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The 70th day of World War II–November 9, 1939–dawned chilly and overcast above neutral Holland’s southeastern frontier with Germany. Later that day, in the early afternoon, a slim, 29-year-old German drove a short distance onto Dutch soil and pulled into the Café Backus parking lot. He and his male companion entered the crowded, three-story building, doffed their overcoats and ordered aperitifs. Perhaps 40 yards from the cafe was the German customs house, swastika flag flying, behind which waited another 13 Germans. In the other direction, toward the town of Venlo, the Dutch frontier post was active with guards and military construction.

The two men nervously eyed the outside traffic, mostly bicycles, and waited. Finally, at 3:20 p.m., a sleek, red Lincoln Zephyr drew up. Inside the car were four men, including Britain’s top spymasters in Holland.

This secret meeting between representatives of the opposing sides had its genesis in peace feelers being sent out by German opponents of Führer Adolf Hitler. The task of sorting out most of the peace overtures fell to British Intelligence, which had its primary European station in the Dutch capital of The Hague. The British Intelligence effort was a joint venture between two organizations. One was the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), which performed its clandestine tasks under the cover of the embassy-based Passport Control Office (PCO). The second, created by MI-6’s Colonel Claude Dansey to complement the PCO’s rather transparent cover, was the deep-cover Z Organization. Chief of the PCO-based operation was Major Richard Henry Stevens, who had served as an intelligence officer in India. The Z Organization was headed by German-speaking Captain Sigismund Payne Best, a tall, monocled, spat-wearing intelligence veteran of World War I whose cover was a trading and consulting firm.

Before too long, the PCO was penetrated by the Nazis and Best was compromised. Worse still, when Britain declared war on Germany, London destroyed any remaining security by ordering the two Intelligence elements to work together.

Thus armed with considerable knowledge of their enemy’s secret activities in northwestern Europe, the Nazis found it relatively simple to insinuate themselves into meetings between anti-Hitler German emigrés and the British. In the fall of 1939, the young and ambitious ex-lawyer Walter Schellenberg, who was about to become chief of the counterintelligence bureau of the Reichssicherheitshaupamt (RSHA, or the Reich Central Security Office), proposed using these emigrés to initiate a sting operation against the Best-Stevens team. Its purpose was to gain information on Allied Intelligence operations in Germany and to uncover disloyal Germans. Schellenberg’s boss, Reinhard Heydrich, agreed to the proposal.

Schellenberg’s first step was to have a known British agent, who was then working with the Nazis, inform Best that he could arrange a meeting with a disaffected German general. As expected, Best brought Stevens into the act. The British spymasters then solicited the cooperation of Dutch Intelligence, GS III (General Staff Section III). The GS III commander, who was pro-British and well aware of the German threat to his country, assigned a young lieutenant, Dirk Klop, to work with the British. To safeguard Dutch neutrality, Klop, who had lived in Canada, was to be passed off as an English captain named Coppens.

The initial meeting between the British officers and the “dissident” Germans took place on October 21, 1939, hopping from two cafes to a house in the town of Arnhem in east-central Holland. Instead of a general, the emigré double agent brought a Captain von Seydlitz and a Lieutenant Grosch, both army officers, to meet with Best and Stevens. No sooner had their session begun than Dutch policemen surrounded the house. They had been alerted by the conspirators’ suspicious behavior in one of the cafes they had visited. Although Klop was easily able to get rid of the intruders, the incident ruined the meeting. The shaky Germans wanted to go home immediately. Little wonder, since Seydlitz and Grosch were really von Salisch and Christensen of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Nazi Party’s security and intelligence service.

A second session convened on October 30. Klop picked up three Germans from the frontier and drove them about 150 miles to Best’s business office in The Hague. In addition to “Grosch,” the mufti-clad visitors were “Captain Schämmel” and “Colonel Martini.” The latter actually was Max de Crinis, head of the psychiatric division of Berlin’s leading hospital, posing
as the elusive dissident general’s representative. “Schämmel,” wearing a monocle like the real captain whose name he borrowed, was none other than Schellenberg, who took charge of the Ger-man side of the discussions.

The two sides, acting on instructions from the highest levels of their respective governments, agreed on a united anti-Communist front, conditional on a change of leadership in Germany. A document was drafted, according to which the Reich would relinquish most of its conquests in return for regaining its former overseas colonies lost after World War I. Nearly four hours of talk were followed by a sumptuous dinner at Best’s home and a drive to a villa where the Germans would spend the night. During a final get-together the next morning, the Germans were given a transmitter-receiver, with codes, so that they could communicate directly with MI-6 in The Hague. When the Germans tried to use the radio set from their base of operations in the Rhine city of Düsseldorf, however, they found it was too weak. They were able to make radio contact on November 2 using a stronger German instrument, and began to exchange progress reports with the British.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain informed the British war cabinet of the alleged peace talks with the Germans on November 1. The First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, saw these talks as efforts toward further appeasement and objected vehemently. In Berlin, too, there was uneasiness about the sting operation, and there were reports of other peace feelers. Hitler, his ego perhaps bruised by all this talk about ousting him, was on the verge of putting his foot down to show the world he had no opposition within Germany. The Führer was also preparing to launch his Western offensive (initially set for mid-November). Hitler’s objections, and the realization that the risky operation could go on for only so long without showing results, caused Heydrich to decide to kidnap Best and Stevens. It would be a great propaganda coup to coincide with Hitler’s invasion of the West. As things turned out, the timing of the kidnapping was determined by an attempt to assassinate the Führer, but, in the meantime, Heydrich had organized his strongarm team.

Alfred Naujocks, described by one historian as “a sort of intellectual gangster,” would help coordinate the kidnapping of the British agents. No stranger to Hitler’s dirty tricks, Naujocks was a charter member of the SD and had led the “Polish” attack on the German border radio station at Gleiwitz on August 31, 1939. Although this was only one of numerous incidents drummed up to justify the invasion of Poland, Naujocks gained a reputation as “the man who started World War II.”

For the kidnapping plan, Naujocks selected a dozen men he had worked with in the past, and they drove to Düsseldorf. Informed of this new development, Schellenberg, whom Naujocks considered a “namby-pamby, pasty-faced little man,” was clearly disturbed. He was convinced that the British were completely taken in by the sting and that it could lead to bigger prizes. He had just recruited a Nazi industrialist to pose as the dissident general, and a trip to London was in the offing. Moreover, Schellenberg had taken a liking to this game of wits with MI-6. In any case, a new meeting with the British had been arranged for 2 p.m. on Tuesday, November 7.

Lieutenant Klop chose the site, the Café Backus in Venlo, which was on Dutch soil but in the no-man’s-land between the Dutch and German frontier stations. Schellenberg and Christensen made the hour-long drive from Düsseldorf to the cafe for a session that was nothing more than a stalling maneuver while Schellenberg tried to talk his bosses into continuing the sting. The two parties agreed to another meeting the following day, one which the supposed anti-Hitler general would attend before accompanying the British to London. There, the talks would proceed at a higher level. Berlin vetoed the London trip. Schellenberg, wondering how to explain arriving at the November 8 session without his general, nevertheless radioed The Hague to confirm meeting arrangements.

The Wednesday morning headlines took Schellenberg off the hook. King Leopold III of Belgium and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, having been apprised of the impending German invasion, issued a joint peace appeal. At that afternoon’s short meeting, Best and Stevens were told that everything was on hold pending Hitler’s response to the joint appeal. In any case, Schellenberg said, a move against the Führer by the German opposition was being organized, and the much-talked-about general would definitely be available the next day, November 9. Best and Stevens consented to yet another meeting.

That night of November 8, Nazi Party “Old Guard” veterans met for their annual get-together at the Bürgerbräukeller, Munich’s most famous beer cellar. Their celebration was to be rudely shattered by Johann Georg Elser, a small, black-haired carpenter who was thoroughly disillusioned with Naziism. Following through on a year-old decision, Elser had stolen black powder pellets, dynamite and gelatin. With them, he constructed a detonation device that relied on redundant clocks, which could be set up to six days in advance. Elser had made more than 30 trips to the beer hall earlier in the year, hiding until closing time so he could work during the night. He bored into one of the main room’s massive wood-veneered brick pillars to form a space large enough to accommodate his homemade bomb. The explosives were inserted on the night of November 1. Five nights later, the clocks went in. Elser made the last of his many nocturnal visits on the 7th for a final check. The following morning, when the building reopened, he left his hiding place and fled through the rear door. Later that morning, he paid 11 marks for a railroad ticket to the Swiss border.

Soon after 8 p.m. that November 8, as a band struck up the “Badenweiler March,” Hitler strode into the Munich beer hall. Cheers from about 3,000 stalwarts greeted him. The Führer took his place at the rostrum directly in front of a swastika-draped pillar, inside of which two clocks ticked unheard. By 9:07, Hitler had finished his speech, which was shorter than the previous year’s, and departed. Most of his audience returned to its beer and carousing. At 9:20, Elser’s infernal device detonated, collapsing the overhead balcony and ceiling. Seven Nazis and a waitress died; more than 60 people were hurt. Hitler had been saved because he had to be in Berlin early the next morning and bad weather had forced him to take a train.

Shortly before the failed assassination attempt, a pair of German customs men at the Swiss frontier were distracted from listening to Hitler’s broadcast speech when they noticed someone trying to sneak across the border. Challenged, Elser raised his hands in surrender. He quickly confessed to planting the bomb, but Hitler refused to believe he could have acted alone.

The Führer raged that the “English Secret Service” was responsible for the beer hall blast. Weren’t the British encouraging German dissidence and insisting on his removal? After talking to Hitler, following the explosion, SS leader Heinrich Himmler phoned Schellenberg in Düsseldorf. He told Schellenberg, “…and this is an order, when you meet the British agents for your conference tomorrow, you are to arrest them immediately and bring them to Germany.” It was a frustrated Schellenberg who notified Naujocks to make arrangements for what came to be known as the Venlo Incident.

Later that same morning in The Hague, Best, Stevens and Klop prepared for another drive across southern Holland. Best, whose dislike of the less-experienced Stevens had been growing, had deep misgivings about the meeting. In fact, he had been suspicious of the entire operation since its inception. Stevens, apparently thrilled to be playing an important role in history, had shrugged off warnings from others, who recalled previous Nazi border violations. Not feeling up to driving both ways, Best contacted a Dutch driver, Jan Lemmens, and asked him to accompany them and take the wheel during the drive back from Venlo.

When Schellenberg spotted the red Lincoln approaching the Café Backus that blustery November 9, he stepped outside. As soon as the vehicle had pulled up in front and backed into the parking lot alongside the red brick building, an open-topped Ford roared in from Germany beneath the raised black-and-white barrier. One of its 13 occupants, his feet braced on the running board, fired a shot into the air. Riding low under its heavy load, the Ford screeched to a stop in a cloud of dust, bumper-to-bumper with Best’s Lincoln.

Naujocks’ SD crew rushed toward its startled prey. Klop recovered quickly from his shock, drew a revolver and sent two slugs through the German car’s windshield just as Naujocks was sliding out of the front seat. No one was hit. Crouched low, Klop ran toward the road. Shots filled the air, convincing nearby Dutch customs men
to stay back. “Hands up! You have no chance,” Naujocks said to Best and Stevens, who were now standing beside their car. Handcuffs were produced. Meanwhile, a submachine gun burst sent Klop tumbling to the ground. To the cries of “Hup! Hup!” Best, Stevens, Lemmens and the fatally wounded Klop were hurried on foot to the German customs house. Schellenberg and his companion drove across the border. The kidnapping operation was over in minutes.

Onlookers gathered, and Dutch soldiers belatedly rushed to the scene. All they saw were cartridge cases, a dissipating cloud of acrid gun smoke and a blood stain. The assailants, their prisoners and the cars were gone. Best, Stevens and Lemmens were rushed to Berlin for interrogation. In Stevens’ pocket was a recently scrawled list of people, including all of MI-6’s agents, who were to be pulled out of Holland in case of a German invasion. Both British spymasters revealed a considerable amount of valuable information during the nearly four weeks they were questioned. As one British official said, “Our entire espionage system in Western Europe was mopped up…in a single swoop.” He also indicated it was “a blessing in disguise,” since the Intelligence system was quite compromised and ineffective in any case.

The driver, Lemmens, was released in late 1940 and returned to the German-occupied Netherlands. Best and Stevens were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Interestingly, the would-be assassin Elser also became a Sachsenhausen inmate. Kept alive probably because Hitler considered the Munich bombing case unresolved, he was subsequently transferred to the Dachau camp. In April 1945, as Allied armies approached, Elser was shot and cremated. Best and Stevens were liberated by U.S. forces that same month. The pair returned to Britain, where Stephens died in 1965 and Best in 1978. Schellenberg, who went on to become the overall head of Nazi foreign intelligence, settled in Italy after serving a light sentence imposed in a postwar trial. He died there in 1952. Naujocks escaped the war crimes hearings and died in Germany in 1960.

The Venlo Incident had widespread fallout that went beyond the obliteration of Britain’s station in the Netherlands and the Z Organization. It proved to be a long-lasting blow to genuine anti-Hitler activities inside Germany, affecting everything from internal efforts to outside support. The Führer also used the incident to justify his ultimate invasion of Holland, stating that Klop’s involvement proved Dutch neutrality was a sham.

Furthermore, not only were British-Dutch relations soured, but France’s suspicions were roused that London was trying to make a separate peace behind its back. Hitler’s prestige at home was increased by the Venlo Incident, and he was handed a tremendous propaganda victory, one that included tying the British to the attempt on his life.

Finally, MI-6 received one of the greatest embarrassments in its history. British Intelligence agents remained perplexed about the events at Venlo until November 22, when the Nazis revealed what had happened. Clearly, the incident at the Café Backus was a crucial opening battle in World War II’s intelligence war.