The remarkable story of Jewish East Ender and war hero Jack Nissenthall deserves to be more widely known. And, thanks to a recent book by his daughter Linda Nissen Samuels and an exhibition put on by Hillingdon Council, it will be.
Nissenthall, was a radar expert with a skillset so refined he was one of only a handful of officers with the technical ability required for a top-secret, potential suicide mission to discover the secrets of German radar as part of Operation Jubilee, a key part of the raid on Dieppe in occupied France, on August 19, 1942.
At the heart of his story is the written order that he accepted, as the anonymous “RDF (Range and Direction Finding, an early term for radar) expert” that he was to be “adequately protected” by bodyguards from Canada’s South Saskatchewan Regiment because “under no circumstances” was he to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Effectively, this meant that 10 Canadian soldiers specifically tasked to assist him, were also, in Jack’s own words, “a sort of negative safeguard”, “my execution squad”.
Linda Samuels’ book, The Man Under the Radar, draws heavily on Nissenthall’s own writings: The Wizard War, an unpublished autobiographical account of his part in the development of radar before and during WW2 and its impact on the eventual outcome, and original letters and photos. Through them, we hear this unsung war hero telling his own story in his own words.
That he was not captured and did indeed survive was due partly to his physical fitness and the “cheerful and resourceful courage that shows in this book.” (From the foreword to Nissenthall’s own manuscript- written by Prof R. V. Jones, Britain’s Assistant Director of Air Intelligence in World War II.)
This present book answers the question: what made him do it?
It also recounts many episodes which demonstrate how Nissenthall’s whole life exemplifies dictionary definitions of a hero – as a person of high moral integrity, resourceful, passionate and patient, energetic, courageous, confident and caring who willingly takes risks and makes sacrifices for others. But Nissenthall is not a common-or-garden, rough, tough hero. You’ll be charmed to read how, as a love-struck twenty-something, he wears his heart on his sleeve, writing to his girlfriend dally about their first kiss.
This book gives an insight into why, nearly 80 years later, Jack Nissenthall’s extraordinary war service is still largely unknown and unsung (except in Canada), and why there are still so many unanswered questions about it.
Nissenthall lived at 24 Cottage Grove (now Rhondda Grove), Mile End, and then at 15 Blythe Street, Bethnal Green.
The Man Under the Radar is published by Chislebury: ISBNs 978-1-908291-86-8 (Hardback: £19.99) and 978-1-908291-85-1 (Paperback: £9.99). It is also available as a Kindle edition, and can be purchased at https://amzn.eu/d/eKPHoqv
Hillingdon Council’s exhibition is, very appropriately, at the Battle of Britain Bunker at Wren Ave, Uxbridge, UB10 0GG. Jack Nissenthall's perilous story is one of six tales of incredible bravery featured at the Dieppe ’80 Exhibition, marking 80 years since the Dieppe raid. It runs until August 2023. There is more information about the exhibition here and tickets can be bought at https://battleofbritainbunker.co.uk/