South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 9 March 2016 was Doctor Brian Austin, a visitor from England, whose topic was 75 Years of South African Radar - Basil Schonland's Challenge. Doctor Austin introduced his talk by explaining that it was based on his biography of Sir Basil Schonland, the eminent South African scientist and soldier who established South Africa's radar defences during the Second World War and who recruited the very talented team who served in an elite and top-secret unit, the Special Signals Service, which formed part of the S A Corps of Signals during the war.

Today most people in South Africa know something about radar and the part it played in the Second World War, and that it is known to be an important tool for the navigation of ships and aircraft as well as for use in weather forecasting and for military purposes. Few people, however, know that South Africa developed its own radar which protected our vulnerable coastal shipping route and which was of great use to the Air Force and Navy in defending the coast line and shipping route round the Cape. Even today, very little is officially known and little has been written on this aspect of South Africa's part in the War. What little has been recorded will be found in Mr Peter Brain's book, South African Radar in World War 2. He was assisted by many ex-members of the SSS, including Geoff Mangin for many years a well-respected member of our branch and now sadly deceased. Geoff was responsible for the excellent display at Cape Point and now in the Navy Museum in Simon's Town.

Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland was born in Grahamstown on 5 February 1896. He was the son of Professor Selmar Schonland, a distinguished botanist, and was educated at St Andrews College in Grahamstown, matriculating in 1910 at the age of 14. He obtained a BA at Rhodes University in 1910. As a youth, he had an interest in radio and built a wireless set. Our speaker explained that Schonland was never a Rhodes Scholar as his interest was in Physics and the Cavendish Institute at Cambridge was far superior to the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford. Here Schonland obtained a First Class in the Mathematical Tripos in 1915.

In July 1915, he was commissioned in the Royal Engineers and in 1916 he served in France. At that stage the signals function was part of the Royal Engineers as the Royal Corps of Signals only came into existence after the end of World War One. He was in charge of cable-laying operations and, for his services, he was promoted to Major, twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the OBE. As the role of wireless in the British Army increased, he gave lectures to wireless officers and, when the war ended he was offered the post of Chief Wireless Officer in the British Regular Army.

He declined this offer and returned to Cambridge where he passed the Natural Science Tripos in 1920 and was awarded a PhD in 1924. In 1922, he accepted the post of Senior Lecturer in Physics at UCT, where he served under Prof R W James (who had accompanied Shackleton to the Antarctic). He began to research lightning. His work resulted in the establishment of the Bernard Price Institute for Geophysical Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was appointed as its first Director and Professor of Geophysics at Wits in 1937.

Dr Austin now discussed the development of Radar. This was not something that only the British were looking at. A number of scientists in various countries, including Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Japan and the United States, were following the same thread of thought during the 1930's, with varying degrees of success. The British had held successful experiments in 1935, although the Americans claimed to have done so earlier. A German scientist, Christian Hulsemayer, had pioneered a device in 1904 to prevent collisions between ships at sea in fog. Of course, each country kept the results of its research secret.

With the advent of Adolf Hitler in 1933, war clouds were beginning to gather over Europe and elsewhere. The British armed forces were becoming concerned as the new Luftwaffe showed off its new all-metal aircraft. The RAF was still equipped with planes built of wood and canvas. Many experiments were carried out, including some looking at the development of "death rays" and acoustic mirrors. Radar was the only one with any promise.

A group of young scientists had developed a device which used a radio beam transmitted towards an aircraft. A beam would bounce off the aircraft, to be received by a radio receiver. They set up their equipment in a field near the BBC transmitters at Daventry. An aircraft was to fly past the Daventry transmitter at an agreed time. It did so and the equipment in the lorry received a return signal. Radar, or Radio Direction Finding (RDF) as it was then known, worked. This was on 8 March 1935. Further work enabled the user to measure the course and altitude of the aircraft and, by 1940, a chain of radar stations had been constructed round the coast of the British Isles and, as a result, the RAF won the Battle of Britain.

Early in 1939, the British Government invited the Dominions, i.e. South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to send representatives to England to learn the secrets of radar because, in the looming war, they would have to either use British equipment or build their own. Each of the other Dominions sent a senior scientist but South Africa sent Brig Gen Hoare and Major H G Willmott, later SAAF Chief of Staff.

Prof Schonland was asked by Gen Smuts to go to Cape Town to meet the Winchester Castle in Cape Town and sail in her to Durban. Dr E M Marsden, an eminent New Zealand physicist who had had dealings with Schonland, was on this ship on his way back to New Zealand after attending the meeting in London. The two met and Marsden gave Schonland all the secret information he had learnt in London, while Schonland took copious notes. In Durban, Schonland borrowed Marsden's copy of a British RDF Manual and had it secretly - and laboriously - copied onto photographic plates at the University of Natal - no photo copiers in those days.

South Africa had taken responsibility for protecting the vulnerable and vital sea route round the Cape. This was a vital lifeline for the Allies and became the main supply route between Britain and the Middle East. Britain had promised to supply radar equipment but, in the early part of the war, none was available. So, at the request of Gen Smuts, the Bernard Price Institute was mobilized in the Union Defence Force (UDF), although its members stayed in civilian clothing. The "Special Establishment General List", SA Corps of Signals, became the Special Signals Service (SSS) whose excellent work remained a well-kept secret throughout the war.

Prof Schonland was promoted to Major, to command the unit. He recruited a number of distinguished physicists as his key officers - these included Professors G R Bozzoli (Wits), W E Phillips (Natal), F J Hewitt (Rhodes), P G Gane (Bernard Price Institute) N Roberts (UCT) and Mrs Schonland.

South Africa at that stage of its history had an electronic industry which was in its infancy. The first radar transmitter/receiver was built using components purchased in local amateur radio supply shops and guided by Schonland's notes, the copy of the RDF Manual and the Radio Amateur's Handbook. This was done in a couple of months and with much ingenuity.

By December 1939 they wanted to see whether their "contraption" would receive a signal from an aircraft, so the SAAF was asked to fly an aircraft on a particular course at a fixed time. The pilot was not told why he was flying on that day so he changed course to fly over his girlfriend's house in Roodepoort. On 16 December 1939, a weak echo was obtained from Northcliff, 8 km away. Many modifications and adjustments were made and the set recorded echoes from the Magaliesberg some 100 km away and later from aircraft 60 km away. South Africa's radar worked.

The prototype used the highest possible frequency achievable by the available valves - 90 MHz (3.3 metres) with a peak power output of 5kW. The equivalent British Chain Overseas Low set used about 100 kW at 200 MHz (1.5 Metres). The laboratory set was developed into a military set with separate units, one for the transmitter and the other for the receiver with a sort of bicycle chain arrangement linking the two aerials which were some distance apart. The scientists and the students who had assisted them were formed into the SSS. The first set was operational near Mombasa in Kenya by 1 August 1940. At this time South African forces were moving to Kenya in preparation for the advance on Italian-held Somaliland and Abyssinia. Four more radar sets were placed near Mombasa and Nairobi. Having the designers on the spot meant that problems could be solved and ad hoc improvements could easily be made on the spot.

After the fall of Italian East Africa, the SSS moved three of their sets to El Arish, Rafah and El Midan in the Sinai in mid-1941, still operated by the SSS. The home-made sets were tracking German bombers at a distance of 120 km and obtaining better results than the factory built mobile radar units of the RAF stationed in the same area. The late Geoff Mangin once related the story of a team of SSS operators who decided one day to improve the range of their set, so set about taking it apart. A British colonel accused them of damaging Government property but was rudely told that "we built the thing so have the right to improve its performance". A good story, but it cannot be vouched for whether it is fact or not.

It soon became apparent that the promised British and American radars for the protection of our coastline would not be forthcoming for a long time. The SSS designed a chain of radar stations to be set up round our coastline. These were locally built and were to be used to keep watch for ships and aircraft. The chain eventually stretched from Namaqualand to the border of Moçambique. Eventually imported sets using the revolutionary cavity magnetron became available and replaced some of the South African built sets. These radar stations reported to filter rooms in Cape Town and other coastal cities.

These stations were operated largely by women members of the SSS. Operators were trained at a number of radar schools in the main centres of South Africa. The people manning the stations in the Middle East returned to South Africa in 1942. Some 50 radar stations with 17 in the Western Cape were in operation by 1945 and some 1,600 people were in service by the end of the war.

A special SSS detachment was attached to the SAAF, where they installed and maintained radar sets on strength with SAAF squadrons. They served in Takoradi in the Gold Coast with 26 Squadron and in Italy with the many SAAF squadrons operating there. They also operated some radar stations in Italy.

Prof Schonland was appointed Superintendent of the Operational Research Group within the Air Defence and Development Establishment and, as a brigadier, was largely responsible for much of the Allied radar planning. He was one of the planners of the Bruneval Raid. By 1944 he had become the Chief Scientific Advisor to Montgomery. He was the first president of the SA Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and became the director of the Atomic Research Establishment at Harwell in England, being knighted in 1960.

Prof Bozzoli became Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof Hewitt started the Telecommunications Research Laboratory at the CSIR, becoming the deputy president of the CSIR in 1972. Trevor Wadley's advanced electronic designs include the Tellurometer, using microwaves to measure distances. Staff-Sergeant Jules Feijer became one of the world's leading ionospheric physicists.

Our speaker discussed the failure of the Nazi leadership to appreciate the value of radar and the operations room used to control the economic use of fighter aircraft when defending against enemy air attack.

He also spoke about crucial role played by radar fitted to aircraft during the Battle of the Atlantic. Dr Austin's talk was supported by a series of excellent slides illustrating the people and radar equipment in use during the period covered by his talk. After a long question and answer period, our speaker was thanked by Mr Bob Buser for his very interesting and informative talk and was presented with the customary gift. Mr Buser made the passing remark that it was one of the best lectures delivered at this branch in quite a while.




Please note that the Annual General Meeting of the Cape Town Branch will be held on May 12th. Motions of Notion and Nominations for Office-bearers for 2016-17 can be submitted to the Honorary Secretary (Mr Ray Hattingh) or the Treasurer (Mr Bob Buser) up to the start of the AGM. Only paid-up members by that date will be eligible to vote.




Our speaker for April will be Ian Pringle (author of Dingo Firestorm [the subject of a previous lecture] and Green Leader: Operation Gatling, The Rhodesian Military's Response To The Viscount Tragedy [his latest book]). Members who attended will recall that his previous lecture was a real tour de force, distinguished by a gripping and spell-bounding narrative which was delivered with consummate skill and professionalism, and which kept us glued to our seats, not missing a fact or the tiniest detail.

On 3 September 1978, a Russian-supplied heat-seeking missile shot down an Air Rhodesia Viscount civilian airliner shortly after it took off from the lakeside holiday resort of Kariba in the Zambezi Valley. Miraculously, 18 people, including small children, survived the crash only for most of them to be murdered in cold blood shortly after the crash by terrorists loyal to the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) leader Joshua Nkomo.

In this fascinating account, our speaker will describe the Viscount tragedy and the military response. He will make use of exclusive interviews with two survivors of the crash and the massacre, and with the first person to arrive at the horrendous crash scene (commanding officer of the Rhodesian SAS Regiment), as well as accounts from other key witnesses, to recreate the tragic event.

He also will describe the white-hot anger felt by the small white community in Rhodesia, who howled for revenge and demanded martial law and total war. The Rhodesian military responded with Operation Gatling, a risky three-phased revenge attack on Nkomo's guerrilla bases and infrastructure in Zambia.

The prime target was Nkomo's military headquarters on the outskirts of Lusaka, the Zambian capital. To lead up to the climax of his talk, the author will make use of a cockpit voice recording from the lead Canberra bomber, and utilise exclusive interviews with the lead navigator and pilots involved in the raid to build a fascinating, authentic and gripping story of the audacious attack, which became known as the "Green Leader Raid".

On the same day as "Green Leader", two more bases in Zambia were attacked using air power, elite paratroopers and helitroops in a well-honed tactic known as vertical envelopment. Our speaker (an experienced jet and helicopter pilot, and skydiver in his own right), will relate to top-secret documents and interviews with key personnel involved in Operation Gatling, to recreate a gripping account of Rhodesia's first large-scale attacks on Zambia. He will describe the aftermath, another tragedy, and a reprisal attack in Angola, which brought Southern Africa to the very brink of a full-scale regional war.

The lecture will be illustrated.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /