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Jack Nissenthall - The VC Hero Who Never Was (Part 1a)icon for Recommended story

by Ron Goldstein

Jack Nissen home on leave after his exploits

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Ron Goldstein
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Jack Nissenthall
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25 May 2004

As a boy I lived in the East End of London. My local club was the Cambridge and Bethnal Green Boys Club and one of its members was Jack Nissenthall. Since WW2 finished, our club has held regular re-unions and one story that keeps on coming up is how Jack Nissenthall was never officially recognised for his heroism at Dieppe. I hope that its publication on this site will go part of the way to re-dress the balance.

Jack Nissenthall at Dieppe


Jack Nissenthall - The VC Hero Who Never Was (Part 1a)

By Martin Sugarman - Assistant Archivist, Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women Jewish Military Museum

Flight Sergeant 916592 Jack Maurice Nissenthall was a Jewish Cockney born in Cottage Row, Bow in the East End of London on Oct 9th 1919. He was a pupil at Malmesbury Road Primary school with his sister Marie and later at Mansford Technical School. His father Aaron was a Polish Jewish immigrant tailor from Pelots/Annapol near Warsaw, and his mother Annie Harris-Schmidt was born in Bow itself. As a boy, Jack attended the Cambridge and Bethnal Green Jewish youth club when his family moved to Blythe Street, Bethnal Green, from Bow.

Jack had been interested in radio and TV ever since childhood and had worked at EMI from 1935, taking an advanced electronics course at Regent Street Polytechnic. "From an early age I was obsessed with wireless. When still in short trousers I was making my own radio sets and repairing those belonging to my neighbours. I remember that when I did so for one old lady, she gave me half an apple as a reward. I never did discover who ate the other half... I used to spend the whole day at the National Science museum, going out to eat fish and chips and then going in again".

When working in the EMI shop in Tottenham Court Road in 1936, an RAF Officer who was known only as Ft. Lt. "Bob", came looking for apprentices. Jack was taken on to work part-time at weekends and holidays at the first radar station at Bawdsey, on the isolated Suffolk coast, with the eminent radar expert Robert Watson-Watts. He volunteered for aircrew in the RAF on the outbreak of war in 1939 but was posted instead to working in secret radar stations up and down the country because of his recognised knowledge and skills; from the early days of the war, the RAF had made many modifications to their radars at Jack's suggestion.

These ideas of his had a major effect on the ability of radar in British night fighters to knock out German bombers and his work on "Mandrel" helped destroy the U Boat offensive. He was a key player in the RAF's GCI - Ground Control Interception - work at Bolt Head in Devon. He also submitted a report on the escape of the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from Brest in 1941, which was submitted to the RAF Director of Radar. The weaknesses in the British radar defences that Jack pointed out in this report was extremely sensitive information and though acted upon, Jack's part in the corrective work was hushed-up and has never been revealed to this day.

Physically fit, unmarried (but with a steady girl, Adeline Bernard, or Dell) and an enthusiastic 22 year old, he also volunteered to give up leave and train in Scotland for the Commandos. He came from a military family, as his father and uncles Michael, Max and Lew had all fought and been wounded in the First World War. Little surprise, therefore, that he was selected and asked to volunteer to be the radar expert to take part in the tragic but magnificent raid on Dieppe in occupied France, on August 19th 1942 - operation Jubilee.

Interviewed by the avuncular and pleasant Air Commodore Victor Tait (RAF Director of Signals and Radar) in Whitehall, Jack was told why he had been selected, but warned that as he knew so much, he would be assigned eleven soldier bodyguards on the raid who had strict instructions that Jack must not be allowed to fall alive into enemy hands. This was clearly stated in "The Dieppe Raid Combined Report, Task 6", now kept at the Public Record office (Jack discovered after the war that this was in fact a breach of the Geneva Convention). Being Jewish was an added risk and he was told to go and think it over till the next day. Jack returned and told Tait he would go.

(Document WO 106/4196 at the PRO Appendix L page 3 says "RDF expert (ie Jack) to examine and search RDF station... with assistance of one Field Security Other Rank as detailed... travels with SSR on "Invicta" to provide adequate protection as RDF expert (AUTHOR'S CAPITALS) MUST UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES FALL INTO ENEMY HANDS" Page 4 adds, "SOE to assist RDF expert").

His second interview was with the Senior Intelligence Officer at Combined Operations, Wing Commander The Maquis de Casa Maury, a patronising and distant man and a completely contrasting experience. He warned Jack of the risks and said, "Nissenthall" - accentuating the un-English sound of his surname - "why should a Jew volunteer for such a dangerous operation?" - adding quickly - "You will get nothing out of this you know!"

Immediately Jack replied, "We're not given to expect something out of everything we do, sir." Clearly Maury's remark was a poorly disguised piece of racism (he was a close associate of Oswald Moseley, the British Fascist leader interred during the war), though he offered the excuse, "I wanted to find out if you'd break under the pressure." He added that Jack must accept the condition of permanent silence on the death order if he returned; "After 25 years, nobody will believe you anyway," he added.

Jack was to be attached to A Company (commanded by Capt. Murray Osten), South Sasketchawan Regiment (SSR - of the 2nd Canadian Division led my Major-General J H Roberts), who were based on the Isle of Wight training for the raid - although they had NO part in the planning of the operation. The Canadians were to form the bulk of the 6,000 man raiding force. Their commanders were straining at the leash to have their men tried out. However, the raid had 16 different objectives on 5 different beach sites along a sixteen kilometre front, and British No 3 and No 4 Commandos, with elements of No 3 "Jewish" Troop and other Troops of the 10th Inter-Allied Commando, a Royal Marine Commando and 50 American Rangers would also be involved, as well as the Navy providing bombardment and transport (327 vessels including four destroyers), and the RAF fighter cover (70 squadrons including eight Royal Canadian Air Force). Embarkation would also take place from Newhaven (the main point of departure), Shoreham and Littlehampton, as well as the Solent ports.

Put simply, the raid was designed to fulfil three objectives -

a) To be an essential learning source about the problems of launching a surprise seaborne invasion of France in preparation for D-Day, especially with regard to amphibious Combined Operations landings at an enemy port.

b) To show the Germans that their defences could be breached and so force them to divert resources from the Russian front and so create Stalin's desired "Second Front" in Europe.

c) To provide the Allies and Nazi occupied nations with a victory and hope of liberation during the darkest days of the War, when both Germans and Japanese were advancing everywhere.

Dieppe was chosen as it was believed not to be as heavily defended as larger ports such as Cherbourg (this was based on false intelligence, it turned out), was within easy reach of British fighter cover and had worthwhile targets, such as the radar station, coastal cannon batteries, railways, petrol dumps and an airfield. Objective 13 was for the SSR to escort a radar expert to the Freya 28 radar station on a cliff top at Pourville, designated as Green Beach just 4 kms west of Dieppe, and within a few minutes uncover its secrets; the expert was Jack Nissenthall.

Before leaving his last base at Hope Cove in South Devon, to take part on his mission, Jack prepared his blue RAF small pack with his most precious possession, a small avometer given to him by his late father for his Barmitzvah.

In his last two letters to his mother and Adeline, he included the Jewish prayer made before embarking on a journey, "O Lord deliver us from our enemies… send a blessing upon the work of our hands."

In London, he reported to RAF Intelligence in Whitehall. He refused to remove his Jewish RAF identity discs; he wished to live and die with the sign of his people. He did not relate to the officer the anti-Semitic jibe he had heard from another Intelligence Officer on his first visit, or his firm belief that having a crack at the Nazis would be a way of getting back at them for the murder of his Jewish relatives in Poland.

He was then given an Army uniform and an Evaders Pack, which was a small tin containing useful items to help make an escape if things went wrong. But this one included an extra item especially for Jack - a green suicide pill. He was then driven by an anonymous, armed SOE officer (wearing no badges or rank) to Waterloo and taken by train and ferry to the Isle of Wight and thence to Norris castle, to meet Colonel Merritt, OC of the SSR. Not allowed to give his full name, the Colonel addressed him as Jack.

The next day, Jack met his eleven "bodyguards". In James Leasor's definitive book on Jack, "Green Beach" (Heinemann, 1975), the men are named as members of "A" Company, commanded by capt. Mather - Graham Mavor, Les Thrussel, Charlie Sawden, "Smokey", "Lofty", "Frenchie", "Red", "Buddy", "Silver" and "Jim" (the last seven being nicknames as Jack wanted everyone to know as little as possible about each other in case of capture) and Sgt Roy Hawkins (the Field Security Sergeant) who joined them later. They in turn called him "Spook" because of his pale complexion gained from too many nights of work over radar screens.

The following day, Jack boarded the SS Invicta, which together with the SS Princess Beatrix was to carry him and the SSR to battle. The men thought it was a practice until the tannoy announced that they were sailing through the night and would land at dawn in France. Jack describes how there was silence for a moment and then the Canadians began to cheer and the deck trembled with the sound of men stamping their boots in delight at the prospect of action. Then Canada's General Roberts (commanding the landing) and Lord Mountbatten (Chief of Combined Operations) addressed the men on both ships in turn and General Eisenhower visited the 50 American Rangers who would be the first US troops (under Captain Roy Murray) to face German soldiers in this war. Next day (July 7th) the raid (until then known as "Operation Rutter") was cancelled because of poor weather.

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Message 1 - Dieppe raid

Posted on: 27 September 2005 by clevelandcsv

Although officially a failure, Lord Mountbatten said of the raid, "For every man that died at Dieppe, ten were saved on D-Day."

I suppose Jack was among the many people who earned a VC but never got the recognition they so richly deserved.

Stockton on Tees
27th September 2005

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