venlo. See also Whiting’s The Spymasters[8].

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[9]

An account of a deception operation conducted by Nazi party intelligence (SD) across the German-Dutch border in November 1939. Walter Schellenberg of the SD entered into a deception operation with two British intelligence officers, Captain S. Payne Best, the author of this account, and Major R.H. Stevens, Schellenberg persuaded them that German generals were determined to overthrow Hitler and they needed assurances from England that a new anti-Nazi regime would be accepted: The negotiations were conducted at Venlo, near the border on the Dutch side. Best and Stevens were eventually captured and taken across the border to captivity for the rest of the war. For more on the Venlo incident see Schellenberg’s memoirs The Labyrinth[10], cited in chapter 14, section F, and Brissaud’s The Nazi Secret Service[11] in chapter 4, section D.

[1] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, pp. 26-27

[2] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 82-83

[3] Crowdy, Terry (2006). The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage. New York: Osprey Publishing

[4] Schellenberg, Walter (1956, 2000). The Labyrinth: Memoirs of Walter Schellenberg, Hitler’s Chief of Counterintelligence. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press

[5] Farago, Ladislas (1971). The Game of the Foxes: The Untold Story of German Espionage in the U.S. & Great Britain During World War II. New York: David McKay Co.

[6] Hinsley, F. H. (1990) and C. A. G. Simkins. British intelligence in the Second World War, Vol. 4, Security and Counterintelligence. London: HMSO

[7] Stafford, David (1980). Britain And European Resistance, 1940-1945: A Survey of The Special Operations Executive, with documents. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

[8] Whiting, Charles (1975, 1976). The Spymasters: The True Story of Anglo-American Intelligence Operations Within Nazi Germany, 1939-1945. New York: Saturday Review Press

[9] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 221

[10] Schellenberg, Walter (1956, 2000). The Labyrinth: Memoirs of Walter Schellenberg, Hitler’s Chief of Counterintelligence. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press

[11] Brissaud, André (1974). The Nazi Secret Service. New York: W. W. Norton


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2 Responses to The Venlo Incident

  1. Pingback: Disinformation, Deception, Frauds, And Forgeries, Chapter 21 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Phil Castle says:

    Has the British report on the Venlo Incident mentioned for release in 2015 taken place yet as I can’t find any mention of it having done so?

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