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The Venlo Incident: the Abduction of British Secret Agents on Dutch Territory

The Venlo Incident is, in my opinion, one of the more bizarre events in the build-up to the Second World War. While officially Germany and Britain were at war, no severe fighting had taken place yet. The Netherlands, in true Dutch fashion, was neutral and decided to attempt to stay neutral, just as they had during the First World War. So imagine the surprise when two senior British secret agents of the SIS, were abducted by a squad of German Sicherheitsdienst soldiers… on neutral Dutch territory.

Background

The Germans abducting two British SIS agents in the Netherlands requires some background information before we get to the abduction. What were those SIS agents doing in a neutral country in the first place? Well, Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the German Abwehr looked at the SIS as an organization the Germans should imitate if they wanted to be successful in their intelligence operations. Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of the Schutzstaffel, went even further. It is said he looked up to Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the man that founded the SIS, signing his documents with green ink, just as Cumming is rumoured to have done. This practice was quickly ceased once the real war broke out, however.

Sigismund P. Best (1885-1978)

As for the politics, the British side and its appeasement policies were very hopeful for German officers and generals to take a stand against Hitler. Keep him in check, if you will. The Germans, on the other hand, figured that Britain would broker for European peace once Poland had been invaded by the Germans and Soviet Union. These views, from both sides, reveal a structural problem within the mentality of both countries’ political leadership, to put it mildly. Now, obviously many other factors come into play, but a German officer committing treason by overthrowing Hitler was unthinkable, and the Brits weren’t going to give an inch, especially not under Churchill. If one reads Churchill’s biography that is one thing that becomes evident throughout his entire political career. The Brits were eager to recruit Germans that wanted to rise up against the Nazi regime, and they tried to get informants within the new totalitarian state in order to gather intelligence about the plans and operations the German high command wanted to embark upon. And that’s where our major intelligence debacle in Venlo, the Netherlands, comes into play.

Preparing the Abduction

The Netherlands, still being neutral on a continent that was gliding towards all-out war, hoped to maintain its neutral status just as it had in the First World War. This made it ideal for Britain and its intelligence service: they could easily reach the coast of the Netherlands via the sea, it was next to Germany and the infrastructure was among the best infrastructures of Europe. While these were the upsides, the Germans had a strong presence in the Netherlands as well. The SIS chief in the Netherlands, major Richard Stevens and his deputy, Captain Sigismund Payne Best were approached by a Dutch agent working for the SIS. This Dutch agent, agent F-479, was in touch with a German military resistance network, that could, with appropriate aid of the British, stage a coup and get rid of Hitler. Stevens and Payne Best were thrilled – these contacts were exactly the kind of contacts they needed in order to weaken Germany. Thing is, this Dutch agent was working for Walter Schellenberg, and these men were quite the opposite of what the SIS thought they were getting in touch with. 

Walter Schellenberg (1910-1952)

Schellenberg and another SS officer contacted Stevens and Best and let them set up a meeting in Venlo, close by the German border. The SIS men were to meet members of the German resistance there. Stevens and Best did not only set up a meeting but even offered Schellenberg the opportunity to escape to England. While Schellenberg did communicate this to his superiors, Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler, but these weren’t too keen on him going across the sea. Eventually, Schellenberg was given the order to arrest and bring in both SIS officers. The plan used to abduct these men wasn’t too cunning, the Germans planned a meeting near the Dutch-German border in Venlo, and during the meeting twelve SD men would rush over the barrier in a truck, abduct the two men, and be gone before anyone realized what had happened.

The Venlo Incident

On the ninth of November nineteen-thirty-nine, Walter Schellenberg entered the Café Backus near the border in the town of Venlo and ordered a coffee. It took over an hour and a half for the men he was supposed to meet, Stevens and Best, to show up. The amount of Dutch police and border security was increased. The British really did not want to take any risks. The SIS officers arrived in their Buick and were accompanied by a Dutch driver, J.F. Lemmens and the Dutch lieutenant Dirk Klop. Schellenberg walked outside to greet them, and it was exactly at that moment when a German truck carrying SD troops, under the command of Alfred Naujocks, full-speed, crashed through the Dutch border post. 

The SD truck sped towards the car of the men. Lieutenant Klop got out and fired several shots at the truck.  He missed and was subsequently shot by a German SS soldier. Chaos ensued and Schellenberg, surprisingly not bearing an arm, rushed to his own car. He was nearly shot by the SD as they thought he was Best. Yeah. Naujocks intervened, however, and Stevens, Best and Lemmens were, forced into the truck and abducted. The truck sped back across the border with high-speed, but not before two SD men carried the unconscious body of lieutenant Klop into the truck as well. He would not survive the day. The whole ordeal, in total, took only a few minutes, if that.

The British agents were transported to Berlin, where they were properly “debriefed” by the Sicherheitsdienst. They provided plenty of crucial and damaging information about British activities in Germany, the occupied territories and other countries in Europe. The infrastructure of the SIS itself, the way it operated and its staff was explained as well. Oh yeah and to top it all off, Stevens was actually carrying a list with covert SIS agents with him. All of these men were compromised. As for the Germans, the SS men that had carried out the mission were received personal gratitude by Hitler and were awarded Iron Crosses, not to mention the gigantic propaganda campaign the Germans built around the Venlo incident. The SIS on the other hand became very wary of communicating with the German resistance, and its entire network that was run more or less from the Netherlands was compromised. All in all, the Germans had won this one. Both Stevens and Best were interned in Dachau concentration camp, but did survive the war. They were liberated nearly 6 years later, in May 1945. Best eventually wrote his memoirs, which he titled the Venlo Incident, and on release, it became a bestseller. Now, besides this debacle, the SIS did have several successful missions during the Second World War, but that’s a story for another time.

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