“Buffel” The African Buffalo
The Buffel was the first-ever mass-produced V-shaped hull, open-topped, Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV)/Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). It was made and used by the South African Defense Force (SADF) at a time when South Africa was subject to ever more strict international embargoes because of its segregation policies (Apartheid). This was set against the backdrop of the Cold War in Southern Africa, which saw many anti-colonial wars and internal liberation conflicts along political, ethnic, and tribal lines, supported by often competing Eastern and Western benefactors.
The Buffel would become a staple vehicle for SADF motorized units in South West Africa (SWA), where it was primarily used for patrol duties along the Caprivi Strip along the northern border with Angola and Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations. It was designed to be mobile and provide protection against anti-tank mines, small arms fire, and shrapnel. The Buffel was phased out of frontline SADF service during the late 1980s and was relegated to internal security use until it was replaced by the Mamba APC in 1995.
Buffel MPV/APC`s leaving Angola at the conclusion Operation Displace, August 1988. Published in PARATUS, September 1988. Photograph Martin Botha
South African Border War (1966-1989) political map (country names added). Created by GhePeU for Wikimedia Commons. Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
From 1973 onwards, there was a sharp increase in landmine usage by the “South West Africa People’s Organization” (SWAPO), which was fighting an insurgency war against South Africa for the independence of SWA. SWAPO operated from bases inside Angola and crossed SWA border over the Caprivi Strip. The SADF at that time had no dedicated mass-produced border-patrol MPV/APC which could protect the occupants against anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines. The ‘Soft skin” Unimog`s rear passenger compartment was fitted with impromptu sandbags and conveyor belt sheets which offered some protection to the occupants against landmine blasts.
Given the increased threat from landmines, the Defence Research Unit (DRU) was tasked by the SADF with improving the crew survivability of its Unimog fleet. The SADF made use of Mercedes-Benz Unimog S (417.162) trucks, which they bought during the 1960s, of which 200 were upgraded by Messrs United Car and Diesel Distributors (UCDD) during 1973/4 with more powerful OM352 6-cylinder water-cooled diesel engines. The improvement to the Unimog chassis led to the production of the Bosvark (Bushpig) vehicle at 61 Base Workshop Unit in Pretoria.
Bosvark Mk1 APC. Source CSIR
The Bosvark featured a V-shaped rear tub made from mild steel which replaced the standard seat section, whilst the driver’s frontal cab section received a Barber deflection plate (mine detonation blast deflection plates). These improvements, while successful, did not protect the occupants from small arms fire. A total of 56 vehicles were produced and used successfully during Operation Savannah (1976). Operation Savannah was the first major military incursion into Angola by the SADF in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was fighting a war against the Cuban and Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Angolan conventional army, the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), for control of Angola.
Post-Operation Savannah, the SADF conducted a needs assessment of their entire fleet. This would later lead to the SAMIL (South African MILitary) range of vehicles. These were specifically designed for the Southern African battlespace which required long travel distances without logistical support and in which the terrain itself could damage the vehicle.
Messrs UCDD, who upgraded the Unimogs, came to hear of the new developments and feared a loss in future military contracts. Thus, they set out to further develop the Bosvark into a dedicated MPV which would function as an APC. Under the leadership of Koos de Wet, who worked at Messrs UCDD, the Bosvark II would take shape. Several improvements were identified and a presentation was made to ARMSCOR early in 1976. A wooden mockup was completed by April 1976 and presented to officials from SADF, ARMSCOR, the Board of Trade and Industry, and the DRU.
ARMSCOR, with the development of the SAMIL range of vehicles, was planning to phase out the Unimog. Subsequent assistance from ARMSCOR for the Bosvark II dried up and the development team had to rely on their own wit and assistance from the DRU to pull the project through. The final prototype was ready by late August 1976 and presented to ARMSCOR and the SADF who required that the vehicle undergo mobility and durability tests.
Bosvark 2 during mobility and wheel displacement testing. With permission from Koos de Wet
Messrs UCDD continued its support for the Bosvark II, and the necessary mobility and durability tests were arranged on a farm near Zeerust. Representatives from interested groups attended and put the Bosvark II through its paces from dusk until dawn. Some improvements were identified by the development team, but the Bosvark II was certified as tested. Nine more test vehicles were built and delivered to the SADF for testing in the then Northern Transvaal and Ovamboland. A quotation was requested for more vehicles from UCDD. The Defence Research Council (later Chemical Defence Unit) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), led by Dr. Vernon Joynt, made further improvements.
In 1976, a live blast test was arranged and Koos de Wet was invited to attend to witness the proceedings. Explosives were placed under the front left wheel of the vehicle. In place of a human occupant, a female baboon was drafted for SADF service, drugged, and strapped into the driver’s seat. After a massive explosion, the vehicle’s left wheel was nowhere to be found. The baboon survived and was given first aid for a cut on its lip. Attendees were impressed and the experts agreed that the driver and passengers would survive a mine detonation. Koos de Wet was informed that the vehicle would be called the Buffel (Buffalo) if it were placed in SADF service. Both Messrs Busaf Border and Messrs Transverse, which contributed to the development, were excluded by the SADF and ARMSCOR from the Buffel production. Further tests were conducted by the SADF and ARMSCOR throughout early to mid-1977 and improvements made.
61 Base General Workshop (BGW) was often called upon to assist in projects and even at times to manufacture and develop prototypes. 61 BGW would become responsible for the disassembly of the SADF Unimog fleet and preparation for its conversion to the Buffel. The first 19 Buffels left Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria, South Africa for the major military logistics and supply base at Grootfontein in SWA during the latter half of 1977. The first Buffels were deployed operationally by late 1978 and some 2985 vehicles would be built over a period of 17 years.
Buffel MPV/APC at Etali military base in South West Africa, 1983/84. Was used during Ops Askari. With permission from Petrus Wiese.
The Buffel Mk1 was fitted with the same Mercedes Benz OM352 6-cylinder water-cooled diesel engine as had been used on the Unimog-based Bosvarks and received a bush guard on the front of the vehicle which helped protect it from damage caused by driving through the bush. The Mk1A was improved by being equipped with drum brakes and an Atlas Diesel Engine (ADE) 352 6-cylinder water-cooled engine (a licensed copy of the Mercedes Benz engine). The Mk1B and subsequent variants used the same licensed engine and had the drum brakes replaced with disc brakes. The Buffel Mk2 saw the passenger tub being redesigned with all-round visibility through bullet-resistant windows, an armored roof, and a rear entry and exit door.
The Buffel would come to serve in virtually all the branches of the SADF until its retirement in 1995. During the full production phase, all the chassis were produced and assembled in East London and shipped to Rosslyn in Pretoria where the armoured hulls were produced by Steelmobile Engineering and mounted onto the chassis. At a point in time, the production rate scaled up to 6 vehicles a day with a one shift day. The production price of a complete vehicle was R45 535 in 1983, equivalent to R779 657 today. Buffel vehicles were also produced for the various Government sector in SWA such as Water Affairs, Roads Department and Eskom. Koevoet used some vehicles in the early 1980s before they were issued with the Casspir vehicle. The only foreign country to ever buy Buffels from the South African government directly was Sri Lanka (185). All other users either bought them at SA Army auctions or through the private sector. Only a handful of countries still use the Buffel (or variants thereof), which include Malawi, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Zambia.
The Buffel was designed to maximize its occupants’ chances of survival when a mine was detonated anywhere under the hull. This was achieved through several key design elements which included high ground clearance, a V-shaped underbelly, and a purpose-built strengthened upper design which reduced the risk of shattered or buckled hull plates which could become debris.
The African terrain, which in and of itself can inflict severe punishment on a vehicle, necessitates a robust design. The Buffel’s design and simplicity made field repairs post-mine detonation possible although very costly. A chassis-based MPV does not provide the same protection to the vehicle driveline when compared to modern monocoque hull design vehicles. Most parts could be obtained commercially, which made the Buffel’s logistical train shorter and specialized maintenance support in the field unnecessary. The front of the vehicle was strengthened with a bush guard for driving through instead of around small trees and heavy brush, popularly referred to as bundu bashing (bush breaking ability). Bundu bashing was followed as some roads were heavily mined by enemy forces.
Buffel MPV/APC at the War and Peace Revival 2019 show. With permission from Craig Moore
The Unimog 4×4 chassis was designed for difficult off-road applications in Europe and this design suited the African battlespace, which necessitated excellent cross-country mobility. Being wheeled, it also required less maintenance than a tracked vehicle. The suspension consisted of single-coil spring on the front axle and double coil springs on the rear axle. The Buffel had a ground clearance of 420 mm (16.5 in) and could ford 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) of water. The high ground clearance and small width made the Buffel somewhat top-heavy, which occasionally caused problems for inexperienced drivers who would roll the vehicle over if they turned too sharply while at speed, or on uneven or wet and slippery terrain. For those not used to the vehicle’s sway and motion, the passenger tub would be nicknamed the “kots koets” (vomit carriage).
The engine produced 125 hp (20.4 hp/t) at 2800 rpm and was coupled to an eight-speed (eight forward and four reverse) synchromesh manual transmission, the transfer box of which was integrated with the gearbox. The transmission design allowed for in motion changing between 2×4 and 4×4 wheel drive and featured an equal 50% front and rear axle power distribution. The four wheels were 12.50 x 20 inch in size. As an experiment, each wheel was filled with approximately 60 litres of water to help absorb the explosive force from a landmine. Conversely, this added around 1.2 tons of weight which negatively affected the vehicle’s range and caused other failures to the suspension, wheel bearings and the axle. This idea was soon stopped.
Endurance and logistics
The Buffel had a 200-liter fuel tank which granted it an operational range of 1000 km (600 miles) on road and 500 km (300 miles) cross country. Its maximum road speed was 96 km/h (60 mph) and 30 km/h (19 mph) cross country. A modular design allowed for easier maintenance and reduced logistical requirements. Additionally, the commercial nature of the components made replacement easy and lowered the cost for parts.
The Buffel consisted of three main parts: chassis, armored driver’s cab at the front left of the vehicle, and an armored passenger tub at the center rear. The engine was located on the front right-hand side of the vehicle and the transmission in-between the engine and the armored driver’s cab. The engine and transmission placement facilitated easy replacement in the event of damage due to a mine detonation.
Buffel MPV/APC driver’s cab at the War and Peace Revival 2019 show. With permission from Craig Moore
The driver’s cab was surrounded by three rectangular bullet-resistant glass windows and an open-topped roof. The base was wedge-shaped and secured to the chassis via cables. A single door was installed on the left side of the driver’s cab, as well as two steel steps for ease of entrance. Later variants would also receive a high-density polyethylene roof cover over the driver’s cab. The gear selection was located on the right-hand side of the driver and a spare wheel was kept to the right of the driver’s cab. The driver’s and passenger’s seating was blast resistant and designed to protect the user’s spine in case of a mine detonation under the vehicle. The vehicle remained a left-hand drive configuration as the design of the chassis was of German origin.
Access to the passenger tub was gained via two incremental pairs of steel steps on either side. The passenger tub seating was arranged in two rows of five seats, facing outward from the center. All seats were equipped with harnesses to secure the occupants in the case of a mine detonation or accidental rollover, which would otherwise see them thrown clear of the vehicle. A further feature was an anti-roll bar over the top of the passenger tub which would stop the passenger tub rolling over completely. The left and right sides of the passenger tub contained a horizontal panel with circular grooves to allow rifle fire from the passenger’s seating. During contact, the passengers would debus by jumping over the side of the vehicle. The panels were horizontally hinged which allowed them to be opened to ease disembarking. This was, however, rarely done while on the move, as the panels had a tendency to flip back up while crossing uneven terrain at speed, which could lead to injury.
Buffel MPV/APC passenger tub seating visible at the War and Peace Revival 2019 show – With permission from Craig Moore
Traditionally, the section leader would sit on the front left to facilitate communication with the driver. The section machine gun team sat at the rear left with the second-in-command (2IC), who operated the rear-facing machine gun. The number one rifleman sat in the front right and manned the front-facing machine gun, while the remainder of the section sat on the right.
On the rear of the passenger tub was a sizable storage box manufactured from high-density polyethelen. The front lower part of the storage box was used by the passengers to store spare kit, while the top part was for the driver’s use. On occasion, a road-killed warthog would be thrown in the storage box for later consumption. At the rear of the chassis was a water tap that was connected to a 100-liter freshwater tank.
Buffel MPV/APC with storage bin visible at the War and Peace Revival 2019 show. With permission from Craig Moore
The Buffel could protect its occupants against a single TM-57 anti-tank mine blast under the hull, which was equivalent to 6.34 kg of TNT, or a double TM-57 anti-tank mine blast under any wheel. Its V-shaped bottom armored hull design deflected blast energy and fragments away from the driver and passenger tub. The driver’s cab windows were all bulletproof (bulletproof is a misnomer, and should rather be called bullet-resistant). A plastic fuel and water tank was located within the V-shaped hull of the passenger tub. These tanks would help absorb explosive blast energy from a mine detonation. The armored driver’s cab and passenger tub protected against common small arms fire in the theater, which included 7.62 x 51mm NATO and 7.62 x 39mm AK-47 Ball ammunition as well as explosive fragments.
Buffel MPV/APC after it hit a double cheese mine (stacked mines), 1981. With permission from Granger Korff
The Buffel’s standard armament was either a single or dual pintle-mounted 7.62 mm Light Machine Guns (LMG), which was located on the forward right-hand side of the passenger tub and/or rear left-hand side. Twin mountings have also been observed, with the gunners receiving a gun shield as well. In open terrain, this placement was convenient, but when the Buffel entered the thick bush, the primary armament being located forward would get turned around by branches, making their effective use difficult.
Rear-facing pintle-mounted 7.62 mm LMG. With permission Japie Oberholster
THE BUFFEL FAMILY
The Buffel spawned several variants, which includes a 2.5 ton Cargo Carrier and an Ambulance.
Based on the Buffel Mk1B, the Cargo Carrier was produced in the early 1980s. It retained the one-man driver’s cab, however, the personnel tub was replaced with an open load bed. It could carry 2.6 tons of cargo over 900 km. A total of 57 were produced.
Buffel Mk1B Cargo carrier. With permission Steyns 4×4, Strand, Western Cape
Making use of the standard Buffel Mk1B, the Ambulance variant prototype retained the armored one-man driver’s cab at the front. The passenger tub was redeveloped to be enclosed and could accommodate two medical staff, four lying and one sitting patient. Access was gained to the passenger tub via a rear door. It was, however, concluded that the swaying motion of the passenger cab would make the treatment of casualties difficult and very uncomfortable and the vehicle weight increased with 400kg which was not acceptable for the chassis. Subsequently, no orders were placed.
Buffel Ambulance prototype. Source unknown
When the Buffel was deployed in urban operations to quell the ever-increasing civil unrest and factional fighting (1991-1993) in South Africa, a redesign was needed to improve all-round safety. This involved enclosing the driver’s cab and passenger tub, which were vulnerable to petrol bombs and other dangerous flying objects. The passenger tub’s horizontal drop-down panels were replaced with bullet-resistant glass windows with two firing ports each. A rear access door with a bullet-resistant window was added to facilitate entry and exit from the tub. Additionally, a bullet-resistant window was fitted on the forward right side. The passengers could open hatches on the top of the cab. The subsequent redesign of the passenger tub reduced the available space from ten to eight passengers and the seating faced inwards. The overall improvements allowed better all-round visibility. The design increased the weight with 800kg which was not acceptable for the chassis. A limited number of Moffel vehicles were produced and the vehicle was limited for road use only. When the Buffel vehicle was withdrawn from service, a total number of 582 Mamba APC vehicles built utilising the Buffel or Unimog drive line.
During the South African Border War, the Buffel was used as a dedicated transport, as well as for logistics and COIN operations as part of fighting groups. Sections were transported to designated points, from where they would conduct patrol on foot for between three and seven days before being picked up again or receive replenishment for a further seven days.
A fighting group consisted of between four to six Buffels, which would carry a platoon between them, with one or two Buffels serving as supply/logistics vehicles. Enough food, water, and ammunition were carried for seven days, which covered roughly 600-800 km. Replenishment would be done every six days if the patrol was to extended.
The Buffel in Action
The Buffel was such a versatile MPV/APC vehicle that it was used by every SADF infantry battalion which served in SWA as well as every major military operation from Operation Rheindeer (1978) to the cessation of hostilities in 1989. Additionally, it was used in vast numbers for internal security.
32 Battalion, an elite light infantry unit consisting of Angolans under the command of SADF officers and NCO`s, received Buffels. Three-two, as they were better known, was most often used for reconnaissance and offensive operations in Angola. Having received Buffels, they became a light motorized unit and, during Operation Protea (1981), three motorized companies were attached to Battle Group 40. This consisted of one armored car squadron (Eland 90), a 120 mm mortar battery, four anti-tank teams, and two protection platoons (1 Platoon from B company of 202 Battalion and 1 other platoon). Battle Group 40 was tasked to find and destroy SWAPO command, training and logistical bases around the town of Xangongo (70 km north of the SWA border), secure the town and its bridge.
The attack would be carried out by Combat Team 41 from the northeast and Combat Team 42 from the southeast at around 1250 on 24 August. The town was defended by layers of trenches and bunkers which needed to be cleared first, followed by the fort and water tower. By 1730, the bridge was reached and prepared for demolition by the engineers. During the attack, FAPLA and PLAN officers, together with their Soviet military advisors, quickly fled, leaving the soldiers behind to fend for themselves. By 25 August, all Battle Group 40`s objectives were reached. On 26 August, they set out to join Task Force Bravo, which was operating to the east against PLAN bases.
BTR-60 captured during Operation Rheindeer on display at the SA Armour Museum. Photo Dewald Venter
A Soldier’s Account from Operation Sceptic 1980
SADF soldiers from 32 Battalion and 61 Mechanised Battalion preparing for a patrol near Onjiva with their Buffel MPV/APC during Operation Sceptic. With permission M. Beyl
Operation Sceptic was launched on 10 June 1980 as a lightning attack on a SWAPO base 80 km (50 mi) into South Angola and was supposed to conclude on 16 June 1980. Due to additional arms caches being found in SWAPO territory, it developed into an extended operation and lasted until 30 June 1980, with all SADF personal back in SWA on 1 July 1980. The operation saw the first serious clash between the SADF and FAPLA as well as mechanized elements of SWAPO. SWAPO lost its forward base facilities and 380 dead. Several hundred tons of equipment and supplies, as well as many vehicles, were captured by the security forces. Seventeen SADF members lost their lives.
I was part of 1 Parachute Battalion – C Company. That operation was easily six weeks of living on a Buffel. I can’t remember all the details anymore, but we were the last unit still in Angola and the UN told SA at that time that the SA troops must get out of Angola.
That “last morning” we went a few miles north to clear a “village”. Upon returning, we took turns to lead the Buffel convoy. The leading vehicle’s troops had to buckle up as mines were a real threat and any mine detonated would most probably be done by the lead Buffel.
As the convoy progressed, it became our Buffel’s turn to lead the convoy. We probably only drove 5 km, when we detonated a landmine. It was deafening…with dust and sand everywhere…in your ears, nose, and mouth. The Buffel’s front left wheel was thrown clear about 30 m to 40 m and the vehicle itself a few meters in the air… luckily landing on its remaining three wheels. After a few seconds, we looked at each other and asked if everyone was ok. No one was seriously injured.., except for sore backs.
The Buffel really is a special vehicle. We dismounted and moved to another Buffel, whose turn luckily it wasn’t to lead the convoy. An hour later we made contact with FAPLA at Mangua where they set up an ambush with BTR vehicles. The battle lasted a couple of hours, with FAPLA taking more than 200 casualties.
The Buffel is the first-ever mass-produced V-shaped hull, open-topped MPV/APC that was mine-protected. Although not very comfortable, it fulfilled its role as an MPV by saving the lives of countless SADF soldiers whose vehicles detonated landmines. It became the backbone of many SADF border patrol and COIN operations. The Buffel served for 17 years until it was replaced by the Mamba MPV/APC in 1995. Some 582 Buffels would be rebuilt around its driveline to manufacture the Mamba MPV/APC.
Buffel MPV/APC Specifications Mk1B
|Dimensions (hull) (l-w-h)||5.10 m – 2.05 m – 2.96 m (16.73 ft – 6.72 ft – 9.71 ft)|
|Total weight, battle-ready||6.1 Tons|
|Crew + mounted infantry||1 + 10 mission dependent|
|Propulsion||Atlantis Diesel Engine ADE 352 6-cylinder water cooled engine 125 hp (20.4 hp/t) at 2800 rpm.|
|Suspension||Single coil spring on front axle and two double coil springs on the rear axle|
|Top speed road / off-road||96 km/h (60 mph) / 30 km/h (19 mph)|
|Range road/ off-road||1000 km (600 miles) / 500 km (300 miles)|
|Armament||1 x single or double 5.56 mm or 7.62mm pintle-mounted machine gun forward right and/or rear left|
|Armor||6-7mm (all arcs)|
Buffel Mine-protected APC
South African Buffel, The War & Peace Revival 2014
ANGOLA THE WAR Documentary Teaser
SANDF Buffel, left view, open bay. The “buffalo” certainly is in the top three world’s ugliest AFV ever designed, but its only raison d’être lays with pure functionality. Dependable and Replaceable, it was for 20 years SANDF’s reference mine-proof APC.
SANDF Buffel, left view, closed bay, pale olive livery.
Sri Lanka Unicorn (local Buffel). The Unibuffel is a locally modify, fully enclosed version.
All Illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s David Bocquelet.
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Beyl, M. 2019. Operation Sceptic. Facebook correspondence SMOKESHELL. 10 JUNE 1980. Date 22 Oct. 2019.
Bouwer, M. 2019. Buffel operation doctrine. Facebook correspondence GRENSOORLOG/ BORDER WAR 1966-1989. Date 20 Sep. 2019.
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