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The Nazis’ violent abduction of two British spies in Holland in 1939 was a major embarrassment for Britain. But far more was at stake than red faces in Whitehall.

In 1935, a former British secret agent of World War I vintage, Capt. Sigismund Payne Best, was summoned back into service by his old comrade in military intelligence, Col. Claude Majoribanks Dansey. They had worked together from 1914 to 1918, running agents in and out of Germany from the neutral Netherlands. As their antiquated names suggest, the two men were drawn from the upper crust of British society, which traditionally provided the pipes-and-tweeds manpower of the United Kingdom’s secret services.

Best, a tall, snobbish, spats-and-monocle-wearing figure who spoke flawless Dutch and German, had remained in Holland after the First World War. He had married a Dutch woman and cultivated contacts among the Dutch upper class while setting up an import-export business specializing in pharmaceuticals. Dansey had stayed in the shadowy world of espionage in London, where he had risen to No. 2 at MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service.

By the mid-1930s, Dansey was preparing for the next war. Within MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service, he had started a parallel spy network, the Z Organization, that was chiefly composed of British businessmen working in Europe. Dansey asked Best, then 50, to be his “Z man” in Holland. The plan was for the Z Organization to run in parallel with MI6’s spy stations, which were based in the passport control offices (PCOs) of British embassies; if the embassies were evacuated or overrun in the coming war, or if the PCO network were compromised, the Z Organization would step into the breach.

Best jumped at the chance to return to espionage work, and took up his old task of running agents into Germany. Then, in August 1939, with war imminent, Dansey suddenly ordered him to join forces with MI6’s PCO network. The order, negating the Z Organization’s whole purpose, seemed inexplicable. But there was a reason—one that had to do more with Dansey’s self-promotion than with national security.

Dansey was angling to become the next “C,” as the head of MI6 is known. In August 1939 the current C—Adm. Hugh Sinclair— was dying of cancer, and the 60-year-old Dansey hoped that by bringing the Z Organization under MI6’s official umbrella, he could strengthen his claim on the position. But he had let his ambition cloud his spymaster’s judgment: MI6’s Dutch PCO network had been thoroughly penetrated by the spy service of the Nazi SS—Reinhard Heydrich’s deadly Sicherheitsdienst, or SD.

On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. The Netherlands, a neutral state bordering the Reich, was now on the front line of the espionage war. Acting on the orders of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Best embarked on a dangerous and, as it turned out, disastrous game: over the next few weeks, he opened talks with a group of Germans who claimed to be army officers plotting to bring Hitler down and end the war.

In reality, Best’s negotiating partners were top SD operatives playing a game orchestrated by Heydrich and authorized by the führer himself—a game that would end with an embarrassing, violent incident in the tiny Dutch border town of Venlo. That incident resulted in Best and another British spy spending the rest of the war in a series of Nazi concentration camps. It also destroyed Britain’s continental spy network in Europe and virtually eliminated any chance that Germany’s genuine anti-Nazi resistance would ever receive help from Britain.

The position of passport control officer (and MI6 station chief) in The Hague had, by 1937, seen a series of unfortunate appointments. One station chief shot himself after embezzling MI6 funds; his successor had, according to Best, gotten drunk at a dance and loudly accused Best of being a spy before vomiting in a woman’s lap. The new station chief, appointed via the old-boy network, was Maj. Richard Stevens, a chubby, 44-year-old former Indian Army officer with limited espionage experience.

The hapless Stevens had not realized there was a mole on his MI6 staff. John Hooper had not only been blackmailing Maj. H. E. Dalton, the late embezzling station chief, he had also sold his services to the Germans. And at least one other Dutch MI6 spy, Folkert Van Koutrik, was also working as a double agent. SD penetration was so thorough that a camera had been concealed in a canal barge moored opposite Stevens’s office, where it recorded the comings and goings of every visitor. By merging his Z Organization with this thoroughly contaminated nest of amateurs and traitors, Best had unwittingly compromised himself too.

Still, when Dansey ordered him to make contact with a mysterious German named Dr. Franz Fischer, assuring Best that Fischer was a trusted asset of the PCO network, Best was suspicious. “Although Dr. Franz was a likable little man,” Best wrote patronizingly in his memoir, The Venlo Incident, “he was most excitable and very far from a model of discretion.” Later Best admitted, “Some of the people with whom he consorted were certainly wrong ’uns.”

In fact, Fischer had fled Germany for France to himself escape a charge of embezzlement. In Paris, he had offered his services to Heydrich’s SD, suggesting that he betray German exiles in return for having the charge dropped. Just before the war, he was sent to The Hague to continue his dirty work. But Dansey believed Fischer, who claimed that he had contacts among Germany’s high command who were unhappy with Hitler, and insisted that Best continue to cultivate him.

“So,” wrote Best, “I had the damned fellow up to my office and spent a morning interrogating him.” The in-depth examination only hardened Best’s conviction that Dr. Franz was a Nazi agent. Just after the war broke out in September, he reported his conclusion to Dansey, recommending that Fischer be lured to London and imprisoned for the duration of the war.

His report was ignored. With Sinclair, the head of intelligence, now terminally ill (he was to die on November 4), the new power in MI6 was not Dansey—who had made too many enemies in his long career—but Sir Stewart Menzies, a smooth, fox-hunting old Etonian who wanted to cement his credentials as MI6’s next chief with Chamberlain. Menzies knew that although the prime minister had reluctantly declared war, he was at heart the same man who had stubbornly pursued the policy of appeasing “Herr Hitler,” ignoring every demonstration of the führer’s duplicity.

When Menzies told Chamberlain that their intelligence agent in the Netherlands had a direct channel to German generals plotting to depose Hitler, the prime minister ordered Best’s contact to be followed up. Chamberlain had grounds for his optimism: There was a real and widespread anti-Nazi opposition in Germany’s foreign office; in its military intelligence service, the Abwehr; and among the generals of the high command. Their representatives had secretly met Chamberlain before his surrender to Hitler at Munich the previous September and begged him in vain to resist the führer’s demands. Chamberlain had dismissed them then—but now he hoped they were still there.

In the opening weeks of the war, Best and Stevens held more meetings with Fischer in The Hague. He offered to introduce them to a Luftwaffe officer named Major Solms (the alias of an intelligence officer named Johannes Travaglio). At a hotel in Venlo, Best met Solms, whom he described as “a big, bluff, self-confident fellow, a Bavarian [who talked] as big as he looked.” As Best recalled, Solms told him “there was a big conspiracy to remove Hitler from power…. He could give me no details, as the ringleaders would only deal with me direct.” To prove his bona fides as a representative of the British government, Best arranged for the BBC to broadcast a previously agreed-upon news item in its German language service—which was heard in Berlin by a gleeful Heydrich.

Realizing that the British had swallowed his bait, Heydrich raised the ante, assigning his brightest operative to direct the scheme. Walter Schellenberg was a young lawyer who had hitched his star to the SD and was now heading its counterespionage section. On October 20, 1939, Schellenberg sent two agents posing as Wehrmacht officers to meet Best and Stevens at a house in the Dutch city of Arnhem, where the German agents attracted the attention of the Dutch police. Fortunately for the Germans, the friendly Dutch intelligence service had assigned the two British spies a “minder”: Lt. Dirk Klop, who accompanied them to the meeting and was able to put the police off the scent.

By now, Best had swallowed his original doubts and believed he was meeting genuine military officers. According to Best’s personal papers, now at Britain’s Imperial War Museum, and to the leading historian of British intelligence, Christopher Andrew, Chamberlain’s government had authorized Best to assure the Germans that once Hitler had been overthrown, peace could be made and Germany could hang on to all the territory that the Nazis had acquired prior to the Munich agreement, including the Rhineland and Austria.

For the next scheduled meeting, at The Hague on October 30, Schellenberg himself put in an appearance, under the guise of a “Major Schämmel.”

Best described his nemesis as having “a babyish sort of face, most of it…obliterated by the numerous scars of those sabre cuts so dear to German students.” As Schämmel, Schellenberg demanded a full statement of Britain’s real war aims—as opposed to its publicly stated objectives. Back in London, Chamberlain and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, obediently spent an hour the next day drawing up as conciliatory a statement as they could manage. But the rest of the members of the cabinet exploded with rage when they saw it.

Winston Churchill, the belligerent First Lord of the Admiralty, warned that, at a time when the British government was supposedly straining every sinew to wage war, engaging in secret peace talks with the enemy was both dangerous and duplicitous. Taken aback by the depth of opposition, Chamberlain and Halifax drafted another reply to the Germans saying that Hitler must be removed before any further progress could be made.

In Berlin, however, Heydrich had decided to bring the Dutch game to an abrupt end.

On November 7 and 8, Best, Stevens, and Klop traveled to Venlo for more frontier meetings with the man they knew as Schämmel. On both occasions, unknown to them, an SD snatch squad was lurking just a few yards over the border—but the number of Dutch guards in the vicinity prevented any abduction of the British agents. Undeterred, Schellenberg persuaded the British to return for a third meeting at Venlo on the following morning—November 9.

As soon as the spies’ car pulled up in the parking lot of Café Backus, a sleepy diner a few yards from the frontier, the SD struck. A startled Best, who was driving, looked up to find “a large open car drive up round the corner till our bumpers were touching. It seemed to be packed to overflowing with rough-looking men. Two were perched on the hood and were firing over our heads from sub-machine guns, others were standing up in the car and on the running-boards; all shouting and waving pistols. Four men jumped off almost before their car had stopped and rushed towards us shouting: ‘Hands up!’”

Lieutenant Klop reacted quickly, whipping out his pistol and firing twice into the Germans’ windshield before a bullet hit him in the head. He died a few hours later. With guns at their backs, Best and Stevens were marched across the border and “the black and white barrier closed behind us,” Best recalled. “We were in Nazi Germany.”

This textbook kidnapping was the work of Heydrich’s most trusted thug: Alfred Naujocks, the snatch squad’s commander. Dubbed by some as “the man who started the Second World War,” Naujocks had been responsible for an even dirtier trick on another frontier just a few weeks before. Seeking a publicly acceptable excuse for Germany’s invasion of Poland, Heydrich had come up with a plan in which Naujocks’s squad, dressed in Polish uniforms, seized a German radio station at Gleiwitz on the Polish border, gabbled a few phrases in Polish over the airwaves, and departed. As evidence of the “Polish provocation” they left behind the bodies of a few concentration camp inmates, who had been murdered for the occasion and dressed in Polish uniforms. A few hours later, German troops rolled across the border, and Hitler had his war.

Now Naujocks’s bold and illegal cross-border raid into the Netherlands threatened to unsettle the strange stalemate that was the Phony War. But on November 9, the night of the double abduction in Venlo, fate handed the Nazis a post-facto justification for their incursion into Dutch territory.

The date was the most sacred in the Nazi calendar—the anniversary of Hitler’s first power grab, 1923’s bloody, botched Munich Beer Hall putsch. Each year on November 9, Hitler would appear in the Bürgerbräukeller, where he had launched the putsch. Noting this regularity, Georg Elser, a local Leftist watchmaker angry at the Nazi oppression of workers’ rights and Hitler’s apparent intention to start another war, resolved to kill the führer.

Elser, acting entirely alone, had begun his preparations the previous November. With his watchmaking skills he assembled a sophisticated time bomb, packing it with dynamite stolen from a quarry. Over a period of 30 nights, he’d hidden in the beer hall toilets at closing time, then emerged to carry out his deadly work in the dark, chiseling out a niche for his bomb in the pillar behind the podium where Hitler always spoke. On November 9, 1939, the bomb was primed and in place, set to go off in the middle of Hitler’s annual speech. As occurred so often, however, Hitler had the devil’s luck.

The bomb exploded exactly as Elser had planned, shattering the pillar and bringing down an upper gallery on the podium, killing seven people and injuring scores more. Had Hitler been there, he certainly would have died. But he had left the hall unexpectedly just a few minutes earlier to return to Berlin.

Enraged by the attempt on his life, Hitler and SS overlord Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich’s boss, were convinced that the bomb was the work of the legendary British secret service, and that Elser was just their tool. Even after Elser demonstrated his bomb-making skills in captivity by making an exact replica of his bomb, Nazi leaders chose to believe London was behind the deed. Then Himmler had a brainstorm: Elser’s confession notwithstanding, the two British spies picked up at Venlo would admirably fill the role of assassination organizers.

In late November Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi propaganda machine swung into action. Radio and newspapers announced that the beer hall bomb had been the work of the cunning and fiendish British secret service. That is the likeliest reason why the lives of Best and Stevens—much to their own and their employers’ surprise—were carefully preserved through the long years of war: so they could be produced alongside Elser at a show trial after Germany’s anticipated victory, when the nefarious deeds of the British secret state would finally be exposed.

It remains unclear just how much information Best and Stevens gave away to their SD tormentors during the first days of intensive interrogation. In his 1950 autobiography Best is guarded, and implies that he kept his inquisitors at bay with skillful verbal dueling. But he and others concluded that the more inexperienced Stevens had cracked and told all that he knew. Incredibly, when captured, Stevens had been carelessly carrying a list of all of his agents—uncoded—in his pocket.

Back in London, MI6 continued to believe that Best’s negotiations had been with genuine German resisters who had been “discovered” by the SD. Schellenberg played a cruel Funkspiel (radio game) with British intelligence in which he continued to send messages purporting to come from the anti-Hitler plotters. Chamberlain even drafted another reply to one of them. After a fortnight, however, Schellenberg tired of the game. While Goebbels began his propaganda offensive blaming the British for the beer hall bomb, Schellenberg sent out a mocking message on November 22 using MI6’s own call sign to reveal that they had been duped.

The Venlo incident had many consequences—nearly all negative from the British perspective. It crippled MI6’s spy network in western Europe, since the service assumed that all its operatives had been betrayed or “burned,” and stood them down or withdrew them from the field. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he sidestepped the bungling MI6 under its new C, Menzies, to create his own intelligence agency: the Special Operations Executive.

The events at Venlo also inoculated Churchill permanently against having anything further to do with the German anti-Nazi opposition. Although he had met with German resistance emissaries before the war, Churchill now strictly forbade all such contacts. When the German conspirators planning the July 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler pleaded for British recognition and support, they were firmly rebuffed, and that lack of support undoubtedly prolonged the European war.

As for the two victims of Venlo, they, like Georg Elser, spent the rest of the war behind the wire at the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Isolated with other important prisoners in relatively comfortable conditions, the wily Best persuaded his guard to smuggle in small creature comforts and turn a blind eye when he contacted other inmates.

Eventually, as the war neared its end, Best and Stevens were lumped in with a convoy of more than 130 other VIPs, and driven south. Their companions in misery included former Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, former French premier Léon Blum, and a group of Germans who had fallen foul of the Nazis—among them financial wizard Hjalmar Schacht, industrialist Fritz Thyssen, and ex–chief of staff Gen. Franz Halder, as well as the families of the men who had conspired to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. As the rumble from the guns of the approaching American armies neared Dachau, one of those prisoners—Georg Elser—was taken from his cellblock by the SD’s representative at the camp. Made to kneel, the little watchmaker was dispatched with a shot to the back of the neck.

Best and Stevens, however, survived their long incarceration— to the surprise, and probably displeasure, of their former bosses Dansey and Menzies. More than five years after vanishing at Venlo, two shabby, emaciated ghosts emerged into a different world. Stevens, perhaps understandably given his bungling and blabbing, remained silent until his death from cancer in 1968. Best, who survived his younger colleague by 10 years, was less discreet. Not only did he demand, and receive, a more generous MI6 pension from Menzies than that originally offered after he hinted that he might spill some embarrassing beans, he also wrote a best-selling memoir giving a guarded account of his experience. Still, he did not detail Chamberlain’s role in the Venlo incident, or even allude to its truly global implications.

Britain’s National Archives at Kew in London’s leafy western suburbs, the River Thames idling nearby, is a peaceful place. Every so often, though, an explosion disturbs the tranquility. Historians are braced for just such a blast in 2015 when long-buried secret papers telling the inside story of the Venlo incident are finally scheduled for release.

Although such documents are “weeded” by official censors before they are released to the public, the papers will likely confirm beyond a doubt what is generally accepted as fact: that Best and Stevens were hapless pawns in a game far greater than they realized, and that, rather than mounting an all-out military effort in line with its declaration of war, the government of Neville Chamberlain, the arch-appeaser, was desperately— though secretly—pursuing peace with its enemies.

Indeed, the archives will almost certainly establish that Venlo gave the Germans a valuable propaganda boost ahead of their invasion of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg in May 1940. It will also mark Venlo as the point of the most dramatic shift in the history of Britain’s intelligence services. Before Venlo, the Nazi leaders held the British secret services in awe. It was even rumored that Heydrich signed his letters C in green ink in the supposed style of all MI6 chiefs. After Venlo, the Nazis determined they had been dealing with bumbling amateurs.

But their mistake was to underestimate MI6’s capacity for reinvention. Over the next few years MI6, spurred by Britain’s dire need for intelligence and with Venlo as its wake-up call, became the most effective spy service of the war, ushering in the death of the traditional gentleman spy, and the birth of a new breed of ruthless, ice-cold professionals.


Originally published in the November 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here