The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 1 - June 2001


Dear [Editor],

The article by Allan Sinclair in your issue of December 2000 (Vol 11 No 6) on the war artist Geoffrey Long caught my eye. One of Long's most important pictures, though not amongst those included in the article, was a charcoal drawing of a mobile radar installation operated at various places around the South African coastline during the Second World War. Known as the JB3, it was wholly designed and produced in South Africa - a feat of no little significance given the state of radar knowledge at that time Seeing that article caused me to write because I have just completed the biography of the man responsible for South Africa's wartime radar system.

Brigadier Sir Basil Schonland CBE FRS (1896-1972) was a remarkable South African scientist and soldier whose military career culminated with his appointment, in 1944, as scientific adviser to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. The biography, entitled Schonland: Scientist and Soldier, describes both his military and scientific careers and will be published later this month (May 2001) by the Institute of Physics Publishing in Bristol. By way of background information, I thought you might be interested in some aspects of Schonland's life as a peripatetic soldier.

Schonland was first and foremost a scientist, but his military service, which spanned two world wars and beyond was equally significant, though so little is generally known about it. He served in the British and South African armies and commanded very specialised units in both. One of his most secret appointments, however, actually came about after the war, in 1947, when he became the first commanding officer of an almost unknown UDF unit, the South African Corps of Scientists. Its members were all serving scientists, most from the CSIR of which Schonland was the founding president, and their tasks were as secret as the unit itself. Schonland's role in it has never before been revealed. If known at all to military historians, he is probably best remembered as the scientific adviser to Field Marshal Montgomery during the mammoth planning operation that went into the invasion of Europe on D-Day, June 1944, and throughout the advance into north-west Europe that followed. However, his real claim to fame in South African military circles must be his remarkable achievement in producing a working radar set in just three months after the outbreak of war in 1939. That work was done in great secrecy at Schonland's own research laboratory within the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research at Wits. It was recently described by Peter Brain in his book, South African radar in World War II (ISBN 0-620-1 7890-6,1 993), which took the wraps off the Special Signal Services (SSS) formed under Schonland's command to develop and operate South Africa's own defensive radar chain. That is the South African story. There is much more to this unknown soldier, however, because he is even better known in England as the first Superintendent of the Army Operational Research Group (AORG), which applied the scientific method to the art of warfare.

In working on the Schonland biography, I have had access to all his papers in the SANDF archives in Pretoria, as well as to those in the Imperial War Museum in London, the Royal Military College of Science at Schrivenham and in the Churchill Archive at Cambridge. In addition, the SSS papers now housed at Wits were made available to me as were those in the Cory Library at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and at the CSIR in Pretoria. Matters of a particularly sensitive nature to do with the SSS, as well as others no less so from his period as Director of Britain's Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, are to be found amongst the massive collection at the Public Records Office in London. I had access to all of them and some of the revelations they contain concerning South African security in relation to radar are astounding. The spectre of the Ossewabrandwag cast its shadow much further than many South Africans, either then or now, probably imagined. Schonland was much caught up in this!

Throughout my research and writing, I have attempted to capture the personality of the man himself and for glimpses of it I was able to consult the numerous letters he wrote to his family from places as different as the trenches of the Somme in 1916 to the nuclear sites of Harwell forty years later. For access to these, I was very fortunate to have the permission and ready assistance of Sir Basil's daughter in England and that of the Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where so many of his papers are housed. In addition, I interviewed a number of his wartime colleagues, many of whom are now elderly gentlemen of great distinction, and their recollections of him were both vivid and flattering. Schonland himself was a prolific writer and though his accounts of his wartime work are few, those that exist make compelling reading. In 1919, he wrote probably the first article to appear in the open literature on the use of wireless by the British Army in France. Then, in 1951, in his Bernard Price Memorial Lecture, the first of a series that still exist today, he briefly described the work done at Wits on radar during the Second World War. That paper contained two photographs of great technical and historical interest: the mobile JB3 radar sketched subsequently by Geoffrey Long, and the SSS with their radar set up near the Suez Canal in 1942. Schonland also wrote numerous reports while Superintendent of the AORG. Most were classified 'secret' at the time, but are now accessible and none is more significant than his review of British army radar written in 1943. It is often cited by historians of radar, but few realise who its author was.

I trust that this is of interest to you and hope that the biography might be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the Military History Journal.

Yours sincerely,
Dr B A Austin, Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics, The University of Liverpool.

More information on the book can be obtained online at The work by Geoffrey Long described above is housed at the South African National Museum of Military History - Ed.

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