Jack Nissen, Dieppe Raid, German Radar, South Saskatchewan Rifles
The War Correspondent and the Mysterious Doctor Wendell
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Back in the mid 80s I found myself listening to a great story teller.
It began something like this….......“You don`t know me Mr. Westcott,” the voice on the telephone said, “But I read in the paper that you are going to China and I`d like to meet you one day for lunch before you go.”
He was right. I was going to China in a couple of weeks to attend the opening of a new science museum in Beijing. The exhibits were designed and built by the Ontario Science Centre and were financed with money made in 1982 at a year-long exhibit of Mainland China artifacts at the Ontario Centre.
We met - and Jack Nissen introduced himself. A dapper-looking man, neatly dressed, with an accent that suggested he had retired to Canada from England.
He said he had been a tinkerer fooling around with electricity and electronics for most of his life. Before long he was bored with retirement and was hired to repair exhibits at The Science Centre.
“I put my skills to coming up with ideas and developing and designing displays,” he explained. “And eventually set up my own company to build working exhibits for the centre.”
He wanted to talk to me because he had designed and built the exhibits for the museum in China. He asked, “Would you, on your return, tell me how they were received by the Chinese.”
Looking much younger than his years, Jack Nissen seemed to want to tell me he has shortened his name from Nissenthal, and was a Jewish Cockney born in the East End of London. I could tell by the way he spoke that he was very proud of his heritage. I think he sensed that I was a bit inquisitive about who he really was and what brought him to settle in Canada. For some reason it seemed vague, as if a key punch line was missing.
Smiling, and without me asking a direct question, he said, “Let me tell you a story.”
He asked if I knew of Quentin Reynolds, and I said I did. I remembered him as a newspaper reporter and columnist who spent the war as a correspondent in Europe. He wrote dramatic and vivid war stories for millions of readers in North America. His reporting on the war was often spiced with mystery and intrigue.
Nissen`s story continued, “After the war Reynolds wrote a book.”
As his expression changed and his tone of voice lowered, he went on to suggest that Reynolds`s apparent closeness to the high ranking military gave him an advantage. It gave him an edge over other foreign newspapermen and helped establish his reputation in the United States as a daring journalist. His reputation was envied and sometimes brought into question by others covering the war. He truly typified the movie image of a war correspondent cloaked in mystique.
“There was a lot of jealousy in the newspaper business during the war.” Jack said. “Competition was keen, if not brutal, when it came to satisfying America`s thirst for war news.” According to him, Westbrook Pegler, the muckraking columnist at the Chicago Tribune hated Reynolds with a passion and attacked his credibility in his widely read syndicated column - questioning much of what he wrote about the war. Pegler claimed Reynolds was a liar and a drunk who spent much of his time bar hopping and making up exaggerated stories, and was not the competent and reliable war correspondent he professed to be.
The feud became so intense at the end of the war, Reynolds`s reputation as a responsible journalist was being destroyed.
Seeking advice from famous attorney, Louis Nizer, he found it could only be settled in a court of law. Reynolds would have to bring a slander or defamation of character charge to the courts. There was a danger, for this would put the onus on Reynolds to prove Pegler`s accusations were wrong and had caused him harm.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Reynolds to prove all his writing was true. So much of what he wrote came from confidential sources. It came down to living with the fact that everyone would believe him to be a drunk and a liar, or both - or he could go for a difficult and dirty fight in court to prove Pegler wrong.
The case was argued before a judge in New York City. It was soon apparent that even the skill of Louis Nizer could not make a strong enough case to prove that this famous newsman and author was an honest journalist. According to Nissen, Pegler’s lawyer claimed the stories filed from Europe were phony and made up. He continually challenged Reynolds to prove he was not a liar. This was next to impossible for proof of much of what he wrote was locked up and still protected by the War Secrets Act. Records of government and the armed forces could not be released by law until many years after the war ended in 1945.
Evidence against him kept piling up. Ironically, Pegler`s lawyer was using Reynolds`s own writings and war reporting from years earlier. Even though the allegations against him were false, they could not be refuted. It was taking on the appearance of a lost cause. In a lowered, almost sad tone, Nissen said, “Bringing the case against Pegler to court now looked like a great mistake.” By this time I was wondering where Jack`s story was going
As the case was winding down, the focus on Reynolds` credibility came down to one specific piece he wrote. Pegler`s lawyer grinned and said to the court that it showed the ridiculous ends to which he would stoop to colour a story.
Reynolds wrote about the raid on Dieppe. It was a major story with information that no other war correspondent had. He had written that the Allies were concerned about the state of German coastal defense - especially the level of sophistication of their R.D.F. warning devices, commonly known as radar. Nissen was looking at me. almost like a teacher telling a story to a class. He said, “you know, very little was known of the type and kind of radar the Germans had to warn of an invasion.”
Reynolds had written that the major reason was a top secret plan to land a radar expert at Dieppe. An expert who could, because of his knowledge and experience could see precisely how advanced it was and the kind of radar the Germans were using….. and get in and out in a hurry. In the story he filed he said the Allied High Command had approved the raid and the technician would be accompanied by a small unit made up of ten infantrymen from the South Saskatchewan Rifles. The radar expert was referred to in top secret files simply as ‘Dr. Wendell’.
They were to assist him in getting ashore, stay with him at all times and return him to an escape vessel when his mission was completed. If it appeared at any time that he would be captured, his own guards were to shoot him. It was too much of a risk to let the Germans capture this man - and he was told this before he accepted the assignment. He had spent most of his life researching and developing radar detection equipment with men like Sir Robert Watson Watt, the man credited with inventing wartime radar.
The story of Dr. Wendell was so absurd the words of ridicule from Westbook Pegler`s lawyer seemed to confirm Reynolds indeed was a drunken writer of fiction, not truth. The trial made the front page of the New York Times.
It seemed that a miracle was needed to save Reynolds…..and it came. A former soldier visiting the United States, on reading of the trial appeared in court as the case was about to wind up. He announced his presence and asked to be heard. He said he felt he could offer evidence crucial to the case.
He told the court that he was Col. Jock Laurence from England, and during the war was of the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Lord Mountbatten conceived the idea and was responsible for the planning of the raid on Dieppe. He ordered Col. Charles Merritt, a Canadian officer to pick ten infantrymen from the South Saskatchewan Rifles to accompany Dr. Wendell. They were all to be crack shots. Col. Lawrence then added, ” Lord Mountbatten gave them the order to kill him if he was in danger of capture by the Germans.
The former officer from England went on to testify to the court, “I was there and heard Mountbatten tell Mr. Reynolds about the raid and the role of the man who was given the code name of Dr. Wendell.”
My lunch partner leaned forward and in a hushed tone, as if he was passing on state secrets, added, “few people outside the High Command know that the information gained on this raid went a long way to ensure the success of the D Day invasion of Europe.”
Westbrook Pegler`s lawyer has so focused his entire case on this one incident that when it was refuted so dramatically by this reputable and knowledgeable stranger from England, his case collapsed.
Reynolds was vindicated. The court felt that if something as bizarre as the Dr. Wendell story was true, the other stories written by him were likely true as well. Reynolds won a judgment of $175,000 against Pegler, the largest amount ever awarded for libel in the United States.
He wound up the story as we were having coffee and I had to admit it was a fascinating tale. If it was all true it was indeed stranger than fiction. Although I was having trouble connecting his story to our earlier discussion about his building exhibits for the Science Centre in China.
“It was a great story, Jack, what prompted you to tell it to me?”
He smiled and said simply. “Because I am Dr. Wendell.”