Rhodesian Armoured Car Regt Rhodesian Army Home Page

Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment Uncovered

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A Song

George can take a track
With Troopies on his back
Carrying the packs and ammo
Doesn't look so mush
When he rumbles through the bush
Even seen him climb a Gomo.

Takin' us along
Watchin over you and I
Home is far,
But the wheels on the tar
Are a lullaby
Buddy, you know how it feels
Listen to George
And his singing wheels

Just the other day, I heard somebody say
George is a mighty old Ferret
I think he's gonna find he'll have to change his mind
When there's fire coming out of the turret.

Ambush in the trees makes me shaky at the knees
Ever been revved in a Landie?
Gives me peace of mind when George is in the line
His fire-power's mighty handy!

Troopie Song lyric by John Edmonds, Copyright Roan Antelope Music, P. O. Box 641 Halfway House 1685, South Africa.
John Edmonds packed a remarkably good summary of the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment's equipment and functions for most of the war into this tribute to its most numerous vehicle - the aged British-built Ferret.

Rh ACR badge.
Moto is a Sindebele (Matabele) translation of UK Royal Tank Regt's "Fear Naught".

The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (Rh ACR) first saw service in Abysinnia and North Africa in 1941-2 under Lieut-Col Blakiston-Houston, who gave his name to Rh ACR's base in Salisbury. Its original equipment was South African-built Marmon Herrington armoured cars (armed only with a Bren .303 (7.62mm) light machine gun), which the BSAP Armoured Car Unit continued to use for urban riot control until 1972, by which time they were 30 years old! Rh ACR was reformed after World War II, and equipped with 20 American Staghound armoured cars, but again disbanded in the 1950s. The Staghounds, which by then had passed to Support Group, 1 RLI, were moved to Kariba for border defence at the time of UDI in 1965, and one of them marked the event by firing a symbolic 37mm round in the direction of Zambia.

Rh ACR was reformed in 1972 as a Territorial unit under the command of Major Bruce Rooken-Smith. Its main equipment was the Ferret scout-car, armed with a single .303" (7.62mm) machine-gun. This 2-man vehicle was intended for light reconnaissance.

The Rhodesian ATOPS manual, based no doubt on an understanding of the Ferret's capabilities, and the memory of how similarly-armed Humber and Marmon-Herrington vehicles had been used in World War II, itemised useful functions for Armoured Cars as patrolling, particularly along borders ("watching over you and I ..."), convoy escort ("ever been revved [attacked] in a Landie [Land-Rover]"), picket duties at key points, and "showing the Flag" in sensitive areas such as Tribal Trust Lands. This light recce role owed much to the experience and training of many key Rh ACR officers with British armoured car regiments in UK and Aden.

The ATOPS manual's theories (and their imperfections) are perfectly illustrated by this account by D. Newnham of Rhodesian Air Force Regiment (Rh AF Regt) of a deployment into the Gona Re Zhou game reserve, much used by ZANLA for infiltration from neighbouring Mozambique, in Octobr 1978: "Rh ACR were keen to evaluate Rh AF Regt's AML 60s, with a view to purchasing some to operate alongside their Elands, so we were invited to send 2 AML 60s to make up a troop with 2 'borrowed' Ferretstotake part in a sweep with 3 troops of Rh AC R Elands. We crossed into Gona Re Zhou from Chiredzi. The sweep was intended to re-establish a Security Force presence where it had been lacking for 6 years by patrolling the game-trails. This was all very well, but in the time the elephants and terrs had had the place to themselves, the grass and scrub had grown to at least 8 feet, severely reducing visibility even from an armoured car turret.

We saw nothing until a few days before the end of the deployment, when we (literally) ran into a terr assembly area 5km from the Mozambique border. There were between 30 and 50 Terrs, armed with RPG-7s (2 of which narrowly missed us), RPD machine-guns, and AK 47s. One Eland destroyed an ant-hill which had been sheltering a group of terrs at 17 metres - half the theoretical distance it took a 90mm round to arm. We chased the terrs over the border, but (much to our annoyance) were denied permission to follow them, so most of them got away in the gathering gloom of nightfall, taking their casualties (which we estimated at 16) with them.

The final irony came at sunset one day'as 5 armoured cars were speeding along the ruler-straight road which parallels the railway line, returning to our laager at Tswiza. Ahead of us appeared a lone, and weary-looking, African. Hearing our engines, he extended his thumb and turned round... at about the same time he realised he was trying to hitch a lift from an armoured car, we realised he was carrying an AK. He vanished into the scrub, 5 armoured cars spread out to encircle him... but the sketch below is wishful thinking. All we ever found of him was his rucksack, which contained only some chicken bones and a half-empty water-bottle. He was obviously lost. I just hope he found a square meal!

After such an account, any comment on the efficiency of using high-tech armoured cars to catch low-tech infiltrators would be superfluous!

Initially, the Regiment consisted of 4 squadrons (A-D) each consisting of 4 troops of 4 vehicles. "C" squadron consisted of regular personnel. The others were made up largely of Territorials who were selected for Rh ACR, and given 6 weeks' specialised training in armoured warfare, vehicle handling, and gunnery followed by a 1-week crash course on mine countermeasures.

Clearly, only 64 purpose-built recce vehicles couldn't meet all the mobile tactical reconnaissance needs of a country half as big again as the UK. Hence, many of the local recce, routine patrol, and convoy protection, duties fell to locally-raised forces such as PATU reserve, using vehicles such as the Leopard already described. "George" and his companions tended to be used where fast, specialised recce vehicles were most needed ("his fire-power's might handy..."). In practice, this meant sensitive border areas and external ops, where elements of the Armoured Car Regiment were allocated at Squadron, or even Troop, strength to "Independent" (Indep) Companies.

"Indep" companies contained armoured cars, along with elements of the Rhodesian Artillery with their 25-pdr guns, Infantry, and Engineers with mine-lifting skills. The Indep companies were "parented" by Rhodesia Regiment until 1977, and subsequently by RAR. There was a cadre of regular officers, but most of the manpower for all elements of the Indep companies (Infantry, Armour, Artillery, and Engineers) came from national servicemen on their initial 2-year call-up, or from Territorials doing their (increasingly) regular 6-8 week tours of duty.

The Indep Companies were deployed as follows. 1 and 4 were based at Wankie, (Operation "Tangent") covering Rhodesia's NW and SW borders, sandwiched between ZIPRA's main base areas in Zambia and Botswana. 2 was based at Kariba (Op "Hurricane"), covering ZIPRA's other main infiltration routes across Lake Kariba and the lower Zambesi Valley. 3 Indep, based at Inyanga, and 5 and 6, based at Umtali, (Operation "Thrasher') shared between them the unenviable task of covering ZANLA's innumerable infiltration routes into Rhodesia from its bases in Mozambique.

This account is based on the experiences of Neil Cave, who was one of 12 men "selected" (i.e. told!) to join Rh ACR from National Service (NS) intake 144, which served for 12 months from February 1975. After completing his initial training in April, he received specialist armoured car training, and joined a troop of 4 Eland armoured cars posted to the 5 Indep company area around Umtali in October.

"Rh ACR crews were drawn from every 3rd NS intake, so we replaced crews from 141. In August, a 5 Indep sub-unit had been involved in a cross-border fire-fight with Gooks ensconced in a derelict farm house on the Mozambique side. Since Rhodie forces were forbidden to cross the border, they were forced to view the engagement as an exercise in converting live rounds into empty shell-cases... until 2 Elands from 141 happened by, and were invited to join in the fun. I don't know how many 90mm rounds they fired, but when one of them scored a direct hit on the farm-house, it brought the contact to a swift end. We subsequently heard that the Gooks were shocked, stunned, and not a little surprised at the unexpected arrival of 5kg of high explosive in their midst!

The Eland's fire-power was seen to be extremely useful. The infantry had been frustrated at their inability to follow-up across the border, and were delighted to have a means of getting at the Gooks on the other side. The Gooks were also impressed, and wherever we went, they were sure to get out of the way. In an effort to spread this benefit, the commanders decided to split the troop, with 2 vehicles under the Troop Sergeant being detached to 3 Indep at Inyanga, while our two under Lieut Meaker settled into a routine of patrolling areas where the threat was deemed to be high, and supporting 5 Indep infantry sub-units deployed along the border. The Honde Valley was a favourite, but we covered the whole area from there South to Chipinga. Our tactics were pretty naive. We often operated over great distances in fairly close country with no infantry support whatever, which in a more hostile environment would have made us highly vulnerable.

We got away with it because of our mobility and unpredictability, and because the Gooks hadn't worked out how to deal with us. For instance, we were deployed to support an Infantry unit at Vimba School South of Melsetter in December after a bunch of Gooks from a largish camp 2km over the border had opened fire at night, making a lot of noise and totally failing to hit anything. The morning after our arrival, they pulled out!

The Elands' high degree of mobility meant that they were effectively used for "flag-waving", but only because of the low threat-level. We covered a lot of miles in the3 months up to January '76, but without seeing any real action. The huge distances involved meant that we were usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. This piecemeal deployment was dictated by lack of resources, and the decision which was taken after our stint not to deploy Elands along the border in this way was probably correct. Though we'd kept things around Umtali quiet for a few months, if we'd continued to deploy armoured cars in small numbers without infantry support, they'd probably have been whittled away in ambushes and minor engagements, as the French found out to their cost in Vietnam."

Rh ACR's Ferrets, though regarded with much affection by their crews and the troops who were "given peace of mind when George was in the line" alongside them, were in poor condition when first received by the Regiment. Bruce Rooken-Smith, former OC of Rh ACR recalls: "10 Ferrets belonging to "A" Sqn, Southern Rhodesian ACR [part of the armed forced of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland - Author] were passed to Support Group, 1 RLI on the break-up of the Federation. We scraped them down to their original sand paintwork, revealing the logos of the UK Middle East Land Forces who had seen service in Aden years previously. Thus our Ferrets were very old, tired, and much-abused "old ladies", long overdue for the qualified attention we were at last able to give them."

The Ferrets were much maligned because of their age, and the increasing unreliability which was said to have resulted from hard use and difficulties in getting spares from the UK, but this verdict is not entirely borne out by Gerry Spick, Technical Quartermaster (TQM) of Rh ACR: "The Ferret performed exceptionally well... (it) was most effective, and eminently suitable to the terrain ("even seen him climb a gomo..."). The standard of maintenance was very high - several ex-REME (UK army Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers) mechanics, as well as excellent Rhodesian ones. The Ferrets were completely overhauled many times... sanctions-busting involved receipt of spares, including engines, from the UK. The Ferrets were modified several times, with additions such as larger locally-designed fuel tanks." There were also plans to up-gun the Ferret with an improved turret designed to take a 20mm cannon. one grainy press pnoto of 19 is snows a Ferret w~tn an eniargea turret, ana describes plans to fit these to all Ferrets, but it seems doubtful that these were ever carried out, given the shortage of weapons which meant that the MPCV (see section on 2.5 "family"), which was also designed for the 20mm, was armed with such stop-gaps as captured Soviet 12.7mm machine-guns. Further doubt is cast on the 20mm story by Peter Bray, OC of "C" Sqn Rh ACR: "I do recall some test-firings, but they didn't get very far. The 20mm's recoil wrecked the turret ring!"

Gerry Spick also mentions an interesting throwback to the Light Cavalry traditions which many UK Armoured Car regiments still cherish: "In the Chiredzi area, several groups of infiltrating terrs were rounded up between Rh ACR Ferrets and Gray's Scouts Cavalry (acting as a sweep-line), with the Ferrets operating on the flanks."

"George's" firepower, though handy, was a bit limited. A machine-gun is, after all, only an infantry weapon. The only heavy weapons the Rhodesian Army had were British 25-pdr gun/howitzers - reputedly the same ones used in Italy in World War II by the fathers of the gunners who used them in the Rhodesian War. The 25-pdr is a very fine weapon. It can be traversed through 360 degrees on its turntable, and fired so fast by a well-trained crew that the Germans thought it was belt-fed. It is, however, a towed weapon, which cannot provide mobile fire-support like a vehicle-mounted gun, or fire at high velocity over a flat trajectory like a true anti-tank gun, (though it has been effectively used as such by gunners in tight corners!). Along Rhodesia's Eastern border, artillery duels with ZANLA's FRELIMO allies became increasingly common as the war progressed, and the Rhodesian Army was well aware that ZIPRA was being trained by its Soviet mentors to mount a "classical" military attack with armoured support.

Clearly, there was a requirement for a fast, mobile vehicle mounting a powerful gun. This was filled by the Panhard AML 90 armoured car, built in South Africa as the "Eland". It had a crew of 3, and mounted a 90mm gun powerful enough to defeat the heaviest vehicle likely to be ranged against it, the Soviet T-54, with a 100mm gun and a maximum armour thickness of 100mm. What it could do to the more thinly-armoured BTR 152 was gruesomely demonstrated at Entumbane in 1981. (Bruce Rooken-Smith's recollection "It was like shooting pheasants on the ground.")

In addition to its main armament, the Eland had a co-axial 7.62mm machine-gun, and the option of mounting a .30 cal MG on the turret for the commander's use. However, the Eland's armour was no better than the Ferret's (8-12mm). Tests revealed that its armour could be penetrated even by an AK-47 firing AP rounds. Clearly it would have stood no chance against the 12.7mm or 14.5mm Soviet machine-guns supplied to the terrs for air defence, not to mention the R PG-7. These weaknesses were offset by the vehicle's high speed (90kph/55mph on a good road), and the long range of the gun.

The Elands were phased into use by Rh ACR troops A-C in increasing numbers as the war progressed. The Ferrets were retained for reconnaissance, and the Elands operated alongside them in the same troops as a strike force. Officially, the Elands were "on loan" from South Africa. Gerry Spick recalls: "when we first acquired the Elands they had South African Police (SAP) number-plates, and any enquiry (about them) was countered by saying that was who they belonged to." The longer "reach" of the Eland's powerful gun was quickly turned to advantage. Several were dug in around Umtali to help counter FRELIMO rocket bombardments. Peter Bray recalls: "We operated mixed troops of Ferrets for recce and Elands for fire-support - ideally, we liked 2 of each, but in practice we used whatever we had... sometimes up to 6 Ferrets for a recce sweep, or 4 plus 2 Elands."

The version of the Eland which carried the 60mm mortar as main armament was also supplied, and used by the Rhodesian Air Force, (Rh AF) along with a variety of other unlikely vehicles (such as a WW II Bren carrier fitted with twin MAG mountings and an armoured superstructure, and a pedal-powered "Pookie" for mine clearance!) for airfield defence. Rh AF 60mm mortar vehicles operated alongside Rh ACR vehicles on occasions, as described above.

... Or at least tries to! Initially, fears of international embarrassment led the South Africans totry to impose restrictions which prevented the Rh ACR using Elands on external raids. However, the withdrawal of the SAP units who were supposed to be operating the Elands from Rhodesia in 1976 made the restrictions unenforceable, and Rh ACR Elands were used to give fire support on external raids such as Op "Miracle", against the ZANLA camps at New Chimoio. The Elands were never "re possessed", like some other South African equipment, and continued to be operated by the Zimbabwe Army until poor maintenance and lack of spares led to their replacement by Brazilian Cascavel vehicles.

Neither the Ferret nor the Eland can be classified as "mine-protected". Both designs pre-dated the Rhodesian work on the blast-deflecting hulls which characterise most of the other vehicles described in this book. Their flat bottoms and thin armour made them potentially vulnerable, but as Illustration 150 shows, most mine detonations blew off wheels with no injury either to the main part of the vehicle or the crew. Peter Bray recalls: "I remember one case where a B Sqn Ferret lost its nearside front wheel to a ZIPRA TM 46 landmine near Kazungula at the Westernmost tip of Rhodesia. The crew simply lashed the nearside door, spare wheel, and the damaged wheel to the offside rear mudguard to counterbalance it, and drove it 60 miles home to Wankie on 3 wheels!"

Only 6 armoured cars were shown by Rhodesian Army statistics to have been involved in land-mine incidents. No one was killed, but 10 of the 19 people involved were injured (ie, a 50/50 chance of injury). Peter Bray recalls: "That just goes to show how misleading statistics can be! All those casualties came from a single incident iii Maranke Tribal Trust Land in June 1978, when an Eland was flipped over, and its heavy turret blown clear of the hull. It was carrying about 10 RR Troopies (which it shouldn't have been) on a day's "swan", and most of them were injured. The worst injury was the gunner, whose legs were crushed by the turret basket. We later heard that the South Aficans hadn't fitted about 30% of the turret ring bolts, but that was all hushed up afterwards..." A member of the Eland's crew added, "It's hardly surprising the turret came off... they'd boosted the land-mine with a box of 80mm mortar-bombs!"

Peter Bray added that Rh ACR's good record with land-mines had more to do with the Pookie than with "luck... I remember one trip to Mukumbura (that name again! Author) on which we took 3 Pookies because the road was so mine-infested. Each one was blown up in turn, but none of the armoured cars was hurt. When I talked to the driver of the last one to be blown up, he told me this was the SEVENTH blast he'd survived. Those guys were amazing..."

In the last years of the war, Rh ACR was expanded and restructured to face the threat of "classical warfare" anticipated by the Rhodesian Army. D Squadron was equipped with MPCVs and expanded to include the armoured infantry which fought in them. It took part in extensive exercises on Somabula Plain in 1980 with the elements of 1 and 2 RAR which had been earmarked, and were undergoing extensive training, to operate as a mechanised infantry battalion. The MPCV was well-designed to operate alongside the Eland, and indeed was far superior to the obsolescent BTR 152s supplied by the Soviets to ZIPRA fo use in classical warfare alongside equally obsolescent T-34s. The only incident which tested this combination took place after the 1980 settlement at Entumbane. The fact that this abortive coup proved to be the end of ZIPRA's aspirations to political power speaks for itself.

Rh ACR was the unlikely beneficiary of the fall of the Ugandan dictator !di Amin. A freighter laden with T-55 tanks from Libya destined for him sought refuge in Durban after his atrocious regime had been toppled - ironically by similar tanks operated by the Tanzanians! The South Africans appropriated the tanks "in lieu of port dues", and offered them to the Rhodesians, who used them to equip the newly-formed E Sqn Rh ACR. They took part in the 1980 exercises described above, and it is rumoured that they were ready to roll in a coup planned at the time of the 1980 election. This scenario would make a fascinating plot for a thriller, because there is little doubt the tanks' influence could have been crucial. Subsequent photos show these tanks, supplemented by others of the same type, being used by ZNA's North Korean-trained 5th Brigade.

E Sqn also had a number of T-34/85 tanks, which were said to have been captured from FRELIMO oncross-border raids. Bruce Rooken-Smith doubts this, and suspects they were supplied after the 1980 settlement from ZIPRA sources. One of these T-34s now reposes in the Army Museum at Bulawayo, but these aged and unreliable vehicles were never highly regarded, or much used, by either Rhodesian or Zimbabwean Armoured Corps.

In 1979, Rh ACR acquired Magirus-Deutz transporters for its tanks from South Africa. Because these vehicles were acquired late, they were not mine-protected like the earlier Leyland vehicles dubbed "Muppets". These had a trailer designed by Rio Tinto Zinc which could be used to transport up to 3 Elands, but was incapable of handling a T-55.

Comment from John "Haggis" Beigley received year 2010

I have just read the interesting account of the Regiment however I recall a Lt was killed in a landmine incident near Chipinga in late '79 (maybe '78) when sitting on the turret of a Ferret which hit a mine. I don't recall a name but he was apparently from the Chipinga area as his funeral was conducted there. He was part of a TA troop running 4 Ferrets, I can only recall Bruce Ditcham was one of the other members of the troop as we stopped in Marandellas on the way back (I was driving the MAP support vehicle which had escorted the relieving troop down from depot).

While it may have been true of earlier intakes, most of which did full infantry training before allocation to RhACR, from intake 143 there was an allocation to the regiment with almost every intake. >From 143, "streaming" took place at the end of the basic phase of infantry training at DRR. Like Neil I was part of 144 but it was definitely 143 we relieved as they stood down in early December, a week or two after our deployment to Op Thrasher. The Indep Coys were relieved every 3rd intake (which is why our troop did guard duty at 5 Indep for a 48h stretch while 143 and 146 changed over).

I have to agree with Sgt Maj Spick that the Ferret was a great vehicle superior in many ways to the Eland, except firepower. Bearing in mind that the EF60 batch of Ferrets had stood in open storage for some years it was not surprising that some unreliability occurred. The much newer Elands also had their weaknesses, particularly clutches but also bevel boxes.I had the privilege of driving Eland Mk7s which were certainly improved over the Mk4s but would rather drive a Ferret. In military terms though i would have to admit the Eland was more effective. I see by the way, that the Irish army continues to operate AML90s,now powered by Peugeot diesels.

Another minor error is that the tank transporters were MercedesBenz tractor units, still in civvy colours. A Magirus tractor had been part of the regiment's fleet since inception and was still in service as late as 1983.

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