SADF armored vehicles (1940-2016)


The Union Defence Force

Before 1910 and the constitution of the Union of South Africa by General Jan Smuts, there was no proper South African army, except for some independent Boer militias, on horseback for the most, who preffered guerrilla warfare and distrusted the discipline of large standing armies. Smuts, as the Union’s first Minister of Defence, established in 1912 the Union Defence Force (UDF), which organized for the first time a standing army with a core of career NCOs and soldiers, the Active Citizen Force (ACF), temporary conscripts and volunteers and a cadet system.

Boer War
Battle of Mafikeng, 1899. The second Boer War contributed to forging the national identity.

A conscription for all white men of 17-60 years was established, but there were already droves of 17-25 year old volunteers. Eventually, these forces were based in 15 military districts. The core of the UDF was made of five regiments of the South African Mounted Riflemen, each with an organic company of artillery. Acting as a police, this 23,400 strong force was called on to suppress the industrial strike of Witwatersrand.

In 1914, however, the SA government chose to side with the Allies and Great Britain, and despite a strong internal opposition, General Botha sent a 67,000 strong expeditionary force to invade the German South-West Africa (Namibia), which surrendered in July 1915. The 1st South African Brigade was sent on the Western Front, where it distinguished itself at the battle of Delville Wood in 1916. There was also a prolonged campaign against German East African colonies, especially against the Ascaris. 20,000 men from the SADF infantry brigades fought there under the command of Jan Smuts. Another unit participated in the Operations in Palestine against the Turks.

Marmon-Herrington Mk.II
Marmon-Herrington Mark 2

World War Two

Total demobilization took place after the war ended, but in 1922 the conscription (after 21, four years of service) was re-established, and fixed a professional army, which was asked to perform internal security duties. This force was focused on the Khoikhoi revolts, and in 1932, was deployed against the Basters independent movement and, the next year, against the Ovambo on the border with Angola, who demanded to be freed from the Union. After a drastic budget cut in 1926 and the reduction to six military districts, it was raised to 56 000 men in the 1930s.

Marmon Mk.III
Marmon Herrington Mark 3 with Indian troops in 1942

When World War Two broke out, large units of the South African Army fought with distinction in the East African, North African, and Italian campaigns, whereas the Home Defence Force was reorganized into several commands, at Capetown, Orange Free State Command, Natal Command, Witwatersrand, Roberts’ Heights and Transvaal Command, or at East London. The core of the army in 1939 was made of 5,353 regulars and 14,631 in the Active Citizen Force (ACF). A shortage of men and materials became apparent quite quickly. Racial policies reduced the able body for conscription to white males, and there was no material support from Great Britain for modern guns and light weaponry or armored vehicles. Plus, training only put emphasis commando actions in the bush.

However, after the early 1930s, there was already an industrial basis to start with. The South African already sought for a mass-production suitable armored car to suit its needs, and eventually the choice fell on the Ford 3-ton truck chassis assembled locally at Dorman with parts from Canada and the US (Marmon-Herrington) and armored plates from the South African Iron & Steel Industrial Corporation, ISCOR. The Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car was born. This SADF vehicle was mass-produced in 1940-1941 and helped support infantry units, particularly in East Africa against the Italians. Later on, the Mark II was created and British weapons were imported, like the Boys AT rifle, which gave some stopping power that could be used against Italian armor.

The Mark III (1942) was all improved, and the Mark IV (1943) was a brand new vehicle with a QF 2-pdr main gun in a turret. Over 2000 were produced. The ambitious 8×8 Mark V-VI were prototypes, too heavy for service. In total, around 5746 Marmon-Herrigton Armoured Cars were built in South Africa until 1944, many of which saw service with the British and other Allied armies, and many other operators after the war. Some served in police duties until the late 1970s.

Marmon Herrington Mark IV
Marmon Herrington Mark IV heavy recce AC (1943)

The creation of a tank corps was con-substantial with equipment being received from the Allies, especially of US origin. In North Africa, the US loaned the South African Armoured Corps Tank regiments operating there 88 Stuart M3A1s. Outside Universal Carriers, the bulk of the SADF units operating later in Italy with the 6th South African Armoured Division was provided by M4 Sherman medium tanks, M4/105s and M10 Wolverine tank hunters.

Marmon Herrington Mark VI
Prototype of the 8×8 Marmon Herrington Mark VI (never produced, deemed too heavy).

The M3 Stuarts were maintained for a long time in service, being retired in 1955 and stored until 1961, then reactivated in 1962 for troop training with the 6th South African Division and withdrawn for good in 1968. In 1946, SA also purchased two Churchill AVREs, and 26 Comet tanks, which arrived in 1954. But the latter were stored at Durban and saw service in 1964, when training South African Armoured Corps instructors, before being withdrawn in 1968. The SADF also operated 96 Universal Carrier Mk.2s in 1946. Later, 150 more refurbished Mk.2s and T16 s were obtained from Great Britain. All were withdrawn in 1965. 15 ex-British M4/105s, locally called “Sherman 1B”, were kept for training and also phased out in 1965.

Postwar reorganization

In 1948, the old resentment against the British influence in South Africa led to a surge of Afrikaner nationalism, favoring the growth of the National Party (NP), which won the elections the same year. The Army was therefore “afrikanerized”, with expanded military service obligations and the establishment of strict conscription laws. Military service consisted of a three month draft and after that, three weeks per year for four years. The Defence Rifle Associations were disbanded and replaced by a 90,000 strong standing army, consisting of the 1st Infantry Division and the Sixth Armoured Divisions (with 5 infantry brigades and the 11th Armoured Brigade). Due to the lack of volunteers, it was disbanded in 1949 and 1953.

Constitution of the SADF (1957)

With the growing threat of a war in the Middle East, an armored division was constituted, along with an order for 200 Centurion tanks from Great Britain. The large scale Exercise Oranje in 1956 tried some tactical ideas about conventional operations in a simulated nuclear engagement. During the next year, in 1957, through the Defence Act (No. 44), the UDF was eventually renamed into the South African Defence Force (SADF) and organization was changed once more, including a great deal of rapid-reaction and commando units. The “Royal” titles of several units were dropped and personnel grew from 20,000 to 80,000 in the next two decades, mainly due to the border wars with Namibia and Angola. In 1961, the SA flag changed once more, from the old Union orange-white-blue colors to a green flag with the old flag in one corners and the five pointed star/diamond with the three arms in the bottom right corner. This flag would be changed once more after the 1994 reforms, with red replacing the green and the Zulu-inspired Transvaal Lion instead of the star.

SANDF in the Cold War: Border wars (1966-89)

This era saw a growing international isolation of South Africa due to its apartheid policies, traduced into mass arrests and rather vigorous demonstrations, with casualties. Therefore, a large part of the army was used for internal security duties, whereas another part was active during a long protracted war against neighbouring nations because of border disputes.

The Defence Act (No. 85) of 1967 expanded military obligations and specified a year of training, varied periods of active duty and and several years in reserve status for every white male fit for service.

South African Border Wars

Territories involved during the “Border Wars”

At that time, France was, after Great Britain, the main provider of weaponry and armored vehicles, starting with the Panhard AML armoured car. During all the operations led against the SWAPO rebels (South-West Africa People’s Organisation), the armored cars inspired a local production version, the Eland Mk.7, and quick-started the production of other vehicles. The Centurion became the only tank in service with the SADF,whereas wheeled armored vehicles were developed and became an integral part of the SADF specificity. The dry and rather flat terrain where these vehicles fought was, of course, a favoring factor.

With the independence of Angola, SADF forces assisted with its auxiliary South West African Territorial Force, were it found itself at war with the UNITA rebels in Angola in the late 1960s and against the Cuban troops that supported them. Due to the lack of manpower, the provisional 7 SA Division, along with the 17, 18 and 19th Brigades, were short lived, from 1965 to 1967, when they were replaced by the Army Task Force and 16th Brigade. In the 1970s, the segregation policy was lifted from recruitment, but black persons were confined to auxiliary duties and never saw the front line.

In 1973, the 7th SA Infantry Battalion, 8th SA Infantry Battalion and 11th Commando were created. The next year, the army was reorganized into two divisions under a corps headquarters and reorganized in the 1980s to keep a strong conventional core (Citizens Force, with the 7th and 8th Divisions) while being capable at the same time of flexible counter-insurgency operations (with nine territorial commands). The armored units benefited from a series of upgrades performed on the Centurion, the “SKOKIAAN” program in 1968 (there was an ongoing UN embargo at the time, that prevented spare parts and upgrades from getting through), with the fitting of a 372 kW (500 hp) V12, Detroit diesel, and in 1973 a Continental fuel-injection engine and a three-speed Allison semi-automatic transmission performed at Pretoria.

South African convoy in Namibia
A SANDF convoy in Namibia

However, only 11 were so converted and nine maintained in operation on the Angolan border in 1976, but the project was terminated due to their lack of range. Later, the Semels project was launched, followed by the Olifant Mark 1A program and the even more ambitious Mark 1B ,with the help of Israel. The 7th Division, (HQ Johannesburg) comprised the 71st, 72nd, 73rd Motorized Brigades and division troops, whereas the 8 SA Armoured Division (HQ Durban) had the 81, 82, 83rd armored and motorized brigades and division troops.

Cuito Cuanavale (1987-88)

This small town of Angola found itself in the eye of the storm, and largely decided the fate of the whole campaign. This was not an isolated battle, bur a whole series of actions fought between September 1987 and March 1988, seven month in total. It was the story of a major SANDF offensive from the south, with local support from the UNITA (both backed by the CIA) against the MPLA (FAPLA), SWAPO (PLAN), ANC (MK) which were massively supported by Cuba (FAR), itself backed by the USSR. The latter were the dominant force, with Gen. Leopoldo “Polo” Cintras Frías at the head of three fortified lines defensive perimeters. Whereas the SWAPO, MPLA and ANC lacke modern AFVs, the Cubans supplied an array of MBTs like the T-54/55, T-62, numerous APCs (amphibious), a significant air force, SPAAGs and SPAAMLs. Therefore, the SAAF never really obtained the air superiority which was essential for ground operations.

The battle itself only counted for eight days, from 12 to 20 January, and the Cubans and FLAPLA were victorious, but at the price of 4600 dead and perhaps 20,000 wounded and missing in action, whereas the SANDF lost an official 31 dead and 3000-4000 wounded, plus 8000 wounded and 3000 dead from UNITA. Not only did SANDF never take the town, but its forces were pushed back from Namibia, right to the southern border. Later on, the MPLA advance against UNITA was halted decisively by SANDF forces, and the “battle” ended as a stalemate.

During the border wars, SANDF forces captured a large array of Soviet-built Angolan/Cuban vehicles: T-34/85s, T-54s, T-72Ms, BMP-1s, MT-LBs with SA-13 “GOPHER” SAMs, BTR-152s and BTR-60s. Contrary to Israel, these were displayed as “spoils of war”, but never reused in active service. Angola in particular was an ideal battleground to compare Soviet equipment with the western one used by SANDF forces. The overall result on the whole, especially after the Cuito Cuinavale battle, was not especially favourable to SANDF and still open to debate. During the Battle of Longa River, SADF 61 Mechanized Battalion was found itself opposing FAPLA’s 16th, 21st (both light infantry), 47th (armored) and 59th (mechanized) brigades, which had about 6000 men and 80 tanks and backed by Cuban MiG-23s tailored for ground attacks.

Ratel 90 tank hunter
A new addition to the SANDF, the wheeled ICV Ratel-90 is armed with a 90 mm (3.54 in) gun inherited from the Eland-90, and was quite successful against T-54/55s.

The UNITA units opposing them were the 3rd Regular, 5th Regular, 13th Semi-Regular and 275th Special Forces Battalions backed by SANDF. Between the 9th of September and 7th of  October, the FAPLA failed to cross the river, suffering heavy losses of 3000 men along with 61 tanks, 83 armored vehicles and 20 rocket launchers. In the aftermath, the SADF committed the armored might of the 4th SA Infantry Battalion in the counter-offensive which was successful in some measure, before the terrain and season halted a full exploitation of Operation Moduler.

In November, the SADF launched Operation Hooper, meant to corner and destroy three FLAPLA units left from the previous battles near the Cuito River. For the Cubans, the situation was so critical massive reinforcements arrived, with 15,000 elite troops, around 200 technicians, advisers, officers, special forces, plus tanks and new planes. It seemed the whole Cuban army was shipped and deployed in Angola to relieve the besieged garrison at Cuito Cuanavale. At the same time, a UN resolution condemned the SADF intervention and forces were reduced to 2000 men and 24 tanks, mostly Olifant Mk.1As. The attack started on 3 January 1988 with artillery. A second offensive occurred on 14 February, but despite inflicting heavy losses, SADF and UNITA did not secure their objectives. Operation Packer started with the newly created 82 Mechanized Brigade on 23 March, and bogged in a minefield while UNITA took heavy losses.

A BTR-60PB wreck left over in Angola
A leftover BTR-60PB in Angola.

The assault was stopped due to mounting Cuban artillery fire and air attacks. Operation Displace took place with a reduced SADF force in the Tumpo region, in order to try to save UNITA from a FAPLA advance. Artillery pounding was resumed until the end of August, but SADF forces were retired. The SADF deployed its ageing Elands 90, Olifants and Ratels of all versions, plus Buffel and Casspir MPVs, which were particularly efficient at safely carrying troops on mine-infested terrain. Many postwar engagement report of encounters with the T-34/85, T-54B, T-55, T-62, PT-76 were duly noted, as well as weaknesses in the BTR-40, BTR-152, BTR-50, BTR-60PB, BRDM-2, BMP-1 and MT-LB, among which many were captured and studied. In particular, the capture of a highly sophisticated SA-8 soviet anti-aircraft missile system attracted NATO’s experts.

1994 reforms

In 1990-91, the Army was reconstituted with three divisions, the 7th (Johannesburg), 8th (Durban) and 9th (Cape Town), later renamed 73rd, 74th and 75th Brigades when amalgamated into the 7th South African Division on 1 April 1997. The latter was disbanded on 1 April 1999 and the units were reorganized into “type” formation force structure. These followed the Deloitte and Touche recommendations, allowing the army to be more cost-efficient. At the same time, “silo” style formations for armor, infantry, artillery, and engineers were implemented. At the same time, various changes hit the military hierarchy inherited from the Apartheid, powered by a certain mistrust by the new Mandela government. These well-awaited reforms also ended segregation and implemented racial quotas. Despite budget cuts, the army started to change its image by actively participating in peace-keeping missions, with UNMIS (Sudan), ONUB (Burundi), MONUSCO (Congo), with interventions also in Lesotho, the Comoros, Rwanda, Ivory Coast or the Central African Republic and Uganda.

US Army visit Bloemfontain
US Army commander visit SANDF at Bloemfontain Military School (behind an Olifant Mk.1b).

SANDF today

While the Army is modernized and reorganized, it faces the new threat of international Islamic terrorism in nearby countries. In 2006 the ARMY VISION 2020 guidelines document was published, returning to a planned division based structure with two divisions and a special operations brigade plus a work regiment. These steered away from the Deloitte and Touche inspired organization. One of the latest intervention was in 2013 with the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade deployed in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a UN mandate. Crisis response also imposed its participation in the African Standby Force as part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).


The SA army on Wikipedia
SADF equipment on Wikipedia
Official blog of the DoD (Dept. of Defence)
Official website
SA Armour Museum
SAAR armour museum

SANDF flag
Official SANDF flag.
Eland 60
Eland 60, the mortar-carrier version (now deactivated)
SADF Bosbok APC, one of the three prototypes of the locally-built amphibious M3 Panhard by Sandrock Austral (Pty) Ltd.
Eland Mark 7
Eland Mark 7 or Eland 90 (1200 built, widely exported in Africa), quite successful against Angolan armor.
Saracen Mark 3
Saracen Mark 3. In 1953, South Africa purchased 10 Saracen Mk.1s for evaluation, followed by an order of 270 in 1954, arriving in 1956. They were placed in storage or used for training. 8 were allocated to the South African Police. All were withdrawn from service in 1975. A refurbishing was performed by the Railway Workshop, Uitenhage in 1979-1981. In service until 1991.
APFB wheeled tank prototype
APFB wheeled tank prototype
RSA prototype
Class 2B RSA (Rooikat) wheeled tank destroyer prototype
Rooikats in exercises
Rooikats in an exercise (video documentary extract)
Rooikat wheeled tank destroyer (1976). With a long history of development, this wheeled tank was to replace the Eland Mark 7 and incorporated all lessons learnt from the Angolan war. It was produced only from 1989, when the war was over. 240 are in service today.
Olifant Mark 2
Olifant Mark 2. A long history of development and modification with the modified Mark 1a, then the rebuilt Mark 1B and modernized Mark 2. The Olifant is today’s SADF MBT in service, with 227 vehicles.
Ratel 90
Ratel 90 IFV (1968). This vehicle, 1200+ of which were produced from 1974, was to be the main SADF wheeled APC and was declined into many variants. 434 are in service today, with 666 in reserve plus 16 ZT3 (36 in reserve).
Ratel ZT3 ATGM launcher
Ratel ZT3 with ATGM launchers at an army exhibit.
Ratel 20 at the Cape Town Castle
Ratel 20 at the Cape Town CastleHippo Mark 1 MRAP
Hippo Mark 1 MRAP.Mamba
Mamba Mark 3 APC-MRV (440 in service today)Caspir
Caspir Mark 2 APC/MRAP (370 in service today)

Denel G6
Denel G6 Renoster howitzer fast carrier (1987). 43 in service today.<

Denel G6
Denel G6 Renoster, front view, gun in high elevation.

Husky tactical mine clearing system

2 Responses to South Africa

  1. Chris says:

    Your summary of SADF actions, in particular Cuito Carnivale appears to be somewhat one-sided. May I suggest that you read more literature from the SADF point of view. The SADF was not trying to take over Cuito Carnivale – that would have been an unwise move too far. It was trying to block the Angolan/Cuban/Soviet move south across the river. By the SADF blowing the bridge there it prevented the Angolan front from moving any further. South Africa never intended to take over Angola, but stop the terrorist incursions into SWA by communist backed SWAPO who were being protected by Angolan forces.

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