Last month Elizabeth Scott and I gave our one hour storytelling performance of ‘The Freya Connection’ in Pourville, near Dieppe. We were booked by Anne Vandelanoote, who lives in Dieppe and runs an organisation called ‘Connect’ that brings French people and expatriates together for social and cultural events. Set in 1942, the performance tells the story of one man’s part in the Dieppe Raid. The Raid, which was launched from the south coast of England, was a practice run for the planned invasion, and a military disaster. It lasted less than a day, and two-thirds of the six thousand soldiers, mostly Canadians, who landed on the beaches of northern France, were either captured or killed. It is generally regarded as a complete failure.
Our story concerns Jack Nissenthal, a 24 year old radar expert and Cockney of Polish Jewish extraction, who volunteered to break into the heavily guarded radar station at Pourville to assess the capabilities of German radar. Because of his knowledge of top secret British radar systems, he had to agree to allow himself to be killed by his own bodyguards if he was in danger of falling into enemy hands.
This astonishing story was originally commissioned in 2012 by Sara Clifford for a big Arts Council funded project in Newhaven called “The Port, The Beast and the Traveller” to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. Some older people in Newhaven still have fond childhood memories of young Canadians billeted on their families, who went off one day and never came back. It’s a sad memory in this town, so I was rather dubious when Sara asked me to create a story about the Raid. But one doesn’t turn down a commission, so I began to do some research, and was intrigued to come across some occasional mentions of Jack Nissenthal on the internet. This led me to James Leasor’s book “Green Beach”, based on Jack’s own account of his part in the raid. The story was so astonishing – such a hero’s journey – and seemed so perfect for film, that I was amazed to find that no one seemed to know much about it. The story was meant to be a one off performance for this anniversary, but the way it was received convinced Elizabeth and me that we should go on telling it. We felt it was important for people to hear it because Jack received no recognition for his heroic part in the Raid, and routinely encountered anti-Semitism, even from those with whom he was serving. After the war he changed his name and moved abroad. Jack is dead now, but we felt he deserved to have his story told.
We have performed this story at various places in Sussex, including at the Newhaven Lifeboat station to raise money for the RNLI. at the Alfriston and Seaford Live Festivals and in 2014 on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry as part of the Diep-Haven Festival, a collaboration between arts organisations in Normandy and Sussex. In keeping with the series of happy coincidences that seem to occur whenever we tell this story, the performance on the ferry took place on 19th August, the exact anniversary of the Raid. We performed it on the same route that the Canadians took to Dieppe, and again on the way back, following the return journey of the wounded. Stepping out onto deck after telling the story and looking at the formidable entrance to Dieppe harbour, where the old gun emplacements can still be seen, added a level of reality to the story that we thought would never be exceeded.
But the Pourville performance proved even more moving. Pourville is just along the coast from Dieppe and before the performance Anne showed us around the tiny town – more of a village really – so we could see where the events of the story took place and make sure we got the details right. We parked in the car park near the River Scie to look at the bridge that Jack and his companions had to cross under heavy machine gun fire; they had been landed on the wrong side of the river, one of several military bungles that happen in the story. The river is now confined in a brick culvert and a road has been built over it, but the bridge is still visible underneath, narrow and exposed on every side. As we got back into the car, I noticed a small memorial, shaped like an anchor, inscribed with the date ‘19th August 1942’.
Next, we drove to the small 16th century church, which also features in our story. Round the side we came upon a huge rectangular plaque with ‘1942-2014’ inscribed on it. It was decorated with red stone chips laid out in the shape of a maple leaf. Two tall stone memorials flank it, one in English one in French, put up by members of the Canadian South Saskatchewan regiment, which provided Jack’s team of bodyguards, to remember their fallen comrades. Down at the beach, close to the hall where we were to perform, we found yet another memorial to the soldiers who had landed there, also decorated with red stone chips. It was an extraordinary realisation: what had been a story to us is still a living event in this town.
Anne then drove us up to the Canadian Cemetery that lies peacefully at the top of a hill, with rows of white gravestones among neatly mowed lawns. As we got out of the car, I said to Elizabeth, “If we find Graham Mavor’s grave, I’ll really get the shivers.” Corporal Graham Mavor, an expert sniper, was the leader of Jack’s bodyguard team, and the first to die. Though several others of Jack’s bodyguards must also be buried in that cemetery, he is the only one of those killed that day whose name we know, because Jack insisted the others were given code names to protect their identity in case he was captured.
We walked along rows of gravestones carved with names, ages, and regiments; under them all was the same date : ‘19-8-1942’. Most bore crosses, a few the Star of David. Many said only ‘Known to God’. In the middle of the second row we found him: Corporal G R Mavor, 31, South Saskatchewan Regiment. We stood there looking at the stone, and suddenly someone who, to us, had existed only as a name in a story, became a living human being. I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle and Elizabeth was so moved she was unable to speak.
As we told that story the next day in the packed hall on the beach, just yards from where those young men landed, I was aware that some of the seventy-eight people in the room would have witnessed the event as children, while others would have been told about it by parents or grandparents. To them it was not just a story. People always listen to this story with attention and fascination, but the atmosphere in the room that day was so reverent that I felt as though we were telling one of world’s great sacred stories. As indeed we were. At the end of the story, when the bugler played The Last Post, many people were in tears.
Afterwards, an old French lady, who spoke no English, beckoned me to the corner of the room where there was a table. She produced a photograph album from a bag and showed me some colour photographs of some sort of gathering. To my astonishment, I realised they were pictures of Jack Nissenthal as an older man. Someone explained that he had attended the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Raid at Pourville. Standing beside him were two other men whom I did not recognise. The lady opened a commemoration brochure and showed me, inside the front cover, an autographed message from Jack, with his address in Canada. Below that was another message, signed by Colonel Merritt, the Commanding Officer of the South Saskatchewan regiment, who had won a Victoria Cross for his extraordinary courage in leading his men across the bridge. And at the bottom of the page was a name I didn’t immediately recognise: ‘Lt. Colonel Weber, retired’. For a moment I was puzzled, and then words I speak in the story came to me: “… 28 year old Lt. Willie Weber, who commanded the chain of German radar stations along the north French coast…”. In our story, a desperate Weber struggles to find someone to believe his warnings of approaching enemy vessels that his radar has detected. And once again someone who had been just a name became a real human being.
These three men had sat together over dinner at the same table as guests of the lady and her husband in 1992. Picturing it gave me that sensation that is often described as ‘a goose walking over one’s grave’. The old lady smiled at my astonishment and then, with the air of a magician, produced and unfolded an old yellowed document, stamped in red, ‘TOP SECRET’. It was an original map showing the landing plans for the Raid. Her mother had found them under a bench while cleaning the church the day after the commemoration service.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Elizabeth had been speaking to the French-Canadian curator of the Canadian War Museum in Dieppe. Diane Boutier told us that she had no previous knowledge of our story; it was generally thought that Jack’s mission had been a failure, and she had had no idea that such useful information had come from it – information that would contribute to later Allied successes. She offered to show us round the museum the following day, a Sunday, though they had not yet opened for the season. During that tour, we saw a film about the raid in which soldiers who took part are interviewed. It is one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Diane told us that she would commission a display board telling Jack’s story to add to the others, and to show that something positive had come from the Raid, apart, of course, from the valuable lessons learnt.
Knowing that there will be a display about Jack’s role in the museum, which must be a primary resource for anyone researching the Raid, is a huge step towards our objective of making his story better known. We have also managed to make a small memorial to Jack on this side of the channel, thanks to donations from Anne and her husband Denys, Judith Ost, the Mayor of Newhaven, others who heard the story on the ferry, and people who came to other performances. Jack’s name is now carved into a slat on the memorial bench made by local sculptor Christian Funnel up by the Fort in Newhaven, and we hope curiosity will make more people look him up and discover his astonishing story. Diane is also planning to talk to Newhaven Fort about a collaboration between the two museums, and we hope Jack’s story will play a part in that, too.
As for us, we will never be able to tell that story again without remembering that every person we mention, by name or code name, was once as alive as you or I, with all our hopes, dreams and aspirations. It really is a sacred story.