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Radar in Durban in WWII

By Gavin Foster- October 2008

A mysterious concrete structure opposite Virginia airport, Japanese aircraft flying over Durban looking for targets, scores of enemy submarines prowling our coast like hungry sharks, and a group of very bright and dedicated men and women crammed hastily into uniform played an important role in the development of effective radar in South Africain WWII.

“The buildings aren’t part of a radar station, but a gun emplacement,” points out journalist and keen military historian Paul Kirk. “I saw it long ago, and wanted to find out more.” And find out more he did, after the chance acquisition of ex Pietermaritzburg mayor Pamela Reid’s wartime medals. “I bought her medals and some of her papers after she died, and pulled her service records. She served with the Special Signals Services (SSS) which was a pretty exotic unit, yet made little mention of it after the war.”


Paul Kirk with Pamela Reid's medal and her signals cap badge. Paul Kirk at the gun emplacement opposite Virginia Airport.
Pictures courtesy Gavin Foster <=/\===Click to view enlargements

The SSS was formed when Dr (later Sir) Basil Schonland of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research at Wits University was approached by the Department of Defense to form a team and develop a radar network in South Africa. Radar had been around in primitive forms for a while, but none of the more sophisticated components available to our British allies could be sourced in South Africa.

Schonland wasn’t the type to allow a little thing like that to get in his way, so he and his team built a rudimentary contraption from bits of bicycles, old radio sets and components surreptitiously bought from radio ham supply stores. Why surreptitiously? Because South Africa and its Defense Force was at the time loaded with Nazi sympathisers. The men and women of the SSS were thus so secretive about their work that they earned the nickname of the Secret Snob Squad.

As Schonland and his scientists developed better equipment, stations were established at intervals along the coast, manned largely by women, and local military units knew virtually nothing of their purpose. Schonland’s first radar set, called the “JB” (after “Johannesburg”) was tested at Wits and proved capable of detecting the Magaliesberg at a range of 100km, which was scarcely impressive. Within a month, however, a second version, JB1, was completed and this was allegedly a thousand times more sensitive than the first.

Details of the emplacement.  
Pictures Courtesy Gavin Foster <=/\===Click to view enlargements

JB1 needed a large, flat expanse free of clutter to be tested properly, so a trip to Durban was on the cards. Let’s hear what Dr F.J.Hewitt, a senior member of the SSS, had to say about its test in the Durban North gun emplacement during a talk he gave to the SA Military History Society in May 1974:

"We took a set of this equipment to Durban in, I think, July 1940 - perhaps earlier. Sir Basil (Schonland), Dr Gane, S/Sgt Anderson and I installed the set in a fire observation post at Avoca and operated it for about three weeks. We saw very few aircraft but we learnt quite a lot about detecting shipping, which at the time was not our object. On one occasion we saw a number of echoes well beyond the horizon so we were dubious, but the behaviour of the echoes – their course and speed – was exactly that of shipping and not of aircraft. Sir Basil bet us a dinner at the Cumberland, at that time the latest hotel, that they were not ships. The convoy arrived in Durban bay at dawn and we got our dinner.” It turned out that such over-the-horizon performance was abnormal. We had experienced what later became known as super-refraction due to abnormal meteorological conditions – frequent in the tropics, but rare in cold climates."

The SSS went on to serve in numerous theatres of the war, and hundreds of men and women held vigil over our coastline. Between 7 October 1941 and 1 August 1943 Japanese and German submarines wreaked havoc along our coastline over 100 Allied ships were sunk within 500km of our shores in just 22 months. In May and June 1942 aircraft launched from the massive Japanese submarine, I-10, overflew Durban on at least three occasions, determining what warships were in port and whether they were worth attacking. Despite this, Durban never came under enemy fire, and this must have been largely due to the difficulty the enemy submarines would have experienced when they surfaced to recharge their batteries under the watchful eye of our fledgling coastal defense system.

Peter Brain's book.

The early JB1 radar set.

Basil Schonland
Pictures Courtesy Gavin Foster
<=/\===Click to view enlargements

Back in 1993 ex SSS member Peter Brain, a man whose three doctorates in medicine, zoology and classics make his surname particularly apt, wrote a book called South African Radar in World War II. Speaking of the Avoca site where the first tests were carried out, he says, on Page 23; “It was erected at a newly constructed artillery fire observation post that was not yet in use, at Avoca near Umhlanga Rocks.

This was not the site of the later permanent JB installation at Avoca. The indefatigable Donald Inggs, who served in the SSS and has located many of the wartime sites, has combined research on the spot with the recollections of the (at that time) only surviving member of the team, Dr Hewitt, and has found the probable remains of this observation post in Battery Road, Durban North.”

Anybody with further information about the SSS or the gun emplacement and control tower opposite Virginia Airport can contact Facts About Durban.

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