Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

The Dieppe Raid’s Success Within the Failure: The Nissenthall Mission

Operation Jubilee, the Combined Operations planned amphibious assault on the English Channel port of Dieppe, was launched in the pre-dawn hours of August 19, 1942. By two o’clock that afternoon, it was over and the Royal Navy fleet was returning to England. Designed to test the feasibility of assaulting a fortified port, it was the British response to Soviet and American diplomatic and public opinion pressure to “open a Second Front now!”

The assault force consisted of 237 ships, none larger than a destroyer, a multi-national landing force containing 4,963 Canadian troops, 1,075 British, and 50 American Rangers, and air support consisting of 74 squadrons of aircraft. Postponed, given a name change (from Operation Rutter), revised, and expanded, Jubilee was hampered by inadequate and out-of-date intelligence, overly complex planning, and was overly reliant on both surprise and on having everything go as planned.

“Don’t worry men, it’ll be a piece of cake!”

—Maj. Gen. John Hamilton “Ham” Roberts, commander, 2nd Canadian Division

The raid was a fiasco. About 68 percent of the Canadian force alone was killed, wounded, or captured. Though many people suffered from the raid’s shortcomings, arguably the greatest injustice was meted out to a man who, despite all odds, managed to successfully carry out his vital mission in the raid – Royal Air Force Flight Sgt. Jack Nissenthall.

Jack Maurice Nissenthall was a Jewish Cockney born in London’s East End in 1919. A childhood interest in radio and electronics led to a career in the field and, in 1936, becoming a part-time apprentice for the RAF working on radars and with “the father of radar” Robert Watson-Watts. When war broke out in 1939, he attempted to volunteer to be an aircrew member, but his experience and expertise caused him to be assigned to a variety of secret radar posts in England.

Jack Nissenthall

Jack Nissenthall home on leave after his exploits at Dieppe. BBC photo

In early 1941, British intelligence learned that the Germans had erected a high-powered Freya radar station on a cliff just west of Dieppe. With a range of 125 miles and working in tandem with the short-range Würzburg radar, this combined system posed a significant threat to the Allied air campaign. An attack on the Freya site at Dieppe with the goal of seizing as much equipment and documents as possible was incorporated into the operation.

Dieppe was chosen because it was a medium sized port, believed not heavily protected, and at 67 miles from the English coast, close enough to be supported by aircraft. Historically, Dieppe had a footnote role in sea invasions. In 1066 it was the embarking site of William the Conqueror’s Norman fleet that landed near Hastings, the last successful invasion of England.

Nissenthall volunteered to be the radar expert for the Freya mission. He was accepted and attached to Company A, South Sasketchawan Regiment, commanded by Capt. Murray Osten. His mission came with a chilling proviso. Because Nissenthall had top secret knowledge of Britain’s radar systems, the hand-picked soldiers accompanying him had orders to kill him if their capture was imminent, or Nissenthall could not be evacuated because of wounds. Nissenthall was also given a cyanide capsule. He was introduced to the men of Company A as “Jack.” They nicknamed him “Spook.” On the night of August 18 the assault force embarked.

Because Nissenthall had top secret knowledge of Britain’s radar systems, the hand-picked soldiers accompanying him had orders to kill him if their capture was imminent, or Nissenthall could not be evacuated because of wounds. Nissenthall was also given a cyanide capsule.

Surprise was lost shortly before 4:00 a.m. on August 19 when the force encountered an enemy coastal convoy. Many reports later credited this encounter and the ensuing naval engagement as alerting the defenders. But it was the Freya radar operators at Dieppe who detected the assault force when it was 21 miles off the coast and forwarded the contact report up the army and navy chains of command.

By the time Company A’s LCA hit the beach shortly after dawn, the battle was in full swing. Deposited 500 yards west of their landing site, the company suffered 75 percent casualties in its fight to the radar’s cliff base. Pausing in a depression near the base, Capt. Osten looked up at the antennas above and said to Nissenthall, “Well, there it is. Take it if you want it.”

Needing reinforcements, Nissenthall made a harrowing mile-long dash back to the headquarters of the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Charles Merritt. That first trip ended in failure with the mortar team he received cut down before it got to the cliff. He then made a second trip and got another mortar team. Though successful in returning, the company was still too weak to advance.

Dieppe Raid Prisoners

Canadian prisoners of war being lead through Dieppe by German soldiers, Aug. 19, 1942. Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada

That’s when Nissenthall opted for “Plan B.” Instead of assaulting the radar station itself, he targeted the station’s landline communications cables. With those severed, the operators would be forced to use the radio, which could be intercepted in England.

With the surviving members of Company A providing cover fire, Nissenthall crawled 120 feet to the triple-mast cable support. He later said, “I wedged myself between the poles and worked my way to the top.” Fifteen feet above the ground, with bullets flying around him, Nissenthall pulled out his wire clippers and began cutting the cables (some reports state six, others, eight). With the last one cut, he dropped to the ground and safely reached the others.

Nissenthall still held out hope for an assault on the radar station itself, but the arrival of German tanks put an end to that thought. By now more than four hours had passed.

Nissenthall should have received a medal for his heroics. A 2004 BBC story about him was titled “The VC Hero Who Never Was” suggesting that he should have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s version of the Medal of Honor.

With the battle having turned against the invaders, the order went out to evacuate. Nissenthall and one of his bodyguards managed a final sprint to the beach where, after shedding helmets and gear, they dived into the water and were soon picked up by one of the rescue ships. Nissenthall and his guard were the only two from the company to escape – everyone else had been either killed or captured.

Nissenthall’s quick thinking in cutting the cables paid off. British monitors picked up the subsequent German radio transmissions and learned a great deal of valuable intelligence about the German radar system. Nissenthall was later posted to the Middle East and after the war moved to South Africa.

Nissenthall should have received a medal for his heroics. A 2004 BBC story about him was titled “The VC Hero Who Never Was” suggesting that he should have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s version of the Medal of Honor.

Dieppe Raid Wounded

Disembarkation of Canadian soldiers wounded during Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe. Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada

A variety of reasons suggest why that didn’t happen. The men of Company A only knew him by the name Jack. And the commander, Capt. Osten, was captured at Dieppe and became a POW. There is a third, and more odious, possibility.

During the interview process prior to the mission, Nissenthall was interviewed by the Senior Intelligence Officer at Combined Operations, a wing commander (lieutenant colonel). A patronizing and cold individual who had been a close associate of British Fascist leader Oswald Mosely, after warning Nissenthall of the risks, the wing commander said, “Nissenthall, why should a Jew volunteer for such a dangerous operation? You will get nothing out of this, you know!”

Nissenthall replied, “We’re not given to expect something out of everything we do.”

“We’re not given to expect something out of everything we do.”

He deserved more than the post-operation unofficial thanks that he received from his colleagues. Instead, Nissenthall got what the wing commander predicted, nothing.

Canadian Maj. Gen. John Hamilton “Ham” Roberts was the overall troop commander of the raid. He never held another battlefield command after Dieppe. The survivors grimly remembered his pre-operation pep talk and thereafter, on August 19, he would receive a package in the mail. Inside: a piece of stale cake.

YouTube features a two-part video on Operation Jubilee: “History’s Raiders–Dieppe Raid 1942 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5OtNZloUWo&feature=fvwrel, and www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7Dgcq1GppY&feature=relmfu). Another clip is “Dieppe Raid–Assault footage” www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSKK_n8VWek&feature=related.

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...