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World War II
A Narrative History


"The Venlo Incident"
(1939)
Capt. S. Payne Best
The Venlo Incident (1950)

Cafe Bacchus, where the ambush occurred

German agents lure a British intelligence agent, Capt. Payne Best, into a trap, using for bait a mysterious (and non-existent) general said to be the leader of a resistance movement in Nazi Germany. That the trap was sprung on neutral ground, in Holland, raised an uproar. Best was accompanied by fellow SIS officer Maj. Richard Stevens and a Dutch intelligence officer, Dirk Klop. Best and Stevens were imprisoned until the war's end....
[Nov. 1939] All the way down from The Hague we noticed that military precautions had been intensified and we had been held up at every road block and tank barrier. Even now, between Venlo and our cafe, we were stopped twice. The first time the sentry said something about having orders to allow no cars to pass, and although Klop showed him his authority, insisted that he must first go to the guard-room and speak to the N.C.O. in charge. Both Stevens and I, I believe, felt alike and hoped that he would come back with the news that we could go no farther; but in a few minutes he was with us: "Everything is all right. The N.C.O. had a message for me which had been phoned through from the office. Carry on."
The second sentry did not actually stop us, but only made signs that we should drive slowly. He was stationed at a bend in the road just before we entered the straight along which one had a view of the frontier. Somehow or other, it seemed to me that things looked different from what they had on previous days. Then I noticed that the German barrier across the road which had always been closed was now lifted; there seemed to be nothing between us and the enemy. My feeling of impending danger was very strong. Yet the scene was peaceful enough. No one was in sight except a German customs officer in uniform lounging along the road towards us and a little girl who was playing at ball with a big black dog in the middle of the road before the cafe.
I must have rather checked my speed, for Klop called out, "Go ahead, everything is quite all right." I felt rather a fool to be so nervous. I let the car drift slowly along to the front of the cafe on my left and then reversed into the car park on the side of the building farthest from the frontier. Schaemmel was standing on the veranda at the corner and made a sign which I took to mean that our bird was inside. I stopped the engine and Stevens got out on the right. My car had left-hand drive. I had just wriggled clear of the wheel and was following him out when there was a sudden noise of shouting and shooting. I looked up, and through the windscreen saw 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 top of the hood and were firing over our heads from sub-machine guns; others were standing up in the car and on the running board, all shouting and waving pistols. Four men jumped off almost before their car had stopped and rushed towards us shouting: "Hands up!"
I don't remember actually getting out of the car, but by the time the men reached us I was certainly standing next to Stevens, on his left. I heard him say, "Our number is up, Best." The last words we were to exchange for over five years. Then we were seized. Two men pointed their guns at our heads, the other two quickly handcuffed us.
I heard shots behind me on my right. I looked round and saw Klop. He must have crept out behind us under cover of the car door which had been left open. He was running diagonally away from us towards the road; running sideways in big bounds, firing at our captors as he ran. He looked graceful with both arms outstretched -- almost like a ballet dancer. I saw the windscreen of the German car splinter into a star, and then the four men standing in front of us started shooting, and after a few more steps Klop just seemed to crumple and collapse into a dark heap of clothes on the grass.
"Now, march!" shouted our captors, and prodding us in the small of our backs with their guns, they hurried us, with cries of "Hup! Hup! Hup!" along the road towards the frontier. As we passed the front of the cafe I saw my poor Jan held by the arms by two men who were frog-marching him along. It seemed to me that his chin was reddened as from a blow. Then we were across the border. The black and white barrier closed behind us. We were in Nazi Germany.
The Venlo Incident is out of print and available at ABEBOOKS
 The Venlo Incident
German counter-intelligence operation in the Netherlands which resulted in the kidnapping of two British MI6 officers on the Dutch-German border in November 1939. By the beginning of the war the MI6 netowrk in the Netherlands had been penetrated by a V-man of the Nazi security service, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD. This enabled the SD to dupe one of the network's officers, Captain Sigismund Payne Best, into believing that a group of conspirators against Hitler wished to negotiate peace. Best reported his meeting to London and Chamberlain, the prime minister, was among those who believed the contacts were genuine. At a subsequent meeting the head of the SD's counter-espionage section, Walter Schellenberg, posing as a conspirator called 'Major Schaemmel', requested British peace terms. When, on 31 October 1939, the British cabinet learned about these negotiations, some -- especially Churchill -- objected strongly, which delayed an agreed reply until 6 November. Schellenberg then chose a cafe between the Dutch and German customs barriers near Venlo to receive the reply, and during a third meeting there, on 9 November, Best and another MI6 officer, Major Richard Stevens, were kidnapped and a Dutch intelligence officer was killed.
Until Himmler chose to reveal what had happened, on 22 November, the British remained mystified as the 'conspirators' continued to communicate with MI6 in The Hague. The Germans then scored a propaganda success by accusing Best and Stevens of plotting Hitler's demise; and one of the reasons they gave for invading the Netherlands in May 1940 was the collusion of Dutch military intelligence with the British.
Payne and Best were sent to concentration camps. They survived the war but the information one of them revealed under interrogation severely compromised other European MI6 networks. The only grain of comfort the British subsequently gained from the incident was that Schellenberg missed a valuable opportunity to establish the kind of double-cross system later employed in Englandspiel and by the XX-committee.
Oxford Companion to World War II, Dear and Foot, eds. (1995)