“Olifant” The African Elephant
The Olifant Mk1A Main Battle Tank (MBT) takes its Afrikaans name from the African Elephant. The Olifant is the largest land animal and thus, the Olifant MBT is aptly named as it was the heaviest military vehicle in the then South African Defence Force (SADF) and post-democratic South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The Olifant Mk1A is adapted for the African battlespace. It was designed and produced at a time when South Africa was subject to ever more strict international arms embargoes because of its segregation policies (Apartheid), set against the backdrop of the Cold War in Southern Africa which saw a steep rise in liberation movements backed by Eastern Bloc communist countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Olifant Mk1A – With permission from A.Retief
The Olifant Mk1A was the final evolutionary development of the British Centurions in South Africa service before the end of the Cold War. During 1953, South Africa, as part of the Commonwealth, purchased 87 Mk.3 and 116 Mk.5 Centurions from Great Britain. One hundred Centurions were sold to Switzerland in the 1960’s to generate funds for the purchase of Mirage fighter airplanes. As part of the purchase agreement, Switzerland was allowed to pick the best 100 Centurions from the South African inventory, which they did. This action virtually halved the South African tank capability. In the years that followed, the remaining tanks were used for training and large-scale exercises such as those held in 1966.
In 1964, the United Nations enacted a strict arms embargo on South Africa due to its racial segregation policy, known as “Apartheid”. Regardless of the sanctions, South Africa was able to obtain some of the equipment and parts necessary for the upkeep of the Centurion fleet. The exception was the 650hp water-cooled V-12 Rolls Royce Meteor engine which was prone to overheating in the warm African weather. The strain brought on by the rocky terrain took its toll on the Centurion’s road wheels and suspension. The changing global political environment against South Africa necessitated an increased requirement on self-reliance which led to the establishment of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (ARMSCOR) in 1964, which would take on procurement, research and development tasks. With some sleight of hand and creative wording, ARMSCOR was able to procure diesel engines from General Motors under the pretext of them being used for farming. Although suitable, the engines, meant for the cold weather use of Europe, constantly overheated in the African heat. General Motors got wind of the engine’s final destination and pulled the supply thereof in 1970.
In 1973, ARMSCOR acquired several air-cooled Continental V-12 engine used in the M46/47 Patton which produced 810hp. With some creative modifications, they were installed in the South African Centurions. However, the new engines were far from perfect as they consumed a ridiculous amount of fuel, limiting the operational range off road to just 40km. Additionally, the original tiller bars for driving were replaced by a steering handlebar system. Besides the three test models build by 61 Base Workshop, another five were produced by Sandock-Austral and all eight were pushed into service as an interim measure as the ‘Skokiaan’ (an African alcoholic drink) while the Centurion Mk.5A was being developed. The Centurion Mk.5A was nicknamed ‘Semel’ (bran/cereal) which referred to its project development code name. Using the same engine as the ‘Skokiaan’, a total of 35 ‘Semels’ were built from 1974 and featured the repositioning of the air filters (to avoid getting clogged), increased fuel capacity (1400 litres), redesigned steering and brakes which made use of hydraulics and a new gun control system developed by Marconi South Africa. They were sent to Walvis Bay in South West Africa (Namibia).
Skokiaan on display, School of Armour, Tempe Military Base (Photo: Dewald Venter)
While the interim Semels and Skokiaans were being produced the South African Armoured Corps submitted a request to the upgrade of the Centurion fleet to the standards of the Israeli ‘Sho`t’. This request saw the birth of the Olifant MBT project which involved cooperation between the South African Technical Service Corps, ARMSCOR and Barlow’s through the subsidiary Barlow’s Heavy Engineering, which established a division called the ‘Olifant Manufacturing Company’ (OMC) in 1976. Lacking sufficient Centurion hulls due to the sale of a hundred Centurions in the 1960`s an extensive search led to the acquisition of 200 Centurion tanks (in various states of disrepair) from Jordan. The first pre-production variant of the Olifant (Mk1) was sent to the School of Armour at Tempe Military Base for testing in 1976 followed by a second in 1977 and a third in 1978.
The Olifant Mk1 was officially introduced in 1978 and mainly featured a 750 hp diesel engine coupled to a semi-automatic transmission. Production commenced in 1979 and lasted until 1984 with a total of 153 Mk.3 Centurions being converted to the Olifant Mk1 standard. As luck would have it, South Africa confiscated a shipment of T-55 tanks bound for Tanzania from a cargo ship which “mistakenly docked” in the Durban harbour. Subsequent trials against the T-55 revealed several inadequacies of the Olifant Mk1. Luckily, development of the Olifant Mk1A had already begun in 1981, with production starting in 1983. The new Olifant Mk1A upgrade of the Olifant Mk1 was ready for service from 1985 onward and featured a stabilized and upgraded locally produced 105mm GT3B canon (L7), which gave a bigger and more accurate punch than the Centurion Mk5A’s 84mm. The fire control system was improved and passive night vision sight on a night elbow installed as well as a laser rangefinder. Other external differences saw the addition of storage racks at the rear of the turret for camouflage netting etc.
Olifant Mk1A De Brug shooting range. Notice the additional storage rack at the back of the turret. (Photo: Dewald Venter)
A total of 153 Olifant Mk1A`s were built by the late 1980s. The SADF deployed the Olifant Mk1A for use at the School of Armour, 1 South African Tank Regiment, Pretoria Regiment, Natal Mounted Rifles and President Steyn. South Africa is the sole user of the Olifant Mk1A which was eventually superseded by the Olifant Mk2. Some Olifant Mk1A’s are still used for training purposes by the SANDF.
According to Major General Roland de Vries (retd.). “The Olifant is a prime example of what ingenuity and technical expertise can accomplish. It took a long time and much effort, but by the time we had finished, almost nothing (30%) of the old Centurions remained except the characteristic hulls, turret shells and track skirts.”
Although the African battle space favours a wheeled configuration, the Olifant Mk1A was to prove adept at its role as a (MBT) sledgehammer aimed at a precise point. The Olifant Mk1A has 508mm of ground clearance and can ford 1.2m of water without preparation. The Olifant Mk1A retained the Horstman suspension from the Centurion. The South African environment produced an exceptional amount of fine dust which necessitated the fitting of improved air filters which allowed the optimum use of the new Continental 29 litre turbo-charged air-cooled V12 diesel engine which produced 750hp (13.39 hp/t). A new rail system was installed allowing the power pack to be quickly changed in the field with the use of a crane in less than 30 minutes. The engine is coupled to the new improved and robust semi-automatic transmission system with two forward (low and high range) and one reverse gear allowing the Olifant Mk1A to achieve 45 km/h (28 mph) on road which was a significant improvement over the Centurion Mk5’s 35 km/h (22 mph). Steering was done via a handlebar system. The added improvements only contributed 5 tons of additional mass (totalling 56t) which is negligible considering the level of improvements made to the overall engine.
Olifant Mk1A Continental 29 litre turbo-charged air-cooled V12 diesel engine, SA Armour Museum (Photo: Dewald Venter)
Endurance and logistics
The fuel capacity was improved from 458L (121gal) of the Centurion Mk5 to 1240L (328gal) in the Olifant Mk1A. Subsequently, the Olifant Mk1A could travel 350km (217mi) on road and 240km (149mi) off-road and 150km (93mi) on sand as opposed to the Centurion Mk5’s 190km (118mi) on road and 80km (49mi) off-road and 50km (31mi) on sand. Considerable effort was put into making the Olifant Mk1A easier to maintain by ensuring that both mechanical and electronic subsystems were easy to access as the tank was to be employed on longer missions over rugged and variable terrain with less logistical support than before. The Olifant Mk1A tracks consisted of 108 links over twenty-four road wheels (12 per side), each of which had an average service life of 300km-500km which necessitated regular maintenance and replacement. Operations in Angola would soon prove the merit of the former upgrades which reduced crew fatigue considerably.
The Olifant Mk1A is equipped with two 7.62mm machine guns, one in the coaxial position and one on the commander’s cupola. A 12.7mm Browning heavy machine gun was used as a sub-calibre training aid. At least 5600 rounds consisting of 28 belts of 200 rounds of 7.62mm were carried.
The Olifant Mk1A features tactical radio communication which allowed for reliable command and control. This proved very useful in the thick Angolan bush, enhancing the tank’s force multiplier effect on the battlefield. Spare whip aerials for the radio were carried in a tube on the hull as they had a tendency to bend when doing ‘bundu basing’ (driving through dense vegetation). Each Olifant Mk1A carried its own water in jerry cans and cooking stove, tool kit, tow bar, cable and spare parts in the tote. The Olifant Mk1A relied on daily replenishment from the administration and logistic support vehicles from the echelon.
The Olifant Mk1A carries a standard crew complement of four consisting of the commander, gunner, loader and driver. The commander’s station is located on the right side of the turret and retained the commander’s cupola of the Centurion which offered a 360-degree field of vision through eight vision blocks. An additional vision block is provided which can swivel independently. Entry and exit from this station are achieved through a hatch. Also on the right side of the turret, just in front and below the commander’s station is the gunner’s station. On the left of the turret is the loader’s station. Entry and exit for the commander and gunner was through the commander’s hatch while the loader has a separate hatch. The driver’s compartment is located at the front and right of the hull, from where he has 90-degree forward visibility through two driver’s episcopes. The driver can enter and exit the vehicle through a hatch located above his seat.
Olifant Mk1A and crew. Main gun rounds front from left to right APDS, APFSDS, HEAT, HESH and White phosphor – With permission from S. Coetzee.
The Olifant Mk1A was initially equipped with a 105mm L7 rifled gun barrel sourced from Israel. Later on, an improved South African produced 105mm GT3B semi-automatic quick firing gun manufactured by Lyttleton Engineering Works (LEW) was fitted. The 105mm made use of L52 Armour Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) rounds and M456 High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds sourced from Israel. The HEAT rounds could effectively penetrate 420mm of Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA) at any range. By 1987, South Africa received the improved Armour Piercing Fin-stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) M111 rounds which have a muzzle velocity of 1455m/s, range of 3km and could penetrate 390mm of RHA at 10 meters. Additionally, the Olifant MK1A can fire the Denel M9210 High Explosive (HE) round which contains a TNT/HNS filling and an effective blast radius of 17m. The round is fired with a muzzle velocity of 700m/s to a maximum range of 9km. Dispersion at 3 km is within 0.3 x 0.3m. White phosphorus rounds can also be fired at a distance of 9km.
105mm APFSDS-T round used by an Olifant Mk1A, SA Armour Museum (Photo: Dewald Venter)
With the rising threat of Soviet-supplied T-55, T-62 and possible T-72M tanks, a substantial effort was made to acquire more potent APFSDS-T rounds with the ability to penetrate 580mm of RHA. The level of penetration was more than sufficient to slice through the frontal glacis and turret of T-55 and T-62 MBT`s it was envisaged to face. Subsequent combat action during the final stages of the South African Border War (1966-1989) would prove this to be correct.
A new electrical gun and turret drive was developed for the Olifant Mk1A, while improved gun stabilisation was also incorporated. The turret drive can traverse the turret 360 degrees in 26 seconds.
The fighting compartment saw improvements to the layout of the 105mm ammunition which increased the total carrying capacity to 72 rounds which is an improvement of 8 rounds over the contemporary Centurion Mk13 which could only carry 64 rounds.
Fire Control System
The fire control system was also improved which allowed quicker and more accurate engagements. The original Centurion 6x stadia sight was replaced with an Eloptro 8x gunner’s day sight. Co-mounted was a laser range finder which was accurate to 10km. Data from the rangefinder was by design fed into the split range drum, which applied elevation to the main gun. Tests revealed that the system is accurate within 50 cm x 50 cm at 2 km which was perfect for the South African Lowveld (open stretches of grass plains) but would prove overcomplicated for the average 100m engagements in the Angolan bush.
The Olifant Mk1A retained the Centurion armor which consisted of 118mm (4.64in) on the frontal glacis at 60 degrees, 152mm frontal turret (6in), 51mm (2in) on the sides, 40mm (1.57in) on top and 29mm (1.14in) in the rear of the tank. The entire hull can shrug off the feared ZU-23mm armor piercing (AP) rounds used by FAPLA in the ground role against the Ratel Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV). The armored side skirts were quickly removed in the bush as foliage became stuck between skirts and the tracks. The removal also made track repairs quicker.
Even though the Olifant Mk1A could penetrate a T-55 and T-62 frontally at 2 km, the former and latter armed with a 100mm and 115mm main gun respectively could also destroy the Olifant Mk1A. The Olifant Mk1A is also vulnerable to Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG-7).
Two banks of four 81mm smoke grenade launchers were fitted either side if the turret, replacing the outdated smoke grenade launchers of the Centurion Mk5. Latter improvements would also include the fitting of a protective frame to protect against vegetation while bundu bashing.
Mine clearing rollers and plough kit
SADF/SANDF evaluated the use of mine clearing roller and plough kit for the Olifant Mk1A. Southern African conditions proved that a plough-type, electro-hydraulic dozer blade was not feasible as test models bend in the hard soil and could not uproot trees. Additionally, the extra strain on the MBT would overheat the engine, especially on sandy terrain.
Olifant Mk1A with mine clearing rollers – With permission from A. Retief
Olifant Mk1 Armoured Recovery Vehicle
At least one Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ARV) based on the chassis of the Olifant Mk1 was completed by OMC in 1979, with an additional two being ready in 1984 for use in Operation Thunder Chariot. The Olifant ARV`s primary task is to extract disabled vehicles under enemy fire. At the rear is a spade ground anchor which enables the main winch equipped with a 58kw motor to pull a 120-ton load via a 3:1 snatch block. On the rear-right is a digging arm. The ARV has a crew of four which have at their disposal jacks, cables, chains, power saws, spades and oxyacetylene cutting and welding torch which is stored in the exterior side bins or is equipped with a small crane jib at the rear which is used to tow a damaged vehicle out of action. One would be assigned per tank squadron and four per tank regiment. The ARVs were assigned to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. A total of 14 ARV`s where built.
Olifant Mk1 ARV, South African Museum of Military History (Photo: Dewald Venter)
The Olifant in Action
The South African Border War came to a finale during Operations Moduler, Hooper, and Packer (1987-1988). The SADF jumped to the aid of their allies, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) who were facing annihilation. The Cuban and Soviet-backed People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) gathered eight brigades and an extensive auxiliary support force (aided by Soviet advisors) and advanced east-south-east from Cuito Cuanavale to attack UNITA’s primary operating bases at Jamba and Mavinga. What followed is best described as the largest conventional battle ever seen on African soil since World War 2. What marked this armored conflict as exceptional was the extreme close ranges (50m-150m) in which the Olifant Mk1, Mk1A tanks and Ratel 90s would engage FAPLA tanks and armoured cars. Two squadrons of Olifant tanks (Mk1 & Mk1A) were sent to Angola to strengthen the Ratel 90s there and to face off against 150 Soviet-supplied T-54/55s.
Olifant Mk1, F-Squadron racing back to Calueque in Angola 1988 – With permission from C. Van Schoor
The Olifant Mk1 and Mk1A were deployed in squadrons which consisted of 11 tanks + 2 command tank. The Olifant Mk1A made its combat debut with E-Squadron in 1987, during Operation Moduler. The SADF tank crews preferred using HEAT rounds which were equally effective against soft-skinned and armored vehicles. Even though the thick bush could prematurely detonate a HEAT round it produced a much more visible impact when an enemy target was hit compared to the APFSDS rounds. The HEAT rounds also did not feature a Safety Arming Device (SAD) which would arm after penetrating 150mm. The APFSDS was sparsely used as there was a fear that trees could deflect the rounds. Due to the thick bush which limited visibility, armored engagements were seldom further than 150m and often as close as 50m. The use of HEAT rounds allowed the Olifant Mk1A to instantly engage dug in T-55s located behind defensive sand walls to be quickly followed by another HEAT round or APFSDS.
As part of Operation Moduler, E-squadron engaged FAPLA’s 16th Brigade during the battle of Chambinga on the 9th of November 1987. Lt. Hein Fourie destroyed the first enemy T-55 with an Olifant Mk1A, followed by another to the gun of Lt. Abrie Strauss and his crew.
Operation Hooper was launched on the 2nd of January 1988 and saw F-squadron under Major Tim Rudman take the lead with the aim of dislodging FAPLA’s 21st Brigade from the River Cuatir. A counterattack by Cuban forces soon followed in which one Olifant Mk1A was damaged, a Ratel destroyed and SADF 4 soldiers killed while the Cuban forces and FAPLA lost 21 T-55s and suffered 480 casualties.
Olifant Mk1 from F-Squadron preparing for Ops Hooper, Angola 1987 – With permission from C. Van Schoor
During Operation Packer, two Olifant Mk1 from F-squadron were detracked by anti-tank mines while a third threw its tracks. Despite repeated attempts to salvage the tanks, they had to be abandoned due to intense enemy artillery and ground fire. The two detracked Olifant tanks can still be found where they were immobilized while the third was captured intact by FAPLA. The turret was shipped to the Soviet Union while the hull can be found at Menongue airport in Angola.
Soviet officers posing for a photo with one of the abandoned Olifant Mk1 tank. Source: South African Defence Industry & Military Related
The Olifant Mk1A became a true African MBT as it had to be adapted to suit the unique operational and tactical requirements found in the Southern African battlespace. With some creativity and ingenuity, the South African arms industry was able to upgrade a 40-year-old MBT into one that went toe to toe against an enemy with numerically superior tanks. The Olifant Mk1A was soon to have a facelift in the form of the Mk1B, but unlike before, the Mk1B would be a complete rebuild which could face down and beat the venerable T-72M.
Olifant Mk1A Specifications
|Dimensions (hull) (l-w-h):||7.56m (24.8ft)– 3.39m (11.12ft)– 2.94m (9.64ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||56 Tons|
|Propulsion||Continental 29 litre turbo-charged air-cooled V12 diesel engine produces 750hp @2400rpm. (13.39 hp/t).|
|Suspension||Six Horstmann suspension units (three per side)|
|Top speed road / off-road||45 kph (28 mph) / 30 kph (18.6 mph)|
|Range road/ off-road||>350km (217 miles) / 240km (149 miles)|
|Main armament (see notes)
|105mm GT3B semi-automatic quick firing gun (L7)
1 × 7.62mm co-axial Browning MG
1 x 7.62mm turret Browning MG
|Armour||118mm (4.64in) glacis @ 60 degrees
152mm (6in) turret
51mm (2in) sides
40mm (1.57in) top
31mm (1.22in) rear
|Total Production (Hulls)||153|
Olifant obstacle course
Olifant Mk1A Night shoot
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Olifant Mk1A dark sand livery. Illustration by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.