16-inch Armour Piercing Shot

16-inch Armour Piercing Shot

16-inch Armour Piercing Shot
On Display at DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
From HMS Nelson    

Date 1941

By Richard Henry



The British Admiralty ordered two new Battleships for the Royal Navy in December 1922.  These were called the Nelson Class, named after Admiral Horatio Nelson. Their mass and size was restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty to a maximum dry tonnage of 35 000 tons and 16-inch guns.  They were sometimes referred to as the “Cherry Tree” class as they had been cut down by Washington. The two ships were christened HMS Nelson and Rodney.

The keels were laid down on 28 December 1922.  The firm Armstrong Whitworth & Co built the Nelson at the High Walker shipyard on the River Tyne, northern England.  She was launched in September 1925 and commissioned in August 1927. The Rodney was built by Cammel Laird at the Birkenhead shipyard on the River Mersey, launched in December 1925 and commissioned in December 1927.

Not to exceed the maximum tonnage they had a unique layout with the nine 16-inch guns in three turrets all forward of the bridge.  Armour plating was also reduced but in places over the main magazine, control positions, and waterline belt it had sloped armour up to 360 mm thick. The deck had a single plate of 159 mm thick to protect against plunging shells and aircraft bombs.  Non vulnerable areas had minimal armour plating.

Both battleships served extensively in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian oceans during the Second Word War. The Rodney was made famous by her role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941


On 25 March 1941, the Battleships HMS Nelson and Revenge as well as the light cruisers Edinburgh and Cairo and sixteen destroyers escorted twenty troopships with 528 000 troops from Britain to the Middle East.

On Wednesday 16 April 1941 at 8:45 HMS Nelson tied up alongside the Duncan Dock in Cape Town. The next day she was visited by General JC Smuts.  It is thought that as a gift the Nelson donated one of her 16-inch projectiles. On 19 April at 8:00 HMS Nelson sailed from Cape Town for Durban.  At 14:00 off Dyer Island she fired her main guns.


On Tuesday 22 April at 10:30 Nelson arrived off Durban; at 13:30 she entered the dry dock in Durban for her annual maintenance.  The maintenance was complete by 3 May 1941 and the Nelson left the Durban dry dock and berthed in Durban.  On 10 May at 14:30 the Nelson along with the aircraft carrier Eagle with Swordfish aircraft from 813 and 824 squadrons on board as well as the heavy cruiser Hawkins sailed from Durban. As the three ships passed through the harbour entrance large crowds had gathered on the breakwaters to wave goodbye. ‘The Lady in White’ Perla Gibson, sang in her soprano voice which was amplified by a ship’s megaphone while the three ships returned to Cape Town arriving on 12 May at 19:00.  The next day at 8:00 the Nelson and Eagle sailed from Cape Town for St Helena in search of the German commercial raider Atlantis.




In mid-1942 the War Museum had collected a few exhibits, but a letter dated 17 March 1943 written by the Officer Commanding the South African War Museum, Captain Bellwood to Commander Scheepers (Navy) at Defence Headquarters states “As far back as May 29, 1942, I have been trying to obtain historic and interesting objects which will help the SA War Museum show the part played by the South African Naval Service.”   Bellwood also states that the SA War Museum has no naval exhibits and requests help in obtaining naval trophies, souvenirs and equipment.


This seems to suggest that by 29 May 1942, the SA Naval Service had a selection of interesting naval equipment in their possession, most probably at Simon’s Town where they were being used for demonstration and instruction purposes.


The Royal Navy and South African Naval Service exhibited material at the Liberty Cavalcade, Green Point Common, Cape Town, from 25 March to 1 April 1944. After the Cavalcade in Cape Town, the UDF exhibition, as well as the naval exhibition travelled by train to Bloemfontein, Kimberley and then Durban. The last cavalcade, the “Speed for Victory Fair”, was held at the Witwatersrand Agricultural Showgrounds in Milner Park, Johannesburg, from 25 November to 2 December 1944. After this cavalcade, many of the exhibits became part of the fledging South African War Museum holdings. The 16-inch projectile is listed on the inventory of exhibits compiled by Captain WA Bellwood, Officer Commanding of the War Museum, in July 1945.  This list of objects was used during the handing over of the Museum to Bellwood’s successor, Maj JA de Wet.



The main armament on the Nelson and Rodney was nine Breech Loading 16-inch Mark 1 guns.  There were three guns in each of the three gun turrets. These were the only Royal Navy battleships with this configuration. The guns were of 45 calibres, meaning 45 times the bore of 16 inches, which equates to a length of 60 foot (18 m).

A total of 29 of these guns were manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth & Company at Elswick, on Tyne, Vickers at Barrow-in- Furness, William Beadmore & Company at Dalmuir and the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich.  Eighteen of the guns were mounted on the battleships while the other 11 were repaired. The high muzzle velocity of the projectile wore out the barrels quite quickly and effected accuracy, leading to a large dispersion pattern.  After firing between 200-250 projectiles they needed re-rifling.



Calibre:                                                 16-inches (406 mm)

Mass:                                                    108 tons

Length:                                                18.85 m

Maximum elevation:                        40 degrees

Rate of fire:                                        1 round per min

Muzzle velocity:                               788 m/s

Effective firing range:                     32 000 m at a 32-degree elevation

Maximum firing range:                  36 375 m



By the 1850s it was found that high explosive shells had little effect on the thick armour plating of the enemy ships.  High explosive shells only caused some damage to light infrastructure.

A new projectile or solid shot, able to penetrate the thick armour of the enemy ship was required. If the side armour of a ship could be penetrated it could lead to the ship taking in water and after multiple strikes, it could be sunk. The Rodney fired 380 projectiles at the Bismarck before it sank.

Armour piercing projectiles were at first forged and the nose specially quenched with water to make it extremely hard.  The problem now was that the hard projectile could shatter on impact.

A softer penetrating nose cap transferred energy from the tip of the shell to the sides of the projectile, thereby helping to reduce shattering.  The penetrating cap also deformed on contact which aided the “sticking “to the target armour plate on contact, which reduced the projectile from bouncing off in glancing shots when striking at an oblique angle.

During the Second World War (1939-1945), armour piercing projectiles / shot used alloyed steels containing a mixture of nickel, chromium and molybdenum.

Later amour piercing projectiles were fitted with a small bursting charge which would explode once the projectile or shot had penetrated the enemy ship.



This shot, with a penetrating cap, had a mass of 929 kg.  Inside the projectile was 23.2 kg of TNT, which would explode after penetration.

The shot did not have a standard brass cartridge case contacting the propelling explosives. This would be too large to handle and manoeuvre and rather expensive. Rather the projectile was loaded into breech, rammed into the barrel and six charge bags, each with a mass of 37.4 kg and containing SC 280 explosives as the propellant. This total of 224 kg of propelling charge when fired built up a pressure of about 3 200 kg per cm squared in the gun breech. This pressure ensured that this 929 kg shot left the 18 m barrel as a muzzle velocity of about 788 m/s (depending on how worn the barrel was).

The trajectory of the shot and the range it would fly was dependent on the set elevation of the gun.  The higher the elevation (up to 40 degrees), the greater the range.  The effect and armour penetration of the shot, however, was dependent on the angle of the projectile strike and the strike velocity. See table below:


Elevation                             Range                   Side Armour Penetration             Deck Armour Penetration

12.5 degrees                      18 290 m             310 mm                                               72 mm

23.7 degrees                      27 420 m             224 mm                                               130 mm

38 degrees                          32 000 m             193 mm                                               165 mm

The longer the range, the longer the time of flight of the projectile. To hit a ship traveling at say 20 knots (37km/h) the gunnery officer had aim ahead of the target, how much was dependent on the range and projectile flight time. It had to be calculated how far the enemy ship would travel during the fight time. A few examples are given below.

Range                                                   Flight time                                          Strike velocity

18 290 m                                             31.4 sec                                                490 m/s

27 420 m                                             54.7 sec                                                436 m/s

32 000 m                                             76 sec                                                   420 m/s

A 15-inch Capped Ballistic Capped Armour Piercing Shell with explosive charge (in darker yellow)


When the Nelson or Rodney prepared for sea, a total of 900 armour piercing projectiles would be loaded into the hull, 100 projectiles for each gun. These were stored in an upright position on a rotating projectile handling platform below each gun turret. That is 300 projectiles per gun turret.

A further 5 400 charge bags, each weighing 37.4 kg were also loaded.  Below each gun turret, towards the bottom of the ship is the magazine. In the magazine, the 1 800 charge bags for each gun turret were stored in separate racks. Each section of rack was sealed off the other to reduce the risk and damage from a fire or explosion.

Of the full crew compliment of 1 361 men, a total of three officers and 294 men were involved in preparing and firing the nine guns.  One officer and 98 men per gun turret of three guns were required.

The majority of the 98 men required to service each gun turret worked either in the charge bag magazine and/or the projectile handling platform.

Six charge bags (37.4 kg each) were taken from the magazine and loaded into a charge bag chute which hoisted the bags up to the gun room inside the gun turret.

An operator electrically turned the outer projectile handling platform or carousel. This brought one of the upright standing projectiles closer to the projectile pusher hoist. The task was to now move the projectile from the outer ring to the inner ring. A cable was placed around the projectile and wrapped around a powered capstan. The capstan turned and at the same time pulled the projectile onto the inner turnstile and into position for the pusher hoist.

In the gun turret the gun was lowered to a five degree elevation and the breech opened.  The projectile arrived in the gun room in an upright position nose first. It stopped when it got to the cradle behind the gun. The projectile in the cradle was then hydraulically lowered to line up with the breech of the gun. A hydraulic rammer operator rammed the projectile into the breech. The rammer was then withdrawn.

The gun was now ready to receive the six charge bags. Three bags were rolled from the chute in the gun room and placed in the cradle; another three bags were removed and loaded into the cradle.  The six charge bags were rammed slowly into the breech. The breech was closed and the gun rose to the required elevation. The gunnery officer then checked all systems and the gun room officer confirmed them. The gun was fired, sending a 929 kg projectile on its way to the target. Each gun in the three-gun turret was elevated, loaded and fired separately. The same procedure was repeated for each of the nine guns.

Loading a 16–inch projectile into the turret

handling platform.


As the projectile loading in the handling rooms required 50 seconds, the maximum sustained rate of fire was one round per gun and was theoretically every 50 seconds. The actual firing rate was more likely to be every 65 seconds.


The visit of HMS Nelson to Cape Town in April 1941 and the meeting with Prime Minister, General JC Smuts was instrumental in the fledging War Museum in Johannesburg, eventually obtaining one of these 16-inch projectiles.



Archival Documents:

Bellwood, WA                    Inventory of Exhibits War Museum, dated 16 July 1945

Bellwood, WA                    South African War Museum Organisation files 1-7








http://rapidttp.co.za/waratsea/nelson.html  article by Marsh, J, HMS Battleship Nelson





David Rilley-Harris
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
August 2020

Source: UNICEF

During the Cold War Africa had been a battle ground for the two massive power blocs of the capitalist West and communist East. The end of the Cold War coincided with the end of South Africa’s Apartheid era and so as power vacuums appeared in Africa, a new optimism grew regarding South Africa’s role on the continent. European dominated United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa were to make way for increasing peacekeeper support from African countries and the legacy of European dominance in Africa might finally be eased aside.

In the last few years of the 20th Century, African Renaissance was discussed in South Africa as France debated military withdrawal from its former colonies, including the Central African Republic. In March 2013, two hundred South African soldiers found themselves forming a vanguard of these ideals as a numerically far superior rebel force drew down on their lines. Inadequately supported and inadequately equipped, the extremely well trained and disciplined South African defence held out as long as humanly possible.

Central African Republic (CAR) 2003 Coup

In the French 1995 elections, François Mitterrand was replaced by Jacques Chirac whose new political party promised a return to the France imagined at the end of the Second World War. The Cold War was over and France would suspend conscription and reduce the size of their military. In the article French Military Reform and Restructuring, American defence analyst Ronald Tiersky wrote, “No longer will typical operations consist of a few hundred soldiers jerry-dispatched to former French Africa to put down a coup or replace a failing president”.1

The French dominated peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, MISAB, was coming to an end. MISAB stood for Mission Interafricaine de Surveillance des Accords de Bangui (Inter-African Accord Monitoring in Bangui). While MISAB was comprised of African countries financed almost entirely by France, the new United Nations peacekeeping mission would be more of an international effort with over 1300 troops and support staff from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, France, Gabon, Mali, Portugal, Senegal, Togo, and Tunisia. The UN mission was called MINURCA or Mission des Nations Unies en RCA (UN Peacekeeping Mission in the CAR).

In 1998, a few months after MINURCA was launched, the South African Cabinet approved the White Paper on South African Participation in International Peace Missions. Much was said about African Renaissance and the altruism of a new South Africa. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief, General Siphiwe Nyanda, spoke of South Africa’s “…relatively speaking… wealth of resources and capabilities to contribute…” to peacekeeping. The more pragmatic angles were also considered with a large proportion of South African exports being bought within Africa, and with the spill-over effects of African conflicts having the potential to threaten South African security. There was also a stated awareness of the support which peacekeeping provides for trade and development.2 There was a shared will for African countries to take on a larger role in African peacekeeping and South Africa seemed well positioned to step up.

In CAR, MINURCA was being hailed as a success. An official UN communique said “MINURCA contributed significantly to restoring a climate of stability and security as well as dialogue among political actors. This progress encouraged efforts, with support of Bretton Woods institutions, to re-launch the economy and also enabled legislative elections to take place in a peaceful manner in November/ December 1998. MINURCA also played a supportive role in the staging of the presidential elections of September 1999, which were won by the incumbent President Ange-Félix Patassé.”3 MINURCA, however, ended in April 2000 and CAR began to unravel almost immediately. A weak economy and the strikes that accompanied it led to calls for the removal of President Patassé. After an attempted coup in May 2001 ethnic and political violence led to the exodus of 50,000 people from CAR capital Bangui with at least 300 people being killed. At the time, President Patassé was personally protected by 100 Libyan soldiers and 300 soldiers of a rebel group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) called the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). While Patassé became increasingly reliant on foreign troops, and the MLC added to the looting and killings in Bangui, a previously sacked CAR army (FACA) Chief of Staff planned a rebellion. His name was François Bozizé.4

François Bozizé. Source: DefenceWeb

Bozizé may have been planning a coup of his own when he was sacked in October 2001. His removal from FACA polarised the army and Bozizé escaped to France. From France Bozizé fermented rebellion in CAR and President Patassé asked Libya to provide more soldiers to defend Bangui. Libya saw fit to deploy 300 troops who were replaced with a new regional African peacekeeping force called FOMUC (Forces Multinationales de la CEMAC). CEMAC was the Central African Economic and Monetary Union. At this time, MLC remained in CAR.5 FOMUC (which became FOMAC on 12 July 2008) along with the CAR army (FACA) were the two forces which had been expected to stand in defence of Bangui alongside South Africa in the 2013 battle.

On 25 October 2002, forces supporting Bozizé attacked Bangui. President Patassé’s 300 strong Libyan supporting force along with several hundred MLC soldiers successfully defended Bangui with the help of two Libyan Marchetti aircraft which bombed rebel positions in the northern part of Bangui. President Patassé launched a counterattack with MLC forces and reclaimed some land in the north of CAR. Regional influence on the CAR conflict escalated as Bozizé found support from Chad (providing elite troops) and the DRC (providing hardware) and the Republic of the Congo (providing 4.6 Million Euros). Gabon also spoke in favour of Bozizé while FOMUC were told not to interfere and FACA stood idle.6 In a new attack on 15 March 2003, Bangui was easily taken by Bozizé. From South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki and his then Deputy Jacob Zuma condemned the coup.7

South Africa’s first fully fledged African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission (AMIB) took place in Burundi a few months after the 2003 CAR coup8. South Africa led AMIB and it was a partial success at a cost to South Africa of US$140 Million9. Bozizé retained a precarious hold on power in CAR until winning an election in 2005. Patassé was excluded from the ballot.

South Africa Enters CAR

President Bozizé relied heavily on the Chadian troops who had assisted him in the 2003 coup. In 2006 a rebellion formed in northern CAR in response to claims of Chadian looting and Bozizé corruption. They called themselves the APRD or Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy) and were formed from remnants of Patassé’s Presidential Guard.10

In January 2006 South Africa’s SANDF and Defence Department left for CAR on a fact finding mission. This visit resulted from an AU meeting were President Bozizé approached President Mbeki requesting military defence help and financial investment so that CAR could be less reliant on France11, and perhaps Chad, who maintained a close relationship with France. In April 2006 South Africa’s Defence Minister, Terror Lekota, signed a cooperation agreement with CAR for defence, minerals and energy, and followed up that agreement with an “onsite assessment” trip in May 200612. In September 2006 three CAR rebel groups united to form the UFDR (Union des Forces Démocratiques pour la Rassemblement). They were made up of the MLJC (Mouvement des Libérateurs Centrafricains pour la Justice), the GAPLC (Groupe d’Action Patriotique pour la Libération de Centrafique), and the FDC (Front Démocratique Centrafricain). In October 2006 the UFDR began taking substantial territory in northern CAR. President Bozizé asked for help from “…friendly nations, in particular those linked by specific treaties, particularly France, to work for the restoration of the territorial integrity”13. FACA launched a counterattack on 27 November 2006 with French tactical and logistical support. French forces became increasingly involved during the fighting using HALO (high altitude low opening) parachute drops and needing to employ air support to avoid being overrun.14 A South Africa/CAR defence cooperation agreement signed on 11 February 2007 called for “co-operation on peace and stability and the training and capacity building of military personnel through the exchange of trainees, instructors and observers”. Later that year the AU Peace and Security Council asked African states to help CAR in “the consolidation of peace and security”.15 France came under criticism from the UN and Human Rights Watch for allowing FACA to commit human rights violations during the counterattack against UFDR. The violations may have been committed by retreating UFDR forces but France was under generalised pressure due to continued French interventionism in Africa.16 On 13 April 2007, UFDR and the CAR government signed a peace agreement involving amnesty, recognition for UFDR as a political party, and the planned integration of its forces into FACA.

South Africa’s mission in CAR was called Operation Vimbezela (literally, besiege). One or two Ratel 90s were delivered for training purposes and hundreds of FACA soldiers were trained up. The South African soldiers were from 1 Parachute Battalion and 5 Special Forces Regiment. Growing instability in the wider region led to the deployment of EUFOR (a France dominated European Union security force) with UN backing in 2008. Concurrently, UNAMID (United Nations – African Union Mission in Darfur) was launched in Sudan becoming the first hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping mission and the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. The UN asked South Africa to commit more to UNAMID which it did in November 2008 bringing the South African contribution to over 760 personnel. South Africa was also involved with MONUSCO (UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). A researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, Fritz Nganje, suggested that South African interests in CAR may have included concerns over the potential for CAR violence to spill over into the DRC17. On 28 February 2008 French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivered a speech to the Parliament of South Africa. Sarkozy said, “We find ourselves in a situation in which our political, military and economic engagement alongside Africa is seen by many not as a well-meant helping hand but as neo-colonial interference; and in which, at the same time, indifference, withdrawal or lack of engagement on our part is criticised as abandonment or lack of gratitude”. Sarkozy also mentioned that if the AU achieves its will to have a strong standby force available by 2012 then France would be able to withdraw its own military presence18.

CAR army base Vimbezela. Source: Wikipedia
Rise of the Séléka Rebels

Seleka rebel coalition members in a village north of the Central
African Republic capital on January 10, 2013. Source CNN (Getty Images)

On 23 January 2011, President Bozizé was elected to a second term in office. While some said that the polling was marred by fraud19, others described the election as “reasonably free and fair”20. In any case, President Bozizé became a reasonably credible leader by regional standards and continued to survive by absorbing rebel attacks into the underequipped and demoralized FACA ranks21.

Progressing peace agreements gave the appearance that CAR was stabilising up until November 2012. In September 2012, largely Muslim elements of what remained of CAR’s rebel groups united into one coalition. They called themselves the Séléka (coalition in Sango, one of CAR’s official languages with French). The Séléka were made up of parts of the FDPC (Democratic Front of the Central African People), CPJP (Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace), UFDR (Union for the Rallying of Democratic Forces), A2R (Alliance for Revival and Rebuilding), and the CPSK (Patriotic Convention for Saving the Country). On a CNN Global Public Square blog African Studies doctoral candidate Jason Warner wrote, “Government officials from Bangui have accused Seleka of harboring ‘foreign provocateurs’ greedy for the country’s vast mineral wealth, and there are suspicions that nationals from Chad, Nigeria, and Sudan also make up Seleka’s ranks”22.

In November 2012, a Séléka offensive rapidly overran the north and centre of CAR while the small South African contingent remained at bases in Bouar and Bangui. In early December 2012 President Zuma sent Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to CAR to assess the situation and her report recommended an intervention23. South Africa was facing a double-edged sword. During December, President Bozizé appealed to South Africa for help based on the 2007 agreement and claimed that South Africa’s failure to assist FACA as much as had been planned left South Africa liable for FACA’s weak state24. On the other hand, the Séléka had swept through the northern half of CAR in a matter of weeks taking strategic towns and prompting Chad, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Gabon to send soldiers onto CAR25. President Bozizé had been accused of reneging on aspects of previous peace agreements and did not have convincing regional support. A report from senior SANDF officers to South Africa’s top structures warned that the CAR mission amounted to “suicide”26. There was also the question of how the South African team in CAR could be evacuated without abandoning military equipment. Some equipment would be difficult to access as it was stored in the Bangui presidential palace to which South Africa did not have free access27. A withdrawal would also come with a political cost and could precipitate an attack on Bangui.

The SANDF gave a conservative estimate of its needs for remaining in CAR. This included “a company of paratroopers of 1 Parachute Battalion, with a composite weapons platoon with four 12.7mm heavy machineguns and four 81mm mortars, and with seven Gecko vehicles to transport the heavy weapons and ammunition; a detachment of 5 Special Forces Regiment, with two of its specialised Hornet vehicles with 12.7mm machineguns and 107mm multiple rocket launchers and four Land Cruisers armed with 7.62mm PKM machineguns; a tactical intelligence team, an electronic intelligence team, some engineers and some signallers; and two Casspir armoured ambulances and two ordinary ambulances. The force also acquired five ordinary Land Cruisers and a single 5-ton truck from the South African training team, and provision was made to deploy the remainder of 1 Parachute Battalion if necessary”28.

SANDF Gecko. Lieutenant Colonel William Bucibe; Captain Mmakoena Mahlo; Staff Sergeant Serole Mampa; Major Luckyboy Kwele; Colonel William Dixon.  Source TimesLive (Photo by: James Oatway)

SANDF Hornet. Source: DefenceWeb

On 6 January 2013 South Africa announced the planned deployment of 400 troops “to render support in fulfilment of an international obligation of the Republic of South Africa towards the CAR… to assist with capacity building of the CAR defence force and will also assist CAR with the planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes… The employment of members of (South Africa’s military) to CAR is one of the efforts that South Africa is making to bring about peace and stability in the region”29. Jules Gauthier Ngbapo, a spokesman for Josue Binoua, CAR minister of decentralisation and territorial administration asked, “How can there be peace if the rebels are looting, raping and abducting our civilians?” Ngbapo accused the Séléka of “shooting randomly, destroying properties and… raping civilians”. Souleymane Diabate, UN children agency representative in CAR said, “Reliable sources have informed us that children are newly being recruited among their ranks”.30 On 6 January 2013, the Mail & Guardian website reported South Africa’s condemnation of the Séléka attacks and their undermining of the Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The report mentioned that 200 of the 400 South African troops had been deployed and were well equipped, expecting a five year stay.31 On the arrival of South African reinforcements, the South African force in CAR pulled out of Bouar and all resources were moved into Bangui32. According to an article in the Sunday Times, South African field commanders pleaded unsuccessfully for armoured personnel carriers, sniper rifles, Rooivalk attack helicopters, Oryx transport helicopters, and a reconnaissance aircraft33. In the meantime, South African Defence Minister Mapisa-Nqakula was estimating the cost of deployment at R1-billion34.

A tentative CAR Unity Government was briefly formed with Séléka, prompting South Africa to consider pulling out of CAR in a moment where it appeared to be stabilising, but UN representative Margaret Vogt pleaded with South Africa to wait35. By 18 March, Séléka had grown impatient with President Bozizé’s apparent unwillingness to accede to demands for the release of political prisoners, integration of Séléka forces into FACA, and for South African soldiers to leave CAR. After an ultimatum expired Séléka advanced farther taking the towns of Damara and Bossangoa on 21 March. When hostilities resumed, President Bozizé was on a “courtesy call” to South Africa35. The regional peacekeeping force, FOMAC, had established Damara as a red line but when Séléka took the town residents said that FOMAC had simply stepped aside36.

Early on 22 March 2013, Nelson Ndjadder, a CPSK spokesperson for Séléka, said that their forces were a few kilometres from Bangui and that “We have 2000 men on the ground and some have slipped into the capital”37. FACA warned that FOMAC vehicles were responsible for smuggling Séléka soldiers into Bangui38. French forces were distracted by a fight against Islamist rebels in Mali and left less than 300 soldiers in CAR who were almost entirely tasked with protecting the airport. President Bozizé was said to have told his cabinet to seek safety and as national radio announced the rebel advance shops and schools closed and the streets of Bangui filled with panicked residents looking for safety.39 Not long after midday, the streets of Bangui fell quiet40. South Africa’s training teams and reinforcements together numbered around 265. Séléka force strength estimates vary from 1000 to 7000.

The Battle of Bangui

Around midday on 22 March 2013, a FACA force reported coming under fire near Damara prompting the South African force commander, Colonel William Dixon, to send a Special Forces team northward to assess the situation41. 15km from Damara the Special Forces reconnaissance team reached a FACA checkpoint which reported no movement. 10km from Damara soldiers (presumably FACA) were again encountered and again reported no movement. Shortly after, now more than 20km north of Bangui and at 3pm, the South Africans found themselves in the middle of a 300m-long ambush with enemy fire coming from only 10m from the roadside42. The South Africans with their four Land Cruisers and two Hornet vehicles with heavy machine guns returned fire on the 200 strong Séléka ambush and managed to break out after a 15-minute fight which wounded three South Africans43. The wounded were taken to the airport for evacuation to Pretoria where they were admitted to 1 Military Hospital at 1am on the morning of 23 March44. 150 paratroopers of Charlie Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, had been settling down for the night when they were turned around by the return of the bullet riddled Special Forces patrol. As night fell, they deployed on a defensive line off the Damara road 4,5km north of their Bangui base45. The commander of the Special Forces patrol reported that the Séléka had been well equipped and were heavily armed46.

After a quiet night, at 8am on 23 March, Colonel Dixon’s Land Cruiser and tactical headquarters travelled to the French Embassy getting confirmation that the French would keep the airport secure and available for South African casualties47. On leaving the embassy, he received word that the Charlie Company defensive line, or blue line, was under attack. With his driver, a signaller, two pathfinders, and his second-in-command, Major Michel Silva, Colonel Dixon’s Land Cruiser raced to the front line48. The paratroopers were being attacked in waves by an enemy using AK47s, machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and bakkies with Russian anti-aircraft machine guns bolted on the back (technicals). During this time, a South African combat medic, Staff Sergeant Serole Mampa, returned rebel fire while helping to rescue a wounded soldier, and Séléka Colonel Ali Abubaker was on one of the first technicals hit taking seven killed and three wounded.49 When Colonel Dixon reached the front two paratrooper platoons had been pushed off a hill on the left flank. A Special Forces group who had also arrived at the blue line helped to retake the hill and by 2pm the Séléka had been pushed back.

Colonel Dixon’s tactical headquarters and the Special Forces unit returned to the base to rearm. Within minutes they had to move out again50. A South African tactical intelligence team watching a bridge on the Mpoko River farther west reported that FACA had failed to halt a large Séléka force advancing towards the bridge. The South African Special Forces team which had engaged at the blue line and another Special Forces team with six Hornets that had just been flown into Bangui joined Colonel Dixon’s command Land Cruiser to counter the new Séléka advance51. The Séléka were moving forward with several hundred soldiers and at least 15 technicals. A FACA Mi-25 attack helicopter arrived but only circled at high altitude firing a few ineffectual rockets before leaving. The South African force of about 35 soldiers was heavily outnumbered firing 107mm rockets at point blank range. When there were no rockets left to fire, Colonel Dixon brought up the 81mm mortars from the blue line which provided effective fire until the Séléka who had been moving around and past the South Africans towards Bangui were only 50m away. When, by 4:30pm, the South African Special Forces units had been pushed back to the outskirts of Bangui, and fighting had become as close as 10m, Colonel Dixon ordered a last fire belt action (a brief burst of maximum firepower) and had his soldiers return to their base. Twelve more South Africans had been wounded.52

With daylight fading Major Silva was sent with every available vehicle to help the paratroopers at the blue line withdraw to the base. He found them under a renewed Séléka attack and having again been pushed off the hill on their left flank. Packed into four Land Cruisers and four Geckos they drove in the dark on a road back to the base. As the convoy approached a Y-junction, combat medic Staff Sergeant Mampa saw a bloodied Muslim robe on a checkpoint rope drop to the ground. Heavy fire hit the convoy. Vehicles exploded and Mampa attended to the wounded he could save as some of his fellow soldiers told him to leave – that they would die fighting. In hand-to-hand fighting the South Africans broke free from the ambush and made their way back to the base however they could. 53 The bodies of eleven South African soldiers were later recovered at the Y-junction54.

From 7pm until 9pm the base was under attack from roughly 1500 rebels using mortars, heavy machineguns, and RPGs55. By 10pm a Séléka General had sent word to Colonel Dixon that he wanted to stop the fighting. The General failed to meet face to face but fighting did largely quieten down. Through the night there were South African soldiers trying to reach their base. By sunrise on 24 March, 23 South Africans were wounded and 20 paratroopers were unaccounted for.56 At around 6:30am the base came under attack again for a short while before a Séléka commander telephoned to request a meeting. He said that he had 2000 soldiers with which to attack the base but would prefer not to attack57. Low on ammunition and with Séléka forces already piercing the base perimeter, Colonel Dixon was still looking to end the fighting. A Séléka officer later announced at the base that a general had arrived, and Colonel Dixon, Major Silva, and two other officers met him at the base perimeter with their hands raised but their rifles slung across their chests. The Séléka leader was General Hakouma Arda and he was at the base gate with two other generals and three colonels. South African medics treated several wounded Séléka soldiers as Colonel Dixon spent hours negotiating the return of South African soldiers or their bodies, often having to hand over vehicles or cash in return.58

By midday on 24 March Séléka rebels had captured Bangui with only small pockets of resistance remaining and President Bozizé had fled. At 6:30pm Séléka’s Michel Djotodia declared himself the new president of CAR. The Battle of Bangui killed 15 paratroopers. On 25 March ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said “These soldiers were true sons of the continent who were willing to give up their lives in the interest of ensuring peace in the continent”59. The Séléka Pyrrhic victory has led to a constantly evolving civil war that remains unresolved and continues to demand the attention of the international peacekeeping and humanitarian community. After the battle, South Africa pulled out of the country and South African peacekeeping forces have never returned.



Object knowledge during documentation

Object knowledge during documentation

Jan van den Bos, curator, military collection, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

The purpose of museums is to collect objects with artistic, cultural and scientific value and preserve, research, interpret and present these objects through exhibitions, publications and special programmes.

It is important to accumulate as much information as possible when acquiring an object. Museum professionals have the necessary training to interpret new acquisitions as efficient as possible. Cataloguing is one of the important documentation procedures to add value to an object. A brief description of the object is essential.

Let us take an example from the cut and thrust objects in the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s collection. To be able to describe swords and rapiers one needs to identify the different parts. You need to know the difference between a sword and a rapier. A sword has a fairly broad straight blade, is sharpened on both edges with a point that is in line with the centre of the blade. A sword has a grip, pommel and a simple cross-guard which is usually straight. The foot soldier or infantryman was equipped with a shorter blade, which was suited for man to man combat. The horse riding soldier has a longer blade suitable for combat on horseback.

Example of a sword in the collection of DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (HG 21709).

The rapier was more of a thrust than a cutting weapon (e.g. a sword). It has a long but much narrower blade. The blade is often in the form of a flattened hexagon, triangular or quadrangular with a groove or two grooves in the centre.


A rapier in the collection of DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (HG 6004-2).