A Short Chronology of Tanks and Armoured Vehicles in South African and Rhodesian Military History
The 6th South African Armoured Division
at Monza, Italy, following the cessation of World War II,
at Monza, Italy, following the cessation of World War II,
2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902): Various armoured vehicles and tractors are tentatively contrived for the war in South Africa, such as the Fowler armoured tractor (which was far too slow and cumbersome) but to no real avail, apart from the use of armoured trains.
German South West Africa 1915, WWI: Royal Naval Armoured Cars (modified Rolls Royce vehicles under Lieutenant-Commander W. Whittall) are used in SWA alongside South African forces in the fight against German troops, and British armoured cars will again be in evidence alongside South African forces in German East Africa and against the Senussi in Egypt.
Zonnebeke, Belgium, WWI October 1917: Clement Robertson, born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, wins the Victoria Cross (awarded posthumously) while serving with the Tank Corps. He is the first member of the Royal Tank Regiment to be awarded the VC.
Post WWI: A single Whippet light tank Mk A (entitled His Majesty’s Land Ship HMLS Union) is purchased by the Union of South Africa’s Defence Force. It is subsequently transferred to the feldgling SAAF as trained mechanics in the SA Permanent Force are in short supply.
1922 Rand Revolt: The Whippet tank, HMLS Union is used in support of the infantry during the rebellion and Air Corporal A.W. Johns is killed when shot through the aperture of the tank. The tank would remain in service with the UDF until 1939.
1924: The formation of a SA armoured corps is proposed.
1925: A armoured car section is formed when 2 Vickers-armed Crossleys’ and 2 Vickers Medium Mark I A tanks are imported from Britain. The Vickers tanks would be the only tanks in South Africa until 1942.
July 1932: 2 armoured cars are despatched from Pretoria to Ovambo in former German South West Africa to help suppress an insurrection of the Ukuambi tribe.
1938: SA initiates development of an armoured car, and the resulting design is based on a Ford 3-ton truck with many of the components imported from overseas.
6 September 1939: South Africa declares war on Germany. Its armoured vehicles comprise a mere 2 obsolete medium tanks and 2 armoured cars (Ford Crossley‘s).
1940: South Africa begins production on the South African reconnaissance car (SARC) Mk I, but only 113 Mk Is are built. Eventually 4 566 armoured cars were produced for the SA Defence Force during the war, plus a further 1 180 vehicles were also produced for the United Kingdom, making a total of 5 746 armoured vehicles. The Mk IV version is interesting and employed basically the same Marmon-Herrington Ford components, but for the first time centred around a gun instead of the Boys anti-tank rifle and the Vickers machine-gun. Approximately 2 116 Mk IVs were built, but were not in time to be used in the North-African Campaign. They were however to see service with various British colonial forces, and were also used by the free Greeks and Arab legions. In South Africa they formed part of the South African Armoured Reconnaissance units until the early 1970’s when they were withdrawn.
However, the SARC MkII and MKIII versions (better known as the Marmon-Herrington armoured car) had the biggest production runs , and were to see extensive service with the South African, British, Indian, New Zealand, Free French, Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) and Dutch East Indies (colonial) forces.
The Marmon-Herringtons were deployed in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia and the SARC played a critical role in the Italian East African campaign, where they were deployed essentially as “tanks” and not as reconnaissance vehicles. The Mk III formed the bulk of British 8th Army reconnaissance vehicles in North Africa from about November 1941 to about July 1942. However, the initial armament of the 0.55 inch Boys anti-tank rifle and the coaxial Bren machine-gun is considered insufficient and the British were to modify some of these vehicles to carry heavier fire-power such as the Italian 20-mm and 47-mm Breda, the German 37-mm Pak 35/36 and the Swizz-manufactured Oerlikon cannon and the British quick firing 2 pounder anti-tank gun.
1940: No 1 SA Armoured Light Tank Company (SA Tank Corps), No 2 and No 3 SA Armoured Car companies (SATC) serve in East Africa against the Italians.
1941-1943: South Africa’s armoured car units ( 3rd Recon. Battalion, 4th SA Armoured Car Regt., 6th h SA Armoured Car Regiment and 7th SA Recon. Battalion)serve with great distinction in North Africa (including the 2nd Battle of El Alamein in October 1942), operating SA produced Marmon-Herringtons. The 4th and 6th Regiments’ would amalgamate to form the 4th/6th SA Armoured Car Regiment (and the 4th were the only SA unit to serve with the famed 7th British Armoured Division, th “Desert Rats“). Their endeavours are most commendable.
1941-1942: The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (also known as the Southern Rhodesian Reconnaissance Car Regiment) is formed and sees action in East Africa and North Africa during WWII, equipped with South African-manufactured Marmon-Herringtons’ under Lieutenant-Colonel Blakiston-Houston.
1941-1945: Major Bob Crisp, a former South African cricket international, serves with distinction in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in Greece, North Africa and at Normandy, earning the DSO and the MC while also being mentioned-in-dispatches on four occasions. He is often credited with naming the Stuart M3A1 light tank the “Honey”, because when asked how the tank performed he apparently replied that “she was a honey”, although some versions state that it was one of Crisp’s crew members that made the remark.
1942: A South African, Captain Abraham du Toit of the SA Engineers, is instrumental in the development of the flail-tank, which will see combat in North Africa and most famously on the Normandy beaches on D-Day (the Sherman “Crab“) , 6 June 1944.
May 1942: South African Armoured Cars operate in the invasion of French-occupied Madagascar, often serving as the vanguard during the fighting there.
1 February 1943: The 6th South African Armoured Division is formed in South Africa.
30 April 1943: The 6th SA Armoured Division begins a year of training for combat at Khatatba, Egypt.
SA receives 80 Lend-Lease Stuart M3A1 light tanks from the USA. They would be used in various capacities following the war, primarily as reconnaissance and training platforms.
20 April 1944: Forward units of the 6th South African Armoured Division begin to arrive at Taranto in Italy.
1944-1945: The 6th SA Armoured Division performs with great distinction in Italy, and is involved in countless actions with the enemy (including the Advance on and Liberation of Rome, Celleno, Bagnoregio, Trasimene Line, Advance to Florence, the Gothic Line, the taking of Monte Stanco, Monte Sole and Monte Caprara). The division will during its tenure in Italy be equipped with various variants of American M4 Shermans, M3 and M5 Stuart Light Tanks, M10 Tank Destroyers, as well as various Crusader, Valentine and American M3 Grant tanks, all either used operationally or as a means of facilitating the training of the men of the division.
4 August 1944: The 6th SA Armoured Division is one of the first Allied units to enter Florence.
8 May 1945: VE Day.
Post 1945: The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment is equipped with American Staghound armoured cars, but disbanded in 1956, whereupon the Staghound armoured cars later entered service with the Support Group, 1st Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), and were used for border defence in the Kariba area at the time of UDI (1965).
c. 1946: South Africa receives 96 Universal Carriers’ (better known as the Bren Carrier) and will receive a further 150 from Britain in 1951/1952. In addition they also purchase 2 Assualt Vehicle Royal Engineers (Churchill) tanks.
In addition SA purchases 67 Sherman M4 1As (with the 76mm gun) and a number of 105 mm Howitzer close-support Sherman 1Bs, which will see service with the SADF until the mid-1970s.
1946: SA also purchases 88 American Stuart M3 Light Tanks, which will remain in service until 1968, mainly with the turret removed and machine-guns attached instead.
15 Sherman 1C Fireflies are purchased by SA from the UK, and will be used for instructional purposes until 1965.
1953: SA purchases 26 Comet tanks from the UK, which will serve with the SA forces until 1968.
1953: SA orders 10 Saracen Mk Is from Britain for evaluation. A further order of 270 Saracens’ are placed, arriving in SA in 1956. Of these 8 would be allocated to the SA Police (SAP) for internal security operations. However, problems will arise with the international arms embargo imposed because of the apartheid system in South Africa, and therefore spare parts will become difficult to acquire, forcing South Africa to come up with indigenous armoured designs.
1954: SA orders their first 8 MkII Ferret scout cars from Britain. SA will acquire a further 223, of which the MkI format will be the most common. Some will be used fro training SA armoured corps personnel up until as late as 1989, where-after they are phased out of service.
1962: The first Terrorist incursions begin in Rhodesia.
1962: SA signs a contract with France to manufacture the Panhard armoured car under licence. France subsequently delivers 100 and local production in South Africa starts on what is to become the famous Eland armoured car, known ubiquitously in southern Africa as “Noddy Cars”. During the coming border war (1975-1990), the Eland armoured car (60 mm and 90 mm) will be extensively used in patrolling the border between Namibia (South West Africa) and Angola, in convoy and mine-lifting escort duties, as mobile base protection vehicles for road construction teams, and will also be used in cross-border operations as close fire-support vehicles.
The Rhodesian Army will be supplied with “South African” Elands (as well as the Rhodesian Air Force, using the 60mm mortar Eland), which will operate in tandem with the Ferret scout-cars being used in reconnaissance duties, and the Eland serving as the strike-force element.
1968: Design work begins on the “Ratel” Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV).
1972: The BSAP ceases the use of SA-manufactured Marmon-Herringtons for urban riot control in Rhodesia, the latter armoured vehicle now roughly 30 years-old.
1972: The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment is reformed as a territorial unit under Major Bruce Rooken-Smith, its main armament being the British Ferret scout-car, armed only with a single .303 inch (7.62 mm) machine-gun.
1973: Evaluation of 3 SA modified Centurion tanks (initially christened “Skokiaan” in SA nomenclature) in Walvis Bay and Bloemfontein. The upgrade is not successful, although 11 tanks would be modified accordingly and nine would be deployed on the Angola border in 1976.
1974: The Ratel prototype is completed.
1975: The Angolan Civil War precipitates participation on the part of South Africa (and the beginning of the Border War), and the Eland sees extensive use in Operation Savannah (with Task Force Zulu and Task Force Foxbat), operating against not only light armoured vehicles but also older tanks such as the T34/85 that were used by the Cubans and the MPLA, and even operate as far north as the outskirts of Luanda.
Mid-1970s: A number of Eland armoured cars are sold to Rhodesia by South Africa, to replace the aging Ferret armoured cars. The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (“The Black Devils”) will also utilise approximately 50 West German UR 416 APCs and 54 S/90 Scout Cars from South Africa. The Rhodesians would win world-wide renown for their daring and aggressive forays into enemy countries (Zambia, Mozambique etc), using their armoured vehicles, APCs, infantry and air support (External Operations).
1976: The Introduction of the famous Rhodesian “Pookie” mine detection vehicle, with the iconic V-shaped hull built from the Volkswagen Kombi, and equipped with Formula 1 tyres to prevent detonation of buried landmines by exerting very little actual ground pressure with the spanning of the mines circumference helping to effectively dissipate the concomitant ground pressure. 76 of these vehicles were built between 1976 and 1980 and although 12 were lost, it is alleged that not one was lost to landmines. This was absolutely necessary as Rhodesia’s rural roads were vulnerable and approximately 2, 405 vehicle struck landmines on Rhodesian roads between 1972-1980, killing 632 people. Additional armoured vehicles and mine-protected vehicles produced by Rhodesia include the “Leopard“ APC mine- protected-vehicle, the “Bullet” and the “Vaporiser” (so named because if it hit a landmine it would literally vaporise), the “Spinnekop” (Spider), the armoured personnel carrier, the “Crocodile”, the “Cougar“, the “Rhino“, the “Kudu“ , the “Hyena“ and the Selou Scouts “Pig“. South Africa was also experimenting with anti-mine vehicles at the same time, the need arising from operations in SWA, but SA was intent on producing a vehicle that not only detected the landmine but purposely caused it to explode, without the vehicle perishing, in other words a completely mine resistant vehicle.
1976: Production of the basic Ratel 20 begins (by Sandock-Austral) , as well as development of the Olifant main battle tank, based on the British Centurion tank.
1977: The Ratel IFV enters operational use with the SADF, and is the first wheeled IFV to enter military service. Its variants will include the 20 mm, 60 mm, 90 mm, ZT3 (the anti-tank guided missile version), and the 81 mm (Mortar), and Command vehicles.
Mount Selinda, Mozambique, 1977: The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment is in action against Frelimo Forces, and 2nd Lieutenant Rae is awarded the Rhodesian Bronze Cross.
July 1977: D Squadron, Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment, engages a large group of ZANLA operatives north of Vila Salazar while they were attempting to cross the border into Rhodesia, the redoubtable Eland “Noddy Car” proving very effective indeed, with an approximate body count of 37 ZANLA terrorists.
1978: The introduction of the mine-protected APC, the Buffel. More than 1, 400 are to be delivered before production ends. It is not a wholly SA built vehicle as it incorporates facets of the Mercede-Benz Unimog. It will eventually be used by other countries including Sri Lanka and Uganda.
September 1979: Rhodesian Eland 90mm armoured cars partake in the very successful Operation Miracle, the attack on a ZANLA base in Chimoio Circle in Mozambique.
October 1979: Rhodesia receives its first tanks, incredibly Soviet-block T55s, supplied surreptitiously by the South Africans who seized the tanks in Durban harbour from a Libyan freighter, the tanks originally meant for the Rhodesian insurgents. They will equip the newly-formed “E” squadron of the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment, but will never see action.
1979/1980: The famous landmine protected personnel carrier (APC), the Casspir (probably the ultimate example of anti-mine vehicles produced), enters production with 200 Mk Is being built. Although synonymous with the troubles in South African townships (in use by the SA Police), the Casspir was designed specifically for conditions encountered in the South African Border War. It is certified to protect its occupants against a triple TM-57 mine blast under the wheel or a double blast (equivalent to 14 kg of TNT) under the V-shaped monocoque hull. The modern-day Buffalo Mine Protected Vehicle used by US forces and Britain, is based on the Casspir, while the Casspir was also the inspiration and prototype for the US marines MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vechicle). The Casspir was even to see service in Afghanistan in 2003 during the demining of Bagram Air Base.
1980: Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe, and the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment, together with other Rhodesian units, is disbanded.
Operation Protea, Angola, August-September 1981: The SADF Ratels come up against severe heavy automatic, anti-armour and even anti-aircraft guns (ZU-23), as well as RPGs at Ongiva, but the South Africans eventually prevail.
25 August 1981, near Xangongo, Angola: 2nd Lieutenant J.J. Grove and the C.O., A.J.H. Helm, 2 Special Services Battalion (SSB) take on various Russian T34 tanks with Ratels and prove victorious. Helm and Grove are awarded the Honoris Crux medals.
1983: The Olifant Mk I A enters full-scale production.
The first Oilfant tanks begin service with the SADF.
Operation Askari, Angola, December 1983: The T55 is used by the Cubans (et al ) in a mobile capacity for the first time, which prompts South Africa to bring up the Olifant tanks following the Battle of Cuvelai.
1983-to the present day: The South African designed and produced Rooikat (Afrikaans for “Caracal”) comes to the fore, but is too late to see action in SWA. It is armed with the Denel GT4 76mm rifled gun.
1987: the Research and Development section of the SA School of Armour evaluates the first four production model Rooikat Armoured cars in what is termed ‘Operation Musketeer’.
1987: The G6 Rhino, a SA designed and manufactured self-propelled howitzer (developed around the ordnance of the G5 Howitzer) comes into production, and was to see limited action in Angola in 1987/1988.
Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer, Angola 1987-1988: The Ratel’s low velocity 90 mm gun is effective up to 2 km but is insufficient against main battle tanks, and on the rare occasions that Ratels encountered enemy tanks during the border war, they generally achieved success through manoeuvrability and only at very short ranges. The 61st Mechanised Battalion Group found that each enemy T55 and T62 engaged required multiple shots from the 90 mm gun to disable it. The SADF vehicles thus had to attack in groups, fire from point-blank range, and hit the tanks in the engine vents, turret rim, or similar weak points in order to have any effect whatsoever, the 90 mm shells being otherwise ineffective against the Soviet tanks' armour. The SADF Olifants’ on the other hand proved far more effective in tank pursuit and kill operations. An example is when SA Olifant tanks engaged Soviet-supplied T55 tanks on the Lomba River, destroying all but ten of the 72 Russian T55s engaged, with the temporary loss of 2 SA tanks. The SA forces would capture a number of Soviet tanks such as the T34/85, T54, T55 Main Battle Tanks and the PT76 Light Tank (The author remembers a captured PT76 displayed at 2 SSB, Zeerust, in the late 1980s during his military service with the battalion)in Angola during the war, but would opt not use them operationally.
1985-1988: The entire fleet of Saracen APCs in South African use are modified to improve their RAM-D characteristics.
1990s: Production of the Olifant Mk I B begins.
1991: The Olifant Mk I B enters service with the SADF. The upgraded Olifant includes the addition of a more powerful 105mm L7 cannon.
1994: South Africa’s new dispensation.
1995: The South African manufactured Mamba APC enters service with the SANDF, and will eventually see service with various other countries including the USA, UK, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. South Africa’s expertise in the field of mine protection vehicles and APCs will see the production of further SA built variants including the RG 31 Nyala, Puma, the Reva APC (used by the New Iraqi Army and Police Force), the RG12, RG32 Scout, RG33 (which has seen service with the US Army and US Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan), the RCV 9 Light Armoured Vehicle, the RG Outrider APC (used by Ireland) and the Matador (2007).
1998: Armoured units of the SANDF partake in Operation Boleas, launched by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and led by South Africa, to quell a possible coup d’état in neighbouring Lesotho.
1999: The famous Rhodesian-built Pookie is brought out of retirement and evaluated as a low ground pressure platform for Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), enabling GPR to be used safely in close proximity to target mines to enable accurate mine detection.
September 2003: The upgrading of 13 Olifant Mk I Bs to Mk2 status commences (Operation Atolasa). The upgrade programme includes a new power pack, upgrading of gun and turret drives, new fire control, target detection and engagement systems, with thermal imaging capability.
September 2005: A follow-on contract for a further 13 tanks upgraded to Olifant Mk2 standard commences.
2007: The Olifant Mk2 enters service with the SANDF.
May 2007: Work begins on “Program Hoefyster” (Horsehoe) which will see a modified version of the Finnish Patria AMV (Armoured Modular Vehicle) replace the outdated Ratels.
Today approximately 172 Olifant Mk I A/Bs are in operational use by the SANDF.