The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history

Fifty years of SA radar

By Sheilah Lloyd and Phyllis Lloyd

Towards the end of 1989 the Institute organised functions in Cape Town and Johannesburg to celebrate 50 years of radar in South Africa. These reports on the events were written by Sheilah Lloyd and Phillis Lloyd, two of the radar operators from the war years.

Not everyone feels the same about reunions. Some like my good friend Pam Stevens (nee Dymond) revel in them; some others shudder at the very thought of a gregarious get-together with people you have not seen since your far-off youth. Some, like me, are dubious and apprehensive and need to be coaxed and coerced.

The Special Signals Service (SSS) re-union in Cape Town was instigated by the Cape Western Centre committee of the SMEE, who noted that their colleagues in Johannesburg were sponsoring the radar reunion there. They rightly surmised that many SSS members in the Cape would be unable to go to the Johannesburg gathering. And so, on a bright Spring day in Stellenbosch, some eighty SSS men and women met at the Devon Valley Hotel and, while sipping wine under the beautiful old trees, renewed friendships, met some of their SSS colleagues for the first time, and generally remembered those wartime years. An excellent lunch and much conviviality followed; it was quite a job to get everyone moving in time to join the engineers at the University where their bright and efficient Dave Harrison had organised an afternoon of talks relating to radar.

Dr Frank Hewitt led off, with a fascinating accout of how the early radar sets were constructed, and made functional - in December 1939 - and were subsequendy transported (Major Hewitt along with them) to the desert war zones. I, greatly trembling, followed him with a talk aimed in particular at the SSS "girls" (printed elsewhere in this issue) recalling the kind of life we led on the radar stations. Dr Aart Sparrius then gave us a brilliant talk on radar today, illustrated vividly with slides.

The afternoon ended with wine and cheese, and cheerful talk. There was much interest in the little exhibition mounted by Pam Stevens and Enid Kirk (nee Connell) of photographs and other bits and pieces relating to the SSS. Then, a week later, came the big reunion in Johannesburg. It started with a grand "opening", held at the Military History Museum in Saxonwold - an inspired choice of venue. About one hundred and seventy-five people attended, and after a warm welcome from Professor Jan Reynders, President of the SAIEE, we listened to an interesting address by Professor G R Bozzoli - Major "Boz" of the war years - and then over tea came happy meetings with old colleagues, and much reminiscing as we admired the excellent exhibition so ably assembled by the organisers.

A large group of us then lunched happily in a private room at the Mike's kitchen in Parktown and thereafter were taken on a very well-conducted visit to the Stock Exchange.

That evening, we were privileged to see three excellent films relating to wartime radar in South Africa, including one made on a Natal radar station. The lovely young Eve Souchon was the "star". After high tea with the engineers, we were driven back to our hotel, weary indeed, but very happy.

Next morning came a visit to the University of the Witwatersrand's Bernard Price Institute and West Campus. I did not go, but Phillis Lloyd reports on this visit later.

After a free afternoon, came the Papers Evening in the Wits Senate House. This occasion was extremely well attended. Professor Bozzoli led off, on "Radar: the Early Days". Dr Frank Hewitt followed, with "South African Radar: World War II - The Outside Story". I repeated my Stellenbosch talk on "Life on the Radar Stations: an Operator's View". The big audience was very appreciative, and once again we met with many old friends and colleagues after the talks.

On Thursday, we had the choice of visiting either the SA Corps of Signals Museum at Heidelburg, or Gold Reef City. I chose the latter, and enjoyed particularly the trip down the old mine. However, when I heard the enthusiastic account of people like Bill Pemberthy, who had gone to the museum, I felt I had perhaps made the wrong choice.

That evening came the reunion cocktail party at the Wanderers, again a joint SSS/SMEE function.

The last item on the programme, a fitting culmination to the reunion, was our visit to the SAAF Radar Station at Devon - a great underground fortress, its presence indicated only by the tall radio and radar rnasts above the ground. This was a fascinating morning. Even if the "girls" who had operated the warime sets were now, as a subsequent TV programme commented, "grey- haired grannies", we still understood enough to appreciate the vast progress which had taken place over 50 years. One of our hosts was General Cockbain - who had been pilot to Field Marshall Smuts during the war years, and had subsequently been greatly involved with the Devon installations. The morning ended with a delightful buffet lunch.

In my personal capacity as one of the Cape contingent, I should like to pay tribute to all those who were involved in organising this memorable 50th anniversary reunion. In particular, thanks are due to Tess Peter, the modest, unassuming and immensely capable man who convened the programme; to Phillis and Frank Lloyd who were absolutely indefatigable in keeping the wheels running smoothly; to Frank Hewitt and Pam Stevens of Cape Town, whose interest in the 50th Anniversary had a great deal to do with getting things moving; to the engineers, Jan Reynders in Jo'burg and Dave Harrison in Cape Town, ably supported by their respective wives Joan and Nicky; to "Reggie" Peter, always at her husband's side to lend steady support; and finally to Andrea, our wonderful courier, driving our huge combi through the Jo'burg traffic with consummate skill, always getting us safely to our destinations, always cool and unfazed by hassles.

Our thanks to all of you and to the many others who worked so hard to make the reunion a huge success.

Sheilah Lloyd (nee de Beer)

Visit to the University of the Witwatersrand

A visit to the University seemed appropriate in view of the close links between Wits and the SSS. Gail Levin, Assistant Planning Officer, had kindly offered to be our guide and took us first to the Bernard Price Institute - not the original building of the early days of radar, but the modern BPI where, however, there is a plaque commemorating the founding of the unit. We gathered here while Sylvia Newby (now Goodman) and Ruth Gemmell (now van Tichelen) left flowers at the foot of the plaque as a tribute to the memory of our first WAAS OC Major (Miss) Nancy Blue. "She died far too young", as Professor Bozzoli was to say later that day. Professor Nicolayson, Director of the Institute, welcomed the group and gave us a comprehensive account of its present role in geophysical research.

We then walked across the newly opened piazza which spans the motorway and leads to the exciting new West Campus. The University has taken over the old Rand Show grounds and transformed the exhibition halls into academic buildings and libraries, linked by a colour scheme of grey, white and royal blue. The futuristic building for Mining and Electrical Engineering aroused much interest as did the various pieces of modern sculpture, particularly the stainless steel representaion of an open book symbolising education as the road to the future. The tour ended with a buffet lunch in the Cape Dutch ambience of the Wits Alumni Club, where we were welcomed by Prof and Mrs Reynders with most hospitable kindness - and by this time we all felt like old friends.

Phillis Lloyd (nee Stanton).

This article was published in Elektron - February 1990

Copyright S and P Lloyd

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