Basil Schonland was born in Grahamstown, South Africa, 2 February 1896, the son of Selmar Schönland and Flora MacOwan. He was educated at St Andrew's College School, Grahamstown, 1907-10; Rhodes University College, Grahamstown, 1911-14; and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1914-15 and 1919-20. He married Isabel Marian (Ismay) Craib in 1923, with whom he had one son and two daughters.
He served with the Signal Service of the Royal Engineers in France, 1915-18, was wounded at Arras, and twice mentioned in despatches. He was a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, 1920-2, where he studied the scattering of beta particles. He returned to South Africa as a Lecturer and later Professor of Physics at Cape Town University, 1922-36, and Director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysics at Witwatersrand University, 1937-9. He concentrated on the investigation of atmospheric electricity, chasing storms, photographing lightening and measuring the electric fields under thunderclouds. During this period, he also spent a year on a scholarship back at the Cavendish Laboratory, 1927-8.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the South African Special Signals Services to work on radar, 1939-41. He returned to England and was initially appointed to the staff of the South African High Commissioner in London to advise on radar, 1941. He was recruited by Sir John Cockcroft to be Director of the Army Operational Research Group of the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment at Richmond, Surrey, 1941-4, and was Scientific Adviser to General Montgomery with 21st Army Group in England, France and Belgium, 1944.
After the war, he was brought back to South Africa by General Smuts, the Prime Minister, to establish and become the first President of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He also resumed his post at the Bernard Price Institute at Witwatersrand University, 1945-54, and was first Chancellor of Rhodes University, 1951-62. He returned to England in 1954 and became Deputy Director, 1954-8, and Director, 1958-60, of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell and Director of the Research Group of the newly created United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, 1960-1.
He retired to the family home near Winchester, in Hampshire, and died after a long illness on 24 November 1972.
He was awarded the OBE (military), 1919; CBE (military), 1944; and a knighthood, 1960. He was an honorary fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1959-72.
His publications include: "Atmospheric Electricity" (1932); "The Flight of Thunderbolts" (1950); and "The Atomists 1805-1933" (1968).
Papers comprising working files from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, at Harwell
The papers were given to Churchill Archives Centre by Lady Schonland, 1973.