Two interesting South African Air Force missiles / rocket In the Ammunition Collection Of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History

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Two interesting South African Air Force missiles / rocket In the Ammunition Collection Of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History

By Richard Henry, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


Museums often have items in their collections, the value of them not fully understood until the initial documentation is completed.  I love this aspect of Museum work, where the history, use and significance of the item comes to life and adds a further piece to the jigsaw puzzle of understanding South African Military History.  This initial research always opens-ups avenues for further research.

Historical perspective 

After the Second World War (1939-1945), the Union Defence Forces (UDF) continued to use mostly British and American equipment acquired from Britain and the American via the Lend Lease agreement.  In the early 1950s South Africa and her senior officers still looked to Great Britain for modern military equipment such as the Centurion Mk 3 Tank, and the Saracen armoured personnel carrier.  The Air Force purchased British Vampire jets and at the same time disposed many of her older aircraft. 

During the Korean War (1950-1953) the South African Air Force (2 Squadron) used American F-51 Mustangs and later the F-86 Sabre jet aircraft.  Most of their 12 087 sorties were strafing ground targets while using their 20 mm cannons.  On occasion they carried Napalm bomb canisters or fired 36 unguided 37 mm SNEB air to ground rockets from two pods beneath the wings.  

The SAAF pilots were impressed with the performance of the Sabre.  Once they returned to South Africa they convinced the Air Force to place an order for 34 Canadair Sabre Mk 6s, the first of this order was delivered in 1956.   The Canadair Mk 6 Sabres, considered the best of the Sabres, could be fitted with two French Matra rocket pods each containing 18 of the new larger French 68mm SNEB rockets for ground attack or two of the latest American infra-red heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder air to air missiles. These weapons are the topic for this article. 

The Conservative British Prime Minister Harold Macmillian addressed the parliament of South Africa on 3 February 1960.   He told them that colonial Africa was to be granted independence. This was not well received by the National Party politicians.   

On Wednesday 31 May 1961, South Africa became a Republic and at the same time left the British Commonwealth.   Some politicians and General Officers wanted to sever all ties with Britain who in their opinion had supressed the Afrikaner far too long.   On 7 August 1963, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 282 called for a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa. The American had already stopped selling arms to South Africa. This meant that the Sidewinder short range air intercept missile which armed Mirage 111 fighter would no longer be able to be acquired from the Americans, effectively hobbling the SAAF fighter fleet.  On 17 November 1964, the British Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Britain would be imposing an arms embargo on South Africa. South Africa had to now look for alternative arms suppliers. 

The Minister of Defence Jim Fouche however maintained cordial relations with Britain who were still to supply Blackburn Buccaneer fighter bombers which had already been ordered.  New military partnerships with Belgium, French and German firms were had been concluded were strengthened as far as possible.  

The French Connection  

The French Fourth Republic (27 Oct 1946 – 4 Oct 1958) despite its political dysfunction, was a period of great economic growth assisted by the USA Marshall Plan.  French arms production increased and new ideas and innovations were actively encouraged.  

The French aviation designer Marcel Bloch started an all French company Dassault in 1946.  He designed and developed a series of fighter aircraft in quick succession.  The first one to be produced in 1948 was the Dassault Ouragan, a fighter bomber which first flew in 1949 and played a key role in the resurgence of the French aviation industry after the Second World War. During service trials the prototype attained a top speed of 980 km/h.  It had similarities to the American F-86 Sabre. Talks with the French authorities were positive.  At the end of August 1949, the French Air Force ordered 15 pre-production aircraft. On 5 December 1951, the first production Ouragan conducted its maiden flight. By the end of 1952, a total of 39 production aircraft had been completed; a further 93 were manufactured in 1953, and the final 118 were finished by mid-1954.

Meanwhile Marcel Bloch had deigned a newer more advanced Dassault Mystère IIC which had a more powerful engine with afterburner which increased the top speed to 1060 km/h at low level.  It had two 30 mm DEFA cannon and the two Matra rocket pods for the new unguided 68 mm SNEB air to surface rockets.  The French Air Force ordered 150 of these new Dassault Mystère 11C fighter bombers. The first production machine was delivered to the French Air Force in October 1954 and the last of the 150 ordered, in 1957. 

Dassault continued to develop improved faster jets.  On 24 October 1958 a new fighter the Dassault Mirage III became the first Western European combat aircraft to exceed twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) in horizontal flight. In October 1960 the Mirage IIC performed its maiden flight.  

South Africa were one of the first nations to order 15 Mirage IIC s single seater interceptor aircraft for low level ground attack operations in 1962.  The Mirage IIIC was armed with two 30 mm DEFA canon and had either a large long range French Matra R511, a Nord AS 20 or a Matra R 530 missile under the fuselage.  These missiles were about 2,6m long and weighed about 150 kg.   The Nord AS 20 missile was launched from the fuselage and then had to be controlled in flight with a small joystick by the pilot, sending steering commands to the missile via a radio link.  For short range air-to air interceptor missile, the Mirage IIC came with two American AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles under the outboard pylons on the wings. The first Mirage IIIC was delivered to the South African Air Force in April 1963, just before the UN voluntary arms embargo against South Africa and the USA decision not to sell any further arms to South Africa due to her Apartheid Policies. 

Later, 16 of a different version, the Mirage IIICZ were purchased and supplied to the Air Force by March 1964. 


The AIM-9 Sidewinder short range Air-to-Air Missile  

AIM stands for Air Intercept Missile. A Sidewinder is the name of a venomous rattlesnake found in America which uses infra-red sensory organs to hunt down warm blooded prey. 

By the early 1950s both the British and American authorities were working on developing and Infra-Red heat seeking missile.  The tail of jet fighters gives off a great amount of head from the jet engine and if a missile could follow this heat source and was faster than the jet could fly, then the missile in theory would be able to destroy the enemy fighter jet aircraft. 

In 1954 the United States Air Force carried out trials with the AIM-9 A and the improved AIM-9B missiles at the Holloman Air Development Center.  In 1956 the United States Navy was first to use this missile operationally.  Remember when the Canadair Sabre Mk 6s were delivered to South Africa in 1956 they were already equipped with the AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.   

This series of Sidewinder missiles became the gold standard for heat seeking missiles used by at least 27 Western countries during the Cold War.  They were lost cost and were the most successful air-to-air missile.  After being in production for some time the Americans allowed some western counties to build these missiles under licence. During their service life they are estimated at downing 270 aircraft. That is not to say that once the missile was fired, it would definitely destroy the enemy aeroplane.  It still needed to follow after the hot tail of the enemy jet and the Infra-Red sensor could be confused by a good enemy pilot or by dropping magnesium flares which would draw the missile to the hot flare and explode while the enemy aircraft got way.  The heat of the sun could also confuse the missile and it sometimes flew harmlessly towards the sun before exploding. It was still however considered a good missile and nearly 100 000 of the first generation (AIM -9B/C/C/E) were produced by Raytheon and General Electric.  The early guidance and control sections were manufactured by Philco- Ford.  

The latest version the South Africans had was the AIM-9B before he American arms embargo came into effect.    

The AIM-9B missile described

Most of the series of AIM -9 missiles produced were of the B variety.  The 2,83 m long Aim-9B missile had a diameter of 127 mm and a mass of 70 kg.  It was launched from the outer pylons under the wings of the aircraft when the range of the enemy aircraft was no further than 4.8 km away.  Propulsion of the missile was from a Thiokol Mk 17 solid-fuel rocket motor which gave a thrust of 4000 lbs for a time of 2,2 seconds.  During this time the missile was propelled to a speed of Mach 1.7 (2 082 km/h) This solid fuel rocket motor used an 4,5 kg blast-fragmentation warhead. This was triggered by an Infra-Red proximity or a contact fuse.  The explosive effect of the blast-fragmentation warhead was considered deadly to a radius of around 9 metres.   The Infra-Red seeking sensor in the nose of the missile had a limited 4degree angle of view but if the enemy aircraft was within the angle the missile was able to make quite tight turns pulling up to 12G. In South African service it armed the Canadair CL Sabre Mk 6, the Mirage IIICZ and Mirage IIIEZ models. 

South Africa sets out to build her own improved missiles 

From late 1962, South Africa started working with French scientists to develop the Cactus mobile all weather surface –to-air missile. To try and supply some of her own arms requirements, the Armaments Board was formed in 1964.  One of the urgent requirements was for a local air-to-air missile.  The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) used the Aim -9 Sidewinder missile as the basis to develop South Africa’s own short range air-to-air missile.  Work commenced in 1966 on this project.  On Wednesday 18 December, South Africa test fired her first guided Cactus surface –to- air missile at the St Lucia missile test range.  The Scientists at the CSIR had also been working on a South African variant of the Sidewinder missile. In late 1971 it was announced that South Africa’s new “Voorslag “air-to-air missile was ready for production.  Voorslag is a play on words which hints at the moment before an explosion.  This missile was also known as the V1 had a revolutionary helmet acquisition system which allowed the pilot to lock the missile’s seeker head onto a target well outside his aircraft’s axis. This Helmet Mounted Display allowed the pilot to track a target beyond the aircraft’s radar scan envelope. All The pilot needed to do was “Look and Shoot”.   This gave the pilot much more time to concentrate on other actions which were happening around him.  This system was far ahead of many other countries.   The CSIR were developing an improved version which in 1975 was unveiled as the V3A missile.  It had a speed of 2 205 km/h.  

So good that the Soviets want a copy 

A South African Naval Officer Commodore Dieter Gerhard who spied for the Soviet Union from the early 1960s, managed to obtain drawings of this new system which he passed on to the Soviets.  Later The South Africa Air Force, when having closer relations with Soviet Pilots, noticed that the new Russian system closely matched the South African designed system 

The 68 mm SNEB Unguided Rocket 

The SNEB unguided rocket was manufactured by the French company Societe Nouvelle des Etablissements Edgar Brand in 1953 to replace the smaller 37mm variety used on the American F-86 Sabres in the Korean War (1950 -1953).  

When the Canadians were given a licence to build American Sabre Jet aircraft as the Canadair Mk 6 Sabre, they incorporated the latest 68mm SNEB rockets.  So when the SAAF received their Mk 6 Sabres in 1956 they were or could be armed with the French 68 mm SNEB rocket system.  From this time onwards most of the aircraft in the SAAAF arsenal such as the Buccaneer, Canberra, Impala and Mirage could be and were armed with these rockets.  A light observation Bosbok aircraft was known to have carried a six rocket pod loaded with 68mm SNEB rockets 

At first, most firing of the rockets was done in practice at ranges such as the Roodewal range. As the Border War (1966- 1989) escalated to some semi-conventional warfare, more of these rockets were fired against enemy targets. Because of the numbers required, these rockets were made locally

These unguided air-to-surface rockets were designed for aircraft to be able to attack armoured fighting vehicles, trucks and other transport as well as attack installations such as air-to- ground missile sites, anti-aircraft guns, buildings and large concentrations infantry.  

To fire these unguided rockets, they need to be first loaded into a rocket pod.  The rocket pod in French was called “Lance Roquettes” meaning rocket launcher. The rocket pod is attached to a pylon on the wings of the aircraft. Various pods were manufactured by S.A Engins Matra of 21 and 27 Quai de Boulonge, Boulogne – Billancourt (Seine) France.  

The Matra Type 116M rocket launcher / pod was a lightly constructed pod which was expendable after firing the rockets.  It is not known if South African used any of these light weight variety. 

The Matra type 155 rocket launcher / pod was widely produced and was re-suable. It was loaded with 18 rockets. The air force ground crew could programme the pod to fire the rockets in ripples or in a single ripple. If fired I a single ripple all the rockets were fired within 0.5 seconds with a time interval of 33 milliseconds between each rocket fired. 

To assist with additional range for the aircraft, a Matra JL-100 was used. This incorporated a combination of the rocket pod plus an additional 250 litre fuel tank. The pod was the same as the Type 155. 

Since these were French products and they were basic technology, South Africa had no problems at first purchasing them from the French and then later obtaining a licence to build them in South Africa.

SAAF Mirage IIIEZ 831, piloted by Derek Kirkland, firing a ripple of 68mm SNEB High Explosive Unguided Rockets. This photo was taken in1978 at the Roodewal range by well-known aviation photographer, Herman Potgieter 

The rocket is 940mm in length and had a mass of 6.8kg.  The rocket motor which gives a velocity of 459 m/s at burnout had a mass of 3.1 kg. The maximum effective range was 1 600 m. Various rocket types were produced such as a high Explosive Anti-Tank, a High Explosive Fragmentation, a marker rocket and a Training or Practice rocket. 

In training it was found that the average distance of the rocket strike to the intended target was at distance of 18,5 m.   Under actual operation conditions that ‘miss’ distance was increased to 20-25 m.  A direct hit was required to destroy and armoured vehicle such a Soviet BRDM. 

These rockets were extensively used during the middle to late Border War (1966-1989).  During the large scale cross border Operation Protea, 23 August – 4 September 1981, the South African Air Force fired a total of 1774 of these rockets at enemy installations such as the SWAPO command and training centre at Xangongo and its logistics bases at Xangongo and Ongiva   


  • Brent, W 85 years of the South African Air Force 1920-2005  Free world Publications,  Nelspruit, 2005
  • McGregor, PMJ, Col 2 Squadron in Korea   In The Military History Journal Vol 4 No3 – June 1978
  • Wikipedia Canadair Sabre retrieved 13 /12/ 2021
  • Wikipedia The French Fourth Republic   retrieved 13/12/2021
  • Wikipedia Dassault Ouragan
  • Wikipedia Dassault Mystère IIC
  • Wikipedia Arms Embargo against South Africa
  • Wikipedia Winds of Change Speech
  • Wikipedia Nord AS 20 Air to Surface Missile
  • Wikipedia Aim-9 Sidewinder

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