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Radar book returns to Wits

- By Wits University

On the 16th of December 1939, just three months after the outbreak of the second World War, Sir Basil Schonland and Mr Guerino R Bozzoli used the elementary radar apparatus designed and built at the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research (BPI) at Wits to 'bounce' radar signals off the Northcliff Hill and its water tower some 10 kilometres from the university.

This was the first radar echo to be detected in South Africa and it marked the beginning of remarkable wartime activity at Wits. The Special Signals Services, part of the Union Defence Force, was set up within the BPI under Schonland's command with the purpose of setting up a chain of radar stations around South Africa's coastline to defend against attacks on shipping by German and Japanese submarines. British radars were not available for some time and so the BPI designed and built its own. The South African radar system was improved and ultimately deployed along a number of coastlines, including that of Egypt and the Middle East, during World War II.

“This December will mark the 75th anniversary of the first radar signal received by the SSS under the direction of Sir Basil Schonland at Wits,” explained Dirk Vermeulen, from the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE). “Although the British had built the world's first radar systems, the South African version was designed and built independently and made a significant contribution to the war effort.”

In addition to Schonland, there were several key people on the team, including Bozzoli, who later became the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. “After the war, Bozzoli supervised the production of an album commemorating the development and deployment of this South African radar system by the team who were constituted under the South African Corps of Signals as the Special Signals Services,” added Vermeulen.

The album was originally housed at Wits but legend has it that Bozzoli took it home with him. It changed hands several times, finally being handed to the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers. The album was handed back to Wits at a ceremony on 2 December 2014, hosted by Prof. Tawana Kupe, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Advancement, Human Resources and Transformation at Wits. “We are grateful to have this significant element of our heritage returned to Wits, and we will preserve it and ensure that it is digitised so that future generations may benefit from the album,” committed Kupe.

Andre Hoffman, the incoming president of the SAIEE, echoed the sentiments put forth by Vermeulen and Kupe. “This is indeed a significant moment for Wits and the SAIEE. We must also not forget that this important part of South Africa’s history has been kept alive thanks to the efforts of several others including Dr Brian Austin, a former Wits alumnus and academic who is now in the United Kingdom,” he said.

The ceremony was attended by several committed members from the SAIEE and Wits University, including Prof. Ian Jandrell, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, David Rubin, from the same Faculty. Both academics are passionate about their field and have many more stories to tell about the history of electrical engineering at Wits.

Read more about this story in an article published in The Star .