South African Border War
Affectionately known as "Noddy Cars" to their crews, SADF Elands were deployed extensively throughout the Angolan Civil War. Under pressure from General Constand Viljoen and Jonas Savimbi, the first examples were flown in during Operation Savannah in late 1975 to reinforce South African advisers then instructing the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA still occupied Nova Lisboa, Angola's second largest city, but their MPLA rivals controlled eleven of the sixteen district capitals and were making gains with the assistance of Cuban armour. The new Eland-90s and their experienced crews, however, were more than a match for anything the MPLA could muster. FAPLA infantry encountered these vehicles first at Humbe and Rocadas; neither trained nor equipped to resist such firepower, most were compelled to withdraw northwards. This disadvantage allowed the light, fast-moving Elands to fight a mobile war, seizing the initiative and keeping FAPLA constantly off balance. Throughout Savannah SADF columns were able to cover an impressive 90 kilometres a day, even when the rainy season slowed momentum.
It was intended for the Elands to merely support motorised infantry on roads, but since no other armour was available the South Africans deployed them as column spearheads. This left the cars particularly open to Cuban or FAPLA ambush with RPG-7s, B-10 recoilless rifles, and rocket artillery. At the Rio Quicombo for example, two RPGs bombarded the lead Eland, blowing off a wheel, disabling the main gun, and peppering the crew with shrapnel. During the Battle of Ebo, a FAPLA recoilless rifle struck a command Eland, overturning it and mutilating radio equipment. Unable to identify the weapon's position, another three Elands were shot out before they could engage, although at least one crew made it to safety. When two more Eland-90s arrived, the Angolans retaliated with a BM-21 Grad, destroying a fifth vehicle. A reserve squadron was called up; this time they silenced the recoilless rifle. Damaged Elands which could not be extricated by the reserve were later claimed by FAPLA on site and towed away for propaganda purposes.
Neither Cuba nor the MPLA fielded any vehicle matching the Eland, and their BRDM-2s bore little comparison. Savannah's first armour-to-armour engagement was fought on a highway stretch about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Catengue, when Eland-90s knocked out seven FAPLA armoured cars advancing on Nova Lisboa. On 18 December 1975, another troop of Battle Group Orange encountered T-34s of the Cuban Army. A single Eland swung forward and lobbed a 90mm round into the lead tank, destroying it and forcing the others to withdraw.
Operations Reindeer and Sceptic
Elands were again mustered by the SADF for Operation Reindeer during the Cassinga Raid in May 1978. Reindeer's western objective - consisting of nine South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) forward operating areas in southern Angola - was assigned to Colonel Andre Liebenberg and Battle Group Juliet, predecessor to 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion Group. Besides Juliet, led by Savannah veteran Frank Bestbier, Liebenberg had at his disposal motorised combat teams in new Ratel infantry fighting vehicles. Since Ratels then lacked sufficient firepower to deal with heavier threats, 21 Eland-90s and 2 Eland-60s were allocated to support the mounted infantry.
One Eland-90 troop was slated to lead the attack on the "Dombondola Complex", codenamed "Objective Vietnam": Juliet's largest SWAPO target, protected by a well-defended system of trenches and earthworks. Three others were to be held in support, on the roads linking Cuamato to Chetequera. Liebenberg's Eland-60s, meanwhile, functioned as security vehicles for a battery of BL 5.5-inch Medium Guns. While Reindeer was a success, several important lessons were learned regarding the Eland's performance during combined arms maneuvers. Despite multi-wheel drive for example, Elands stalled in mud as well as loose sand, leaving no alternative but to tow them out with heavier vehicles; a time consuming affair. Speed was frustratingly slow on broken terrain. The petrol engine was also an issue, since it necessitated a separate logistics apparatus from the Ratels'. These problems were countered in the short run by mating a Ratel chassis to an Eland's 90mm cannon - creating the Ratel-90, with its six wheels, longer operating range, and 72 stored rounds being more suited to mobile bush operations and cooperating well with existing fleets of the mechanised infantry.
On 10 June 1980, South Africa launched Operation Sceptic, its largest armoured operation since World War II, against an insurgent command centre at Chifufua, Angola, as well as smaller SWAPO encampments at Mulola and Chitumbo. An Eland squadron (designated Combat Team 3) backed by four Ratel sections and a sapper unit was drawn from 61 Mechanised to drive point during the SADF's advance on Objective "Smokeshell". As Eland-90s retained the poorest momentum and left much narrower tracks than Ratels, their crews led the convoy the 250 kilometres to Chifuafua. From there, Combat Team 3 was tasked with providing fire support for the assault on SWAPO's main headquarters complex and engaging any stragglers attempting to withdraw northwards. Again, the Eland's cross-country inferiority became evident as the column advanced only at a maximum speed of 20 km/h. When progressing through thick vegetation this slowed to an unacceptable 10 km/h, Sceptic experiencing further delays as cars repeatedly bogged down in the sand. Due to their limited range, many ran out of fuel and had to be towed behind Ratels.
At some point before 3:45 PM, the first enemy equipment fell into SADF hands when an Eland troop overran and captured two ZPU anti-aircraft guns. Contact was made with SWAPO shortly afterwards, and both sides opened up at point-blank range; vehicle crews found themselves unable to support the assault group while fighting for their own survival. Some were even forced to use their main guns in close quarters, suppressing guerrillas at three hundred metres. In attempting to establish the intended fire support base, Combat Team 3 withered an ambush by at least fifty insurgents but suffered no casualties, even when inadvertently towing its stalled Elands through the killzone.
SWAPO cadres and their Angolan hosts were undeterred by preceding SADF campaigns. Partisan recruitment continued in earnest, and the difficulties experienced in storming "Smokeshell" forced South African tacticians to recognise that conventional cross-border operations were intricate affairs. Nevertheless, Operation Sceptic had demonstrated that pressure on the home front could be relieved with aggressive preemptive or counterstrike strategy. In August 1981, four mechanised battlegroups staged Operation Protea - converging on SWAPO camps at Ongiva and Xangongo. At least three were equipped with Eland-90s, the remainder of the force being bolstered by Ratels and Eland-60s (again seconded to an artillery troop). Protea had three objectives: to disrupt SWAPO's logistical apparatus in southern Angola, to preempt further infiltration of South-West Africa, and to capture or destroy as much military equipment as possible. This offensive was destined to encounter an unexpectedly large presence of Angolan regular forces, who brought their heavy armour into offensive action for the first time. In preparation for potential encounters with FAPLA T-34-85 tanks, elements of 61 Mechanised practised "firebelt" actions, integrating mutual support and specialised manoeuvres. It was, however, stripped of its Ratel-90 antitank platoon for Protea, necessitating a greater dependence on the Eland: a vehicle unable to keep pace with Ratels during rapid firebelts.
South African forces advanced on 23 August, cutting Xangongo off from Ongiva and establishing a blocking force near Chicusse. They stormed into Xangongo at 1:25 PM the following day, though it was late afternoon before the battle intensified. This settlement was garrisoned by FAPLA's 19th Brigade, which included a T-34 company and mechanised squadron. Although Elands were vulnerable to the T-34's 85mm gun, their vastly superior mobility and the experience of SADF crews made a considerable difference. Three tanks had been demolished by late afternoon. Elands were also deployed with the blocking force on the main axis of the Xangongo-Cahama highway, where it was hoped that their speed on tarred surfaces could be better exploited. They did not have to wait long. In the evening a sizeable FAPLA convoy, consisting of armoured personnel carriers, infantry, and artillery, was glimpsed fleeing towards Cahama. Upon identifying the point vehicle as a BRDM-2, a South African spotter ordered "skiet hom met ‘n 90," ("shoot it with a 90[mm]"). Hit by three rounds, the vehicle ignited. A number of trailing BTR-152s, GAZ-66s, and BM-21s were also captured or destroyed.
The assault on Ongiva began with an air strike on 27 August, while artillery engaged in knocking out predetermined FAPLA or SWAPO targets. Angolan troops counterattacked on at least two occasions with T-34s, three of which were annihilated by concentrated fire from the Ratel or Eland-90 squadrons. In hindsight, tanks played a relatively limited role in the defence. Most had been dug in for use as static artillery - firing from entrenched positions near FAPLA camps and installations. This restricted their trajectory. Moreover, the T-34s faced south; their crews were thusly unable to counter South African armoured cars arriving from the north.
At the end of Operation Protea, South Africa had captured over 3,000 tonnes of ammunition, overrun some 38,850 square kilometres of Angolan territory, and inflicted serious casualties on SWAPO and FAPLA. Most significantly, the SADF installed its own garrisons at Xangongo and Ongiva - leaving behind two companies detached from the South West African Territorial Force (SWATF), an Eland squadron, and the special forces of 32 Battalion. Throughout 1982 Eland-90s were a common sight on the roads around Xangongo, deterring SWAPO from reentering the town.
By 1983, FAPLA had completed an exhaustive two-year retraining and reequipment, greatly increasing in size, sophistication, and competence under the eye of Soviet military advisors. Luanda was spending 35% of its budget on external defence, and Mikoyan MiG-21s were beginning to disrupt the traditional South African Air Force superiority. Within five months of Protea, Cuba had committed another 7,000 troops to Angola. They also brought T-54/55 tanks, which were more formidable than the antiquated T-34.
In April South Africa began compiling intelligence on SWAPO plans to move an additional 1,000 guerrillas into the operational area, using the Cunene rainy season for cover. Modelled after Protea, Operation Askari began on 20 December 1983: headed for insurgent staging areas identified by aerial reconnaissance, four battalion-sized combat groups crossed into Angola. Askari called for a single unit of Eland-90s, which were scraped together from Regiment Mooirivier and Regiment Molopo. Unlike past operations, their crews were predominantly reservists. The Elands were assigned to Task Force Victor, which was to acquire the unfortunate reputation of being Askari's poorest element. Marshalled against them were four FAPLA brigades stationed at Caiundo, Cuvelai, Mulondo, and Cahama, or one-seventh of the Angolan Army. Soviet commander Valentin Varennikov, who was instrumental in directing the Angolan defence, was confident that "given their numerical strength and armament, the brigades... be able to repel any South African attack".
The SADF, however, had no intention of making frontal attacks that could be costly in lives or resources. Askari depended on being able to keep FAPLA at bay through air strikes, long-distance bombardment, and light probing. In keeping with this principle, Task Force Victor marched east through Mongua before harassing FAPLA's 11th Brigade at Cuvelai, their intended target. Angolan defenders responded with heavy artillery. A disappointed Constand Viljoen warned that if no major successes were achieved before 31 December, the operation might not continue. But Cuvelai had been identified as a key location in SWAPO's upcoming monsoon offensive, and had to be neutralised before Victor could be withdrawn. A flurry of new orders were issued accordingly: probing actions were to cease, and the enemy attacked "forcefully" prior to the 31st. The SWAPO camps near the town were the objective: South African officers were confident that neither Angola nor two adjacent Cuban battalions nearby would intervene.
In line with his new directives, Victor commandant Faan Greyling was instructed to advance from the northeast. But this route was barred by the Cuvelai River, which was in flood and complicated by the heaviest rains in living memory. Predictably, the Elands got stuck as they struggled up the muddy banks of every stream. SWAPO was waiting for Victor in force behind artillery, sixteen minefields, and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns. Faulty intelligence also complicated the attack: FAPLA did come to SWAPO's assistance with 13 T-55 tanks. As his men were poorly equipped with antitank weapons, Greyling's Eland-90s had to bear the brunt of the armoured thrust. Their inadequate low velocity cannon had great difficulty against the T-55s, sometimes dispensing up to eight shells before penetrating a weak spot between turret and glacis. Crew tactics were to encircle single tanks with an Eland troop (four cars) and keep on shooting until their target burned.
Sensing an opportunity to disengage, Greyling called off the attack, but it was too late. Exhausted by the intensity of the firefight and already demoralised by their repeated failures, the South Africans routed. Headquarters demanded he resume the advance—Greyling retorted he would not do so without coherent planning or reconnaissance. It eventually fell to an overworked 61 Mechanised to complete the objective. Due to the higher profile of their Ratel-90s they could locate T-55s over dense vegetation before the Angolan gunners in turn spotted them, an advantage Elands did not possess. The armoured cars succeeded in damaging five tanks on the river, which were captured and retained for inspection. South Africa finally took what was left of Cuvelai on January 7.
The mediocre performance of improvised tank destroyers at Cuvelai convinced Ep van Lill, commander of 61 Mechanised, that his men could no longer be asked to fight tanks with armoured cars. Van Lill informed General Viljoen that the Eland-90 simply could not stand up to the heavier protection and armament of T-54/55s. "Tank busting" expended too much 90mm ammunition and fatigued recoil systems. As demonstrated during Askari, crew morale was also affected when ordered to take on T-55s in their vulnerable vehicles. This contradicted South African Armoured Corps (SAAC) doctrine, which was to fight tanks with tanks.
A few weeks later, van Lill was vindicated when a squadron of British Centurions - modified in South Africa as the "Olifant Mk1" - were delivered to the 61 Mechanised base in Omuthiya. Unfortunately, as Angola was not seen as a conventional threat to South-West Africa itself, the retention of tanks in that territory was not regarded as cost-effective and Olifant crews frequently rotated out. During Operations Moduler, Hooper, and Packer, Ratel-90s were again used in the role of tank destroyers.
Task Force Victor's performance during Askari left much to be desired. At SADF review meetings, the reservists involved were bluntly criticised as "the worst battle group in 82 Mechanised Brigade". More attention was devoted to improving reservist leadership and morale. Also noted was the antiquity of the Eland, which was beginning to hinder operations. It was not deployed in Angola again.
Rhodesian Bush War
Rhodesia, which unilaterally declared its independence in 1965 and, subsequently, the formation of its own republic in 1970, was the first foreign government to receive the Eland. At least twelve Eland-60s were delivered by South Africa in 1967. Another seven arrived in 1971. These were handed over to the Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF), as sabotage was a widespread concern and airfield security considered imperative for the war effort. Air Force crews were trained at the School of Armour in Bloemfontein, alongside their South African counterparts. Their Eland-60s were later demonstrated for the Rhodesian Army, whose officials undertook the first order in 1975. Thirty Eland-90s were delivered, and served with the Rhodesian Armoured Corps until the end of the country's long-running bush war.
Shortly after the arrival of Elands at New Sarum Air Force Station, rivalries intensified between the armoured car personnel and the flying corps. Airmen were annoyed by the Eland-60s' fuel consumption, given that the necessary petrol was appropriated from their own stocks. Rhodesian parachute instructors mockingly referred to crew members as "Desert Rats": a running gag that culminated in ratlike caricatures appearing on vehicle doors. The unit eventually embraced the mascot and adopted "Desert Mice" as an informal callsign. Their motto, "Seek and Squeak", parodied the "Seek and Strike" maxim of No.4 Squadron, RhAF.
Based out of King George VI Barracks in Salisbury, the Rhodesian Armoured Corps (RhACR) was formed as a reserve unit. It inherited Daimler Ferrets from 1 Reconnaissance Troop, Rhodesian Light Infantry, and some decrepit T17 Staghound scout cars of World War II vintage. Crew members completed a year's training in March 1974, undergoing basics as support infantry before 26 weeks of armour instruction. The following year they received the first shipment of Eland Mk4s.
Rhodesian armoured doctrine called for Elands to be used in border patrol, convoy escort, picket duty at key junctures, and "showing the flag" - or creating a visible government presence - in remote areas. Reconnaissance was carried out on the same doctrine laid down by the British for Humber and Marmon-Herrington armoured cars during World War II. Movement behind foreign lines or areas heavily occupied by insurgents was based on Israeli mechanised doctrine for entering "occupied territories". To compensate for their frequent lack of air, artillery, or even infantry support in dangerous regions such as the Honde Valley, RhACR crews developed tactics emphasising movement, speed, and offensive action. Late in the war, Rhodesian engineers proved that AP rounds fired from an AK-47 could penetrate an Eland's frontal armour, but they conceded that this disadvantage was offset by the vehicle's speed and weapon range.
As the Elands had been procured from South Africa, local security forces initially disguised them with number plates registered to the South African Police (SAP), which had a presence on the Rhodesian border. This facade was abandoned after the police were recalled in 1976, though South African authorities - fearing the consequences of any escalation of conflict between Rhodesia and her neighbours - barred their deployment in external raids. Nevertheless, the departure of the SAP made this unenforceable, and Rhodesia's Eland-90s were sent into Mozambique during Operation Miracle (1979). Under the command of American major Darrell Winkler, they spearheaded the assault on "Monte Cassino", a hillside defended by ZPU and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) complex at New Chimoio. A counterattack by Mozambican tanks caused some anxiety, but the Rhodesians were able to disperse them with Ordnance QF 25-pounders and two Hawker Hunter jets without committing their armoured cars.
Operation Miracle had been conventional ground warfare in all but in name, convincing the Rhodesian leadership that their insurgency was now being waged on a scale they could not hope to win. Less than ten days after the raid, a constitutional conference on Rhodesia was held at Lancaster House and chaired by Lord Carrington. In attendance were representatives of both ZANLA and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), its rival militant wing, along with their respective political heads. The conference concluded after forty-seven plenary sessions with agreements on a new constitution for majority rule, arrangements for a transitional period preceding recognised independence, and a ceasefire on 15 December 1979. South Africa began withdrawing its support.
On 18 April 1980, Rhodesia became the new Republic of Zimbabwe, with avowed Marxist Robert Mugabe as premier. Determining that any Elands remaining in the former Rhodesian Army pool must not be permitted to fall into Mugabe's hands, a South African fifth column recruited conspirators in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces to repossess the armoured cars. This attempt fell through when a senior Zimbabwean general officer backtracked on their agreement. He still had time to serve before qualifying for a pension and was not keen to provoke the regime. The SADF remained understandably reluctant to leave their own sophisticated hardware with an army which might well become their future opponents, and explosive charges were uncovered in the Eland-90 fuel tanks later that year.
Sporadic fighting broke out between ZANLA and ZIPRA militants in 1980, and again in 1981. Being relatively neutral in the inter-factional strife, late Rhodesian units such as the Zimbabwe Armoured Corps (ZACR) were prime candidates for maintaining order. In January 1981, ZACR was persuaded to dispatch a single troop of Eland-90s to 1 Battalion, Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), then keeping the peace in Harare. The cars were manned by national servicemen and led by Sergeant "Skippy" Devine, an Australian veteran of the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Their first action came at Glenville, Bulawayo, during the second Entumbane Uprising, when Zimbabwe's 13th Infantry battalion succumbed to infighting. In the absence of the unit's British instructors, the RAR was tasked with quelling the altercation. Late on 8 February 1981, Devine's Elands obligingly charged the 13th encampment and flattened several dissidents beneath their spinning wheels. Three days later, ZIPRA reinforcements in the form of BTR-152s were spotted approaching Bulawayo. Devine was ordered to intercept and destroy them. He was joined by the RAR's support company in infantry fighting vehicles. The Elands promptly identified and knocked out a BTR at an outlying intersection. Taking up positions on the high ground overlooking Selborne Avenue, they stayed in place until two more BTRs attacked, firing indiscriminately with DShK machine guns. Both were destroyed by 90mm shells at two hundred metres. Devine conducted a sweep of the area the next morning, capturing several ZIPRA T-34 tanks without resistance.
At independence, Zimbabwe had inherited between 26 and 28 Eland-90s, which were integrated into a single squadron with the 6 remaining Air Force Eland-60s. After Entumbane, these were deemed insufficient. The Defence Ministry wanted another three squadrons of armoured cars. If the need arose each squadron could theoretically be attached to a brigade. More to the point, Elands were already suffering from poor maintenance and lack of spares. General Solomon Mujuru tasked a five-man procurement team, including Bruce Rooken-Smith (commander of the ZACR) to find a suitable complement. They did review the Lynx turret, which was mounted on the Panhard ERC-90 and later versions of the Panhard AML, but there is no indication that Harare was interested in refurbishing its existing fleet or purchasing an updated AML. Mujuru settled on Brazil's EE-9 Cascavel and the first models were commissioned by Mugabe in 1984. The Elands were still in service as late as the Second Congo War.
Western Sahara War
Prior to the outbreak of the Western Sahara War, the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (FAR) received relatively little modern armament, particularly from non-Francophone states. Meanwhile, the Polisario Front, intent on waging an armed struggle for Sahrawi independence, had stockpiled weapons from Algeria and seized additional equipment during raids on Moroccan forces. The hardware attrition rate spiralled upwards after the Madrid Accords and it quickly became apparent that new suppliers were needed to fill the bulk of FAR's needs. A gradual arms buildup in the Sahara began in 1976. Financial assistance from Saudi Arabia allowed Rabat to tap a broad supply network: weaponry was obtained as far abroad as Iran, West Germany, and Belgium. Orders for Panhard AML-90s were placed with France; although some did arrive in second-hand condition, Panhard had long closed its production line and referred Morocco to South Africa. The first Eland Mk6s were clandestinely imported in 1976. Others appeared with Ratels in the FAR after 1978. They were accompanied by eight South African instructors for training Moroccan crews, though other personnel were expressly forbidden to approach them.
Morocco grew more concerned with each successive FAR setback, and in September 1979 General Ahmed Dlimi adopted a new strategy of consolidating the occupation forces spread out across Western Sahara. Individual garrisons were mustered into tactical groups for massed search and destroy operations against Polisario guerrillas menacing Dakhla, Zag, and Tarfaya. FAR's Elands were first sighted during Operation Imam, one such attempt to break the encirclement of Zag. Over 30 were captured during the failed offensive and some were destroyed. Domestic markings had been censored prior to export, but the vehicles were identified by an Afrikaans inscription on their intact fill caps. Eland-90s remained a notable feature in El Aaiún's anniversary parades for several years to come.
South Africa supplied 40 Elands of unknown designation to the Ugandan People's Defence Force in the mid-1990s, along with Buffel mine-protected troop carriers. The cars likely entered service during the Second Congo War, and may have seen action with Ugandan armour at Kisangani. Local media also published reports that Nelson Mandela's administration offered Elands to Pascal Lissouba before his loyalists were defeated by Angolan invaders in the Republic of the Congo Civil War. These claims could not be independently verified. Another source maintains that the original Congo order was placed in 1994 and only one was delivered.
At least 100 Eland-90s and 20 Eland-60s were emptied from SANDF surplus in 1999 and handed to a Belgian defence contractor (Sabiex) for resale. In September 2006, it emerged that President Idriss Déby of Chad was negotiating their purchase. The first 40 were delivered via France on March 3, 2007 and soon blooded in the fighting against a rebel faction encroaching on Adré. While Belgium reported the 1999 deal to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, it neglected to offer any details regarding Chad. Sabiex could neither confirm nor deny the sale to Amnesty International. The Wallonia Directorate for Arms Licences merely recalled authorising export to a buyer in France, without any restrictions as to further sales or transfers. Chad has since used its Elands on routine patrols near the Sudanese border, and against Islamic radicals in northern Mali.
Because the Eland is regarded as a cheap alternative to improvised technical in areas where climate, terrain, and lack of support infrastructure or technical skill forestall the operation of large heavy armour forces, it has remained popular with sub-Saharan armies and insurgent groups.