Captain Sigismund Payne Best OBE (14 April 1885 – 21 September 1978) was a British Secret Intelligence Service agent during the First and Second World Wars. He was captured by German Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) men on 9 November 1939 in what came to be known as the Venlo Incident.
Best served in the First World War as an intelligence officer on the British Army General List. In 1915 ‘C’, Mansfield Cumming sent him to set up an intelligence network in the Netherlands where he controlled agents in German-occupied Belgium. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Following demobilization he settled in the Netherlands but in 1938 was recruited into Claude Dansey's ‘Z’ organization, a new branch of the SIS.
Best's operations in the Netherlands stood at the crosswinds of a political storm. He had, on the orders of London but against all tradecraft, combined his NOC operations with those of Major Richard Henry Stevens, a less-experienced operative who operated from the British Embassy as the head of a notional "Passport Control Office". The PCO (which, like Section Z, operated throughout Europe) was compromised before its operations were combined with those of Section Z, and thus it was a simple matter for the Germans to mount sting and counterintelligence operations against British agents throughout Europe.
A young Nazi lawyer, Walter Schellenberg, had joined the SD in August 1939, and the ambitious SS-Sturmbannführer later became head of the SD counterintelligence department of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt. In that capacity, he proposed a false flag operation against Best and Stevens. Best was approached by a Dr. Fischer, a double agent in the employ of the SD, who pretended to represent a disaffected cadre of high-ranking military officers.
Best, Stevens and Dutch Lieutenant Dirk Klop (pretending, for neutrality's sake, to be a British national) began a series of meetings, which, despite Best's misgivings about Fischer and his putative friends (who were in fact SD agents), culminated in what pretended to be an agreement to form, post-Hitler, a united German-British front against the Soviet Union. The agreement included a period in which Adolf Hitler would be kept as a figurehead, then a restoration of democracy and legal protection for Jewish citizens.
In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, having seen Hitler violate the Munich agreement by seizing Czechoslovakia, was more than ready to foment a German coup. However, Best's suspicions that their German contacts might be double agents had been passed up the intelligence chain and the operatives were warned to stay away from the German border. In Britain, the top secret talks were seen by many — including the new First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill — as another Munich.
In any case, not only were the talks a complicated German bluff, but the entire operation was brought to an abrupt end. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had decided, over Schellenberg's objections, to have the British operatives abducted; the attempt by Georg Elser to assassinate Hitler at the Bürgerbräukeller, believed by Himmler to be the result of British machinations, forced the matter. The next day, in a daring and violent abduction, Best and Stevens were kidnapped from the Café Backus — Klop was fatally wounded in the shootout with German agents — and rushed to Berlin. Under interrogation, Best and Stevens gave up detailed information on British espionage activities. Worse, Stevens was carrying on him a plain text list of SIS agents in Europe.
Best and Stevens were imprisoned at Sachsenhausen, and later at the Dachau concentration camp. During his imprisonment, Best came into contact with a number of famous figures, including not only Elser, but also the famed theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose last message he relayed to Bonhoeffer's friend Bishop George Bell. Bell and Bonhoeffer's efforts to interest the British government in supporting German anti-Nazi forces failed in large part because of Churchill's distaste for Chamberlain's actions and the fear of another Venlo Incident.
Best died in Britain, in 1978, having written a bestselling account of his war experiences.
- Andrew, Christopher. "The Mobilization of British Intelligence for the Two World Wars" in the Collection Mobiliztion for Total War: The Canadian, American, and British Experience ISBN 0-88920-109-9
- Owen, David. Hidden Secrets: The Complete History of Espionage and the Technology Used to Support It ISBN 1-55297-564-9
- www.venlo-zwischenfall.de - English and German sources (German)
- D. Cameron Watt, ‘Best, Sigismund Payne (1885–1978)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Sigismund Payne Best, www.venlo-zwischenfall.de (German)
- Lumsden, Robin. A Collector's Guide To: The Allgemeine — SS, p. 83
- Peter Koblank: Geheimakte "Venlo Incident", Online-Edition Mythos Elser 2009 (German)
- The Times, The Venlo Kidnapping, 19 February 1948
- Sigismund Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London 1950, p. 16
- Sigismund Payne Best, The Venlo Incident, London 1950
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