Even dictators need excuses. Thus Hitler was in want of one, after in early October 1939 he had decided to invade the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. The excuse was needed not so much because Hitler shrank from the international conscience, but because he had to overcome the opposition of his own generals. Two incidents, the bomb outrage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich and the so-called Venlo incident in early November, gave Hitler the excuses he needed.
After the successful conclusion of the Polish campaign Hitler had turned his attention rapidly towards the west. On 9 October he informed his Supreme Command that if Britain and France were not willing to abandon their war declaration before long, he would start an offensive in the west.
Hitler's directives worried some of his generals into a new opposition only a year after the Führer had
allayed their grievances at the time or the Munich conference. The army commanders were worried by their
experiences during the Polish campaign. They had been terrified by the SS cruelties which had followed in the
wake of the Wehrmacht. As order-loving generals they feared that their own soldiers would be contaminated by what
they considered to be 'indiscipline'. Besides, the morale among the troops Hitler intended to use for the western
campaign was low according to the generals. An attack in the west could better wait until the Spring of 1940,
when weather conditions would be more suitable.
Hitler turned a deaf ear to all these objections. If the cruelties in Poland had been abhorrent, they would be even more so in the future, he told his generals. If morale among the troops was low, death sentences should be executed. Delay of the western offensive could not be tolerated. Otherwise Belgium and even Holland might give up their neutrality in favour of Britain. Or worse, they might even begin to doubt Germany's final Sieg.
Above all the German generals realised that an offensive in the west would definitely bring an end to the Phoney War and turn Germany's opponents into tough peace negotiators. A peace with honour that would uphold some of the territorial gains in the west would be jeopardised.
The opposition hardened into a beginning of conspiracy. Even before the Polish campaign General Franz Halder, the
Chief of the Army General Staff, and Colonel Hans Oster, in charge of the important Division Z
of the German military counterintelligence Abwehr had gone about with conspiratorial plans. After
Hitler had informed the Supreme Command of his desire for an offensive in the west, Halder took a
revolver with him to his meetings with Hitler for weeks in a row. Meanwhile Oster worked on a plan
to have Hitler killed by explosives, for which the diplomat Erich Kordt had volunteered as perpetrator.
Oster himself toured army headquarters in an effort to enlist support among the generals for his plot.
In the end however, these plans were not carried out. General Halder could not bring himself to fire the
redeeming shot. And on 11 November, two days after the Venlo incident, Oster told Kordt that he would or
could not deliver the explosives to him. As before and after the autumn of 1939 the German conspirators
were indecisive and passed along the buck. It was, as one of them said, as though they were waiting to be
ordered by Hitler himself to kill him.
The British government were well aware of the existence of widespread opposition among the top of the Germany army. During the autumn of 1939 the German opposition was throwing out feelers to the British government all over Europe. In October the Munich lawyer Josef Müller got in touch with the British through the Vatican with the connivance of Oster. Theodor Kordt. the younger brother of Erich, pursued similar objectives in Berne. The Swedish industrialist Birger Dahlerus tried to establish peace through an early form of shuttle diplomacy, partly performed on Dutch soil. And in early October the Dutch minister in Ankara, Dr Ph. C. Visser, was communicating peace proposals on the line of the Dahlerus proposals, made by Hitler's former Deputy Chancellor and then ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, to the British ambassador Sir Hugh KnatchbuIl-Hugessen.
But the British were not only at the receiving end of such ventures. One of the seemingly most promising contacts between British officials and German opposition circles had come about under the guidance of Colonel Claude Dansey, who in 1936 had started the so called Z-network within MI6. After the First World War MI6 had relied mainly on the Passport Control Offices (PCOs) as their local intelligence residencies. These had the advantage of diplomatic immunity, but the disadvantage of a high profile. It was for the latter reason that the Z-network had been raised. Its agents would do their jobs outside the lime lights, in which the PCOs had manoeuvred themselves.
Head of the Z-network in the Netherlands was Sigismund Payne Best. Best, who had studied in Munich between 1908 and 1913, had been a military intelligence officer in France, Belgium and the Netherlands during the First World War. He had then come to know Dansey, both of them serving in the Netherlands in 1917.
The Hague was an important place in the Z-network. Dansey had established the regional headquarters
of his network in the two neutral countries where he had worked himself during the First World War:
Holland and Switzerland.
Much information was to be gained from the Netherlands. Not only because
it was close to Germany, but also because the Dutch intelligence service GS III (Section III of the General
Staff), always out of money, had made an arrangement with foreign agencies whereby they were free to gather
information in the Netherlands as long as they stayed within the law, did not harm other agents and -
most important of all - shared their intelligence with GS III.
This system of intelligence sharing had been established by the Dutch during the First World War. At that time it had seemed to be a more rewarding course to follow than forbidding all forms of espionage. Besides, as long as all interested parties were entitled to the same arrangements, it fitted in well with the Dutch policy of neutrality. For several years the Netherlands had been a true clearing house for intelligence. Until about 1930 the 'system', as it was called, worked.
It had not bothered the Dutch unduly that the Russians had dropped out of their intelligence sharing system after the Russian Revolution. But it did matter that from the early 1930's the Germans were no longer willing to share their secrets with the Dutch. The British were endangering the system in a different way. They started to abuse it by raise flag recruiting. They approached people telling them that they would be working for GS III, but since GS III did not have the money to pay them, the British would provide it. And to a certain extent this was not even untrue. When for instance the Czechs offered their secret services to the Dutch after Czechoslovakia had been occupied by Hitler's troops, GS III did not have the means to accept the offer, but passed it on to the PCO on the condition that the British would share the intelligence profits with them.
More worrying was that the system became a drag on GS III because of the disfunctioning of the PCO in The Hague. During the thirties it was said in The Hague that even a child would have no trouble in pinpointing the PCO at the Nieuwe Parklaan 57 as the regional British intelligence centre. The Hague had the largest PCO on the Continent next to Paris. Eleven men working at the PCO seemed a little extravagant for a country of which the citizens did not need visas to travel to Britain.
The PCO in the Dutch royal residence had experienced quite some difficulties since 1936. On 4 September 1936 Major Hugh Reginald Dalton, head of the local PCO, had committed suicide after he had become enmeshed in embezzlement and had been blackmailed by a member of his own staff, John Hooper. His successor Monty R. Chidson was not much of a success either. Being no teetotaller he was often indiscrete. According to Best, when he first met him at a legation ball in The Hague, the latter welcomed him with shouts of 'Hallo, here is old Best, the arch spy. I know all about you.' When the very competent representative of the French Deuxiéme Bureau also gave voice to his objections against his British counterpart, Chidson's stomach complaints came in handy, and he was ordered back to London, only months after he had arrived in Holland.
Chidson was replaced by Major Richard Henry Stevens, who had won his spurs as an intelligence officer in the Indian Army
on the Northwestern frontier. According to Best Stevens was only abiding the moment of his promotion to lieutenant-colonel.
Anyway, Stevens' appointment was again not a lucky one. He himself thought he was the wrong man at the wrong place.
His heart and mind were in India. He interpreted intelligence gathering in terms of boyish romanticism, and disguise
and make up seemed to him ends in themselves.
The main recruiter of the PCO in The Hague was a former Dutch policeman, called Adrianus J. J. Vrinten. In early 1938 he had recruited the young Folkert Arie van Koutrik to shadow German security suspects. Van Koutrik was ordered to observe a dwelling in Wassenaar, a suburb of The Hague, where Richard Protze, an old Abwehr hand and a personal friend of Abwehr chief Canaris, lived in lodgings. In the latter part of 1938 however Protze detected the observation and then turned Van Koutrik by playing on his fears of the lives of his wife's relatives in Germany and his need of money. This had ruinous consequences. Van Koutrik not only informed Protze of German agents, whose cover had been blown by the British, but due to his relations with Vrinten and others lie revealed the names of Germans, who worked for Harry H. Hendricks, Stevens' deputy. Undoubtedly the most important name he gave away was that of the German legation counsellor in The Hague, Wolfgang zu Putlitz. Furthermore Van Koutrik helped Protze to identify the visitors of the PCO, who had been filmed from a barge opposite of the Nieuwe Parklaan 57.
Another disaster for the PCO in The Hague was effected by John Hooper. After his dismissal because of his blackmailing practices he began to work for the Abwehr. The hardest blow he inflicted upon his former employers was giving away the identity of a highly prized informer on important German naval secrets, the naval engineering consultant Otto Krueger.
Stevens' outfit drove GS III desperate. His agents, while collaborating with GS IIIA (Foreign Intelligence), quite often ran into trouble with GS IIIB (Internal Security) through their clumsy operations. it was however the wish of the Dutch government to maintain the system of intelligence sharing, if not for its profits then for its semblance of neutrality.
If the Z-network was meant to be more secret than the PCO's this intention was only partially realised in the Netherlands.
After his demobilisation in 1919 Best had returned to Holland, where he and his partner in business and intelligence P N van der Willik set up a British firm, called the Continental Trade Service, also called Pharmisan. It was both a trading company, mainly in pharmaceutical products, and a consultancy agency for British businessmen. Best's cover was however a very thin one. Although married to a Dutch wife, Best's distinguished tall figure, his spats and his monocle made him in the eyes of many Dutchmen the prototype of a British spy. At times Best would think it safe to confide that this presumption was wholly justified.
With the PCO penetrated and Best at least compromised things were made worse by an order from London on 3 September 1939. When Germany invaded Poland Dansey moved the Headquarters from London to Paris and Zurich. On 3 September, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Stevens was instructed to place himself in touch with Payne Best. If Best required so, Stevens should put his means of communication and money at Best's disposal. He was warned not to interfere with Best's activities. Although no complete amalgamation was ordered, Dansey had instructed Best already weeks before that in case of war he would have to join hands with Stevens. It did not take long before Van Koutrik was reporting to Protze on the Z-network.
Another order that was to have ruinous effects was given to the German Dr Franz Fischer through a telephone call from London in the evening of 30 August. Fischer was instructed to await a message from a pharmaceutical firm in The Hague. The next day Best called Fischer and told him to come to Pharmisan.
Franz Fischer was a German businessman, who had just turned 53. In January 1935 he had fled Germany, ostensibly for political reasons, in fact because he was charged with embezzlement. After staving in Switzerland for a few months he went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Dr Karl Spiecker.
Spiecker had been a spokesman of both the German Foreign Office and the German government in the twenties. In the early thirties he had been in the service of the Ministry of the Interior as the Special Commissioner for the Fight against Nazism. After Hitler's seizure of power he emigrated to France, where at the turn of 1937/1938 he set up the German Freedom Party, an organisation of émigrés, which considered itself the foreign counterpart of a German conspiratorial opposition. The Freedom Party published the so-called Deutsche Freiheitsbriefe, which were smuggled into Germany. These leaflets were subsidised by the French government. From January 1938 on a similar British monthly, Das Wahre Deutschland, was published. Spiecker was in touch with both the Deuxiéme Bureau and Ml 6. Working for Spiecker Fischer visited London several times, where he was brought into contact with the former editor of the Times, Wickham Steed. who was providing the Foreign Office with the intelligence reports on Germany.
Fischer became also Spiecker's liaison with the opposition in Germany, especially with the generals Von Fritsch, Von Wietersheim
and Von Rundstedt. Initially Spiecker used a cut-out between himself and the generals by the name of Major Wagner. It is almost
certain that this was Otto Wagner, a personal friend of Canaris, who had been taken into the Abwehr after he had become
embroiled with Hitler's NSDAP and SA.
At the end of 1937 however Johannes Travaglio, a German major working in Division I Luft (Air Reconnaissance) of the Abwehr General Command at Stuttgart, made overtures to Fischer and soon replaced Wagner as Fischer's principal liaison with the German opposition. Travaglio's office was part of Abwehr's Division I, which was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Pieckenbrock, who was Canaris' closest collaborator and best friend.
We do not know, why Travaglio replaced Wagner as a cut-out. If the connection with Spiecker was a hundred percent Abwehr scheme, one would have expected Wagner's Division III (Counter-intelligence) to continue the game with Spiecker instead of having an Air Reconnaissance officer as liaison. If Wagner and Travaglio were true representatives of the opposition in the German army, as they claimed to be, the replacement might have been intended to remove the conspiratorial contacts from Canaris' inner circle somewhat further to the periphery of his organisation.
Shortly after this replacement, in January 1938, Fischer established contact between Travaglio and Spiecker in the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam, where Travaglio, who used the alias 'Solms', promised Spiecker to help him by distributing the Deutsche Freiheitsbriefe in Germany. Thereafter Travaglio and Spiecker kept in touch, meeting each other in Rotterdam and The Hague.
Fischer arranged another meeting for Travaglio in September 1938. The German émigré called upon the Dutchman Brijnen van Houten, to meet Travaglio. Brijnen was the secretary of a Dutch organisation of anti-Nazi intellectuals, who used his position as a cover for his private intelligence service directed against Hitler Germany. Brijnen said that he was too busy, but sent two representatives, Johan Anton Lodewijk and Willem Verkade. Travaglio asked the Dutchmen to print leaflets that would stir up the workers in the Ruhr area against Hitler. The leaflets would be dropped by plane: money was no problem. Lodewijk always remained in doubt as to the true intentions of Fischer and Travaglio, leaning to the view that their plans might have been clumsy, but were nevertheless genuine. Brijnen however thought it was pure provocation. It only needed that we have to put 'Printed in Holland' on the leaflets, he thought.
He warned the head of GS IIIB and several foreign intelligence organisations, that were operating in Holland, against Fischer and Travaglio. He even risked himself inside the PCO, which he considered to be no safe place, to caution Stevens. This was all told by Brijnen before a Parliamentary Committee in he late forties. In his recently published memoirs however Brijnen tells hat the idea of dropping leaflets above the Ruhr area was first mentioned to him by British intelligence circles during a visit to London in the Spring of 1938. The plan had apparently been carried out, too.
In June 1938 Fischer had to leave Paris after a general clean-up among German émigrés. He then moved to Amsterdam where he lived in a hotel for émigrés until the Spring of 1939, when he put up with Paul Schreiber and his wife Susanne Menzel in The Hague, two other émigrés from Germany.
Shortly after Fischer had moved to Amsterdam Travaglio warned him that Hitler had set his mind on occupying Sudetenland. He asked Fischer to do all he could to prevent this from happening. Fischer passed his information to Spiecker and to Wickham Steed. Again on 27 August 1939 Fischer received a telegram from Travaglio with the message 'sofort Zimmer bestellen' ('book a room now'), the previously agreed code for a German attack on Poland, which he passed on to Wickham Steed.
So by warning London twice of an impending attack by Hitler's troops Fischer and Travaglio had established their bona fides with the British as prize agents. And so it happened that only a few days after London had received Fischer's message and even before the German attack on Poland Dansey's number 2, Kenneth Cohen, phoned Best and asked him to get in touch with Fischer since MI6 would probably be unable to communicate with this agent in the near future. Best was to ask confirmation from Fischer as to the time, when the information on the invasion of Poland had reached him, and furthermore he should have Fischer arrange a meeting with 'Solms'.
What MI6 did not know, was that by that time Fischer was not only working for the British, but also as agent F479 for the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Security Service of Hitler's SS. In the Spring of 1937 Fischer had been approached by SS-Standartenführer Boehme, who worked in Division III (Counterintelligence) of the SD Headquarters. Boehme had promised the homesick Fischer a lenient treatment of his embezzlement case if he were to work for the SD for a while. Thereupon Fischer had written political reports and reports on the German émigrés in Paris and Amsterdam. However, Fischer's information had been of a rather low quality.
When Boehme had to divest himself of some files in early 1939 he passed the fruitless Fischer-file to Helmut Knochen. Knochen was less patient with F479 than his predecessor. He ordered Fischer to Berlin and put the pressure on him during meetings in Paris and Amsterdam. Then at a meeting near the Dutch-German border in August 1939 Knochen made it clear to Fischer that it was time to come up with a substantial connection, that would be of counterintelligence interest.
Upon Best's request Fischer asked Travaglio to come to the border town Venlo in the southern part of the Netherlands.
When Travaglio arrived some day in September he had a phone call from Fischer, saying that this time he could not come
himself, but that Travaglio would find a trustworthy friend in Hotel Wilhelmina. Best, accompanied by one of his Dutch
collaborators, was waiting there for Travaglio. But Best was not impressed by the German's appearance. He found him
'a big bluff, self-confident fellow, a Bavarian and inclined to talk as big as he looked'. Best asked 'Solms'
for some intelligence data. Travaglio. probably already out of balance because of the sudden arrangements Fischer
had made for this meeting, reacted hesitatingly. Conspiracy was one thing, treachery another. Besides,
Travaglio was not prepared to act without consulting his chief. Best concluded, that Travaglio could be
little more than an errand boy for more important people in the background.
After their meeting Best was in doubt. He did not like the excitable Fischer and now 'Solms' had turned out to be a disappointment, too. Best informed Broad way of his suspicions. But MI6 headquarters were in a state of disarray. Sir Hugh Sinclair ('C') was in the final stage of cancer.
When he died on 4 November there was a war of succession raging in the headquarters of MI6. Dansey, who on several occasions had spoken highly of Fischer to Best, was on the Continent. It was his number 1, Kenneth Cohen, who upon guidance from Dansey, instructed Best to pursue the matter. Major Haddon Hall was sent to see Best and to tell him that Fischer and 'Solms' had given valuable information over a long time and were considered to be reliable by both Spiecker and Dansey. Best had to rely on Stevens for his communications. And although Stevens had been informed of Brijnen's suspicions of Fischer, he had either forgotten all about it or he must have been impressed by Broadway's evaluation of the German émigré.
A week after his first meeting with Travaglio Best had a second one. This time 'Solms' seemed much more at ease. He answered some questions by Best on technical air force matters and informed him of a big conspiracy that was on to remove Hitler from power. Some of the highest ranking German officers were involved in it. Since Travaglio though it too dangerous to meet in Holland all the time, it was agreed upon to exchange code messages through Fischer.
Shortly thereafter Best received a message from 'Solms', encoded as agreed, that since the Gestapo was on his tail, he had to lie low for a while. After the war Walther Müller, who was in charge of the SD-section Cologne in 1939, said that he had been told at that time, that the SD had discovered that a German officer had been in touch with the British Secret Service. After his confrontation with the SD the officer had realised that he had gone too far on a treacherous course and had offered to make up for his default by writing a letter in his own handwriting, stating that he was sick and that he had come under suspicion of the Gestapo, so that he could not come to Holland for a while. Fischer said likewise after the war that Travaglio had gone through some trouble at the time of the Venlo incident.
In his book on the Venlo incident Best mentions, that, while in Dachau, the imprisoned SS 'medical expert'
doctor Sigismund Rascher told him that the SD had got on the track of Best after the arrest of 'Solms'. But,
as Best wrote to Sinclair's successor, Sir Stewart Menzies, he had inserted this story into his book only
'as an additional coat of whitewash on Claude (Dansey)'s band of crooks'. Travaglio himself, when
interviewed after the war, was rather vague on the whole episode.
The question, whether at his two meetings with Best, Travaglio was acting as a conspirator against Hitler or as a schemer against MI6, will probably never be solved. If from the beginning Fischer's and Travaglio contacts with Best have been part of a co-ordinate Abwehr-SD-effort, as some have maintained, it has been one of the very rare instances of cooperation between the Abwehr and the SD. Most of the time the two organizations were fighting each other as much as they counteracted foreign intelligence.
It is certain however that after the two meetings with Travaglio things took a turn for the worse for Best. Fischer phoned Knochen and told him that this time he was finally on to something big. We do not know what made Fischer call the SD man. Was he impressed by the German campaign in Poland? Did he yield to Knochen's pressure? Was he under the impression that the German opposition of Travaglio and his friends had been compromised? Anyway, from now on the SD took control of the case. Fischer was told to pursue his contacts with Best.
At about the same time, when Best had received Travaglio message about his 'temporary' withdrawal, Best got
an encoded message from 'Solms', asking to have a message broadcast by the BBC, so that the conspirators could
be sure about Best's standing with the British authorities. Probably the SD wanted to be certain that
Fischer had set them on the right track. The message was broadcast twice in the German News Bulletin of
the BBC on 11 October.
In the latter part of September the case was taken off Knochen's hands. Reinhardt Heydrich, the second most powerful man in the SS hierarchy who had just come in to command the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, had ordered Himmler's young and ambitious protégé Walter Schellenberg to study German counter-intelligence in the western part of Germany, since he was about to become head of Bureau IVE (Counter-intelligence) of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. It was then that Schellenberg discovered the Fischer file, which looked very promising to him, and asked Heydrich to be allowed to pursue the matter as a Spiel. Heydrich consented. It would be a good thing for the 29-year-old lawyer, who would soon be in such a responsible position, to have some real life experience first.
For the different Germans, who were in the know of the game as it now developed, it might have meant different things. Hitler, who was kept informed of it, might have hoped, that sooner or later Dutch neutrality would be compromised by it. Himmler, continually on the outlook for a peace settlement with Britain, might have had hopes that the contacts with MI6 would lead to a compromise, whereafter the Soviet Union, in Himmler's mind Germany's real enemy, could be faced with confidence. To Schellenberg the game meant gathering information about British intelligence activities in Germany. By studying the files he had become especially interested in a so-called 'observer corps' the British were running against the German Luftwaffe. What Schellenberg expected from his game were names, as many names as possible of agents working for MI6.
To Heydrich, who liked intelligence games for the sake of it, the Spiel with Best and Stevens might have meant anything. But in the light of his continuous efforts to get at Canaris' throat, he might have hoped for revelations about a connection between British officials and a German opposition, which was rooted in Wehrmacht circles.
On the British side there were changes in personnel, too. After Fischer had told Best that he could probably arrange a meeting with to share his responsibilities with Stevens, because the case was becoming too heavy. They decided that, if talks were to continue on Dutch territory, they would need the approval of the head of GS III, General Van Oorschot, since the Dutch had closed the border areas after they had mobilised. On the morning of 18 or 19 October they placed their case before Van Oorschot, showing him an instruction by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
General Van Oorschot however was not willing to provide the laissez passer Best and Stevens asked for. Instead he detailed a young officer of GS IIIA, Lieutenant Dirk Klop, to accompany them during their meetings with the Germans and to assure them free passage. The Dutchman would only listen in to the talks and report to Van Oorschot. Contrary to Best's wishes Stevens, acting in line with the long standing traditions of the PCO and GS III, informed General Van Oorschot elaborately about the proceedings and about the possibility of coming to a peace settlement with elements within the Germany army.
Van Oorschot's role in the Venlo incident has been the subject of much dispute. On the one hand, one could say that Van Oorschot was having once more a free ride with the British. Besides, his own government was very much in favour of a peace settlement, fearing that only the Bolsheviks would profit from a major European war. But were the proceedings in line with the Dutch policy of neutrality? Of course. Van Oorschot would later say, peace talks are no breach of neutrality. But with hindsight it is hard to imagine how peace could have been brought about by legal means in Germany in the Autumn of 1939. But Van Oorschot might have been hampered by his view of German officers. In this view conspiracy and treachery were not to be expected within the German army. For the same reason the Dutch top brass would find it hard to believe, when from 9 October onward the Dutch military attaché in Berlin, Sas, gave warnings of an impending German attack on Holland, alleging they came, as they did, from a source high up in the German command.
So Van Oorschot was sceptical about the talks. Probably because GS III had a low opinion of the PCO and
Van Oorschot personally took a low view of Best, he thought the whole thing either worthless or trivial.
GS III being rather autonomous, Van Oorschot and the head of GS IIIA, Van de Plassche, felt only a slight urge to inform the Supreme Commander of the Dutch Army and Navy and did so only casually.
Others have given a different explanation for Van Oorschot's behaviour. Van Oorschot was rather pro-British in his views regarding his position as chief of an intelligence agency of a neutral country He was married to a British wife, he was president of the Netherlands-English Society, he appeared on the PCO's list of agents as number 930 and he was, according to one of the top men of GS III, Roelofsen, 'mighty pro-allied'. If all this determined Van Oorschot's behaviour, he had every reason not to tell the Dutch Cabinet about the proceedings of Best and Stevens, since the recently inaugurated Prime Minister De Geer had ritualised the Dutch policy of neutrality into a charm. In the words of Roelofsen: 'If De Geer would have been told about this, he would have wetted his pants.'
On 13 October Stevens received a cable from London that he and Best were to carry on with Fischer's relations in Germany. A meeting was set for 21 October at Dinxperloo, where, as Fischer promised, the German General Von Wietersheim, who was opposed to Hitler, would come to see them.
On 21 October Best, Stevens, Fischer and Klop drove to Zutphen. It was agreed that Klop, who had lived in Canada for five years, would pass as an Englishman by the name of Captain Coppens, so that Dutch neutrality would not be endangered. Best and Stevens waited at a cafe in Zutphen, while Klop and Fischer went to the frontier to fetch the general. It took hours before Best and Stevens heard again from Klop. He phoned to tell that finally not the promised general but two other Germans had arrived. They were named Captain Von Seydlitz and Lieutenant Grosch. In reality they were the SD men Von Salisch and Bernhard Christensen. Although we do not know this for sure, it might have been possible for them, while Klop was away, to make it crystal clear to Fischer that since he had relatives in Germany he better not spoil the game, a kind of pressure which had been applied on Germans along the Dutch-German frontier before.
When Klop returned with the three Germans they seemed to be in a nervous state. Best drove them to another cafe in the country. But Fischer was out of his wits. As Best wrote in his book, 'He was really quite a nuisance as he kept running round the table from one to another of us, making all sorts of absurd remarks and interrupting our attempts to interrogate our guests.' This behaviour and the international composition of the part drew the attention of some soldiers in the care. Against the background of the German threat there was quite a spy scare among the Dutch at that time.
Therefore Best drove his companions and guests to Arnhem, where they could confer undisturbed at the house of some friends. Very soon the house was surrounded by police, who had been warned by the soldiers. Klop settled the matter, but the meeting had been ruined. The Germans wanted to return to their country as soon as possible. The only result of the meeting was the promise by 'Von Seydlitz' and 'Grosch', that their general would come a next time. According to the internal SD account of the meeting Best and Stevens stated that the Chamberlain government intended to develop a European League of States under the leadership of England with a front against Bolshevism. This idea might seem far-fetched but the entry on 13 November in the diary of the Under Secretary of State Sir Alexander Cadogan shows that there were indeed thoughts being developed in the Foreign Office of taking over the Anti-Comintern Pact 'and thereby roping in Italy, Japan and Spain'.
From their side the Germans confirmed the existence of a conspiracy. After the talks the German officers were brought back to the frontier by Klop. Fischer, who said he felt sick, returned home by train. His part was over.
When Klop reported verbally to Van Oorschot, the Dutch General felt justified in his doubts about the prospects of the conversations. He told Klop to convey his impression that nothing would come out of such meetings to Stevens and ordered Klop to quit. The young lieutenant replied however that another meeting had already been set. Thereupon Van Oorschot gave his assent to Klop for one more meeting,
The meeting took place on 30 October. This time only Klop went to the frontier to fetch the Germans and then brought them to Best's office in The Hague. With him were three Germans. One was Grosch, who introduced the other two as Schaemmel and Colonel Martini. Schaemmel was none other than Schellenberg, who was ambitious enough to enter into this dare-devil-scheme. Colonel Martini was an older friend of his. Max de Crinis, head of the psychiatric division of the Berlin Charité Hospital. He acted as the right hand of the 'general'.
Gathered in Best's office the men entered into substantial peace talks. Schellenberg and his men told that Hitler would be made prisoner and then a military junta would be termed of which Hitler would only be the nominal head. But before this plan would be carried out, the German conspirators wanted to know, whether Britain and France were in favour of the peace proposals. Best and Stevens had by that time instructions at their disposal for peace talks, which had been drafted by Cadogan and had been approved by Prime Minister Sir Neville Chamberlain, but were unknown outside the small circle of the PM, the Foreign Office and the top of MI6.
In the afternoon of 30 October the British and the German parties in Best's office reached an agreement on a so-called 'pan European policy' in the form of a united anti-Bolshevik front. But Best and Stevens stipulated that before anything else there was to be a change of government in Germany. The Germans were told that London would now have to consider the protocol, which the parties in Best's office had drafted. Although the British records pertaining to the Venlo incident remain closed till 2015, we do have some indication of the contents of the proposed settlement. It was probably somewhat along the following lines: plebiscites in the Sudeten and Danzig; the evacuation by the Germans of Poland and the remainder of Czechoslovakia; and the return of its former colonies to Germany. As to Austria, possible economic demands and the position of the Jews in Germany there is less certainty.
After the talks had ended Best arranged a copious dinner. The Germans stayed overnight with Best's partner Van der Willik. When they left the next morning, Stevens provided them with a wireless transmitter to facilitate communications. The Germans took the set to Düsseldorf, where they tried to operate it from a safe house, which had become their operational base. It soon turned out that the British wireless was too weak, but after the SD had replaced it by a stronger German one, communications started on 2 November Lord Halifax and the PM told the War Cabinet for the first time of the contacts with the German 'opposition' and met with disapproval. Especially Sir Winston Churchill, who had recently been brought into the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, protested. suspecting that Halifax and Chamberlain were returning to an appeasement course. It took Halifax till 6 November to soothe Churchill. Until that time Best and Stevens had to be noncommittal in their communications with the Germans. When on 6 November word was finally received from London, the text to be communicated to the Germans was hardly more binding.
Meanwhile the German setting in which the game with Best and Stevens took place was changing. Hitler, who for a while had given free play to several German factions to fathom the possibilities for a peace settlement, was becoming annoyed with signs, that were reaching him. that a British condition for peace was. his own removal from power. It was time to show the world that there was no real opposition in Germany against the Führer. Hitler also sensed that the hopes for a peace settlement were undermining his plans for an offensive in the west, which he had set for 12 November. On 5 November the Army Commander-in-Chief General Walter von Brauchitsch tried to make Hitler change his mind. It only hardened Hitler in his resolve.
Himmler had enough political instinct to understand that the contacts through Best and Stevens would now have to
be sacrificed. Heydrich for his part was becoming worried about the risks Himmler's Benjamin Schellenberg was taking.
He realised that the British would become impatient, if Von Wietersheim would not soon appear and the promised
conspiracy would not materialise. On 5 November or soon afterwards Heydrich decided that Best and Stevens had
to be kidnapped, preferably on German territory, if necessary from Dutch soil.
A commando group was formed under the leadership of Alfred Naujocks. who in spite of his young age (he had just turned 28) had a long experience in doing the Nazi's dirty jobs and had staged the so-called 'Polish attack' on the German radio station at Gleiwitz. The only person on the German side, who seems to have disliked the disruption of the game, was Schellenberg. He had already a German industrialist in reserve to act as the long awaited general. But Schellenberg realised that he could not counteract the will of the three H's, Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich.
A new meeting between Best and Stevens and the so-called German opposition had been set for 7 November. The Germans had asked for a meeting near the border. Klop chose a place along the road from Kaldenkirchen to Venlo, only yards away from the frontier, Cafe Backus in the so-called no-man's land beyond the Dutch custom-house. Unknown to Van Oorschot Klop continued to accompany Best and Stevens. After the war Van Oorschot told an enquiry committee of the Dutch Parliament that the most likely explanation for the continuation of Klop's assistance to Best and Stevens was that one of his subordinates would have known more about this. He suggested the committee interview Van de Plassche, the head of GS IIIA, on this subject. Certainly Van de Plassche was a man, who did not like to share information with his superior, and Van Oorschot was not the type of person, who easily queried the actions of his subordinates. But although Van de Plassche clearly indicated to the committee that he had considered Klop's assistance to Best and Stevens his business, the committee did not interview him specifically on this point.
Anyhow, on 7 November Klop, Stevens and Best met 'Schaemmel' and 'Grosch' in Cafe Backus. The British officers gave the Germans the answers which London had sent off the day before. Schellenberg and his companion seemed to be disappointed by the answers, but they would pass them on to their chief. They promised that the next day their general would make his appearance. He would even be willing to fly to London. Best and Stevens arranged to have a plane waiting at Schiphol Airport the next day.
That following day Naujocks was to spy out the land. This meant that Schellenberg had to cross the border once more with a non-committal reply. Were the British officers going to swallow this? On 7 November Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and King Leopold of the Belgians had made an appeal for peace as a last resort against Hitler's intended offensive on 12 November, of which the Dutch government had been forewarned by their military attaché in Berlin, Sas, and by the British minister to the Netherlands, Sir Neville Bland. When on the morning of 8 November Schellenberg read about the peace appeal in his newspaper, he knew what to tell his British counterparts, that afternoon in Cafe Backus. Hitler, he told them, had ordered a big staff meeting to consider the peace appeal and since the general had to attend this meeting, he was unable to come. But to keep his British friends satisfied, Schellenberg now informed them that the attempt against Hitler would take place on 11 November, ironically the same day as had been set by the real plotters Oster and Kordt to kill Hitler. 9 November, Schellenberg told Best and Stevens, would be the last chance for a meeting between the British and the general.
On the morning of 9 November Best, who did not feel like driving once more to and from Venlo all by himself, asked the Dutch garage owner Jan Lemmens, who since 1925 had been driving for Best on and off, to accompany himself, Stevens and Klop so that he might drive Best's red Ford Lincoln Zephyr back to The Hague.
That morning brought quite some excitement. First there arrived a message from the German 'opposition' which took some time decoding and then turned out to be of small importance. Further the newspapers carried the story that the night before an attempt had been made on Hitler's life by a bomb outrage at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, where Hitler had attended the meeting of his Old Party Comrades in commemoration of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. However, Hitler had left earlier than in former years and had had a narrow escape. Seven persons were killed and 63 wounded. Had their conspirators anything to do with this outrage. Best and Stevens wondered.
When Klop visited his office before leaving The Hague, there was quite some upheaval because of the imminent attack by German troops. The day before Sas had returned to Holland to inform his government personally about this threat, not knowing that on 7 November Hitler had postponed the attack from 12 till 15 November. When Klop saw his former tutor, Henri Koot, who was in charge of GS IIIC (Codes and Censorship), he told him about the secret talks he would attend that afternoon. Klop asked Koot if he could listen in to German wireless communications, because he expected the German negotiators to communicate the results of their talks with their associates as he knew they had done before. When Koot asked Klop, which code system would be used, his former pupil answered that this would be the Playfair system in its simplest form. Koot was frightened. He told Klop, that such secret talks were not to be communicated by such a gawkish code. The Germans, whom Klop would meet. must know better than that. Therefore Koot warned Klop that he had to be prepared for either a provocation or an ambush.
Stevens was warned, too, when he told the Czech intelligence man Alois Frank, about the forthcoming meeting. Risking oneself so close to the frontier would amount to suicide, Stevens was cautioned by his Czech colleague. Frank had reason to speak like this. The Dutch-German frontier had been violated repeatedly during the thirties by German officials, who did not hesitate to use their pistols to catch opponents of the Hitler regime. Others had been lured to German towns just across the border and had then been seized and sentenced.
Others had warned Stevens, too. But the PCO station chief had made light of the warnings. According to Dutch intelligence men he was completely won over by Best who exploited Stevens' romantic feelings.
Were they not about to play a major role in world history? The whole affair seemed to be just the thing for Stevens: all he had to do was to go near the frontier, talk a little, and a war would be off.
And Best? Had not Best himself been kidnapped from his Dutch home by German agents during the First World War, where after he was only saved through the alertness of his butler and the Dutch police? But Best relied on Klop, who had assured him that he would take precautions near the frontier, and on his old-fashioned idea, that if a Spiel was being played by the Germans the star actors would refrain from kidnapping each other. Besides, it might be true that Cafe Backus was only yards away from the frontier, but during the First World War Best had been frequenting a cafe that was half in Holland and half in Germany. And nothing had happened then.
However, there was no reason to be so confident. The night before Himmler had phoned Schellenberg and had told him about the attack on Hitler. Hitler had immediately blamed the British Secret Service for the attempt on his life. He was determined to lead away any attention from a possible internal foe. Therefore Best and Stevens had to be arrested on 9 November anyhow.
Not familiar with this order Best speeded his Ford Lincoln to Venlo. Their contacts with the Germans had consumed quite a bit of Stevens' and Best's time lately. A lot of work was left undone. Therefore, while Best was driving, Stevens set himself to the task of drafting a list of people, who had to be pulled out of the Netherlands in case of a German invasion. Best alleged later that he advised Stevens to tear the list up and throw it away. Stevens admitted in a letter to the Dutch historian Louis de Jong, written in 1959, that he did not follow up his colleague's advice. Among the names on the list were those of Vrinten and Van der Willik.
At about three o'clock the British-Dutch party reached Venlo. Klop warned the military police to send a
patrol to the frontier to guard the meeting. While the police climbed their bikes to cycle the two miles to
the frontier, the Ford Lincoln drove on. It had to pass two sentries. The first had a message for Klop from
the office of GS III, another indication that not everybody in the Dutch intelligence agency was as ignorant of
Klop's trips to the frontier as General Van Oorschot seemed to be. The second sentry only waved the car to slow down.
When the party reached Cafe Backus, they could see 'Schaemmel' waiting in front. As Best parked his Ford, all of a sudden a large German car with Naujocks and his ruffians crossed the border. In order to surprise Best and his companions they fired over the heads of the surprised arrivals. Only Klop showed signs of quick-wittedness and shot twice through the windshield of the German car, without however wounding someone or stopping the car. Then he was fatally wounded himself. Best, Stevens, Lemmens and' the unconscious Klop were all dragged or hurried across the border. They were brought to the German customs office.
When the Dutch military police arrived on the scene, they found only cartridges and a trace of blood. They immediately phoned Van de Plassche, who thereupon informed the Dutch Commander-in-Chief and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The latter realised immediately that the Dutch neutrality had been endangered by Klop's involvement. He expected grave consequences.
When Naujocks' men brought their four prisoners to the German customs office, they discovered indeed that Klop had not been an English officer, but belonged to the Dutch General Staff. Klop was brought to a nearby Düsseldorf hospital, but soon after his arrival he died without having regained consciousness. His body was embalmed, probably to be used at an intended show trial. A few weeks later a report was fabricated of an interrogation of Klop on the effect that the Dutch government had not observed their policy of neutrality.
Best, Stevens and Lemmens were transported to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, where the British officers were interrogated alternately by the Gestapo and the Foreign Intelligence Division of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. After a few weeks the three prisoners were sent to a prison in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they received a relatively mild treatment. There, as they would find out, was also the man, who, as it later appeared, had been the sole perpetrator of the outrage in Munich, the cabinet-maker Georg Elser. Lemmens was released from prison in October 1940. Best and Stevens were both liberated at the end of the war. During the war they were protected by both the fear of the SD to remind Hitler of the Bürgerbräukeller affair, which had never been investigated to the Führer's satisfaction, and the wish of Schellenberg to reach an understanding with the British government.
The Dutch government, very embarrassed by the Venlo incident, had the Government Information Service issue a
statement on 10 November, which only said that one person had been wounded and others been kidnapped near Venlo.
That same day the Dutch minister in Berlin, Van Haersma de With, explained at the German Foreign Office,
that by attaching Klop to Best and Stevens Van Oorschot had only tried to further peace. He requested
the return of Lemmens and Klop (or his body) and asked for an enquiry into the events.
On 21 November the German government issued a press statement, giving voice to their amusement at the
British Secret Service, which had been fooled by fake conspirators, who had remained in wireless contact with
the PCO in The Hague until that day. Seizing upon the admission that German officials were responsible for the
kidnapping the Dutch minister delivered a formal protest in the strongest wordings. This and eight other
representations between 10 November 1939 and 18 March 1940 were to no avail. As Van Oorschot's successor Fabius
jokingly told the Dutch Foreign Minister Van Kleffens: 'The only thing you can still do, is declare war on Germany.'
The Germans would keep their reaction in reserve. At a conference of all supreme commanders on 23 November Hitler explained, that the man shot at Venlo had been a Dutch General Staff officer. This had been kept from the press. He called the request by the Dutch government to hand over the body of Klop 'one of their greatest stupidities'. When he would breach Dutch neutrality, he would use the Venlo incident to motivate his action.
And so he did. When finally on 10 May 1940 after many delays Holland was invaded the German Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop presented a memorandum to Van Haersma de With an appendix on the activities of the British Secret Service in Holland and the support it had received from GS III. The memorandum was partly drafted by Schellenberg on the basis of the interrogations of Best and Stevens.
The information provided by Best and Stevens after their capture had been used by the German government on several occasions during the war. It was included in the so-called Informationsheft Gross-Britannien, which was used for instruction purposes at the time of an intended German invasion of Britain. In 1943 the information contained in the 1940 memorandum formed the piece de resistance of a propaganda booklet directed against the Secret Service.
On the basis of this material some post-war authors have given a very hard verdict on the behaviour of Best and Stevens during their interrogations. Both men did indeed give away vital information. Probably the most damaging result of their disclosures was the arrest in early 1942 of agent A-54, the senior Abwehr official Paul Thummel, who had provided the Czech intelligence service and, through it, MI6 vital information.
But it should be kept in mind that not all the information contained in the fore mentioned documents originated
with Stevens and Best. After the war Schellenberg admitted that in drafting the memorandum on Secret Service
activities he also drew upon other files. But in 1940 it was not wise to disclose the fact that the SD had
already learned a lot about the 'network' before the Venlo-incident, when they had penetrated the Copenhagen police
after it had blown the Z-organisation in Denmark in November 1936.
Nor would it have made sense to reveal that German counterintelligence had mapped British intelligence activities in
the Netherlands quite well due to Van Koutrik, who managed to get himself a position with MI5's Patriotic School
after the invasion of Holland. Furthermore, only a few days after the capture of Best and Stevens Van der
Willik's cover was definitely blown in an altogether separate Gestapo masterpiece. The identity of his most
important German agent Karl Hermsdorff, was unmasked and a copy of a microfilm with MI6 codes seized by Dutch
agents working for the Gestapo.
Nevertheless by kidnapping Best and Stevens the Germans had dealt a severe blow to the MI6 network on the Continent.
The PCO would even be further beheaded in the follow up of the incident. The British Cabinet had issued the usual
D-notice after the capture of their agents. But this did of course not mean that they themselves were not interested
in an account of the events.
On 19 October the police of Venlo arrested several persons who were making private enquiries into the incident. It turned
out that all were connected with one man, Auguste de Fremery, an alias of the deputy head of the PCO in The Hague,
Harry Henricks. When the police ran into the intelligence services, their investigation was hastily called off.
But at about the same time the police found out that De Fremery had installed an agent with a wireless transmitter in the Northern part of the Netherlands to report on German aerial and maritime transport. De Fremery was sentenced to one year's imprisonment. He was released on 10 May 1940 and managed to escape to England. His file was burnt.
During the proceedings against De Fremery it appeared once again that Van Oorschot had connived more than suited
Dutch neutrality. On 20 November the Dutch government decided to dismiss Van Oorschot, because he had not informed
them of the British-German talks, which had been held in the presence of one of his men. Van Oorschot had only
two months to go till his retirement, but the Cabinet need a fall guy to impress their goodwill upon the German government.
Van Oorschot was very bitter. In London during the war he took very much to heart the silly remark by Prime Minister De Geer, that if it had not been for the Venlo incident, Holland would not have been invaded.
Van Oorschot's policy became the subject of both an enquiry by the Dutch War Department and a Parliamentary Enquiry after the war. Although the reports of both committees tended to whitewash the general, he remained very sensitive to remarks about his jeopardizing of Dutch neutrality. He even entered into a vehement correspondence with Best after reading a BBC-lecture, which Best had held on the Venlo incident. The dispute had finally to be settled by a pacifying Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
Another consequence of the Venlo incident was the disrupture of peace feelers elsewhere. Mistrust took possession of the British authorities. The Vatican talks with the representative of the Abwehr were almost broken off. Churchill who had let himself be persuaded by Halifax into a deal with Schellenberg was stiffened in his conviction that Hitler could not be defeated by Germans and that any contacts with a German opposition were likely to lead to British sacrifices of which they were not worthy. Dansey had been taught a lesson, too. After the Venlo incident he refrained from sharing intelligence with German émigrés. 'You might as well hand any intelligence straight to the Gestapo', he said.
In German army circles there was a moment of fear after the Bürgerbräukeller and the Venlo incidents. How much information about their conspiratorial plans would the Gestapo get as a result of their investigations into those cases? Canaris called a meeting of Abwehr officers in Düsseldorf on 11 November. 'Where are Stevens and Best?', Canaris asked Protze. 'They are being watched', Protze answered confidently. It was then that Canaris cleared his men up about the 'dirty trick' Heydrich had played on them.
Canaris was so worried about the possible consequence of the arrest of the two British officers that he finally went to Heydrich himself to ascertain that there was no ground for his troubles. Heydrich told the Abwehr chief that Stevens and Best had not incriminated any members of the Abwehr and the opposition, but, he warned Canaris, he did know of 'a number of uncertain cantonists in higher Wehrmacht circles.' For the time being the conspirators sounded the retreat.
On the other hand the SD came under attack because many Germans believed that the Bürgerbräukeller outrage had been engineered by the SD in connection with the Venlo incident. The result of the mutual distrust and fear between the Abwehr and the SD was a temporary deadlock in the internal power situation in Germany of which only Hitler could profit. By its paralysing effects on peace feelers the Venlo incident was the watershed between a compromise peace and the demand for unconditional surrender. Maybe initiated by doves the Venlo incident turned out to be the jumping board for the hawks.
And Fischer, what became of him? Shortly after the incident he had been recalled to Germany, where he was arrested.
He was interrogated, for instance about Travaglio. One of the things in which the SD took an interest was the fact
that Fischer had sold a portrait on behalf of Travaglio in England, the yields thereof, Travaglio told after the war,
were used to finance the German opposition. But besides that the SD knew little about Travaglio, according to
Fischer. Fischer was kept imprisoned till the end of April 1940, when he was released by Knochen on the condition
that he would not leave Germany.
When the Germans invaded Holland in May 1940, an Abwehr search list was found on the body of
a German soldier containing the name of Franz Fischer. His name appeared side by side with the names of
PCO officials such as Harry Hendricks, Bill Hooper and Major Loewe, and GS III officials as Van de Plassche.
Did the Abwehr not know, that Fischer had already been arrested by the SD? Were they uncertain about his true
loyalties? Were they anxious to know what might have become of Travaglio's connection with MI6?
Anyhow, the house of Fischer's former landlady was searched, but nothing was found.
In the Summer of 1940 Fischer travelled to Paris as an assistant to the German coal commissioner. After a few months he was again arrested on orders of Knochen, who had become head of the Security Police and the SS in occupied France. Fischer was confined in several German prisons in succession, until in July 1942 he was sentenced to a prison term of three years because of his embezzlement in 1933 and 1934. In October 1943 he was released, this time on the condition that he would not leave the small village of Altensteig in the Black Forest, where he was to stay for the rest of the war.
Lodewijk, who had spoken with Fischer and Travaglio in 1938 about dropping leaflets above Germany, was arrested in January 1941 because of his involvement with resistance work in occupied Holland. More or less to his surprise he was never asked about his pre-war contacts with both Germans. And so Fischer and Travaglio remained the mysterious persons whose true loyalties could never be clearly established.
S Payne Best papers in the Imperial War Museum
S Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London etc 1950
Richard Deacon and Nigel West, Spy!, London etc 1980
Enquêtecommissie Regeringsbeleid 1940-1945 (Enquiry Committee Government Policy 1940-1945), vol 2, The Hague 1949
Louis de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (The Kingdom of The Netherlands in the Second World War), vol 2, The Hague 1969
Callum A MacDonald, 'The Venlo Affair', European Studies Review, vol 8 (1978), 443-464
Johan P Nater, Het Venlo incident, Rotterdam 1984
Anthony Read and David Fischer, Colonel Z. The Secret Life of a Master of Spies, New York 1985
Walter Schellenberg, Memoiren, Köln 1959
Quelle: Bob de Graaff, The Venlo Incident, World War Investigator 13/1990, London 1990, S. 2-13B.G.J. (Bob) de Graaff (* 1955) studierte an der Freien Universität Amsterdam Geschichte und
promovierte 1979 cum laude. Seit 2005 lehrt der Historiker an der Universität Utrecht.