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Jack Nissen and Radar

Editorial note: Editors, writers and researchers frequently write with questions about various detail that appears on this website or regarding books they have read giving rise to questions to which they would like answers. Some subjects are more popular than others. Jack Nissen (about whom I wrote Winning the Radar War and shared credit) is an enduring personality who interests readers. Jack was the subject of a Globe and Mail (Toronto newspaper) column 'Lives lived'. I made reference to the column in this letter to one of many correspondents contacting me for more information. What I wrote to one correspondent might interest others.

Kevin: This attachment contains two pieces: your own summary of Jack's life and career and the obit. from the Globe and Mail for which you asked. I scanned the text from the original cutting. I have a couple of notes to add by way of explanation and nothing I write is meant to detract from Jack's undoubted contribution to radar technology. Having said that it is worth remarking that in time myth, fiction and legend attach themselves like barnacles to the exploits of brave and intrepid men like Jack. I came to know him exceptionally well while writing Winning the Radar War and found that as his memory of past events dimmed he added touches to exploits that made them more compelling, more commanding, more impressive to the listener. It is the historian's job to get at the facts and clear away the embellishments, which is not to suggest that Jack told a tall story. He didn't but, towards the end of his life, he simply added bits and pieces. For example, his minute by minute account of the time he spent on the Dieppe Raid simply didn't add up; this is a passage I had to fudge. He could not in six hours have gone from the village to the Freya Station three times under fire (a distance of 1.5 miles for a total of nine miles), walked south and back (12 miles), organized and fought a rearguard action, then escaped in the manner he described. [Having been a soldier myself, I well know what effort it takes to move two and a half miles an hour in battle gear.]

Jack was a lovely fellow. He had an alert, original mind and could grasp principles of applied science and electronic technology like the burrs that stick to your clothes. His analysis of the effect of radar pulses showing the Stavanger Mountains during his time in Scotland was a stroke of genius, for every scientist at that time believed in the linearity of pulse waves (and who but the few understood Einstein's theory of relativity and the bending of light in those days?)

I've read your piece on Jack with much interest. Any changes I've made are cosmetic. A couple of things: the Brits and Canadians did not use the word 'mission' to describe raids, sorties, operations, attacks, etc; hence, the Dieppe Raid, not the Dieppe Mission. The USAAF introduced mission with their bombing raids; I think you should be precise in naming Pourville, not just Dieppe; I'm pleased to note that you refer to 'German Freya', the Germans, etc. and not that appalling word Nazi that our American friends attach to anything of the German Armed Forces; it is true that Watson-Watt is credited with inventing radio detection and ranging although, to give them their due, the Germans also developed their stiletto systems, which were precision systems as compared with the British megaphone-like ‘range finding’ in use early in WWII; to my mind, the Canadian connection in radar is strong, for without the involvement of the National Research Council, the British could never have produced the mandrel, which as you know, is the heart of short wave radar; regarding fees, be assured that I am delighted to be of assistance and do not expect payment. Good luck with your project. If I can be of more help I expect you will tell me. The two pieces follow, beginning with your own text. [Jack's obituary is here omitted.]


Jack Nissen (1918-1997) was a technician who worked on radar developments and installations during World War II. His story is interesting for its Canadian connections.

Recounted in his memoir, Winning the Radar War, Jack Nissen was part of a secret reconnaissance assignment during the Dieppe Raid. The Canadian South Saskatchewan Regiment escorted Nissen in his quest to find out more about the German Freya radar installed at Pourville, near Dieppe. His job was to find out if Germany possessed precision radar technology. However, because of his valuable knowledge of the British radar, the South Saskatchewan Regiment was under orders to shoot and kill the radar specialist should the task be intercepted by the Germans and the raiding party be in danger of capture; under no circumstances could the British afford to let Nissen be taken alive. With numerous close calls during the raid, which was eventually successful, Nissen escaped capture and returned to England. His action in cutting the land lines and forcing the Freya operators to resort to radio transmissions, which the British radio listeners were able to monitor, confirmed that the German Freya radar was indeed a precision installation.

Jack Nissen immigrated to Canada in 1978 and founded Museum Electronics Inc. based in Thornhill, Ontario. Nissen came to Canada following his British mentor Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who was the original inventor of radio detection and ranging. Watson-Watt was involved in one of those strange twists of fate, which was noted in Winning the Radar War.

Watson-Watt often told the story of being caught for exceeding the speed limit during a journey from Toronto to Port Hope, Ontario. Handing him a ticket, the policeman said that he had been caught in a radar trap. Mrs. Watson-Watt said, "Good heavens! My husband invented radar." Indulgently, the constable smiled and replied, "That's what the man said about the guillotine when they led him to the execution block."

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