The People, History, Development and Use of the Famous Rolls-Royce Meteor Engine



DATE: 23 March 2019

WORDS:  4101 words


People make a brand great

Charles Rolls was an enthusiastic, likeable twenty-six-year-old Cambridge mechanical engineering graduate from Monmouthshire England.  His family’s wealth enabled him to enjoy racing some of the early motor cars in 1900.  He and a partner, Claude Johnson, set up a business, C S Rolls & Co, in Fulham, to sell foreign (European) cars.  What he desired was to be at the forefront of British car manufacture.

Henry Royce was a solid, working class man of forty years who had managed to get an education and worked as an engineering apprentice.  This allowed the workaholic, perfectionist engineer to design and build his own reliable Royce 10, a quiet two-cylinder motor car.

A friend of Rolls, Henry Edmunds, arranged for the very different men to meet at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on 4 May 1904.  They immediately liked each other and Rolls-Royce was born.  Rolls would use his business acumen and contacts to market and sell the cars.  Royce, now with financial backing, was able to use his engineering skills and drive for perfection to produce quality cars.


The ultimate car

In 1906 Rolls-Royce manufactured a luxury 6-cylinder car, Silver Ghost.  In 1907 the Silver Ghost was declared ‘The Best Car in the World’ after travelling from London to Glasgow 27 times, while demonstrating unrivalled reliability and comfort.  The name Rolls-Royce became synonymous with quality, luxury and perfection.  Workers at all levels bought into this philosophy and none would allow a Rolls-Royce to leave the floor until it was perfect.  In September 1914, all available Silver Ghost chassis were requisitioned by the military for the basis of the new Rolls-Royce armoured car.

Rolls-Royce gets into the manufacture of aircraft engines

In 1915 the Rolls-Royce Eagle aircraft engine was introduced and powered the Hanley Page bombers as well as many other British aircraft.  This started the tradition of naming Rolls-Royce aero engines after birds of prey. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has a Rolls-Royce Eagle Mk VIII engine on display in Brink Hall, one of over 4 000 manufactured.


Aircraft engines could be used to power the new tank

The first British tanks used in the First World War (1914-1918) were powered by Daimler-Knight, 6-cylinder, 16 litre petrol engines, which developed 105 hp (78 kW).    When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, a task force requested two American engineers to design an aero engine, ‘better than what the other combatants were using’.  The engine had to have a high power-weight ratio and had to be adaptable to mass production.  The Liberty 27 litre water-cooled, V-12 engine of 400 Hp (300 kW) was designed and developed and tested in just three months.  By 1919, 20 478 engines had been manufactured, at a daily rate of 150.


Development is slow

After the First World War, in the days of austerity and depression, the British Army decided to use commercial bus and or truck engines in their armoured vehicles and tanks.  These were generally low-powered and somewhat unreliable.  In the 1930s, a decision was made to build two types of tanks – fast cruiser tanks and slower, more heavily armoured, infantry tanks.  The cruiser tanks utilised a new type of suspension, designed by the American J. Walter Christie.  This suspension allowed tanks to travel at speed across rough ground.  The problem was that the existing engines were underpowered.


Morris / Nuffield enters the equation

William Richard Morris was an English motor manufacturer and philanthropist. He was from a working class family and left school at age 15.  In 1893, at 16, he set up a successful bicycle repair business called The Morris. He expanded into motorcycle repair and sales, a taxi service, the hiring of cars and he held the agency for numerous makes of motor cars.  In 1912 he designed the ‘bullnose’ Morris car using imported American components.  After the First World War, Morris was the first to use the mass production techniques used by Henry Ford. He purchased other, failing British motor companies and used their products, but now with his name.  Morris was a hard, forceful businessman who was considered ‘the most famous industrialist of his age’.  He also gave a large part of his fortune to charitable causes.  On 1 January 1938 he was ennobled as Viscount Nuffield, a name he took from the village of Nuffield in Oxfordshire, where he lived.

Viscount Nuffield, having been the driving force in British car manufacture, got involved in the manufacture of the new Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft which was powered by the new Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.  He forced the Treasury to approve the ‘Nuffield Project’ – the construction of a huge factory which he promised would manufacture four times as many Spitfires as any other factory.   A year later, the factory had not yet been built and no Spitfires had been manufactured. Lord Beaverbrook, also a forceful man, who was in charge of aircraft production, sacked Nuffield.

The Development of the Rolls – Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine

Henry Royce died in 1933.  His design of the ‘R’ series of aircraft engines which powered the Supermarine seaplanes to wins in the Schneider Trophy in 1929 and 1931, at speeds close to 400 mph (640km/h), led to a new engine the Rolls-Royce Merlin.

A South African pilot Flight Lieutenant SM Kinkead, who saw service in the First World War and in Russia and Iraq after the war, was involved in the Schneider Trophy.  In 1927 he was posted to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe.  He flew for the wining British team in 1927.  In 1928 while attempting to break the world air speed record in his Supermarine S5, he crashed and was killed.  Previously on display in Brink Hall,were his medals and a model of the S5 Supermarine aircraft.  His medals are now displayed in the First World War – In the Air display in Adler Hall.  The trophy has been returned to storage.

The first prototype Merlin engine was flown in 1935 in a Hawker Hart biplane, under great interest from the British Air Ministry, for a period of 60 hours.  This initial engine only produced 740 hp (552kW).  Rolls-Royce engineers worked on refining and improving the cooling system, durability, and output of the engine.  Installation of the engine into the airframe was also set at a high standard. The engine was then put into production as the Merlin I.  In November 1935, the prototype Hawker Hurricane had flown and development of the Supermarine Spitfire was nearing completion, both using Merlin engines.  The prototype Spitfire was flown on 27 February 1936.

Ernest Walther Hives, who had worked for Rolls-Royce since 1903, became General Works Manager for Rolls-Royce Aero Engine Division in 1936.  The British Government realised that they would need to rearm and modernise the Royal Air Force.  In 1937 with the war clouds gathering in Europe, Hives prepared for the massive increase in the production of Merlin engines and the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

In September 1939, the standard Merlin engine in service was the Merlin III.  This produced 1 310 hp (977 kW) from the V-12, liquid-cooled, 27 litre, petrol engine at 3 000 rpm.  The Merlin III also formed the basis for the Rolls-Royce Meteor tank engine. There were constant improvements to the Merlin engine which appeared in 50 different marks with the final engines rated as 2 000 hp (1 491 kW).   Central to the success of the Merlin was the supercharger.  The output of the engine was dependant on the mass of air that the engine could use efficiently. This was supplied by the supercharger.  A total of 160 000 Merlin engines had been made by 1945.

Merlin engines at the Museum

The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has a variety of models of the Merlin engine on display in Brink Hall.   The Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc is powered by a Merlin XX developing 1 280 hp (955kW).  The Supermarine Spitfire F Mk VIII has a Merlin 61A engine of 1 565 hp (1 167 kW).  In the Mosquito are two Merlin 72 engines, each producing 1 680 hp (1 253 kW).  Under the starboard wing of the Hurricane is a static display version of the Merlin 61 engine, which developed 1 565 hp (1 167kW) and, below the port wing, is a cut-away static Merlin 24/2 engine which shows the inner workings of this engine.


Aircraft engines again used to power tanks

When the Second World War (1939-1945) started, British tanks were underpowered and generally unreliable.  Viscount Nuffield got involved in the production of British Cruiser tanks.  He imported some Liberty L-12 engines from the United States.  These engines were V-12 aircraft engines with a displacement of 27 litres and they produced 340 hp (254 kW) at 1 500 revolutions per minute (rpm).  Lord Nuffield bought the patent rights to allow his company, Nuffield Mechanisations and Aero Limited, to develop the Liberty Engine. The Cruiser Tank Mk III, also known as the A13, was the first tank to be installed with the new Nuffield Liberty Mark I engine.

The Tank, Cruiser, Mk VI, known as the Crusader, was designed by Nuffield.  It became the most important British cruiser tank in the early part of the Second World War.  When it entered service in 1941, the 20-ton tank was fast, manoeuvrable and had good suspension, but it was under-armoured.  The two-pounder anti-tank gun as its main armament was, at first, adequate, but as the war progressed, it was found to be under-gunned and often carried the wrong type of ammunition.  Crusader, however, suffered from an unreliable engine.  The Nuffield Liberty Mk III engine had redesigned oil pumps and had the water pumps relocated.  These modifications reduced the height of the engine so that it could fit into the engine bay, and these modifications caused reliability problems.  The engine used a conventional cooling system with the radiators in the engine compartment.  Major problems were experienced in the Western Desert with the drives of the cooling fans, radiators, water pumps and the ingress of fine sand into the engine.  Essential tools, manuals and spares were in constant short supply.  Often more Crusaders were unserviceable than serviceable.  Consequently, tankmen’s confidence in the Crusader tank was low.

Roy Robotham and his team get involved

After September 1939, the production and development of Rolls-Royce motor car engines ceased, and all the company’s resources went into making the Merlin engine.  The head of the car design and chassis division, W A (Roy) Robotham, and his team were under-employed as their services were not required in the design and development of the Merlin engine.   They had heard of the reliability problems experienced with the Nuffield Liberty engine in the early cruiser and especially in the Crusader tanks.  The team investigated the possibilities of substituting the Nuffield Liberty engine with an existing Rolls-Royce aero-engine.  The first engine considered was the Kestrel, as it had no supercharger and was fundamentally suited as a tank engine. Apart from developing more horse power than the Nuffield Liberty, 525 hp (390 kW) as compared to 340 hp (254 kW), it also occupied less space.  However, the long-term tank design policy called for a 600 hp (447 kW) engine for the envisaged 30-ton tanks.  This was to keep the power-to-weight ratio at a minimum of 20 hp per ton.


The decision to use Merlin engines in tanks

The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the obvious choice, but it would need modifications to be fitted into a tank:

  • First the supercharger had to be removed
  • The reduction gear was to be removed from the crankshaft
  • The engine also had to have the rotation of the engine reversed. Automotive gearboxes ran the opposite way to an aircraft propeller
  • Changing the rotation also required modifications to the camshaft lobes.

A Zenith carburettor was also fitted instead of the aero-type normally used. With the removal of the above parts, the dimensions of the engine, soon to be called Meteor, were similar to the Nuffield Liberty engine used in many of the British tanks. The new engine would fit into the main cruiser tank at the time – the Crusader.

While Robotham and his team were in the design phase of this new engine, Leyland Mechanisations and Aero approached him and asked for assistance in a new power plant for tanks.

Development had started by using Merlin engine parts from crashed aircraft.  These parts had been collected by the car design and chassis division in the hope of finding a use for them. Used or worn-out parts were also used as the tolerances required for tank engines were not as tight as those for aircraft engines.

In September 1941, a Crusader tank fitted with the new engine was tested at Aldershot Army Base in south-east England.  The driver of the tank was asked to drive flat-out.  The automatic recorder in the tank recorded a speed of 50 mph (80km/h) before the driver, unable to navigate a tight turn at the end of the test track, crashed into a wood.  Further tests totalling 3 600 miles (4184 km) with the  Crusader revealed the inability of the Crusader to withstand the strain of twice the power for which the transmission and suspension had been designed.  Robotham and his team also found it difficult to find space for the larger radiators which were required for the more powerful engine.  Design and development of a new heavy cruiser tank was now started by Robotham’s team with assistance from engineers from Leyland.

More tanks needed – others get involved

Lord Beaverbrook, who had been moved from aircraft production to head the Ministry of Supply, demanded more tanks.  Leyland then decided to drop the Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, which they thought would not be able to be adequately cooled.   Leyland went ahead with the design and production of a new cruiser tank, the Centaur, which would be powered by the Nuffield Liberty engine.  Lord Beaverbrook, however, appreciated the value of the Meteor engine and asked for its large-scale production.  Ernest Hives responded that Rolls-Royce had their hands full in meeting the demand for Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.  If Beaverbrook would pledge £1 million, then Rolls-Royce would produce the Meteor engine.  This was accepted by Beaverbrook.   Viscount Nuffield was not too pleased, as he thought that Rolls-Royce was possibly going to interfere with his production of Centaur tanks.

At a meeting in September 1941 between Robotham and Harry Moyes of the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company (BRC &W), it was suggested that the two firms combine to produce the new heavy cruiser tank (later to be called the A27 Cromwell).  This would be powered by the Meteor engine.   BRC & W had been involved in producing tank hulls, turrets and suspension parts for some time.

The Cromwell tank

By March 1942 a mild steel prototype Cromwell tank had completed 1 000 miles     (1 609 km) in eight days.  Again the 600 hp (450 kW) of the Meteor engine caused the tracks to break and then the suspension springs.  These problems were quickly ironed out and the A27 Cromwell went into full production.  The engines were still being assembled from crashed Merlin engines, the good parts being used in the Meteor engine.  By employing these measures, the first Cromwell tanks came off the production line before the end of 1942.

Rolls-Royce was still having problems meeting the demand for Merlin engines, let alone the Meteor engines.  At this time, The Rover Company Limited, a motor car manufacturer, was working on the development of the Frank Whittle W.2 jet engine.   They were also experiencing problems with the jet engine and differences of opinion with the Whittle engineers.  Ernest Hives met with Whittle and suggested a trade-off of engines.  Rolls-Royce would get Rover to produce the Meteor engine and Rolls-Royce would work on the W.2 jet engine.  The trade-off was eagerly accepted.


Is the Meteor a Rolls-Royce or Rover engine?

Rover set up their production line for Meteor engines at their Tyseley factory.  Production of the Rover Meteor engine began in November 1942 and by January 1943 a sufficient number of Meteor engines were available for the A27 Cromwell tanks produced by BRC&W.  On 1 April 1943, Rover took over the Rolls-Royce tank engine factory at Nottingham.  To simplify production, cast instead of forged, pistons were used and some of the expensive aluminium alloy components were replaced with cheaper steel components.  In 1944 Rover took control of Meteor engine production and from this time forward they were officially known as Rover Meteor engines.

At the same time, Leyland ran into trouble with their prototype Centaur tank.  This was mainly due to problems with the Nuffield Liberty engine.  It was then decided that the Centaur would be powered by the Meteor engine, the first of which was supplied in mid-1943.   When Nuffield had completed their production of their Cavalier tank, they started production on Centaurs.  This time Nuffield/Morris had to accept that a Rolls-Royce/Rover Meteor engine was to power the tanks they were making.  To increase production of the Meteor engine, Morris in Coventry also manufactured the Meteor engine.  None of the 950 Centaur tanks produced saw combat.

There were 3 066 Cromwell tanks manufactured.  They first saw action in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944.  It was the fastest British tank of the Second World War with a top speed of 40 mph (64 km/h).  Their speed was used to out-manoeuvre the heavy German tanks.  The one fault of the Cromwell was that it was fitted with a dual purpose 75mm gun which lacked an armour-piercing capacity.  The tanks crews expressed their love of the design and especially its speed and handling.


Lessons learned and improvements 

This gun deficiency in the Cromwell was rectified when the A34 Comet tank was produced with the potent 17 pounder anti-tank gun mounted.  With this gun the Comet was effective against the German Panther tanks at medium range and the Tiger tank at close range. The Comet prototype, powered by the Rover Meteor engine was ready in February 1944 but production tanks were only delivered in September 1944.  The maximum speed of the Comet was purposely reduced to 31 mph (51km/h) to increase the lifespan of the engine and suspension components.   By the end of the Second World War, 1 200 Comet tanks had been manufactured and it saw action in south-western Germany where the British lost 26 Comet tanks in action.  The Comet was considered the best British tank of the war.  The Comet remained in British service until 1958.

The South African use of Meteors

In 1954, the Union of South Africa purchased 26 Comet tanks to be used as driver training and maintenance training tanks.  These were to be used for training instead of damaging the brand new Centurion Mk III and MK 5 main battle tanks purchased from the United Kingdom from 1952 onwards.

The South African Comet tanks were powered by Rolls-Royce designed Rover Meteor Mk III engines. These engines, with a displacement of 27 litres, produced 600 hp (447 kW).  The South African Armour Corps found the Meteor engine to be reliable but difficult to work on in the confines of the engine compartment.  If a spanner was dropped, it was nearly impossible to retrieve it.


The Birth of the Main Battle Tank

The Centurion was the first of the British ‘Universal Tanks’ – it replaced both the cruiser and infantry tanks.  The first prototype was completed in 1945 but it did not see action in the Second World War.  By this time, the latest Rolls-Royce/Rover Meteor Engine was the Mk 4B, with an improvement of 50hp on the Mk III.  The Centurion’s mass was 50 tons and the maximum speed was about 35 km/h.

South Africa gets the most modern tanks

In 1952, the Union Defence Forces (UDF) placed an order for 203 Centurion tanks and seventeen Centurion Mk 2 Armoured Recovery Vehicles at a cost of ₤ 50 000 each. The 203 gun tanks consisted of 87 Mk3s and 116 Mk5s.

In 1961, when South African became a republic, she sold 110 Centurions to Switzerland.  The introduction of the French Panhard armoured car to the South African Army in the early 1960s, and the belief that the South African terrain was more suited to wheeled vehicles, led to a decline in the importance and serviceability of the remaining tank fleet.  Added to this, in 1963 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) called upon member states to stop the sale of arms to South Africa because of her Apartheid policies.  This call was formalised in the UNSC Resolution 191 of 18 June 1964.


What could have been improved for the sake of maintenance?

Changing a Rolls-Royce Meteor engine was quite difficult.  The Royal Australian Mechanical and Electrical Engineers (RAEME) estimated that to change the Centurion engine in the recommended step-by-step method would take in excess of 100 hours.  The engine was a light fit in the engine compartment and loosening bolts often required the proverbial mechanic with rubber arms and fingers.  The job was always dirty – hence the nickname of ‘grease monkeys’ for these tiffies (technicians).  The task was difficult enough at the base workshop and even more so in the field, in dirt, rain and sun.  The average distance the Centurion tank could travel before needing an engine rebuild was about 1 000 km.  This varied. Some engines lasted longer.  Mostly the repairs were to replace worn parts.  Seldom was there a catastrophic blown engine.

In South Africa, the Centurions were nursed like babies.  In the 1950s and early 1960s the Armour Corps Permanent Force members ensured that a bare minimum Centurion tanks were driven by national servicemen.  Repairs and larger maintenance jobs were under taken at 61 Base Workshop. Because of the arms embargo against South Africa, sending Meteor engines back to Britain for a complete rebuild became impossible.   In 1968 a complete engine rebuild cost just under $ 6 000 Australian dollars.


The end of the Meteor is in sight – or is it?

In 1964 Rover ceased its association with meteor engines after they had produced 9 000 engines, Rolls-Royce then again became responsible for the manufacture and supply of spare parts.  Engine rebuilds were undertaken by Scottish Aviation and Hawker de Havilland.

In the early 1990s, in the first Iraq War (Desert Storm), the British Army realised they needed Armoured Recovery Tanks (AVRE) for their Chieftain fleet of Main Battle Tanks.  A batch of Centurion AVREs was selected and the Meteor Mk IVB engines were rebuilt by Scottish Aviation at a cost of £ 92 000 each.


Museum Meteor engines

The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has four Meteor engines.

In the Mk 7 Centurion tank which was imported from India there is a Rover Meteor Mk 4B engine with engine number R 48738.  The Comet exhibit with a registration number of U 90532 has a Nuffield Meteor engine Mk III.  On display, and recently painted in the duck-egg-blue of the original engine, is a Rover Meteor Mk 4B, engine number R 46926.  The Museum also has a Rover Meteor Mk III engine with engine number R 41773 which is presently in poor condition and stored next to the Museum workshop.



A British market survey in 1987 rated the brand of Rolls-Royce second only to Coca Cola. This proves that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.





Nockolds, H, The Magic of a Name  GT Foulis, London, 1949

Crow, D(Ed), British and Commonwealth AFVs 1940 -1946    Profile, Windsor, 1971

Handel, P, A pictorial display of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps     Puckapunyal, 1989


Henry, R ‘Continental AVI 1790 Engine’, Ditsong National Museum of Military History, unpublished, 2018.

Museum Files:

Museum File:            The Rolls- Royce Meteor Engine

Museum File:            Centurion Main Battle Tank

Museum File:            Comet Tank (exhibit)



Wikipedia:      Rolls-Royce Limited                                    12/3/2019

Wikipedia:      Rolls-Royce Eagle                                       15/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Rolls- Royce Kestrel                                    20/3/2019

Wikipedia:      William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield         22/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Rolls-Royce Merlin                                      22/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Rolls-Royce Meteor                                     11/3/2019

Wikipedia:      Rolls- Royce Meteor                                    06/08/2018

Wikipedia:      Crusader tank                                               15/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Cromwell Tank                                             22/3/2019

Wikipedia:      Comet Tank                                                  22/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Centaur Tank                                                22/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Ernest Hives, 1st Baron Hives                    12/03/2019

Wikipedia:      Robotham (Roy)                                           22/03/2019


www.historytoday     The Birth of Rolls Royce                 12/03/2019

www.historyonline   The Rolls-Royce Meteor                 11/03/2019 info/ Rolls-Royce- Meteor                        11/03/2019 -week-in-1944-the rolls-royce-tank-engine       11/03/2019

Internet:         Cecil, M,  A Tale of two Meteors:  The respective Lifecycle of a tank                                                            Engine                                    01/08/2018



Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

 In 1910 South Africa adopted its first constitution that united White South Africans and afforded them certain rights, protection and privilege, which were denied Black South Africans. With the advent of Apartheid in 1948, Blacks’ rights were further violated through various legislations. This infringements of human rights were met with great discontent and protest by the Black population. Among the legislations imposed on Blacks was the Pass Laws of 1952. The Pass Laws were designed to control the movement of Black people. All Black men over 16 years were required to carry pass books, which would document where they had been and for what purpose. Informally passbooks were referred to as ‘dompas’ translating ‘dumb pass’ in English.

A build up towards the anti-pass campaign and the 21 March 1960 massacre

In November 1958 the Africanist group split from the African National Congress (ANC). Subsequent to the breakaway, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) was founded in April 1959 and pledged to “overthrow White domination.” Its leader at the time was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, then a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. Some quarters criticised the PAC policy for its ‘African exclusiveness’. However, in their response, “the Africanists postulated that because of the material position of the Africans in the Union, it is only they who can be interested in the complete overhaul of the country’s contemporary structure”. The perception thereafter was that the Africanists are anti-white. Robert Sobukwe in reply asserted: “We aim politically at the government of the Africans by the Africans for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Africa and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.” He added: “We guarantee no minority rights because we are fighting precisely that group-exclusiveness, which those who plead for minority rights would like to perpetuate. It is our view that if we have guaranteed individual liberties, we have given the highest guarantee necessary and possible.” Under such a system, Sobukwe sees no reason why a predominantly Black electorate should not return a White man to Parliament, for colour will count for nothing in a “free, democratic Africa.”

In December 1959 both the ANC and PAC announced that they would run anti-pass campaigns the following year. The ANC had planned to start their campaign on 31 March 1960. By February of 1960 the PAC’s leadership had refined their strategy to achieve the ending of the pass laws. The plan was that on the chosen day, “African men should leave their passes at home and surrender themselves for arrest at police stations.” Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the PAC leader, formally announced on Friday 18 March that the campaign would begin the following Monday on 21 March 1960, when people would assemble at various points and surrender their passes so as to deliberately court arrest. In Sharpeville, PAC activists immediately set about mobilising support. ANC leaders in the township spoke out against the PAC campaign, fearing it would get out of hand. There was also reluctance from some workers to join in because of fear of losing their jobs. There was a tense atmosphere in Sharpeville throughout the Saturday and the Sunday night.

On 21 March 1960, White South African police in the township of Sharpeville opened fire on a large crowd of Blacks protesting against pass laws, reportedly killing 69 people, perhaps a hundred or more and wounding many others. This massacre saw the beginning of the end of Apartheid and the start of the largest and most comprehensive opposition to Apartheid nationally and internationally. While the campaign for the 21 did not succeed in Orlando, Soweto, where Sobukwe and Leballo were stationed, in Sharpeville and other townships around the industrial area of Vereeniging and Cape Town the PAC won the mass support necessary to launch significant campaigns. Until March 21 1960, few of South Africa’s minority population knew more than the name of the Pan-Africanist Congress while many Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians openly pronounced their scepticism of this new movement. After launching their first campaign against passes, they were no longer regarded as just a small group of trouble makers within the confines of politics in South Africa. The PAC’s campaign echoed the call by the 1958 All African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana for African continental freedom by 1963. Even though the Sharpeville PAC branch was not alone in the protest against pass books, what made the protest in Sharpeville unique was the mass participation and the state polices’ violent reaction.

The aftermaths

Following the 21 March massacres, mass funerals were held for the victims. The Regional Secretary General of the PAC, Philip Kgosana, led a march of 101 people from Langa to the police headquarters in Caledon Square, Cape Town in protest of the massacre. The protesters offered themselves for arrest for not carrying their passes. By the 25th of March, the Minister of Justice suspended passes throughout the country and Chief Albert Luthuli and Professor Z.K. Matthews called on all South Africans to mark a national day of mourning for the victims on the 28 March. Phillip Kgosana led another march of between 2000 and 5000 people from Langa to Caledon Square. Clarence Makwetu, at the time, the secretary of the PAC’s New Flats branch also led the march. Subsequently the march leaders were detained, but released on the same day with threats from the commanding officer of Caledon Square, Terry Terreblanche told the released protesters that “once the tense political situation improved people would be forced to carry passes again in Cape Town”. The events in Cape Town spread to neighbouring towns such as Paarl, Stellenbosch, Somerset West and Hermanus as anti-pass demonstrations continued. The call for a “stay away” on 28 March was highly successful and was the first ever national strike in the country’s history.  Particularly, the Black workforce in the Cape went on strike for a period of two weeks and mass marches were staged in Durban. About 95% of the Black population and a substantial number of the Coloured community also joined the stay away. In Cape Town, policemen were forcing Africans back to work with batons and sjamboks, and four people were shot and killed in Durban. H.F. Verwoerd, Prime Minister at the time, praised the police for their actions. Robert Sobukwe and other leaders were arrested and detained after the Sharpeville massacre, some nearly three years after the incident. Sobukwe was only released in 1969.

The massacre backfired in that it discredited Apartheid and led to an expansion of opposition. This massacre reverberated around the world, triggering an enormous upsurge in global antiapartheid. After the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned on 8 April. A large number of youth left the country to join the armed struggle and a certain political interval emerged.

The United Nations declared the day as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in 1966. This was to commemorate the lives lost during the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre wherein the racist separatist South African Police Force opened fire on peaceful protesters. In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a programme of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be organized annually in all states. In 1995 this day was declared Human Rights Day in South Africa. 21 March is being commemorated to reflect on the contemporary efforts to challenge racism and colonialism while forging for nation building and social cohesion.


Beenash, J. 2012. York University, Privilege vs. Complicity: People of Colour and Settler Colonialism. Equity Matters.
Cooper, S. 1994. Political Violence in South Africa: The Role of Youth. A Journal of Opinion. Cambridge University Press. 27-29.
Humphrey T, Bernardus, G. Fourie.1960 Sharpeville and After. U. N. Security Council Resolution. Africa Today. 7(3). Indiana University Press. 5-6.
Jessica P. Forsee, 2019. Genocide Masquerading: The Politics of the Sharpeville Massacre and Soweto Uprising, Georgia Southern University, Honours Programme Theses.
Maylman, P. 2010 “A tragic turning-point: remembering Sharpeville fifty years on” Rhodes University.


Leading to the M10 TANK DESTROYER

Development and use in United States and British Commonwealth Service

By Richard Henry

Date:  24 March 2021

Words:  3 697



When the Second World War, 1939 -1945 started, the German armoured forces, consisting of tanks, armoured cars and half-tracks brushed aside any opposition with impunity.  The Blitzkrieg tactics ensured the rapid defeat of the Polish, Belgium and especially the French army by June 1940.

The neutral United States of America although morally supporting the British and French, looked on with horror at how easily the German tanks crushed the European nations.  American military men could see that they might get involved in the war and that they lacked sufficient quantity and quality of armoured vehicles.  Their response was at first slow, but just as a snow ball gathers momentum so did the United States industry.  The US armoured force was formed in July 1940.  Each armoured division would be theoretically equipped with 368 tanks.  During the Second World War, the organisation and structure of an armoured division was changed many times.



In August 1941, the American Anti-Tank Planning Board laid an ambitious plan for up to 220 anti-tank battalions.  The first nine units formed had 37mm M6 anti- tank guns towed by jeeps and 75 mm guns mounted on M3 Gun Motor Carriages (half-tracks).   The new tactic was to hold anti-tank guns in reserve and move them rapidly to the point of the enemy (German) armour attack.   From the end of November 1941, the psychologically powerful term ‘Tank Destroyer Battalions’ was used for mobile anti-tank guns units.  Their stated purpose was to “destroy hostile tanks” in an aggressive, offensive spirit from a defensive ambush position.   At first they used stop gap equipment while the various arms of the army tried to hastily design and manufacture a reliable, fast, effective tank destroyer.  Various senior officers saw different requirements and doctrines for tank destroyers.  Was the best anti-tank weapon an anti-tank gun or another tank?  The American War Department decided that tanks should be countered by fast moving, high velocity guns, used en masse.




In Europe and later in North Africa, the British and Commonwealth forces fought for survival, confronting the Germans with whatever equipment was available.  Their high velocity 2 Pounder anti-tank gun, which entered service in 1936, fired an armour-piercing solid shot which was able to penetrate 37 mm of armour at 450 m range. This was sufficient to destroy German tanks up to the Panzerkampfwagen III.   These anti-tank guns were sometimes supplemented by the 25 Pounder Field Gun used in the anti-tank role.  The 2 Pounders were reasonably effective but lacked an effective armour protection for the gun crews.  The doctrine called for gun pits to be dug but these took time and to dig; even when the spade work was enthusiastic.  Originally anti-tank units were essentially a defensive force of towed guns, which it was hoped would be able to fight off or destroy a force of attacking enemy armour.  The 6 Pounder still had to be introduced into service.



Initially the Tank Destroyer Centre was situated at Fort Meade in Maryland.  In November 1941 it was moved to Camp Hood in Texas. The tank destroyer force resisted all attempts throughout the war to incorporate it into the armoured force.  It grew in numbers and by late 1942 had 100 000 men and 80 active battalions with 64 more battalions planned, reaching its maximum of 106 battalions in early 1943.  From October 1943 there was a decline in numbers as the American Army realised that they were unlikely to face a massed German armoured force as was the case in Europe in 1940.    Thirty-five of the 106 battalions never left the United States.  Of the remaining battalions, more than half saw combat service.



The first tank destroyers approved for production was the M3 Gun Motor Carriage (GMC).  This used an American built 75 mm Model 1897 A4 gun (a copy of the French WW1 gun) mounted on the chassis of the M3 Half-track. The chassis was built by the Autocar Company.  A total of 2 203 M3 GMC’s were produced.  It carried a total of 59 cartridges.  In the anti-tank role the M61 armour-piercing projectile could penetrate up to 76 mm of armour at 900 m.  After the introduction of the M10 Tank Destroyer, 1 361 M3 GMC’s were converted back into M3A1 Half-tracks.



Each tank destroyer battalion consisted of about 800 men.  Approximately half the battalions were equipped with self-propelled guns and the other half with towed guns.  The towed guns were cheaper and easier to manufacture.

Each battalion was organised into three companies.  Initially there were supporting reconnaissance troops, 108 protection troops and eighteen anti-aircraft guns in each battalion, but in January 1943, these forces were found unnecessary and were dropped.

For the self-propelled gun battalions; each of the three companies was equipped with twelve guns.  These were four 37 mm self-propelled (SP) guns (which were quickly obsolete) and eight 75 mm SP guns.  Each tank destroyer battalion therefore had twenty-four M3 75 mm GMC’s.

These were later replaced by the M10 Tank Destroyer with its 3-inch (76 mm) gun.  The towed guns were initially twelve 37 mm guns.   The fighting doctrine was for the self-propelled guns to move quickly into ambush positions, fire at the attacking enemy armour with their 75 mm guns and quickly retreat to another defensive position.  The SP guns were designed to be fast and manoeuvrable but lightly armoured.  They were unable to survive hits from enemy armour piercing rounds but were protected against small arms fire.  A secondary role for the tank destroyers was indirect fire support of the infantry and artillery.



The 601 Battalion, equipped with thirty –six, 75 mm M1897 A4 guns mounted on M3 Gun Motor Carriages was the first and last to be used in the envisaged tank destroyer role.  On 23 March 1943 during the Tunisian Campaign, the tank destroyers of 601 Battalion destroyed 30 tanks of the German 10 Panzer Division.   Flaws in the M3 GMC became evident – too slow, with a high silhouette and the 75 mm gun just capable of destroying the Panzerkampfwagen IV armour.



In November 1941, the Tank Destroyer Board noted the deficiencies of the M3 GMC and dropped the self-propelled, limited traverse gun idea.  They then requested a vehicle with a good speed and with a gun in a fully rotating turret with a lower silhouette.   The chassis of the early production M4 A2 General Sherman tank was chosen as the drive train.    The chosen gun was the 3-inch M7 gun in a cast, pentagonal shaped, manually traversed open-topped turret.  The sides of the turret were angled inwards at 15 degrees and had 25 mm thick armour while the partial roof covering was 19 mm thick.

The heavy, M7 Gun of mass 903 kg made turret unbalanced and made for difficult turret traverse.    This was eventually rectified by the addition of duckbill weights at the rear of the turret.

Because of the M10’s envisaged role, the armour protection was generally light.  The two parts which would normally face the enemy were the thickest.  The glacis plate, had 38 mm of armour angled at 55 degrees, the gun mantlet -57 mm.   The side and rear of the hull had only 19mm of armour while the engine decking only 9.5 m.

The roof was left open to save mass and allow a wider field of view to spot the enemy.  It also allowed for quicker ammunition stowage, emergency escape and better communications with the infantry on the ground.


The prototype of the M10 was designed in early 1942 and the first vehicle delivered to the army in April 1942.  After some changes and improvements, the final design was completed by June 1942 and was called the M10 GMC.   It was a diesel driven.



Fisher Body Division of General Motors, situated at Grand Blanc, Michigan, USA, were given the initial contract to manufacture M10s.  Production started in September 1942.   Problems were encountered with the balance of the turret when on a slight sloped ground which prevented the traversing of the turret.   Fisher by adding a wedge shaped counterweight of 1 680 kg to the rear of the turret from end of January 1943. This was later reduced to a 1 135 kg (duck-bill) counterweight.

The Fisher manufactured M10s were powered by the General Motors 6046 diesel engine.  This was in fact two Detroit 6.71 litre, in- line engines mated to a common crankshaft.  The power output from this twin engine was 280 Kw at 2 100 rpm.  The advantage of having a twin engine was that if one was damaged, it could be disconnected from the crankshaft and the tank destroyer driven on the remaining engine.   The mass of the twin engines was at a heavy 2 204 kg , and along with the duck bill counterweight pushed the combat mass of M10 up to nearly 30 000 kg.  This extra mass   reduced the maximum on a good road to 48 km/h.  By December 1943 Fisher had made a total of 4 993 M10s.

To increase production, the Ford Motor Company was awarded a contract from October 1942 to produce petrol driven M10A1 version using their GAA, 8-cylinder, 335 Kw petrol engine.  Ford produced 1 038 M10A1s up until September 1943.




The M7 Gun had a calibre of three inches (76.2 mm).  It was in an M 5 mount.  The barrel was long and heavy and caused balance and traverse problems.   The gun had only a marginally better anti-tank performance than the 75 mm General Sherman tank.   When the Germans introduced their Tiger and Panther tanks it was found the most armour piercing rounds were ineffective against the new German tanks frontal armour but still effective against the side armour.    The lighter M1 gun fitted in the later 76 mm Sherman tanks, fired the same projectiles but had a different cartridge case.  The 76 mm Sherman gun was found to be superior anti-tank gun than the M7 Gun but also not able to penetrate the frontal armour of the Tiger and Panther tanks.   This lead to the American Army  introducing a new 90 mm M36 Tank Destroyer into service .  The British fitted their Ordnance Quick Firing 17 pounder Mk V anti-tank gun in the M10s to become known as the “Achilles”


Initially both the M10 and M10A1 had fire controls limited to a direct fire model M51 or M70 G telescope, .as the main perceived target was enemy armour.  As the main role of the M10 changed to indirect fire support, an azimuth indicator and gunners quadrant was introduced as from May 1943.   An M12A4 panoramic telescope was installed on the right side of the turret for this purpose.  In December 1943 the Tank Destroyer Battalions in Italy were firing a collective 15 000 high explosive shells per month and very few armour-piercing rounds as German tank were few and or not engaging the Americans.  There was heavy anti-tank action around the Anzio Landings when the Americans tried to outflank the German Gustav Line in January 1944.


Fifty-four rounds of 3 inch ammunition were carried in the M10.  Forty eight rounds were stored in four racks in the hull sponson.  For immediate use six rounds were kept ready at the rear of the turret.

The 3- inch M7 could fire five types of ammunition:  The 3-inch Mark II, M2 cartridge case for each of the projectiles was the same.  It was 585 mm long (longer than the case for the 76 mm Sherman).   The case contained a propelling charge of 2.21 kg of M1 class powder. One of the Manufacturers of this ammunition was Maxims Munitions Company (MMC)

M79 Armour Piercing Tracer Shot.  This solid steel projectile was fired at a muzzle velocity of about 850 m/sec.  The tracer element at the rear of the shot burned and indicated the trajectory and land of the shot.  It could penetrate up to 92 mm of armour, sloped at 30 degrees from the vertical at a range of 914 m.

The M62/M62A1 Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Capped / High Explosive Shell with Tracer. This had a mass of 7 kg which left the barrel at 792 m/sec.  It had a sharply pointed projectile with a cap which facilitated penetration of the armour plate before the shell exploded.  It could penetrate 88 mm of armour at a 30 degree slope to the vertical at a range of 914 m.  The land of the shell was also indicated by the burning tracer element.  This projectile was superior to the one fired by the German Panzer IV.


The M42A1 High Explosive shell had a mass of 5.84 kg.  It was filled with either 390 grams of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) or a 50/50 mix of Amatol and TNT.  The shell was fused with an M48 impact fuse.  It was fired at a muzzle velocity of 853 m/sec. and was used for indirect artillery fire or against fortifications and soft targets like infantry in trenches or antitank guns.  The light shell and small explosive charge made it ineffectual against most enemy targets.  The maximum range was about 14 700 m.


M88 HC B1 smoke shell was used in small numbers to lay down a smoke screen. This hid the retreat of the M10s or the supporting infantry and prevented them from being over-run by the enemy.


T4 High Velocity Armour-Piercing with Tracer Shot was issued from September 1944.  This shot had a sub-calibre tungsten carbide penetrator which was within a steel jacket. It also had a wind shield to prevent the projectile velocity decreasing too much.  They were issued to units in small numbers to defeat the Panther and Tiger tanks.  It was capable of penetrating 135 mm of armour at 30 degrees to the vertical at 914 m and 150 mm at 500 m.  By March 1945 about 10 400 of these rounds had been delivered to the European theatre.


Added to the above ammunition for the M7 gun the flowing was also carried:

450 Rounds of .30 calibre ammunition for the crews M1 carbines

300 Rounds of .50 calibre (12.7 x 99 mm) ammunition for the anti-aircraft M2 Browning Heavy Machine Gun.  These were stored in six boxes of 50 rounds each on the floor of the vehicle.

6 Smoke Grenades

6 Fragmentation grenades



The crew of the M10 Tank destroyer consisted of five men.  The commander (often a sergeant) sat on a folding seat to the right rear of the turret.  The gunner stood or sat on the left side of the gun, and aimed the gun using the direct fire M51 telescope. He had to use the slow hand traversing wheel to turn the main gun onto target.   The gun loader stood to the right rear right of the gun able to quickly load one of the six ready rounds at the turret rear.  The driver, sat behind the glacis plate on the front left of the M10.  His vision was through a periscope through the glacis plate when in combat. He was responsible for driving the M10 and listening to his commanders instructions.  The co-driver also shared some of the driving duties but was mainly responsible for operating the radio and undertaking the required vehicle maintenance at halts and over-night stops.  He also ran the vehicle engine during halts to charge the vehicle’s batteries. Crews were very reliant on each man performing his duties quickly and efficiently and crews were very close as their lives depended on it.

The open topped turret made the crews vulnerability to mortar fire, small arms fire, hand grenades, and shrapnel from air burst artillery fire.  Exposure to wind, rain, snow and freezing temperatures also made operations difficult, and crews covered the turret with tarpaulins to improve their comfort and their operational effectiveness.

For large maintenance tasks, such as removing a track link, the crews often had to use the pioneer tools such as axe, crowbar sledgehammer situated at the rear of the vehicle.   More routine adjusting the tension of the tracks was done by a large 3- inch (76.2 mm) spanner.

For personal protection the crews had M1 Carbines or Thompson sub machine guns. The commander may also have had a .45 Colt Pistol.   Alongside the co-driver was space for a M1903 .30 Calibre Springfield rifle with an adaptor for anti-tank rifle grenades.





North Africa and Italy

After the North African campaign the tank destroyer battalions were re-equipped with M10 tank Destroyers and were part of the force which landed at Salerno, Sicily in September 1943.  In January 1944, during the Anzio Landings when the American 5 Army tried to outflank the German Gustav Line Defensive, the M10s saw severe action against German armour.  Sporadic actions continued until the Germans withdrew from the Gustav Line in May 1944. On 29 February for example, the M10s were accredited with knocking out 25 tanks and Stug Assault guns.  After the breakthrough the M10s fought up the mainland of Italy not however in the envisaged role.  The Italian terrain was not conducive to large scale tank battles.   The German forces were mostly deployed in a defensive role and their limited number of tanks covered mountain passes and strategic points.  Later the M10s were mostly used for fire support.


North West Europe

The largest deployment of M10 and M10A1 tank destroyer units was in this theatre, starting with the D-Day Landings of 6 June 1944 where 30 tank destroyer battalions were deployed.  Initially there was little tank fighting.  Infantry Division commander soon however requested a battalion of M10s in support.  These were used as direct fire support and later indirect fire support (as well as and moral support to the infantry).   A company of M10s was often allocated to an infantry regiment.  The doctrine of using the M10s in numbers against a large German armoured force was forgotten.   When the M10s later encountered Panther and Tiger tanks they realised that they were unable to penetrate their frontal armour.  As a stopgap the T4 High Velocity Armour-Piercing with Tracer Shot was issued from September 1944.  At the same time some M10s battalions had one company equipped with up-gunned 90 mm M36 Tank Destroyer.  The M10 however saw combat until the end of the war.  During the Battle of the Bulge, M10s were used in a role closer to their doctrine.  From reserve positions they were moved to the point of attack where they ambushed the German tanks.  In this role they were an essential part of the American defence of the Ardennes.



Once the US Army had been equipped with M10 Tank Destroyers, other Allied armies were supplied with them. The Free French were the first to receive 155 M10s them under the Lend Lease and a 100 later on.  The British received the first of a batch of 1 128 vehicles in late 1943 and a further 520 in 1945 as part of the Lend Lease scheme.  Of the 1 654 M10s delivered to the British (Commonwealth Forces),  1 017 were up-gunned with the British potent  Ordnance Quick Firing 17 pounder Mk V anti-tank gun at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Leeds.  Works was started in May 1944 and completed in April 1945.   With this modification the vehicle was officially called the M10 c.  They were also known as the 17 pounder S.P Achilles Mark 1 c or mark 11 c”.    With this gun the British forces were able to knock out Panther and Tiger tanks.  The South Africans were one of the first to received M10s  in late 1943 and early 1944 but did not received any of the up-gunned variety.  See part two of this article for these details.



Official US Army name:                                                  3-inch Gun Motor Carriage M10

US Soldiers name:                                                            TD (Tank Destroyer)

British name:                                                                     3-inch Self Propelled Gun

British name for up-gunned version:                        M10 I c or M10 II c     “Achilles”

Canadian name, possible post war name:              Wolverine

South African name:                                                       M10 Grouse



A US Army study found that 39 of the tank destroyer battalions each destroyed on average 34 tanks, 17 towed guns and 16 pillboxes.  On the 10 November 1945, the Tank Destroyer Centre was closed and the last battalion was deactivated in 1946.



After the Second World War, with the American deactivating their last battalion in 1946, many M10s were scrapped.  They did however supply a small number to Italy.  Quite a few European countries such as Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands received 17 Pr M10c‘s from Britain.   Other countries such as Israel and the Republic of China acquired M10 by other means.




The war had shown that the requirement for tank destroyers to be used en masse to stop enemy tanks was not a sound doctrine.  The lightly armoured tank destroyers with their open top were less effective at fighting German tanks than the better armed and armoured tank.  A large number were made available as Lend Lease equipment and some were up-gunned with British 17 Pr anti-tank guns to become the S.P Achilles.  See part two for South African use of the M10 Tank Destroyer.





Crow, D, (ed)      Armoured Fighting Vehicles of the World, Volume 4.  American AFV of World War II                          Profile Publications, Windsor, 1972

Mesko, J           M3 Half-tracks in Action.         Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications,                          1996

Orpen, N          South African Forces in World War II Voll V  Victory in Italy      Purnell, Cape                           Town, 1975


Zaloga, S              M10 and M36 Tank Destroyers 1942 -53                Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002






Wikipedia :



Unpublished Article:

Campbell, GD, Dr              The “Grouse” M10           unpublished, 1989

Kleynhans, E                       In Scientia Militaria Vol 40 No3 Pages 250-279










Lazarus Kgasi, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

Beginnings and early career history

Charles Kimberly (“Bob”) Brain (see Fig. 1) was born on the 7th of May 1931 in what was then Salisbury (now Harare), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). From his earliest years, he had close contact with natural history as his father was an entomologist and his mother trained as a botanist. Dr Brain was always supported by his late wife Laura, enjoying the company of their daughters Rosemary (Mel) and Virginia (Ginny), and sons Tim and Conrad, all of whom have played a role in contributing to his research. He often emphasized the significance of fun in science, and believed that self-motivation, innovation and efficiency would be natural if this was in place.

Figure 1: Bob Brain in the field.


When he was still a young man and because of his interest in natural history, Bob regularly visited the Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History). Here he met Dr John Robinson who had just replaced Dr Robert Broom as the palaeontologist at the Museum. Robinson invited him to investigate the cave deposits at Swartkrans, recognising that the stratigraphic series visible at the time did not comply with Lester King’s (geologist and geomorphologist) understanding of australopithecine-bearing caves in general. The preliminary findings of that study appeared in the Proceedings of the Fifth International Geological Congress held in Algiers in 1952. This was his first scientific paper, co-authored by Robinson.

He served as a research associate in the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Physical Anthropology of the Transvaal Museum from 1954 to 1957, and was subsequently the curator in the Lower Vertebrates Department. He served at the Queen Victoria Museum in Harare from 1961 to 1965, and returned to the Transvaal Museum in 1965 to replace Robinson. He was appointed Director of the Museum in 1968 and served in this capacity until his retirement in 1991.


Dr Brain based his attention on Swartkrans for almost three decades (1965-1992), where he discovered evidence of the controlled use of fire about one million years ago. He worked not only on the geology of the cave deposits but also on stone stools and fauna, with an emphasis on taphonomy (the field which relates to processes of accumulation and preservation of fossil bones). He published a significant reference book in 1981, entitled The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy.


Dr Brain undertook research on bones scattered around a Nama settlement along the banks of the Kuiseb River in Namibia. The results of this study contributed to an understanding of the processes which affected bones from cave sites.


Professor Raymond Dart of the University of the Witwatersrand, undertook an analysis of fossilised bones of animals discovered at Makapansgat, about 3 million years old. They were associated with fossil remains of australopithecines which he classified as Australopithecus prometheus. Controversially, he claimed that the australopithecines were using bones, horns and teeth of animals as weapons. However, Dr Brain was able to demonstrate that patterns associated with broken animal bones had been affected by natural factors, rather than being the result of hominin behaviour. Thus Dart’s concept of the so-called “osteodontokeratic” culture (ODK, associated with the use of bones, horns and teeth as weapons) was disproved.


Work at Swartkrans


Dr Brain’s work at Swartkrans was aimed at compiling a large assemblage of fossil representatives of palaeo-environments within the past 2 million years. The Swartkrans Palaeontological Research Project ran for more than 21 years. With assistance from Laura and their children, his activities included excavation, preparation of fossils, identification and cataloguing. Having discovered burnt bones of antelope, they conducted campfire experiments. Through chemical analyses of modern and fossilised bones, it was possible to determine that black, grey or white material from Swartkrans was the result of burning at high temperatures. This was the basis for the claim that the hominins were controlling the use of fire at least 1 million years ago.


The Swartkrans project advanced in three periods. In the early 1970s, Brain systematically went through the lime miners’ dumps to recover fossils. He also removed overburden obscuring cave breccia (calcified sediments). This was accomplished with the help of field staff under George Moenda’s (long-term assistant to Bob Brain) supervision. Thereafter, he conducted systematic excavations, recording the precise position of fossils in the context of a grid. During these excavations, he discovered many fossils of Paranthropus robustus in addition to rare fossils of early Homo.


In 2008, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Dr Brain by a former colleague, Stephany Potze at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History and he related the story of why he concluded that hominids used fire one million years ago. He indicated that while excavating on the cave’s west wall in February 1984, a piece of fossil bone got exposed and it showed indication of having been burnt (see Fig. 2). This was something that had never been seen in the fossil record elsewhere in the cave. As they continued with their excavation, more and more burned fossil pieces were found, and Dr Brain concluded that they were intentionally heated. Confirmation of heating came both from his histological examinations and from chemical tests done by Andrew Sillen. These results were published in Nature (Brain and Sillen, 1988). By 1985, different experiments and interpretations of evidence of early use of controlled fire at Swartkrans involved the making of numerous experimental fires, and the measurement of the temperatures attained in them.

Fiqure 2:  burnt bones from Swartkrans.


During his tenure as director, Dr Brain was instrumental in transforming the Transvaal Museum into a happy and highly productive institution with an international reputation for its research activities. He achieved this by allowing considerable independence for his staff members, provided productivity was maintained.


Brain’s comprehensive publications up to the year (articles and books) are summarized in two landmark publications, The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy and Swartkrans: A Cave’s Chronicle of Early Man.  These two books lay the groundwork for taxonomic research and studies on Swartkrans.

Dr “Bob” Brain’s achievements in the field of palaeosciences and his leadership has changed the landscape of palaeoanthropology. His work received universal recognition and for this, he should be celebrated.




1: Pickering, T.R., Schick, K. & Toth, N. 200. C.K ‘Bob’ Brain and African taphonomy. Evolutionary Anthropology 13(5): 163-167.

2: Rubidge, B. 200. Charles Kimberlin (Bob) Brain- a tribute. Palaeontologia Africana 36:1-9.

3: Brain, C.K, Ed. Swartkrans, a Cave’s Chronicle of Early Man, Transvaal Museum Monograph 8, 23-33.


By Frank Teichert, Curator Archaeology and Human Remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History


When sitting around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the field, interesting stories and adventures are shared. These stories and adventures do not always involve the discoveries that have been made but rather some of the amazing things we have seen or done. A part of the research done by archaeologists, is undertaken outside in the field. Many of the places where we do our research are off the beaten track and even places where people have not set foot in many, many years. Talk to any archaeologist about the adventures they have had and they will always have some interesting adventures to share with you. I have decided to share some of the most interesting adventures in the field that I have experienced.


As a student of archaeology back in the early 1990s, I studied at the University of Pretoria. During that time the famous archaeological site of Mapungubwe fell under the University of Pretoria, so once a year for two weeks we would travel to Mapungubwe to learn about excavating and how to conduct archaeological research in the field. During that time the South African Defence Force was still quite active in these parts. The army would patrol the border of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as these three countries meet at the Shashe River, a tributary of the Limpopo River. The army boys would visit us after we had finished working and we would have one good drinking session with them, chatting, and as usual they would try flirting with some of the girls. Saturdays and Sundays would be rest days and as one would expect from young army boys they wanted to impress the girls that were on the trip. On a specific Sunday they organised a trip in one of their Ratels, an infantry combat vehicle that can hold 11 people including the driver, gunner and commander. About three girls decided to join them, but did not want to go alone, so they asked me to join them. The ride was fun and the army boys took us all around the area, mainly showing off to the girls. One of the roads that we went on was close to the Limpopo River and about a week before we arrived the river had flooded, so many of the roads close to the river were still very wet. As we went through one of these wet spots the Ratel got stuck and slowly turned onto its side in the mud. It was quite a strange feeling when it started turning on its side, the actual action of the vehicle turning on its side was in super slow motion but we on the inside were moving at normal speed. It was quite comical, although some of the girls did not find it funny at all. The girls and I managed to get out unscathed and walked back to the camp where we were staying. One must remember that a Ratel is not a small vehicle and weighs about 18 tons. The next day on the way to our site we passed close by to the area where the Ratel had slid on its side and the army was trying to get it out, but with little success. We were told later that it took them nearly 48 hours non-stop to get it out of the mud. I don’t know what happened to those army boys but we never saw them again, and none of them visited us again during the rest of our trip.


The most amazing thing about being an archaeologist out in the field is the beautiful natural areas that we get to explore and visit. During the visits to these amazing areas, some of them nature reserves or remote farm areas, the possibility of coming across our vast wildlife is a huge probability.


I have done quite a bit of work in the Kruger National Park, and was part of a project that excavated or surveyed in the Park looking at Anglo Boer War history. We would work in the Park for two weeks a year for about 10 years. Working in the Kruger National Park is always special because we are able to visit areas that are not always accessible to visitors. On these trips we have had some scary experiences with wildlife, as one can imagine. One of the first trips we excavated, was a site close to the Letaba River, near the Letaba Rest Camp. The site we were excavating was about 10 km from the camp but it took us about an hour or so to get there. One of the roads that we had to take was one that only the rangers were aloud to drive on and it had not been used for a long time, so it was difficult to see where we were going. This was also hampered by the fact that the Park had experienced some good rain and in one section we had to go through a small stream that had seen elephants walking through it and leaving these huge dips in the mud. We all joked that this was the elephant parachute landing strip. Once we arrived close to the site we had to walk about 700 to 800 meters to get to where we were excavating. The site itself had tall grass and medium to small Mopani trees. On one of these days, we were about eight people excavating and one ranger guarding us. This ranger learnt very quickly that trying to look after archaeologists is not easy as everybody goes off in their own direction with heads down looking for artefacts or signs of human activity. So trying to keep everybody together is not easy and once we started excavating the excavations were spread out over the site. The ranger then started doing patrols around the edge of the site and making sure he knew where all of us were and where the animals were. On this particular day it was drizzling, so the noises in the bush were drowned out by the rain on the Mopani leaves. All of a sudden a male elephant burst through the bush right in front of one of the excavations, trumpeting and ears flapping. The next moment the ranger popped out of nowhere in front of the huge elephant. Telling the excavators to be quiet and not move, I don’t think any of them could from sheer fright anyway. So to give a picture: elephant, ranger, excavation, and archaeologists, within about a 60 meters of each other. The ranger started clapping his hands telling the elephant to “voetsek”, after which the elephant gave two more trumpets, turned around and disappeared into the bush. The ranger then turned around and told us that it’s just an older male elephant in musth, and it has moved on. An elephant in musth is more aggressive and agitated than at any time so one should be extremely careful but this ranger just shooed it off. I must admit we were all damn scared that day but the rangers in the Park do know their specialist field and understand animals.


The next story happened at the same site only a few seasons later. Some mornings on the way to the site, we would see two male lions not far from where we were excavating. was. The ranger explained that these were two brothers who held the territory that we were excavating on. One day we had some high ranking officials from the Kruger National Park visiting us to see what we were doing. That morning we could hear one of the lions roaring in the distance and also heavy breathing. We were assured that the lion was at least 4 km away. About half an hour later the roaring from the lion started getting closer and closer. It became so loud that the ranger and other officials told us all to stand in a group behind the excavation. The next minute the lion burst through the bush, stopped dead and just looked at us. It was at least 50 meters from us and trust me that lion was not small. The ranger started to shout and shoo the lion away; the lion then started to growl and show its teeth to the ranger. The ranger then cocked his rifle, as did the other officials and at these sounds the lion turned and took off back the way it came. Now we were all huddled together, terrified at the sight of this huge lion, and I was amazed that no one fainted or soiled themselves. The ranger then followed the lion’s tracks to make sure it would not return. After this ordeal and once the adrenalin wore off, we started joking about what happened, laughing that we only had a handful of towels, shovels and hand pick axes to protect ourselves. Now remember I mentioned that there were two lions we kept seeing, the two brothers, so where was the second one? Well we never thought about the second lion until the ranger came back and explained that he had found the second lion’s tracks, stalking us from behind. This was one of a few scary encounters I have had.


To end off this first part of my stories, I will give a funny story again from my trips to the Kruger National Park. Whenever we are in the Park excavating we normally camp in tents in the camping areas or we stay in the research camps that some of the Rest Camps have. In Letaba Rest Camp we stayed in tents, normally sharing a tent with one or two people. One year I was sharing a tent with two of my colleagues but caught flu and decided to sleep in a Volkswagen kombi that we brought with on the trip. As I’m not the tallest person in the world I fit quite nicely in the back of a kombi once the back seats are down. The tent was then occupied by two of my colleagues with one of them having the notion to talk in his sleep. One night my colleague had a dream about a snake attacking him, sat up in bed and started screaming, “snake, snake, snake”, so loud that he woke up most of the campers in Letaba. He then dropped back on his bed fast asleep. The colleague sharing the tent with him was wide awake, and scared to hell, as he thought that there was indeed a snake in his tent. The next day my colleague who had the dream could not remember what happened.

I hope that you enjoyed these stories and please look out for the next Around the Campfire with Archaeology stories in future issues.