Radar Station Yzerfontein
A secret radar station at Yzerfontein was part of a network of warning systems introduced during the Second World War to warn against enemy craft such as U-boats, warships or aircraft. The remains of the station can still be seen in Yzerfontein.
By late 1942, with shipping losses on the increase, some of the promised Allied radar equipment finally began to arrive. One of the great wartime secrets, the revolutionary cavity magnetron, was at the heart of two new 10 cm CD (coastal defence) radars in octagonal wooden structures which had been obtained with Schonland’s influence. These were Type NT 273-S and had been made for the Royal Navy. Their small parabolic aerials projected a very narrow radar beam which was ideal for detecting U-boat conning towers and sometimes even their periscopes. One of these sets was erected on Signal Hill and the other one at Cape Point. (It is interesting to note that, today, almost every home has one of these secret magnetrons – inside the microwave oven!)
As from 1943 the first of the seventeen long-awaited COL radars began to arrive. They had been specially adapted for tropical conditions and operated at 200 MHz with a four-tier horizontal dipole aerial. The map-like television-type display was called the ‘plan position indicator’ or PPI. The COL was ideal for tracking shipping and low-flying aircraft. Most of the JBs around the coast were gradually replaced. However, some of the original radars continued to send in excellent readings throughout the war, thanks especially to the skills of the dedicated operators involved. Generally, however, the enemy craft seemed to suspect that South Africa had its own coastal radar and tended to keep quite far out at sea.
Initially, the coastal radar stations were all operated by men, but this could not be continued as all able-bodied men were needed for active service ‘up north”. Thus the decision was taken late in 1941 (especially after Bozzoli’s experiences on Signal Hill) to train university-educated women as radar operators.
COL Radar Station at Yzerfontein
The remains of the station
The experiences of a radar operator in South Africa
The recruitment of radar operators was not an easy task because of the need for secrecy. Recruitment officers could not be told what the girls would be doing and were informed simply that a new secret unit attached to the Signal Corps needed women recruits with a university degree or other higher education qualification, and they were asked to refer likely candidates to the SSS recruiting officer. Some recruitment also took place at the universities. While little detail could be given to potential recruits, the requirement that they take an oath of secrecy intrigued them greatly.
For a time Sheilah Lloyd was also stationed at Somersveld near Darling, at what was called a TRU station (transportable radar unit). At Somersveld, readings were taken only on aircraft, using two tall 30 m masts right out in the flat veld. This radar set was designed for accurately plotting high-flying aircraft, presumably in anticipation of bombers from an enemy aircraft carrier on their way to attack Cape Town. The operators, of course, spent most of the time plotting friendly SAAF and RAF aircraft from a big air force training camp not far away. Darling itself was considerably larger than Sandown Bay, boasting two hotels and a much larger general dealer’s where one could buy things which had long since disappeared from Cape Town shops. Coates’ embroidery silks were eagerly snapped up by the girls who were good at sewing and embroidery. More plebian enjoyment was found by those who craved sweet things in the tins of condensed milk found in one shop. The girls would gleefully punch holes in the lid and suck up the delectable sticky contents.
SSS Radar operator at work.
Off-duty, the radar unit and the air force were often royally entertained by the local farmers and their families. There was horse riding on offer; there were braais and Sunday dinners, such as were seldom experienced during the war. The hospitality and kindness extended by the locals – whatever their political affiliations – was wonderful. Of course, the operators never spoke about their work.
On pass, it took about 3¼ hours to get to Cape Town from Darling by train. The steam train chugged along through the veld and there was nothing much in sight for miles until it reached a siding called Kalabaskraal. Here, while the puffing engine had its water tanks filled up, almost everyone left the train and streamed across the tracks to a nearby lone hotel. As soon as the engine had been refuelled, the driver gave three short blasts on his whistle and the dozens of sailors from Saldanha, airmen and a few SSS girls from Darling would down their last mouthfuls and jog back to the train. Inevitably there were always a few stragglers, usually sailors who, joyful at having escaped the Navy for a short time, lingered too long in the pub and had to run after the train. The driver was always tolerant and chugged along very slowly until the last lingerer was dragged safely aboard.
From 1942, various other British radar systems arrived in South Africa and were erected and operated around the country by the SSS, usually with women operators and male technicians. The GCIs (ground control of interception), were based on the COL and were designed to communicate with and guide fighters in attacking enemy aircraft. Fortunately no enemy aircraft arrived but the pilot training continued and proved valuable for duties elsewhere. Eventually, seventeen 10 cm CDs from the original NT 271 series using magnetrons, were erected near the South African ports where many operated in conjunction with the coastal artillery. A very powerful 500 kW NT 277-S on top of the originally rather inaccessible Karbonkelberg at Hout Bay covered a vast area and was named Fort Collins after the Director of Signals.
By 1945 there were some fifty SSS stations around the South African coast, including seventeen in the Western Cape alone. The BPI at the University of the Witwatersrand continued to serve as the headquarters of development and advanced technical training for all the stations. A few SSS-trained technicians were specially seconded to the Royal Navy and other British services at their request. As radar equipment arrived for other military uses in South Africa, in view of the secrecy requirement, the military chiefs insisted that it be maintained by specialised, attached SSS personnel. Large numbers of radar detection appendages gradually arrived for the ‘ack-ack’, searchlight and coastal artillery batteries and, especially, for the air force in all operational areas.