Life & Culture

How a young Jewish electronics expert helped win the War

The information young Londoner Jack Nissenthall gathered on a daring mission in Nazi-occupied Normandy played a vital role in D-Day planning


Eighty years ago, young Londoner Jack Nissenthall was dispatched on a top-secret mission to France.

His mission was to investigate the German radar technology on the Normandy coast. The information he gathered was considered so important that it contributed enormously to the success of the D-Day landings.

As an expert in radar technology, he was sent to investigate whether the Germans were using a certain type of precision radar on the Dieppe coast.

His expertise was considered so crucial to the success of “Operation Jubilee” that he was accompanied by 11 bodyguards, Canadian soldiers, tasked not only with safeguarding him throughout the perilous assignment but with shooting him should they fall into enemy hands. He also carried a cyanide pill, just in case he needed to end his own life. The men nicknamed him Spook because of his pale complexion, thanks to his work poring over radar screens.

The squad immediately came under heavy fire after landing in the early hours of 19 August.
Nissenthall failed to access the radar station due to its heavy defences but managed to cut its telephone wires after crawling up to the rear of the station equipped with a small AVOmeter for measuring electrical current — a barmitzvah gift from his late father.

This sabotage forced the Germans to transmit their messages over open lines, allowing British listening posts to intercept intelligence which henceforth shaped RAF strategy on everything from strategic bombing raids to vital radar-jamming counter-measures.

Jack Nissenthall escaped by swimming to a Royal Navy ship off the coast, but only one of his companions from the daring raid made it safely home. Due to the mission’s clandestine nature, Nissenthall’s efforts were never officially acknowledged, and he received just £4 for a change of uniform upon his return to the UK.

More than half of the 6,086 men who landed as part of the operation were killed, injured, or captured within 10 hours, including ten of his 11 bodyguards. Winston Churchill maintained that the knowledge gained by the operation shaped the success of the subsequent D-Day landings. Supreme Allied Commander Lord Mountbatten later remarked of the raid, “For every man that died at Dieppe, ten were saved on D-Day.”

In 2019, Prince Charles singled out Jack Nissenthall’s contribution, saying how proud Lord Mountbatten was of him.

Now his courage is being celebrated in an exhibition for the first time. Dieppe 80 opens today at the Battle of Britain Bunker Visitor Centre in Uxbridge commemorating the 80th Anniversary of Operation Jubilee.

Jack Nissenthall was born in 1919 in London’s East End. His father Aaron was a Polish Jewish immigrant tailor from Pelots/Annapol near Warsaw, and his mother Annie Harris-Schmidt was born in Bow. As a boy, he was fascinated by electronics and helped neighbours by mending their radios and televisions.

His passion for technology quickly evolved into a career, gaining his first job with the erstwhile electrics giant EMI in their Hillingdon factory in 1935, aged just 16. A year later, with his employer’s permission, he started working with the top-secret experimental radar centre at Bawdsey Manor.

He was working at the time for EMI in television repairing and maintaining television sets and installing them in the West End, exactly the skills needed for the new radar technology.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, the 19-year-old volunteered for RAF service, only to have his request for flight duties rejected due to his expertise. He was instead posted to Britain’s inaugural Radio Direction Finding training school.

He volunteered to take on special missions and bypassed leave to pursue commando training — leading to his call up for Operation Jubilee. By 1942 he had risen to the rank of sergeant, specialising in Ground-Controlled Interception.

This is the technology concerned with using radar to improve communication between ground control and the interception of enemy aircraft, earning him the nickname “GCI King”.
After the war, he emigrated to Canada, where he died in 1997.

In a speech at Buckingham Palace in 2019, the Prince of Wales noted that his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, “was enormously proud of the airman RAF Flight Sergeant Jack Nissenthall, whose missions behind enemy lines would have been a certain death sentence had he ever been captured.”

His daughter, Linda Samuels, wrote in Under The Radar, a book about her father’s career, that he was so beloved “because he was not just discreet in his work but in his personality.”

She wrote: “There was a long campaign to get my father awarded a medal due to his exceptional bravery in such an unusual episode. While this campaign was unfortunately not successful I am so happy to see his courage, and that of others, examined in this impressive exhibition.”

The exhibition will run until August 2023.

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