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The Battle of Dieppe, 19 August 1942

From: "Sinclair" <>
Date: Thu, 22 Aug 2002 18:21:39 +0200

27 February 1942, British parachutists raided St. Bruneval France. They captured parts of a German Würzburg radar set. The target at Dieppe was Germany's basic radar equipment--the Freya early-warning device. The Würzburg, operated an ultra short wavelength, it's range 30 Kilometre. The larger Freya radar on a longer wavelength had a range of 200 Kilometre. Freya saw Allied aircraft almost as soon as they became airborne under an English sky..

In 1941, British listening posts had become aware of signals emitted by the new, high-powered Freya installed atop a cliff between the seaport of Dieppe and Pourville, three kilometre farther west.

Operation Jubilee, the Raid on Dieppe, was to examine Freya and remove vital parts. American and Soviet pressure to open a second front against the Germans to help relieve the hard-pressed Soviets to the east. Official British history, states (it was to) "test the enemy's coast defences and discover what resistance would be met in seizing a port; it also hoped to inflict wastage on the German Air Force, thereby giving some relief to Russia." Allied capabilities were not prepared for full-scale invasion in 1942 no matter what Winston Churchill lobbied for.

Dieppe is only 100 Kilometre from England. Dieppe had hosted William's Norman fleet in 1066. Dieppe been occupied by the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870

The higher echelons made a decision, based on imperfect intelligence, for frontal assault on a well-defended gravel and pebble beach without initial air bombardment and with nominal naval fire support.

Jubilee included a main contingent of Canadian assisted by British, French and fifty U.S. Army Rangers, the first American troops to land in Europe since World War I. Objectives were to destroy enemy installations (including the inland airfield at St. Aubin), capture Germans for interrogation, steal documents, bring back moored enemy invasion barges, release French prisoners, and tackle the Freya site atop its 100 metre high cliff.

The unit assaulting the Freya site would have to include a radar expert. The twenty-four-year-old Flight Sgt. Jack Maurice Nissenthall Royal Air Force. Nissenthall had volunteered for "special missions in which my expertise would be of value," was chosen for the work.. An electronics specialist, Nissenthall was a cockney from London's East End. He was the son of a Polish Jewish tailor who had arrived in Britain 1912.

Jack Nissenthall knew British radar secrets that had to be kept from the Germans, the printed orders received by officers in charge of the Freya assault team stated that the "RDF (radio direction finder) expert must under no circumstances fall into enemy hands." 10 riflemen of Company A of the Canadian 2nd Division's South Saskatchewan Regiment were to provide security for Nissenthall. If RAF sergeant Nissenthall was in danger of being captured by the enemy he was to be killed.

Over 6,000 men sailed southward from five southeastern British ports on board 237 vessels, objective "Fortress Europe." Awaiting them the German Fifteenth Army's 571st Infantry Battalion, backed by the 302nd Infantry Division, and panzer forces.. The German defences had been strengthened in the wake of a 9 July dictate from the Führer "it is highly probable that an enemy landing will take place shortly in the area." The period from 10 to 19 August was selected by the German high command as "invasion possible" because of favourable moon and tides.

A five-ship enemy fleet intercepted the Allied flotilla. The German convoy's three small escort vessels battered one British Commando group's landing craft before being counterattacked by the Allied Polish destroyer Slazak. Antenna damage prevented the German escort vessels from warning the mainland of the approaching invasion force, but, as it turned out, no warning was necessary.

During the 10-minute naval engagement, the Freya radar operator on cliff top detected five columns of vessels 30 kilometres offshore. Jubilee was stripped of it's last secret.

Two Commando groups made a dash from their mother ships to beaches east and west of Dieppe. The Commandos were to silence the heavy artillery batteries flanking the city so that the tank-supported main assault against Dieppe's narrow streets and protected harbour could be made.

The South Saskatchewan Regiment's ploughed shoreward on the left flank of the westernmost Commando group. Objective? Green Beach, at Pourville! RAF sergeant Jack Nissenthall--nicknamed "Spook" was with the Canadians Nissenthall was armed only with a revolver. He carried a blue RAF haversack crammed with hand tools.

Intense hostile fire began shortly after the Canadians were spit onto Green Beach.

Company A was to dash up the cliff slope to attack the radar site while Company C held the village. Companies B and D were to move inland and block enemy reinforcements. One more Canadian unit, the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, was to go inland attacking the St. Aubin airfield 5 kilometres away.

Nissenthall and his bodyguards crossed the rocky beach in early light to the protection of a sea wall topped with barbed wire, when they reached that position they become conscious the navy had deposited them nearly 500 metres too far to the west. They were not at the base of the Freya cliff on the other side of Pourville, Company A was in front of the German-occupied village. Using scaling ladders, they climbed over the 8-foot-high sea wall, and crossed an open esplanade advancing into Pourville.

British fighter aircraft overhead to provided cover for the Allied troops. Small-arms fire and grenade rent the air with cordite stench and smoke as the brave invaders fitfully battled into the town.. An obnoxious path dead and writhing soldier's bodies marked their course. Following the seashore through Pourville, Company A found the passageway to its objective blocked by angry squat pillboxes at both ends of a bridge crossing the diminutive River Scie. An unpaved lane meandered up to the cliff face. On top of the cliff, the Freya antenna systematically and casually scanned the air continuing to report Allied fighter aeroplane whereabouts. They moved through the shadows, they slip away through the trees. Crossing German lines in the mists of the shore on their hands and their knees it was all that they ever was able to see. The fire in the air glowing red silhouetting the smoke on the breeze.


From: Sally Spangler <>
Date: Fri, 23 Aug 2002 10:59:47 -0400

Thank you very much Sinclair - you have given us a very important part of WWII. Besides the 'big picture' there are smaller pictures - in many cases helped put together the larger picture. The raid on the radar station at Dieppe, gave the men back in England where the intercept radar was and introduced 'jamming'. For King and Country - brave warriors and heros - going into the teeth of German gun enplacement for vital information.

It has also been said that at the time the Russians wanted the western allies to start a new front. The raid on Dieppe illustrated to them that it was not only going to be difficult, but that much more had to be done to prepare for a new front.

Date: Fri, 23 Aug 2002 11:11:11 +0200

The company should have landed on the other side of the bridge and probably already been on the cliff top an error put them in a precarious position. . Canadians fell one after the other to the pavement as the pillbox spit its deadly venom at them. At a break in the clattering fire one of the South Saskatchewans dashed forward and deposited two grenades through the firing slit of the pillbox. The machine gun went silent. Led by their battalion and company commanders, the Canadians cleared the bridge and began to ascend the grassy height under fire from above and to the right. Nissenthall and his bodyguards followed the advance, running between a stone church and a hotel to cross the bloody body plagued bridge. Only a quarter of Company A's original 100 were left. Nissenthall's guards were down to seven, three of whom were wounded but mobile. The RAF sergeant recalled being momentarily deafened when "one of the men carrying a backpack of mortar shells was hit and blown to pieces by his own shells" only 6 metres away. Using smoke canisters and ferreting out what little cover they, the last of A Company stopped just below the cliff top.

On their left a sheer white cliff, a rock and shingle beach below, ahead the coveted Freya. Barbed wire, riflemen in slit trenches and machine-gun nests stood between the invaders and the objective. The company commander turned to Nissenthall and said: "Well, there it is. Take it if you want it."

The radar antenna's motions limited to a 180-degree horizontal arc and pausing as it focused on individual targets told Nissenthall that the Freya was a target-discriminating accurate instrument connected to the operator's cabin and blockhouse by coaxial cable.

More detailed information could not be obtained by simple visual observation. Company A could not attempt an assault to get closer, however. Their ranks were decimated. Help was needed, but the company's radio was out of commission. After a brief discussion, Nissenthall and two of his bodyguards raced back to Pourville, which was now under steady fire from Germans on the high ground to both sides of the town. At battalion headquarters, the three men learned that shore-to-ship communication was virtually nonexistent.

Unable to enlist ship borne guns to soften up the Freya site as they had hoped, they gathered together a small mortar team. A well-placed enemy shell viciously aborted that effort. An unhurt but frustrated Nissenthall once more ran the gantlet of fire to rejoin Company A.

The main invasion force, despite some initial successes were being driven into the sea. The smoke and stench of battle filled a clear blue sky where airplanes fighters fought for superiority

The sergeant then decided to implement a suggestion made before his departure from England. If the Freya's landlines to its command post and analysis centre were severed, the radar crew would rely on radio to relay information on Allied air movements. This radioed information could then be monitored to provide the British with a fairly accurate idea of the radar's performance.

Nissenthall could see the critical telephone cables silhouetted against the sky about 35 Metres away at the crest of the hill. On all fours, the sergeant left cover and started through the tall grass. He moved past a half-hidden machine-gun nest, the ground quivering against his body from the weapon's unrelenting ranting. Nissenthall made it undetected to a triple-pole cable support just outside the Freya perimeter, whose defences were aimed to the front and sides but not the rear.

Nissenthall reported, "I wedged myself between the poles and worked my way to the top." 4 Metres above the ground, he cut the Freya's six outside communications wires. He quickly rejoined his companions, who apparently had been in no condition to weigh Nissenthall's odds of evading death or capture.

Still hoping for a chance to take a closer look at the Freya, a fatigued and sweating Nissenthall returned to Pourville for the third time. His intent was to commandeer a tank and batter his way into the radar site. (Original Jubilee planning, which had proved to be overly optimistic, had called for some of the Churchill tanks that landed at Dieppe to move inland toward Pourville and escort the raiders back to the seaport for evacuation after their mission was completed.)

This time, the Company A commander sent all seven remaining bodyguards to escort his "spook." After more than four hours of battle, Pourville was a shambles. The outgoing tide was exposing more bodies and discarded materiel. Nissenthall persuaded a number of Cameron Highlanders still in the village to accompany his small group as it set off to the southeast along a blacktop road on which the tanks were expected to arrive.

Reaching the village of Petit-Appeville about a mile away, the soldiers stopped at its crossroads to rest and wait. Before long, they heard the characteristic rumble and clank of approaching armour. The armour soon appeared not British, but German Tiger tanks supported by bicycle troops. Nissenthall and the Canadians ran off in panic as the enemy opened fire. Many fell en route back to Pourville, including another three of the sergeant's bodyguards.

The Canadians in Pourville were at a last ditch stand while slow moving landing craft were meat for German guns on the heights, did what they could to recover survivors. As casualties mounted and the defence perimeter shrank, Nissenthall's escorts remained under orders to kill him if capture seemed imminent. He also had a cyanide pill he had been given to suicide.

The escort destroyer HMS Brocklesby moved toward the beach, laying down a smoke screen to protect the milling landing craft. The warship's 4-inch guns unleashed an inferno at one major source of German fire, and a section of nearby chalk cliff blew apart. A silence followed as other enemy guns stopped firing so as not to attract the ship's attention. The beleaguered Canadians took advantage of the lull to race across 200 metres of open ground to the sea. Nissenthall and his bodyguards joined them.

The Germans opened fire anew from nearby houses, the high ground and the sea wall over which the Canadians had leaped. Discarding their helmets and gear as they ran past the wounded placed beneath the sea wall, the men splashed into the water. The sergeant and his one remaining bodyguard, miraculously un-hit by the hail of lead, dived beneath the surface and swam underwater as long as they could. Lungs bursting, they surfaced and continued seaward toward the landing craft popping in and out of the dark smoke screen.. Shell bursts pursued the boat into the smoke..

As the boat emerged from the billowing murk, two enemy fighters set it upon. Nissenthall saw this, "the most frightening episode of the whole raid." German 20mm cannon shells slammed against the small craft's sides, and it began to take on water. The battered craft slowly sank, even as its exhausted occupants were being hauled aboard an escort destroyer.

With the destroyer bringing up the rear, a variety of smaller vessels turned towards England, away from the French coast. German air attacks continued as the scruffy flotilla crossed the Channel, devastating the numerical outnumbered British Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.

Operation Jubilee was a expensive disaster. Inadequate supporting fire and a delay in landing the tanks, had preordained failure. More than 3,600 men in the invading force were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Royal Navy incurred another 550 casualties and lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft. The RAF lost 106 aircraft to the Luftwaffe's 48. German ground losses were 591. Combined Operations Command Chief Lord Louis Mountbatten, from the safety of England stated, "the successful landing in Normandy (6 June 1944) was won on the beaches of Dieppe," was an attempt to justify a poorly planed failure.

Nissenthall disembarked at Newhaven late that 19August night. The next morning he purchased a ticket and took commuter train to London. There, he reported to the Air Ministry building for a full debriefing. In his own words, "dirty, dishevelled and unshaven". Nissenthall. Had not been able to examine the Freya firsthand and return with its innards, he had, however in severing the telephone lines had provided the Allies with priceless information. The British listening to the temporarily open German radio plotting that directed Luftwaffe interceptors, learned much about both enemy aircraft control methods and the performance of the key Freya radar. One result was the creation of suitable jamming equipment, a task assigned to Nissenthall.

Nissenthall was considered for a Victoria Cross but in the then class ridden Britain with the stress on who you father was it would have been an anathema to award this honour to an emigrant Polish Jew's son.

Two Canadian and one Essex Scot Sinclairs were among those who lay dead. This was no victory. It was a study in Canadian valour and a lesson in poor planning.

An eye witness, who at 66 run a local tabac told me that as a child of almost 7 he saw from his Dieppe flat window some of the fighting. As his memory serves him he looked out the window and remarked to his father "the English have lady soldiers." referring to men in kilts. His father replied, "those are not ladies, they are devils"

Nissenthall for 25 years did not speak of Dieppe the Official Secrets Act ensured his silence. When the war over he married, changed his name to Nissen and moved to South Africa.

Years after the war's end, the Company A commander, who had been captured at Pourville, met Nissen. They spoke of Dieppe the former captain told Nissen that he had found the order he had received regarding his "spook" so repulsive that he had put it out of his mind for 20 years and then questioned if it had been a figment of his imagination. "Could you, would you have shot me?" asked Nissen.

The Canadian's quietly spoken unadorned answer, plain and simple, hung in the thickening air between the two men,



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