Assessing The Nazi’s ‘Freya’: The Secret Dieppe Mission

Posted on Apr 5, 2016

Long considered a catastrophic failure, it’s argued that one of the real objectives of the Dieppe raid was to gather intelligence on German technology. This included an attempt to steal Germany’s new four-rotor Enigma machine, as well as infiltrating a site that housed a powerful German radar, codenamed Freya, which sat atop a cliff right between Dieppe and neighbouring Pourville.

And while X Company’s characters are of course fictional, the events that take place near the radar station in episodes 209 and 210 parallel a true story about a Brit named Jack Nissenthall. A radar expert for the RAF, Nissenthall and a contingent of 11 soldiers from the South Saskatchewan Regiment were tasked with assaulting the Freya radar station and then, hopefully, learning its capabilities.

 

An undated photo of Sgt. Jack Nissenthall, in uniform. Photo: BBC

As the main Allied landing force stormed the beaches of Dieppe, Nissenthall and his Canadian escort were to loop around and approach from the west in hopes of bypassing German defenses. Fearing what would happen if Nissenthall fell into enemy hands, he was given a cyanide capsule and, as added insurance, the men accompanying him had orders to kill him if capture was imminent.

 

The Dieppe raid. The dotted area marks where Nissenthall and the Saskatchewans fought to get to Freya. Photo: © Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2005

Unsurprisingly, the mission didn’t go exactly as planned. To begin with, Nissenthall and his team landed on the wrong side of the Scie River. They continued on, but as they attempted to cross the river they came up against a pair of German pillboxes. The whizzing crack of machine guns signified Nissenthall and his team had been spotted, and in the ensuing chaos a few of the men from the Saskatchewans were killed.

Finally, a Canadian grenade silenced one of the pillboxes, and with some help from another company, Nissenthall and his team made another push towards Freya, eventually getting it into view. But by then, the crescendo of German artillery and weapons fire made a direct assault on the station an impossibility. They were close, but not close enough.

If there was to be any success, Nissenthall would have to improvise.

Accounts of what happened next differ slightly, but all agree Nissenthall thought up a plan to cut all the German telephone lines around the radar station. This, he hoped, would force the Germans to broadcast their radar findings over the radio instead, giving Allied eavesdroppers a chance to listen in and gain valuable insights into Freya’s capabilities.

Deciding it was the best option, Nissenthall crawled his way through a barrage of gunfire, around to the rear side of the station, and cut each of the cables himself.

Miraculously, he then made it back to the beach where the Allied withdrawal was already underway. The casualties at Dieppe were severe. In just over six hours, over 1,500 Canadians were either killed or wounded, and another 2,000 were captured.

The carnage at Dieppe, with Canadian dead and landing craft alight in the distance. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-291-1229-12 / Meyer; Wiltberger / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nissenthall would escape unscathed, but his Canadian escort was decimated, with only one man from the Saskatchewans returning alongside him. British ships fired off canisters of smoke to cover a harrowing retreat, and he was back in London for a debriefing later that day.

Despite the tragedy at Dieppe, Nissenthall’s efforts proved invaluable. His plan had worked, and the Allies intercepted a number of radio communications that helped assess Freya’s strengths. They also learned a good deal about German radar positions along the channel, and gained insight into Luftwaffe air control protocols. It also underlined the importance of radar jamming technology, which Nissenthall would later be tasked with developing.

After the war, Nissenthall shortened his name to Nissen, married, and moved to South Africa. And the harsh lessons learned at Dieppe helped pave the way for the D-Day landings two years later.

For a much more detailed account of Canada’s role in the raid on Dieppe, visit the Veterans Affairs Canada page. Special thanks to X Company historian and researcher Lynn Philip Hodgson.

Canadian Media Fund