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This week in history: The Venlo Incident

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7 2012 5:13 p.m. MST

On Nov. 9-10, 1939, German secret agents successfully pulled off a daring, high-risk operation in neutral Holland. Ordered personally by Adolf Hitler, the action ultimately proved little more than a propaganda boon and compromised a much more important, long-term operation.

With the outbreak of World War II in September of 1939, all of the belligerents began espionage and intelligence gathering operations against their enemies. In Germany, the Nazi party intelligence agency, the Sicherheitdienst, or SD, actively sought to learn the intentions of Great Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI-6. Under the directorship of Reinhard Heydrich, the SD began work on what could have been the greatest intelligence coup of the war.

SD officer Walter Schellenberg had been tasked with misleading British intelligence in the hopes of discovering British strategic intentions. To that end Schellenberg masqueraded as a German army captain named Schaemmel, who theoretically represented a wide clique of army officers dissatisfied with Hitler's rule. Hoping to exploit this fictional resistance to the Nazi regime within the army, British intelligence made contact several times with Capt. Schaemmel.

To be sure, there was a very real resistance to Hitler within the army, though it never found its strength to stand up to Hitler until 1944. In 1939 it was still too cowed by the Nazis to make its move. It was unfortunate that British intelligence made contact not with actual resisters, but with the Nazis themselves.

Posing as Schaemmel, Schellenberg met with two agents of MI-6, Maj. Richard Stevens and Capt. Sigismund Payne-Best, in Holland in late October and early November. The two British agents were completely taken, and asked Schellenberg what they could do to help those in the German army hostile to Hitler's regime. Schellenberg was delighted, and the possibility of Schaemmel secretly visiting London to discuss the resistance with the highest levels of the British government was discussed. After a meeting on Nov. 7, however, Hitler informed Heydrich that he didn't want any more talk of an army putsch against his government, fictional or otherwise. Hitler also expressly forbid Schellenberg from going to London.

Nov. 9 held a special place in Nazi hearts. On Nov. 9, 1923, Hitler and his followers had led an unsuccessful revolution against the Bavarian government in Munich, and the event was commemorated every year after by Hitler delivering a speech in his favorite beer hall. Usually lasting around two hours, Hitler's speech in 1939 lasted only a few minutes, Hitler claiming urgent war business as an excuse for the speech's brevity. Shortly after Hitler left the beer hall a bomb exploded behind the podium. Several Nazis were killed or wounded, and had Hitler remained he too almost certainly would have lost his life.

The bomb had been planted by a lone assassin, Georg Elser, though Hitler was convinced Elser had ties to the British. In his book “SS Intelligence,” historian Edmund L. Blandford writes: “That night, Hitler raged, asserting the British Secret Service had tried to kill him, but that Providence had spared him for the work to be done. The two British agents in Holland were to be seized at once!”

Schellenberg was ordered to meet with Stevens, Best and their Dutch contact, Lt. Dirk Coppens (or Klop) once again in Holland, just across the border from Germany in the village of Venlo. A special squad of SS men was assembled, under the command of a ruthless SD officer named Alfred Naujocks. Once Schellenberg had made contact with the British, Naujocks' team was to cross the border and snatch the MI-6 agents.

The next day Schellenberg sat at a cafe in Venlo, waiting for the British to arrive. After the British agents appeared in a Buick, the German trap sprang into action. Schellenberg wrote of the day's action in his post-war memoirs, titled “The Labyrinth”:

“The SS car, which had been parked behind the German customs house, had driven right through the barrier. ... (After a brief a shootout between Coppens and the SS) I turned and ran round the corner of the house toward my car. Looking back, I saw Best and Stevens being hauled out of the Buick like bundles of hay.”

In brazenly violating Dutch neutrality, the Germans had managed to capture the two British agents, though the Dutch agent Coppens later died of his wounds from the brief shootout. Best and Stevens would be held in relatively comfortable captivity, along with Elser, as special prisoners in various concentration camps. Elser would be eliminated in the final days of World War II on the orders of SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Best and Stevens were liberated in 1945.

Hitler's unwillingness to continue the Schaemmel deception in 1939 was undoubtedly a mistake. Had the operation continued, and Schellenberg been allowed to go to London, there is no telling just how much damage the Germans could have done to British intelligence, but certainly it would have been severe. The kidnapping of Best and Stevens gave Josef Goebbels' propaganda machine something to tout, but ultimately benefited the German war effort not at all.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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