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Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

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

SA radar in World War II
"the outside story"

F.J. Hewitt

I have chosen the title "the outside story" firstly because I was not in at the very beginning - as was Prof Bozzoli, and secondly because for most of the war I was outside South Africa and not closely in touch with the Unit as a whole. The records of the outside story seem to be even sparser than the local story. Much of what I have to say will be limited to my own experiences.

Seeing that I did not join the team until just after the famous "first echo" had been received I can say a few things ahout the team which modesty did not allow Boz to say. It was no mean achievement by any standard. In a couple of months the team developed from scratch a 20 microsecond pulse transmitter at 90 Mc/s of about 5kw, a wide band receiver and associated display with range calibrator etc and a rotatable aerial system. Easy stuff now but try and do it with NO VHF signal generator NO power measuring equipment NO adequate cathode ray oscilloscope. The only components available were those that could be purchased in the radio shops catering for the radio amateur. And yet the team got their first echo from Northcliff in late December 1939. The first echo was from a watertower, the set was not an operational one.

To head the team Schonland was an inspired choice. One of the leading South African scientists of all time, he matriculated at the age of 12, received his first degree from Rhodes in physics, was a junior signals officer in France in World War I and by 1939 was world famous for his work on lightning discharge. The Bernard Price Institute for Geophysical Research reflected Dr Bernard Price's esteem for Schonlands ability. He had the drive, the imagination and the personality necessary to work with military who held the purse strings. I thought everyone knew all this until two weeks ago in the Cape when a young engineer asked me to spell Schonland's name as he had never heard of it.

I joined the team at the BPI on 2 January 1940, I was a physics graduate and had been going to the BPI anyway. I of course missed the excitement of the first echo and believe it or not it was a week before I was told what in fact was being done. Boz it was who introduced it all to me and what a revelation it proved to be.

In the initial stage each member had been responsible for a particular element of the system that produced the first echo - but after I had joined and we started making a set for the field it was Boz who completely redesigned the IF amplifier, gready simplifying it. A few months later he did the same to the transmitter. Thus as the RF amplifier/mixer had been Boz's original responsibility all the critical signal channel elements of the eventual JB were Boz's design.

I must reluctantly admit that at that time my imagination failed completely to suggest to me that this new RDF with such potential for defence would in the course of a few years find offensive applications of shattering effect. We spent the next four months refining and developing a station for deployment in the field, the air defence of Mombasa becoming the first priority with the 1st Div destined to go to Kenya and Abyssinia through Mombasa. We were all civilians at that time.

Schonland, Gane and I were hastily put into uniform and alone with an ex Post Office technician S/Sgt Anderson we went to Natal for some hurried tests at Avoca north of Durban. Besides our few test aircraft we saw lots of ships and experienced superrefraction for the first time, many echoes from beyond the horizon and a convoy in the roadstead. Next morning, Schonland was so elated with these results that he took us to dinner at the Cumberland. It was the weather he really had to thank. My guess is that it was these impressive results on shipping even without superrefraction that led to the decision to deploy JB radars around the whole coast of South Africa as soon as possible.

On June 16 1940 Gane, Anderson and I sailed with part of the 1st Div, the Dukes, the Natal Carbineers and the 1st Transvaal Scottish. It was all a bit hilarious. Gane was deaf, stuttered badly and had had no military training at all. I at least had done three years ACF ending up as a corporal. Rumour had it we travelled on the wrong ship. What is certain is that when we got to Mombasa despite much protest from Gane we were put on the troop train to Nairobi and had of course to catch the first train back. To give the authorities their due they were very touchy about the Italian air force a little to the north and wanted the troops out of the harbour area as soon as possible.

In Mombasa we were attached to the 1st AA Brigade - equipped with one battery of semi obsolete 3" guns and two of twin Lewises. The OC was that dynamic character S.H. Jeffrey, who later headed the tellurometer company in Cape Town, a direct result of this association. After the usual delays we moved up to Mambrui a dirty Arab village north of Malindi the now famous pleasure resort, and set up our station. Schonland had flown up and joined us. Less than 10 miles away was the barbed wire, the only barrier between us and Italian occupied Somiland. Schonland had been worried before we left about circuit diagrams. I had refused to take any with me and when he queried this I told him I knew the position and value of every circuit component. He tried me on a few and decided that I did. I had made absolutely no conscious effort to do this. I had wired up all the chasses with the exception of the RF and IF which had been done by Boz.

We had never run on a diesel generator before and the very considerable supply frequency wobble played havoc with the system; the components of which were all phased from a sine wave loosely locked to the supply mains. In the end I did a drastic redesign of the range calibrator and we were on the air. Schonland was greatly relieved and I think this was the basis of my future relationship with him. The station operated at Mambrui for some six months or more. We had five signallers drafted to us and with them we worked into the SAAF at Mombasa by radio. We just could not get high flying aircraft for test flights and did no operational tests with the Hurricanes with which the SAAF was equipped. At that time we were really thinking only of early warning, - get some planes off the ground - and not controlled interception.

About all we saw was the morning and evening flight of an ex SAA Junkers along the coast at about 500 ft and we saw these to at best say 20 miles. We had a good system of identification - if there were two or more they must be hostile. Our best performance was on two Italian bombers, presumably flying as high and as fast as they could. It was the only time I think that they ever came that far south. There had been a rumour about this possibility and two Gladiators had been moved to Malindi airfield and a telephone line to us installed. They stayed for a fortnight and were then withdrawn. Two days later we heard the bombs explode on the airfield 10 miles away to the south. We had seen nothing but within a couple of minutes we knew why. They were flying straight out to sea and we tracked the strongly beating echo to 35 miles where they suddenly faded. What had happened was that we had only 180 degree coverage centred on the coast line. I am sure they came south well out to sea and approached Malindi behind us but on the way out they took a bit of a short cut and just entered our coverage. Gane had, I think, by then returned to SA and he very quickly sent us new feeders to allow all round cover. They used to break about every second night at 3 am.

At that station we had the famous Gane low voltage transmitter. He was the only person who could set it up but when it was right it was very good indeed. It was, however, quite impracticable and Boz designed one which gave about the same output but required three times the HT. It was docile and practical. He also sorted out the breaking feeders for the SA stations. I mention the transmitter and the generator to illustrate how unmilitary our approach was. However, it did work and all in record time.

After a few months I was replaced at Malindi by a Lieut Johnson. I was pleased to leave, the fun was over, it was a mosquito and snake ridden environment. Every one of the AA gunners placed there to protect the station went down with malaria frequently but believe it or not we signallers never contracted it. The gunners, however, were out at night on the exposed gunsites and had a hard time. I spent the next few months between Nairobi and Mombasa. At Thika near Nairobi I helped Lieut Street instal a JB at the first of three stations around Nairobi for which I think our first filter room was set up. Technical problems had been ironed out by now but the station performance was disappointing. It was our first experience of operating over a flat land site. Geometry beat us. Anyway by then the threat was over. I then spent a few months in Mombasa with an experimental searchlight and gunnery set built by Major Roberts. It had potential but was far too experimental for a field set and eventually it was abandoned.

I was sent to Egypt to select sites with the RAF. Can you imagine it the head of RAF radar in the Middle East was a man named TESTER and his title was CRO, chief radio officer. For siting I was accompanied by a Squadron Leader Atherton. He was a civilian scientist disguised as an RAF officer with thus no executive responsibilities. How I envied that. Before the end of the war I had found myself in positions for which I was totally unequipped like dealing with Italian prisoners of war when returning later to SA and, worse still, trying to set some order into a bunch of Royal Marines on another troop ship I found myself on.

We sited our stations on the coast of Sinai. Northern Sinai was just wind blown sand with the occasional saltpan. One site we had to accept had been occupied by a British army GL in the early warning mode. They could not get in with vehicles except on a steel mesh mat laid from the railway to the site a mile or so away. Within a few days our South African crew had found a way along the coast from our HQ at El Arish. It was an exciting but quite practical drive and they never used the railways. After the usual delays we had our three sets installed and operating - so well in fact that the RAF pulled out without much delay. I must admit we four technical officers, Street, Logie, Katz and I were greatly relieved after the Nairobi experience. But we were now operating from good over water sites with elevated aerials thanks again to Gane. At times we were plotting high flying Itie bombers attempting to lay mines in the Suez canal. Ranges of 60-70 miles were common place. We operated our small filter room at EL Arish and had a indifferent telephone line to Ismailia on the Canal where the fighters were based. The nearest we came to action was when a stray bomb was dropped on a large Egyptian Police Post a few miles away. In the desert air it made quite a noise and I was out of bed in a flash but the only reaction from Gane who shared a tent with Hodges was to ask him to stop swatting flies at Sam. Typical of the Egyptians, the whole post was evacuated immediately and never reoccupied whilst I was in Sinai.

Again our technical approach had been most unmilitary. Atherton at first was horrified at the home made appearance of our equipment. When it came on line and repeatedly out-performed the elaborately engineered MRU - solely because of limitations of the MRU imposed by its wavelength and its aerial system, crossed dipole receiver with goniometer for example, he changed his tune. We became good friends and many years later when he was Chief Supt of TRE, the UK radar holy of holies, he told me an interesting tale - how in l940 he had been sent to Mombasa to select sites for RAF radar stations as a long term plan. In Mombasa the Fortress Commander had referred him to the AA Commander I mentioned earlier, Col Jeffrey but 100% secrecy had to be maintained and he could not say what the sites were for Jeff quickly put two and two together and in the end decided to ask an astonished Atherton if he was siting RDF stations and if he was, he ought to know that there was already a South African station at Malindi. He had returned to the Middle East somewhat deflated but saw the funny side of it. Later I heard the same story from Jeffrey. With time the essence it shows there can be a case for improvisation. It was two years before a RAF station was installed near Mombasa - strangely enough with Doug Forte ex-SSS in charge.

I was recalled in November 1941 to go the UK for training in centrimetric wave techniques. I did only a few short courses on microwaves but all that was necessary to instal the sets in South Africa in due course. For the rest of my four months in the UK Schonland put me in South Africa House to handle the paper side of what he was still doing for South Africa despite his responsibilities to the Ministry of Supply. My work at the South Africa House was the start of the permanent appointment there later known as MAISSS, the SSS representative on the Military Advisor's staff. It was a lucky break for me because it made me the obvious successor to Major Roberts when he was recalled in the beginning of 1944.

I ought to say something about Sir Basil Schonland's work in England because he started the radar story in South Africa and kept a watchful eye on it throughout the war and helped in many ways behind the scenes. Schonland had worked some time previously with the distinguished physicist Sir John Cockroft. With the war Sir John had set up ADRDE Air Defence Research and Development Establishment of the M of S. A cover name for army radar research initially of course for AA guns and searchlights. Britain had pioneered operations research and it quickly became clear that there ought to be an operations research group within ADRDE. Sir John invited Schonland to head such a group and that is why he went to UK. ADRDE (ORG) was set up at Petersham near Lendon and I spent quite a bit of my time there on courses and seminars - courtesy of my connection with Schonland. Later the group became the independent AORG - Army Operations Research Group and went far beyond radar.

Schonland's group's big success was in increasing the accuracy of radar controlled AA guns. I remember figures such as 60 000 rounds per bird without radar coming down eventually to something like 2 000 rounds per bird with the GL2 thanks very much to operations research. Then with centimetric radar fire control the figure was further reduced to a few hundred. Later on the straight flying constant height flying bomb was, with centrimetric radar electronic predictor and proximity fuse, a sitting duck if within range. The early progress here prior to automatic control was very much thanks to Schonland's group and their relationship with AA command. This remarkable scientist/serviceman cooperation in all three services was a remarkable feature of World War 2 and was unique to Britain. I understand that things have long since returned to normal. Later Schonland left to become scientific advisor to 21 Army Group till the end of the war in Europe.

During this time I experienced again Schonland's "get things done" attitude. One day I received a call from Schonland to accompany him to a meeting of the newly formed RDF allocations committee of the London Munitions Assignment Board. In the car from Petersham to London, a bit of a treat in those days, I still recall him saying to me; "Hewitt we are going to be asked how many sets we want and we have had no instructions from SA", and so, on his fingers he started counting - TRUs, three for the Cape one each for PE and East London and two for Durban, seven in all. GCIs one each and one for flying training inland, five in all. COLs 12 this last was a bit arbitrary I thought. Anyway when our turn came Sir Stafford Cripps turned to him for South Africa's bid and with great dignity Schonland give these figures. On the way back in the car he gave a chuckle and said "Hewitt, you had better cable Freddie Collins and tell him what we've done and ask for financial authority". They were confirmed suspiciously quickly. Later in South Africa it proved virtually impossible to change them because Schonland "had said so". An interesting aftermath of all this was Brig Collins telling me after the war that he had got into trouble because he had confirmed without getting financial authority. Fortunately it was too large an amount to worry about and he solved it by lumping it all into the Abyssinian campaign where SA signals & RAF costs and got so mixed up that it had been decided to write them off. To those of you who remember Freddie Collins let me tell you he was a favourite over there too. Nearing the end of the Italian campaign he was in Italy and he sent me a signal asking if I could arrange an invitation for him to visit the UK. I hadn't a clue how to do this but I had recently met the RAF Director General of Signals at some function and he had been very friendly so I asked for an appointment - being a South African opened all doors in those days. His reaction was "Freddie Collins, I'd do anything for him after the way he helped us in Abyssinia", and did they lay on a fabulous tour for him. I was lucky to be included.

I then spent a year back in South Africa. I will only mention two incidents as they illustrate important shortcomings in our system. In my first two weeks as company commander at the age of 23 of 61 CD Co three ships went aground around the Peninsula, and all had been tracked by radar. In the first case the tracking had been very erratic. Bearings were notoriously bad on the JB on a rapidly fading target like a ship and the ops people just blamed us for producing what had looked like an aircraft track. The second time there was no such excuse but it required a third neatly tracked all the way onto the rocks at Camps Bay for a real shake up in procedures. Methods of warning such ships were devised and I don't know of another "tracked onto the rocks" incident.

During my time while waiting for a new centimetric radar from the UK the City of Hankow carrying two of them went straight ashore at Saldanha Bay within a mile of the already selected site. They were got out after a fortnight submerged in sea water with a companion cargo of Potassium Permanganate. Dave Henkel and others managed to get one going halfheartedly. I don't think it was used operationally. This apparently suicidal behaviour of much of the merchant shipping was difficult to understand. I was told that many of the skippers were inexperienced in our kind of waters and anxious to make a landfall - no lighthouses etc. This I am sure applied only to the small to medium sized vessel. I am somewhat dubious about claims to have saved some of the larger troopships. These surely with echo sounders and perhaps even their own radar were fully aware of their position.

The failure to use the radar data at first was not entirely the fault of the ops people. We were so darned secretive that we could not even tell them how we were getting the data. If they had been given even a fraction of what our operators were told they might have reacted very differently to our plots. It must also be remembered that there really was no other effective source of such information so the system just was not geared for handling up to date real time plots.

Looking back I just cannot believe how I allowed myself so little contact with ops. It was just lack of experience. There was one amusing incident. A new G1 arrived and summoned me to see him at the Castle. No such interest had ever been expressed before. What shook us both (him much more than me) was that he was my ex maths-master. He was worried about the submarine danger off Cape Point and wanted to know if we could not improve our cover. I told him we had a set in store but the site would not be ready for some time. We discussed possible improvisations and to cut a long story short with his energetic support we had a 273s working at Cape Point within two weeks and it ran there for about a year before the proper site at Rooikrans was ready.

In late '43 I was sent back urgently to the UK to take over as MAISSS from Major Roberts. Urgently meant thirteen days in a variety of aircraft with an indefinite hold at Marakesh where the Yank Movement Control had never heard of South Africa but in the end the uniqueness of the situation prevailed and I was given the necessary priority and flew on to the UK in a blacked out DC4 the only major in a plane load of generals and brigadiers. In London I dealt mainly with developments now coming thick and fast and orders for equipment. We experienced some things at first hand. Walking to work through the parks one morning after a night raid the whole place was strewn with untidy bundles of metal foil/paper strips the first use of "window" over London by the Germans. This "window" was directed at the 1,5 metre GCIs and while clumsy to handle was devastatingly effective on the wide beam GCIs. If the centimetric radars had not been coming in it would have been no joke. The longer wave length GL2s and CHs were unaffected. Britain was lucky in having so much frequency diversity. In SA we never experienced any jamming.

We also encountered the first flying bombs and I saw just about the first V2 from the roof of South Africa House. The authorities tried to explain them as exploding gas mains at first but the public were not impressed and for a few days they were referred to as flying gas mains. Incidentally I saw the echo on a CH radar of a V2 being launched well over a hundred miles away, remarkable in that the CH was the first operational radar in the UK and it was, at the end of the war, the only radar that could consistently and easily see these launchings. The technical aspects of these new devices were obviously very interesting. The flying bombs necessitated a major change in strategy and after a week or so of apparent chaos the London AA guns were rapidly moved to the coast and before long they had the upper hand. Again, as in the battle of the Atlantic, it was radar that was indispensable.

The supersonic long range V2 was a different proposition. It was detectable at long range and trackable and a scheme was proposed for putting up a dense layer of shrapnel in the region through which the V2 would descend. It was not tried because there would be no time for any warning to the public and the falling shrapnel over a wide area without warning would have been unacceptable.

SSS also released a number of technical officers into R&D positions, Schefferman into the Admiralty Signals Establishment, Henkel and Randall into ADRDE (later RRDE) and Yelland into TRE. I have already mentioned six into the RAF one of whom died in a POW camp in the Far East I believe. Somewhat later some twelve officers were transferred to the Royal Navy and were posted mainly as radar officers on naval escort duties - all this at a time when such people were not that plentiful here. Dave Henkel had a particularly interesting time. He worked at RRDE firstly on the very elegant three centimetre coastal artillery fire control radar set. It scanned the target giving high accuracy range and bearing and showed fall of shot directly i.e. shell splash in relation to the target's position. This set never came here. It really was too late for coastal artillery. It was also mounted on a tracked vehicle and investigated for field artillery fire control and for mortar location. RRDE sent one to Italy for use in the field and Dave being a militay officer in a mainly civilian establishment was ideal for the purpose. He went to Italy with the first set.

Most of what I have mentioned occurred outside South Africa but it is not the whole "outside" story. I have said nothing about the operation of RAF GCIs by SSS crews in Italy or of our involvement in Italy with the radar system for precision bombing control. I had no contact at all with these.

A very considerable technical effort was devoted to airborne radar for the SAAF. ASVMk2 were installed and operated to the north on a considerable scale and when the Lockheed PV Is arrived already fitted with the 3 cm ASD we were presented with a most up-to-date radar to maintain. Bob Meerholz was involved fitting one into Smut's York for thunderstorm avoidence in the tropics. I have a feeling that the work with airborne radar was one of the most exacting tasks performed by our personnel usually under difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately no official comprehensive account of our radar activities exists. One reason is that at the end of the war the unit was disbanded and there was no coherent transfer of activities to the Permanent Force. Thus there was no continuing peacetime body in the then UDF proud to remember their wartime achievements.

On the technical side the setting up by Schonland of the TRL entirely with ex SSS personnel at the start preserved some continuity on the technical side but such people are by their very nature (not) enthusiastic historians. This is sad because the South African story is unique.

Copyright F.J. Hewitt

This article was published in Elektron - February 1990

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