Originally published in South African Institute of Electrical Engineers journal WATTnow Oct 2020 Pgs 58-76
Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history
Copyright Dr Brian Austin 2020.
But the younger Schonland was a lot more than that. As well as being declared South Africa’s scientist of the twentieth century he was also a soldier who distinguished himself in two world wars. His legacy, therefore, spans a breadth of scientific and military endeavour and it’s within the second of those - his soldiering - that two technological fields were very significant in influencing both the course of two world wars and the subsequent peaceful progress of mankind. They were radio and radar and, when looking back on his career, Sir Basil Schonland may well have reflected on the not inconsequential part he played in the fundamentals of thermionic theory during the First World War and in overseeing both the development of radar in South Africa and its use in Britain during the second conflict. In doing this, he led Britain’s Army Operational Research Group (AORG) which made massive contributions towards optimising the use of radar in anti-aircraft and coastal defensive applications before becoming scientific adviser to the commander-in-chief (Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery) of 21 Army Group for the invasion of northwest Europe that brought the war to its end.
Over the previous four months he had completed Part 1 of the mathematical Tripos. In fact he was one of Cambridge’s Prizemen having achieved a well-deserved ‘first’. This follows his B.A. degree in physics, awarded in December the previous year by Rhodes University College, Grahamstown. It had always been Schonland’s intention to proceed to Cambridge in order to further his studies under Ernest Rutherford, the pre-eminent New Zealand-born English physicist of the day. But, having satisfied the examiners in Part 1 of the Tripos, Schonland along with many of his colleagues interrupted his studies and immediately presented himself for interview by an officers selection panel. With his academic background he was selected to join the Royal Engineers as a signals officer. Donning a uniform would not be a new experience, however, because for the previous two years the young Schonland had served as a private in the First Eastern Rifles, an Active Citizen Force unit of the Union Defence Force (UDF). He now travelled, on 1st August, to the Signal Training Depot at Bletchley where the first phase of his training was to take place.
After learning the intricacies of squad drill and 'turning by numbers' each young officer then took charge of a squad of soldiers in order to practise the words of command, learnt from their drill sergeants and often accompanied by descriptive terminology of a decidedly fruity kind.
Musketry and other necessary military skills were intensively practiced until these soldiers of a sort were deemed adequate to lead their men into action. Signals training started in earnest too with mastering the Morse code being of prime importance. Throughout all this Schonland felt in his element as he recorded in the diary he kept throughout this phase of his military career.
Fig.1 Second Lieutenant Basil Schonland in 1915.
However, the latest invention in the military armoury was wireless. Its first use by the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War had been inauspicious until the Royal Navy took over the equipment and demonstrated its capabilities with all the aplomb that the senior service could muster (Austin,1995).
More than a decade later the technology had made considerable strides and Schonland would soon become an expert in its use. The senior instructor in wireless was another Cambridge man, Edward Appleton, some four years older than Schonland, and destined to win the Nobel Prize in 1947 for his researches on the ionosphere in the 1920s. He and Schonland were to become occasional colleagues throughout the rest of their careers. The leader in Schonland soon became apparent and his men respected him, both for his dedication to the task of training them and for his humanity. To his diary he confided that he 'catechised' them on all aspects of soldiering and so prepared them for what lay ahead of his 43 Airline Section.
In January 1916, they were in France near the town of Cambrin. Just four months before, in that very vicinity, the British Army had lost 60 000 men killed, wounded and captured at the Battle of Loos. They had gained almost no ground in the process. Despite the carnage and atrocities of war, science appeared in strange places. Close to the front line where ‘43’ happened to be laying their cables Schonland encountered another Cambridge man, Lawrence Bragg who, with his father William Henry, would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in just a few months’ time.
Their work on understanding the structure of crystals by means of their diffraction of Roentgen rays (the X-rays of today) was a fundamentally important discovery. But now Bragg was very differently employed. He was an officer in the Royal Artillery whose task was to try to locate the source of enemy gun-fire by means of 'soundranging' using suitably displaced acoustic mirrors, as they were called, and then taking bearings on the directions of maximum sound intensity to locate their source. This technique would soon become the forerunner of a means of detecting enemy wireless transmissions and by a similar method of triangulation to determine the location of the transmitter. When wireless became radio, under the influence of the Americans, the technique of radio direction finding would become a powerful tool on the battlefield. All this fascinated Schonland and he communicated his enthusiasm to his younger brother Felix, in Grahamstown, in a simplistically coded message which somehow evaded the British Army’s dedicated team of censors: Bragg (one day you will hear of him) is _____ing German _____s by means of a very cute invention he wrote.
After another four months, and now very close to the front line, Schonland and his men were recalled to Fourth Army HQ, located well back from hostilities. But it wasn’t to last. On 1st July, what would, in the decades that followed, be called the Battle of the Somme commenced and ‘43’ were in action again laying cables in and between the network of trenches that served as the fighting soldiers only protection against flying shrapnel and the scything steel of the machine gun bullets. Schonland now saw death at firsthand and, in a letter to his mother, he wrote: the whole earth shook and rocked and the air was full of shrieks and hisses of shells ... while all around were the spurts of flame from the guns. A mere mile from there, immediately adjacent to the devastated village of Longueval, was Delville Wood where South African soldiers were fighting one of the greatest rearguard actions as part of the 9th Scottish Division (Uys, 1983).
fine job and though I mustn’t say much about it, it is very much connected with the fighting. For in these days of trench warfare telephone cables are useless and it is the only thing that will keep up communications. Of course you can’t flag-wag in the trenches! In a remarkable four-part article Schonland wrote after the war he described the part wireless played during the Battle of the Somme (Schonland, 1919). In historical terms this was one of the first accounts of the use, by the British Army, of wireless communications during the First World War and it is a firsthand account because its author was in the thick of the fighting.
The first wireless set to be used in the British trenches was known as the BF set. This somewhat cryptic title presumably stood for British Field set but to its operators, for whom spades were spades, BF had another connotation entirely, probably not justified because those sets rendered extremely valuable service, particularly when they were the only means of communication (Austin et al, 2016). Nowhere was its role in the battle more impressive than on the Somme. Schonland related how, on a rise in the ground just a few hundred metres from the German fortifications at Waterlot Farm, near Longueval, one of a network of BF sets had been positioned to provide vital communications with Maricourt, some 5km further back. At the height of the battle the bombardment was so intense that it was impossible to keep erect the two 5m poles supporting the wire antenna and so the simple expedient of laying as much insulated wire as possible along the ground was tried. It worked and served to convince the many sceptics that these wireless miracles really did work. In describing the BF set as well as two others, the Wilson Set and the Loop Set, Schonland pointed out that their development was the work of the wireless experts at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and it was there that the latest piece of electrical wizardry, the three-electrode valve, was being pressed into service. By December 1916 Schonland was at the little walled town of Montreuil, at the Central Wireless School, where he swapped his pliers and soldering iron for the chalk and blackboard of the instructor. He was now acknowledged as an expert in wireless communications and his task was to train new officers coming into the Royal Engineers Telegraph Battalion in the art of signalling without wires.
In March 1918 Schonland was posted as Wireless Officer to the VI Army Corps and in June he was promoted acting Captain. His prowess was now well known and, after a spell of leave in London, he returned to France where he was placed in charge of all wireless in the First Army under the command of General Horne. At the age of 22 he had reporting to him approximately 30 officers and 900 men with an equipment complement of 300 wireless sets. By the war’s end, in November 1918, Basil Schonland had been earmarked for the post of Chief Instructor in Wireless in the British Army and with it the rank of Major. But he graciously declined them both and set about resuming his academic career at Cambridge. For his military service was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the military division in June 1919 as well as a Mention in Despatches the following month. No mean feat by any measure!
By 1922, Schonland had completed his PhD and had published two papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on the scattering of beta particles. That same year he applied for and was appointed to a senior lectureship in the Department of Physics at the University of Cape Town. On arrival there his intention was to continue with his work on electron scattering and he did so for a few years, publishing no fewer than four papers in significant journals. However, he became increasingly aware of the remoteness of Cape Town from the centres of scientific excellence in Europe, and Cambridge particularly. Though he read the relevant scientific literature avidly he always felt that he was too isolated at the southern tip of Africa to be able to make a worthwhile and timely contribution to fundamental physics: the rate of progress being such that by the time the post arrived, in either Cape Town of London, the subject under discussion had advanced significantly. Ultimately, Schonland realised that he had reached something of an impasse in this area of specialisation given the practically insuperable difficulties that faced him in what was becoming a major area of investigation requiring the multidisciplinary firepower available at the Cavendish rather than those of a much less grandiose scale in Cape Town. This moment of truth and its implications for atomic physics in South Africa have been discussed most admirably by Hey (2020).
Basil Schonland therefore needed to find himself a field of research which had a distinct and local flavour and it presented itself when he, his wife, Ismay, and their two children visited Ismay’s family farm near Somerset East over Christmas in 1925. It was while he was there that Schonland realised that the frequent thunderstorms and their accompanying displays of lightning provided him with a poorly- investigated natural phenomenon he could make his own.
He had become aware that the atmospherics that one heard on the wireless were caused by lightning and a scientific investigation of this process was already underway in England. It was being led by none other than Edward Appleton. And collaborating closely with him was R.A.W. Watt. Appleton had, by now, established himself as one the leading authorities on wireless phenomena and he was making significant progress on investigating mechanisms by which such signals propagate through space. Watt, who was soon to call himself Watson-Watt as a mark of some personal grandeur, would go on to be the father-figure in Britain of what would be called RDF, a cunning code- name intended to deceive an enemy. It would soon become universally known by the palindromic American name of radar. In pursuing their work Appleton and Watson-Watt had pressed into service a new instrument, which used a cathode ray tube, known as an oscillograph in England or an oscilloscope in the USA. The scope would soon become a standard measuring device in many research laboratories, including Schonland’s. And radar could not have functioned without it.
For the next dozen years Schonland immersed himself in the study of lightning, both as an optical phenomenon and as the source of considerable electromagnetic radiation at a much lower frequency such that it could be detected by radio receivers and similar field-sensing devices. But the Cape was the not the place to study lightning; its pyrotechnic displays were very much part of the summer season on the Highveld. During the university summer vacations, Schonland accompanied by his wife, would decamp to Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), specifically. There, on the top floor of its Physics Department, he was given the use of an office and on the roof above he erected a number of field-sensing devices which were connected to his recording instruments in the room below. Together, Basil and Ismay would spend hours recording the responses of the various instruments. Assisting them was one of Schonland’s former students from UCT, E.C. Halliday. Eric Halliday had moved to Wits in order to make his own study of lightning-induced phenomena and he enthusiastically offered his services to Schonland. Soon Halliday and yet another UCT man, D.J. Malan, who was by this time lecturing at Wits, collaborated by taking a remarkable series of photographs of the lightning stroke using what was called the Boys camera. This was an instrument with a rotating lens that Schonland had borrowed after its inventor, Dr C.V. Boys, had managed to take but a single photograph of a lightning stroke in England. Halliday and Malan produced hundreds of photographs of lightning around Johannesburg in just a single lightning season. Soon, three locally-produced Boys cameras would form key parts of Schonland’s lightning-measurement armoury and soon a number of papers describing their discoveries were published. By 1930 Schonland had already established himself as one of UCT’s leading researchers and his published work on atmospheric electricity had brought much sought-after recognition to the University. But fame travels far and his name had also come to the attention of the general manager and chief engineer of the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company. He was Bernard Price, a prominent figure within the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE) with its headquarters in Johannesburg. In view of the increasingly important part that gold-mining was playing across the Witwatersrand, Price had become particularly concerned about lightning as it was, by far, the major cause of power-outages as a result of strikes to power lines and their infrastructure. He set up a committee within the SAIEE to make recommendations and invited Schonland to become its chairman. Even further afield, in London, Schonland’s scientific publications had attracted the attention of the editor of Methuen’s Monographs on Physical Subjects who invited him to write a book and, as a result, Atmospheric Electricity was published in 1932. It was the first of four books which would flow from the Schonland pen over the years. Atmospheric Electricity was joined that same year by one entitled Thermionic Vacuum Tubes written, perhaps not unexpectedly, by Appleton. A fascinating aside, but one that is particularly relevant in the South African context, is that Appleton’s book on vacuum tubes was not the first on that subject. That honour probably belongs to H.J. van der Bijl who published The Thermionic Vacuum Tube and its Applications in 1920 following his sojourn in Germany and then at Western Electric soon to become the Bell Telephone laboratories in the USA. Van der Bijl, a graduate of Stellenbosch and Leipzig universities, is the same man who was behind the industrial monoliths of ESCOM (now Eskom) and Iscor upon which South Africa’s future prosperity was both built and depended. During the Second World War he became General Smuts’s Director General of War Supplies.
The BPI, as it soon became known, was the first non-government funded research institute to be established at Wits. Until then very little research had taken place at the University (Murray, 1982). All was about to change and it changed very fast. Schonland set out his intentions to the Board of Control of the BPI in December. He would initiate an active research programme into lightning, thunderstorms and their accompanying atmospherics. Work on his on-going photographic and radio studies of lightning would proceed immediately. To follow would be entirely new work on the thermal characteristics of rock, seismic activity and the radioactivity of rocks in general. He also suggested that the BPI would begin to investigate ionospheric phenomena as well as meteorological events closer to the earth. A tall order given that Schonland was the BPI’s only member of staff!
However appointments soon followed. Another former student of Schonland’s from UCT, Dr A.L. Hales, an applied mathematician, became the Director’s mathematical assistant while at a more practical level J.A. Keiller took up the post of instrument maker. Radio techniques provide a powerful means of finding the source of a lightning flash by the noise or atmospherics they radiate. This requires using the technique, by then well-known as radio direction finding, whereby at least two widely separated receivers, equipped with directional antennas, would take bearings on those bursts of electrical noise. By simple triangulation of their two respective bearings the actual position of the lightning stroke that produced the noise could be determined. This required another receiving station well away from Johannesburg and one was already under construction in Durban at the Natal University College. The man behind it was yet another Schonland protégé, D.B. Hodges. Effective coordination of this activity required good communications between the two universities and for this purpose Schonland obtained from the Postmaster General a dedicated telephone line between Wits and Natal. The man who coordinated this was the Under-Secretary for Telegraphs who, in a part-time capacity, also happened to double as the Director of Signals in the South African Army. He was Lt Col F. Collins. In the not too distant future both Hodges and Collins would come together with Schonland to play a very different role in the struggle against the Nazis.
In May 1937 Schonland travelled to England where he had been invited to present the Halley Lecture at the University of Oxford. Established in 1910 this prestigious lecture in Oxford’s calendar was in honour of Sir Edmond Halley, the discoverer of the regular periodicity (ca.76 years) of the eponymous comet. Schonland spoke about The Lightning Discharge. By all accounts it was a masterful lecture made all the more so by the many photographs of the discharges captured by the Boy’s camera and also by the results already obtained at Wits from the measurements of the atmospherics. Schonland had, by this time, already come to delineate the lighting stroke into its constituent parts, the leader - both stepped and continuous - the return stroke, the dart leader and the still speculative pilot streamer. In years to come all those terms would be in common use and all had been coined by Schonland. He had put scientific names to the Mpundulu, (he spelt it in the style of the time as Umpundulo), the mythical thunder bird which - the Basutos and the Barotses- associated with lightning (Schonland, 1950).
An announcement that was greeted with acclaim at Wits, and elsewhere too, was made in March the following year: Schonland had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. This is the highest scientific honour Britain can bestow and it is a mark of considerable esteem from the scientific community-at- large. Schonland joined his six predecessors with South African connections including J.C. Smuts, in an honorary capacity, to have been so honoured (Mills, 2020).
It was fast becoming apparent that radio techniques were very important in both deducing the features of the lightning stroke as well as in determining its position. Soon Schonland was regarded as the radio expert in the country. He was less convinced of that himself and made another important appointment to ensure that he had, as his right-hand man, someone well-versed in the art of what, in years to come, would be called electronics. That man was Dr P.G.Gane, a geophysicist with considerable skills and flair as an electronics circuit designer. Gane became Chief Assistant to the Director early in 1938. A number of more junior appointments followed swiftly too. To provide specialist advice and assistance, when required, he appointed G.R Bozzoli from the Department of Electrical Engineering as a consultant whose expertise could be called on when needed. Bozzoli, Gane and Schonland would soon become key players in a venture none of them could even imagine at that moment. In years to come Bozzoli would rise through the ranks of the University to become its Vice-Chancellor in 1969. Research at the BPI during 1938 and 1939 was very productive when measured by the numbers of papers published in the scientific journals, most particularly in Nature and the Proceedings of the Royal Society. And then war came and Schonland’s institute found itself focused on a very different and top-secret, objective.
South Africa had declared war on Nazi Germany just three days before and, in fact, only six days after Britain herself had mobilised the nation in order to meet its treaty obligations with Poland. Along with its fellow Dominions, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, South Africa’s small and ill-equipped armed forces were preparing for battle. Schonland’s mission was to meet Dr Ernest Marsden, the Secretary of the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. As we have seen, Schonland and Marsden were acquainted having first met in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1919. Now they were to meet aboard ship. Marsden was on his way back to New Zealand from England where he had attended a special briefing at Bawdsey, the hush-hush research establishment not far from Ipswich where Britain’s most secret weapon of the war was being developed. It was radar but known then by the enigmatic letters 'RDF', forever confused with Radio Direction Finding for that was precisely what Robert Watson-Watt intended should happen so as to confuse the enemy (Watson-Watt, 1938). Such directing finding techniques had been used as far back as the First World War. But radar did not require the target to be transmitting at all. The Chain Home (CH) system, as it was called, was already in operation along Britain’s eastern and southern coasts. It consisted of a number of these RDF stations situated on suitably high ground close to the coast and their purpose was to detect enemy bombers as they flew in from their bases in Germany and occupied Europe. From each of those stations the bearings and even the approximate numbers of aircraft in a raid were passed by telephone to what were called filter rooms where the information from all the radars tracking the aircraft were coordinated, or 'filtered', before being plotted on large-scale maps. From these maps the RAF officers, seated on a gallery above, were able to determine the most appropriate defensive measures needed to intercept the advancing Luftwaffe aircraft. RDF and its subsequent incarnation as radar was the weapon that 'enabled Britain to survive and, arguably, saved western liberal democracy' (Zimmerman, 2001).
As early as 1938 Britain had decided, albeit tentatively, to inform those Dominions within its Empire of the existence of this remarkable new weapon so that they could make preparations to use it in their own theatres of operations. The telegram informing the four High Commissioners in London of the existence of this 'distinguishing apparatus', as Churchill subsequently described it, was sent on 27 February 1939. It requested that someone 'possessing the highest possible qualifications in physics' should be sent to England for a period of two the three months to become fully acquainted with the principles of 'RDF'. For reasons unknown (perhaps simply the expense involved) South Africa sent not a scientist but instead ordered a UDF officer serving in London to attend. Unsurprisingly the officer concerned was somewhat overwhelmed by the lectures given by Watson-Watt and his team of scientists at Bawdsey. However, the day was saved by the fact that Ernest Marsden, the New Zealand representative, would be calling in at Cape Town while on his sea voyage home. And Schonland, the obvious man who should have been sent to England in the first place, was to meet him. During the three- day voyage to Durban, Schonland and Marsden were ensconced in a locked cabin while Marsden described the details and the intricacies of RDF. Immediately on their arrival in Durban they made their way to the university where Professor Hodges, now head of the Department of Physics, met them.
After administering his own version of the official secrets act, Schonland, with the assistance of Hodges and W.E. Phillips from the Department of Electrical Engineering, made glass photographic slides from the pages of Marsden’s 'RDF Manual'. Marsden then resumed his journey to New Zealand while Schonland flew back to Johannesburg. Hereafter I shall use the term radar exclusively even though it only came into common use in England somewhat later.
Events moved extremely quickly from then on. Schonland reported back to the officer who had dispatched him to Cape Town and very shortly thereafter the Prime Minister, General Smuts himself, asked that the resources of the BPI be given over entirely to 'work of a special nature' with no questions asked nor answers given. Immediately Schonland and his colleagues at the BPI fell under the jurisdiction of the South African Corps of Signals and its commanding officer, one Lt Col Freddie Collins, the man with whom Schonland was well-acquainted. Within just two weeks of the telephone call from Pretoria the project was underway. It soon became clear that no British radars suitable for coastal defence - the South African requirement - would become available until 1940. Schonland decided that the BPI would design and build its own radar 'to teach ourselves [the] technique' (Schonland, 1951).
The elementary radar set which was produced was operational within just three months. On 16 December 1939, a public holiday then known as Dingaan’s Day in South Africa, Schonland and Bozzoli went to Wits to make some last-minute adjustments to the equipment and while there they carried out a trial run of the elementary apparatus. Two previous tests of the radar had failed to produce the telltale 'blips' on the cathode ray tube of the display. In the first they had used a helium-filled balloon to suspend a mesh of copper wires as it floated skywards from a point a few kilometres from the campus. But no radar echoes were seen. Then Schonland arranged for a flight by a South African Air Force aircraft whose pilot had been instructed as to the course he had to fly. However, on the appointed day, he deviated from this carefully planned route and, instead, chose to fly over the house of his girlfriend in Roodepoort. Unsurprisingly no blips were seen at the BPI. However, that public holiday in mid-December was soon to become a landmark in South Africa’s technological history for it was then that the first radar echoes were seen in the country.
Schonland himself observed the screen of the radar receiver in the BPI laboratory with its antenna on the roof; Bozzoli had erected the transmitter in a top-floor office of the Central Block, the main administrative building of the university. And above, on its roof, was the transmitting antenna. The communication between them went via the university’s telephone exchange. Since radar antennas are designed to be directional so as to be able to determine the direction of a reflecting object - the target in the ultimate application - they agreed over the telephone in which direction to point their respective antennas. This involved a fair amount of stair-climbing but higher objectives took priority over the physical exertion that required. As they rotated their antennas in rough synchronism from north to west Schonland suddenly observed a signal on the display. He shouted to Bozzoli and so they carefully reversed the headings of the antennas and slowly brought them back to that previous position. Sure enough there was the echo. Both men now met on the roof of the BPI and peered in a north-westerly direction from where the reflected signal appeared to have come. And there, about 10km away, was Northcliff Hill and on top of it was its concrete and steel water-tower. Further careful variations of the antennas’ headings confirmed, without a doubt, that they were indeed seeing a signal that had been reflected from what was initially thought to have been the water-tower but which, given the wavelength of the radar, was more likely Northcliff Hill itself. It was a memorable day and a remarkable one considering the total lack of familiarity about radar that any of Schonland’s team had had a mere few months before. They had proved by way of a convincing experiment that their equipment did indeed work and it had taken them just three months to get there (Bozzoli, 1995).
Schonland had christened this elementary radar the JB0, continuing the tradition of JB being the identifier of Johannesburg when he and Hodges in Durban (therefore known as D) had been monitoring the radio emissions from lightning while recording the bearings using their dedicated telephone line. His engineers now set about redesigning major elements of the JB0, based on their recent experience and Hewitt soon proved himself to be a key member of the team. What resulted, after many months of dedicated effort, was the JB1, constructed so that it was rugged enough to see service beyond the confines of a laboratory. Rapid testing took place just north of Durban when ships were tracked and the radar proved its effectiveness and its operators were its designers. Almost immediately the Chief of the General Staff saw what appeared to be a most important application for it.
The attack by Mussolini’s army on Abyssinia from October 1935 until February 1937 had buoyed up Il Duce’s forces - and himself - to the extent that they now set their sights on expanding the Italian empire southwards. On 6 June1940 South Africa declared war on Italy and ten days later the 1st South African Brigade sailed for Mombasa. Onboard one of the ships in the convoy were Gane, Hewitt and Anderson with their JB1 radar. Three days later Schonland flew to Nairobi. The JB1 was set up on what they called South Africa Hill at a place called Mambrui, 150km north of Mombasa, where its purpose was to provide radar cover for the aerodrome nearby. A notable feat of intuitive engineering took place there when the young Frank Hewitt corrected a fault in the JB1 brought about by the very unstable diesel- driven electric generator they had to use. In Johannesburg the radar had been happily powered by the city’s very well-behaved electricity supply but that certainly wasn’t the case in the wilds of Kenya. But Hewitt solved the problem much to the relief of his commanding officer. In the end Schonland’s small team spent six months in Kenya where the radar functioned well even though targets were scarce.
Schonland himself flew back to the Union once he was satisfied that the JB1 was operating and serving a useful purpose. However, he returned in November to make a full assessment of the radar requirements in East Africa and based on this he then briefed Bozzoli at the BPI. By June 1941 a further six radars had been constructed, all of which were sent to East Africa along with their operators. Curiously, the British attitude towards both the South African 'lash ups', as they were referred to by some, and their lack of appreciation of the delicacy of the political situation in South Africa, especially in the face of active subversion by the Ossewabrandwag, nearly led to an international incident. Schonland, perhaps somewhat naively, had made it clear to his British counterpart in Nairobi that the SSS was operating under the tightest of security because of the fear that Britain’s 'greatest secret', namely radar, might be leaked to the enemy by suspected Nazi sympathisers within DHQ in Pretoria. This was misconstrued by the RAF officer concerned to imply that the South African radar personnel, both in Kenya and back at the BPI, posed a threat to the secrecy of the British radar project! When word of this reached the ear of General Smuts he forthrightly disabused Anthony Eden, the British Secretary of State for War, of the veracity of such claims, when they met in Khartoum in October 1940 (Austin, 2001). Nothing more was heard of this slander.
Then, a complete about-face occurred. The Suez Canal had become a target of the Axis air forces, the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica. No British radars were available for its defence so a request went out to South Africa to supply three JB sets to provide that vital cover. Schonland, now a Lt.Col, immediately flew to Cairo. From then on things moved rapidly and after a technical assessment of the JB1 by the RAF, where it was found to be entirely suitable for the job in hand, three JB1 radars, plus their SSS operators under the command of Major Hodges, were transferred from Kenya to the Middle East where they were soon fully operational along the northern Sinai coast by mid-June 1941. The JB1s performed so well, while under close scrutiny by the RAF, that all British radars were withdrawn and the South Africans provided complete cover for the Suez Canal out to a distance of 120km. They finally returned home more than a year later.
Fig 3 SSS officers and senior NCOs in 1941.
By now Cockcroft was wearing many hats, the most prominent of which was as the Chief Superintendent of the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE). The British penchant for long-winded titles, notwithstanding, this organisation played a crucial role in ensuring that anti-aircraft defences of the nation operated at maximum effectiveness. Before the introduction of radar to the gun sites it required, on average, 18 500 artillery rounds to bring down a single enemy aircraft. By 1944, following the introduction of the gun- laying radars (and their 'nursemaids'), this figure fell by 75%. Though getting a little ahead of ourselves in this tale, those numbers appeared in a report entitled 'The Operational Performance of Army Radar Equipment 1939-1943'. it was written by Basil Schonland
Things move quickly in wartime and the need for highly skilled and competent men, both soldier and civilian, imposed great demands on government and on the military hierarchy. Britain’s dependence on radar, so starkly demonstrated during the Battle of Britain, was now paramount. The threat facing the nation was dire. All expectations were of an imminent invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany, codenamed Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe). The fact that Cockcroft knew that Schonland was in England, and he also know that he had indicated his willingness to serve in any way he could, was all the incentive Cockcroft needed. By 1st August Schonland had been appointed as the Superintendent of what was soon to become the Army Operational Research Group (AORG).
Briefly, operational research, when it was first conceived just before the war, is the application of the scientific method to the solution of a multitude of problems that occur during military operations. It has since infiltrated into the civilian arena where it provides the backbone for much management theory. It began in the British Army as a loose grouping known informally as Blackett’s Circus after Patrick Blackett (another Nobel laureate in the wings for his study of cosmic rays) who appointed a number of young scientists as operational researchers. They came from an eclectic mix of scientific disciplines, foremost among them were two physicists, as one might expect, but there were also physiologists, mathematicians, an astrophysicist, at least one geologist, a surveyor and even an ornithologist and a zoologist. Since, in the first instance, they were to be employed on radar-controlled gun sites they were put through a rigorous (but non-mathematical) course of lectures on radio and radar techniques. Their teacher was J.A. Ratcliffe, a Cambridge physicist renowned as a lecturer (Ratcliffe, 1929).
In March 1941 Blackett moved to RAF Coastal Command to apply operational research methods to combat the formidable threat posed by the U-boats to Britain’s vital sea routes. Ratcliffe, though fully committed to teaching the intricacies of radar to men of various scientific backgrounds, was now appointed by Cockcroft to replace Blackett and to assume the additional responsibility for what some referred to as a disheveled bunch of scientists and schoolmasters who were supposed to bring scientific rigour to the gun batteries across the land. But others wanted Ratcliffe too. The Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) had an urgent need to set up a radar school for the RAF and Ratcliffe was the man to do it. It was then that Cockcroft appealed to Schonland to take over the AORG.
Once Schonland had familiarised himself with the multifaceted organization he had inherited he set up two Operational Research Sections (ORS 1 and ORS 2). The first, under L.E. Bayliss, one of the physiologists, investigated fundamental gunfire- control problems while the other, under Dr M.V. Wilkes a mathematical physicist, dealt with all manner of technical problems associated with radar in the Army. Schonland himself, though doing no research, became the final arbiter when decisions had to be taken and he found himself working very long hours simply to stay on top of a multitude of problems. Soon, the 'number of rounds per bird' began to decrease significantly. The number of different radar sets in use went the other way: from the gun-laying radar, the GL1, which soon reached GL3; then there was the CD coastal defence radar, ultimately Mk IV, the GCI Ground Control Interception radar, the CHL or Chain Home Low radar soon to become a significant part of the network of radar stations that ringed the South African coast. And finally, there was the SLC, known as Elsie, the Search Light Control radar where four antennas were mounted on a searchlight to locate the target in a highly accurate and vivid beam of light that sealed the fate of many a Luftwaffe bomber on their nightly raids over England. The process of introducing scientists to the AA gun batteries around the country required tact and understanding. One battery commander was somewhat exasperated by the invasion of scientists into his domain and he exclaimed, within earshot of the AORG personnel, that he had not joined the Army to become an electrician, or some Anglo-Saxon words to that effect. However it did not take the gunners long to appreciate how the accuracy of their 'shoots' increased significantly after those nursemaids had plied their inexplicable trade on the innards of the fire-control systems that determined bearing and elevation of the guns based on the electromechanical predictors built into them.
The chateau on the clifftop at Bruneval with the Wurzburg radar antenna in front
The Bruneval Raid has since become part of Army folklore given its effrontery and particular daring. Its purpose was for a small group of sappers from the Royal Engineers to land by parachute in the company of their bodyguards, a battalion from the Parachute Regiment, and then to dismantle the German Würzburg radar up there and bring its key elements back to England for close examination by the scientists at the TRE. Schonland personally trained those sappers in the very greatest of secrecy so much so that none of his colleagues knew why he was away from his headquarters during the run-up to Operation Biting as it became known. The raid was a complete success and TRE gained a considerable amount of information about this German radar whose purpose was to provide early warning against RAF attacks.
However the boost to British morale by the success of the Bruneval Raid was soon tempered, that same month, by an equally daring break-out, by three ships of the German navy, from the French port of Brest where they had been undergoing repairs and were then trapped by the close attention paid to them by the RAF. As a result of meticulous planning and superb seamanship the Germans sailed the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, as well as the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, on what became known as the Channel Dash through the English Channel, up the North Sea to the German port of Hanover. And this happened under the noses of the British coastal defences and its much-vaunted air cover. Needless to say, Churchillian anger at this travesty soon reached the upper echelons of the three armed-services. One of the reasons why the Germans had been able to stage such an audacious dash for freedom was their use of carefully graduated jamming of the British coastal radars. The slow but inexorable increase in 'noise; on the radar screen did not, at least initially, raise many concerns among the radar operators. It was, in fact, the first occasion in which so-called radar countermeasures were used. The escape of the three capital ships was seen as a major débâcle in Whitehall and recrimination soon followed. In future, complete responsibility for the investigation of all forms of radio and radar jamming would be taken away from the RAF, who had clearly been found wanting, and was passed to the Army. That meant Schonland and the AORG.
The man Schonland appointed to take on this task was J.S. Hey, a physicist who had come to the AORG with no knowledge of radio but who had learnt quickly when he attended Ratcliffe’s special course on the subject. Hey took charge of what became known as the J Watch, a suitably non-descript name which disclosed nothing. He was equipped with a 'J Van' that contained a number of monitoring receivers plus their appropriate antennas upon its roof. He had wireless communications with the coastal artillery and the RAF should it be necessary for a retaliatory attack to be mounted. On 28th February, at the height of the Bruneval Raid, various radar sites around the coast began to report steadily increasing interference on their radar screens. It remained throughout the course of the next two days but disappeared at night. And the source appeared to be moving. The greatest fear at Britain’s Anti-Aircraft Command was that the enemy may be using an airborne jammer and these reports seemed to confirm that they were. However, all the radar stations reported that the noise was at its most intense when their antennas were pointing in the direction of the Sun. This was astounding: the Sun, though an obviously powerful radiator of energy within the visible spectrum, was not believed, by the nature of the physics involved, to radiate significant amounts of energy at the much longer wavelength of the radio frequency spectrum. Hey was fully conversant with this but the evidence he had seen suggested otherwise. He immediately made contact with the Royal Greenwich Observatory who informed him that a large sunspot happened to be situated at the centre of the Sun’s disc and hence any radiation from it would be directed earthwards. It was known that sunspots were associated with intense magnetic fields as well as energetic electrons and so Hey concluded that it was the sunspot that was responsible for the 'jamming' of the British radars, at least on this occasion. He immediately reported his finding to Schonland who smiled and said, 'Is that so, Hey? How interesting. Did you know that Jansky of Bell Telephone Labs in the USA had discovered radio noise coming from the Milky Way?'. Hey did not but he immediately rushed off to the Science Library in London to read Jansky’s published paper (Hey, 1973 and correspondence with the author 30.7.1997; Jansky, 1933) What was almost as interesting as Hey’s remarkable discovery of a completely new source of radiated energy at sub-optical frequencies was the reaction from the British scientific establishment, most notably Edward Appleton, when word eventually reached him of this astounding observation. Hey’s conclusion that the sun was the source of that radiated energy was greeted with considerable scepticism after all, it rested on observations made by soldiers sitting in front of their radar sets and was interpreted by someone with no background in the subject, namely Hey! However, it was not long before confirmation of this solar phenomenon began to come in from other observers and there was no doubt that Hey had essentially pioneered a new aspect of astronomy in Britain: what would be called radio astronomy in the not- too-distant future. As soon as the war was over, and wartime restrictions on publishing began to be lifted, Appleton, true to form, lost no time in writing the first scientific paper of radio emissions from the sun (Appleton, 1945). Hey’s paper actually announcing the discovery only appeared sometime later (Hey, 1946).
A recurring problem, particularly when British radars moved to much shorter wavelengths, were unusual echoes that appeared on the plan position indicator (PPI) screen in front of the operator and, for quite some time, they defied explanation. The PPI display is the form of radar display that most people are familiar with. It consists of a line, or trace, which rotates in synchronism with the radar antenna thereby producing on the screen a virtual picture of the environment around (or perhaps below in the case of airborne radar) the antenna. Both the target’s range and its bearing can be obtained from the PPI unlike the earlier form, called an 'A' scope, where vertical lines displaced along a horizontal axis indicated returns from a radar target. But only range was given. Some other means was needed to obtain bearing information.
What appeared to be randomly distributed dot-like echoes on the screen were perplexing and since they corresponded with no observable artefacts they came to be called angels. Then, in the summer of 1941, evidence was presented which suggested that birds could reflect radio waves such that they could be detected by a radar set. Later that year there was no doubt about this when observed radar echoes were shown, unequivocally, to have come from gannets (Sula basana) that were clearly visible to the radar operators near Dover. Of course, in wartime such radar eccentricities were merely another distraction from the task in hand so as long as the operators could be trained to ignore those angels, birds or whatever, then the problem of detecting and tracking the enemy could continue. But false alarms still occurred and one even caused a scare that the invasion was under way.
Fig4 Colonel Schonland as Director the Army Operational Research Group in 1942.
However it was fortunate for the wider scientific community that among those AORG scientists with widely disparate backgrounds was one professional ornithologist by the name of David Lack. For a period of six months he had been based at a radar station on the Orkney isles to the north of Scotland where, given the profusion of sea birds in the vicinity, he was able to make many observations of radar echoes produced by birds and to be able to relate these to bird-type, their size, the speeds of flight and especially how some of those reflections could easily be confused with aircraft but more particularly with fast-moving ships. Again, as was the case of Hey, Lack was unable to publish anything in the scientific literature until after hostilities had ceased and clearance to do so had been given by the military authorities. But he wrote two secret AORG reports, in 1942 and in 1945 which contained significant amounts of scientific information on the interaction of birds with radar. Lack and his colleague G.C. Varley finally published a short letter in Nature in 1945 in which they described their observations including the tracking, by radar, of pink- footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) as they flew, at an altitude of 5000 feet (1520m) for 57 miles (91 km) in 99 minutes thus giving an average speed of 35 m.p.h. (56 kph). At the time this was the longest timed track of any bird in flight (Lack et al, 1945).
As Lack himself described it, he was fortunate to serve under Lt Col. B.F.J. Schonland F.R.S. 'that splendid South African, who first needed me as his personal assistant, but said I could go in the field after 6 months'. Lack repaid Schonland’s perceptive identification of particular scientific talent by becoming one of at least ten members, or former associates, of Schonland’s Army Operational Research Group who were, or went on to become, Fellows of the Royal Society. And radar itself became a very important tool in the study of bird migration and their patterns of movement (Eastwood, 1967).
Schonland already knew what the future held for him. He had accepted an appointment from another General - Smuts in this case - who wished him to return to South Africa as soon as Germany’s fate had been sealed. Smuts wanted Schonland to set up South Africa’s own national scientific organisation which would become the focal point for research and development in the country once peace had returned. This he duly did and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was the result with Schonland as its first President. As the country’s pre-eminent scientist in the pre-war years he almost filled the role as its elder-statesman but in his heart Schonland wished to return to his 'little laboratory', as he called the BPI. But three years at the top of the CSIR soon became five and before he returned to Wits he had one more military function to perform. Acting on a suggestion of Schonland’s, the Chief of the General Staff in Pretoria authorized Schonland to establish a most unusual and highly secret organisation within the confines of the CSIR. It was called the South African Corps of Scientists with Schonland as it commanding officer and all its members - commissioned officers all with not an NCO or mere ranker among them - were all scientists within the CSIR selected for the particular expertise they could bring to bear on a range of pressing military problems likely to confront South Africa (Austin, 2007).
When Schonland eventually returned to Wits, it wasn’t long before his former colleagues in England came calling. However, that is a story that has been told elsewhere. All that remains of Schonland;s career as a soldier- scientist is perhaps best summed up in the worlds of one of his most remarkable AORG colleagues, E.W.B. Gill. As was required of all the section leaders in the AORG at the end of the war, Gill wrote a detailed report of the activities of his section that dealt with Signals in the Field. Of Schonland he had this to say (Gill, 1944).
I think the first difficulty for posterity will be to get as good a man as the Brigadier to be in charge. He must be a good research scientist but not one whose interest is solely in his own line of research, he must be young in mind and active, he must suffer fools gladly, he must get on well with army officers, and above all he must be entirely outside political and departmental intrigues (though it is an advantage for him to be conversant with the elementary principles of these arts). The Brigadier had all these qualities but it will be damned difficult to find them combined in one man again for the next war.