OPINION: Official recognition for unsung yiddishe war hero is long overdue

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OPINION: Official recognition for unsung yiddishe war hero is long overdue

World War Two soldier Jack Nissenthall was a genuine yiddishe hero during the Allies' 1942 raid on Dieppe. The time for his bravery to be publicly celebrated is overdue, writes Gavin Stollar

Jack Nissenthall, Dieppe 1992
Jack Nissenthall, Dieppe 1992

In the age of social media, reality TV and the desperation for “10-minutes of fame”, it’s easy to lose yourself in the self-obsessed malaise of modern society. In that context, it is hard for my generation, and those that have followed, to fully appreciate the enormity of the debt of gratitude we owe the war generation.

As a keen reader, student of history, and active member of the UK Jewish community, I was recently given a book by my in-laws. The book was written by their friend, and it is the story of her father Jack Nissenthall’s contribution during the war and beyond.

With Jewish Book Week upon us, it is an opportune moment to reflect on Jack’s story. Prompted over the Shabbos dinner, “So, what did you think of Jack’s story?”, I conceded I had yet to start reading the book, but upon picking it up, it is fair to say I then couldn’t put it down.

Gavin Stollar, chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel

The author, Linda Nissen Samuels (Nissenthall’s daughter), has very skilfully researched and amalgamated numerous sources and, given her relationship with the subject, had access to private papers – ingredients for a genuine thriller.

It did not disappoint. ‘The Man Under The Radar’ tells the life story of Jack and gives an insight into the experience of loved ones left behind in London during the Blitz.

Nissen Samuel deftly and sensitively includes a range of correspondence between Jack and his sweetheart (later wife, Dell), which is expertly intertwined with the gritty recounting of the story’s crux – Jack’s role in the infamous Dieppe Raid.

Nissenthall, a Jewish soldier from the East End, enters the war as an amateur radar engineer who, upon signing up, was assigned to the RAF. It was clear very early on to his superiors that this young man had knowledge and talent that belied his age, and Jack was swiftly despatched to several critical defensive locations to build out and innovate our radar capability on the borders of the UK, most notably the coast of Scotland and near Plymouth in Devon.

Those who fought in the war were marked by a shared trait – they didn’t see themselves as heroes nor what they did as exceptional. But Jack Nissenthall undeniably was, noted as such by the top brass in the RAF including King Charles III’s beloved uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten. And Nissenthall in no small part contributed to the ultimate success of the Normandy Landings in 1944 – the critical turning point in the War.

Pic: Jewish East End Celebration Society

His moment was the Dieppe raid of 1942, which sought to take the German-occupied French port.

Over 6,000 infantry, predominantly Canadian, were put ashore, but aerial and naval support was insufficient to enable the ground forces to achieve their objectives. Within ten hours, 3,623 of the 6,086 men who landed had been killed, wounded or became prisoners of war.

What wasn’t known at the time however was that during this ill-fated Operation a young Jewish RAF soldier was sent ashore on a special mission. Without ruining the book (available from Amazon), Jack Nissenthall not only succeeded in gathering deep intelligence on the German radar defences, he also actively damaged the lines of communication on the ground in Dieppe.

Amazingly he then swam, under a barrage of fire, to return to the naval force off the coast. The story is even more exceptional when you learn that he was accompanied by a troop of ten Canadian soldiers whose sole purpose on the mission was to kill Nissenthall if there was any risk of him falling into enemy hands, such was his knowledge.

Jack Nissenthall was a genuine unsung yiddishe hero, albeit I suspect anti-Semitism has played its part in a lack of any formal recognition for his gallantry. He had a truly enriching life after the war which took the Nissen family first to South Africa and then to Canada, where he was revered, and finally laid to rest.

May his memory be a blessing.

  • Gavin Stollar is chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel
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