Why a ‘Ratel’?
The ‘ratel’ is the honey badger, a member of the family that includes otters, weasels and badgers (Mustelids), and is native to Africa, Southeast Asia and India. It has few natural predators because of its ferocious nature, and survives well because of its adaptability to environmental changes and its ability to covers vast distances. In appearance it is short and stocky, weighing on average about 16kg and up to 100cm in length.
Perhaps the most famous ratel movie scene is the one from “The Gods Must be Crazy 2” where the ratel attaches itself to a boot and is dragged across a dry pan.
So, why name an armoured vehicle after such a creature? Exactly because of the characteristics of the animal mentioned above – toughness, tenacity in a fight, speed over the ground, and able to cover big distances – all characteristics of the Ratel IFV!
A New Vehicle for a New Situation
Roland de Vries, the founder and long-serving commander of 61 Mechanised Bn, was instrumental in devising a new battle strategy to combat the enemy. This strategy earned him both criticism from conventional strategists and praise from those who went into battle in his brainchild – the Rate IFV.
His strategy was simply – high mobility with overwhelming firepower.
In an interview with Litnet in 2013, for the launch of his book “Eye of the Firestorm”, Roland sums it all up with a simple thought – Strength Lies in Mobility.
In the interview he says:
“Die Ratel was merkwaardig. As ons nie Ratels in Angola in die tagtigerjare gehad het nie, sou ons nie nou vrede in ons land gehad het nie. Die Ratel was veel meer as ’n wapen. Die kombinasie van vuurkrag, mobiliteit, pantserbeskerming en buigsaamheid in aanwending het die voertuig laat deel vorm van ’n geïntegreerde gevegstelsel uit eie reg.”
English Translation: The Ratel was remarkable. If we had not had Ratels in Angola in the ‘80’s, we would not now have peace in our land. The Ratel was much more than a weapon. The combination of firepower, mobility, armour protection and flexibility in deployment enabled the vehicle itself to become part of an integrated combat system.
Why a South African-built IFV?
Like many weapons systems used in the South African Border war, the Ratel was born out of the economic, political and military sanctions imposed against the country by the United Nations (Resolution 418).
The Ratel was designed specifically for environmental and combat conditions in Southern Africa, and the 6×6 wheeled suspension was ideal for the sandy arid terrain over which the SADF fought, proving easier to maintain and repair than tracked vehicles.
Ironically, became a prototype for similar IFV’s around the world, including China and Belgium. The Ratel, as will be seen below, is also far superior to similar vehicles currently in use by other nations, including the United States Army’s M2/M3 Bradley. “The Ratel was the first wheeled IFV to enter military service, and is generally regarded as an influential design…” (Wikipedia, ibid.)
The first prototypes were produced in 1974, and the first Ratel-20 Infantry Squad models saw operational service in 1977, with a 3-man crew, and carrying a 7-man infantry squad (section) with a full complement of weapons and equipment. A number of variants of the basic Ratel squad vehicle were developed over the following two decades to suit specific operational purposes, including Ratel-60 Mortar, Ratel-90 Fire Support, Ratel-ZT3 Anti-tank.
About 1300 Ratels of various types were built between 1977 and 1994, and the Ratel has now been replaced by the “Badger” (8 x 8) Mechanised Combat Vehicles (MCV), built for the SANDF by Denel. Many of the now surplus Ratels are being sold overseas.
Specifications and Design
The hull was all-welded steel armour, providing all-round protection from 7.62 mm armour-piercing rounds, hand grenades, claymore mines, airburst shell splinters, and extra protection in the frontal arc of the vehicle against 12.7 mm armour-piercing rounds (see the Feature Article on Ops Smokeshell where this limitation became a fatal flaw).
All models were powered by a six-cylinder direct injection turbocharged diesel engine. The gearbox was fully automatic, but could be operated manually if required by terrain. Suspension consisted of coil springs and large hydraulic shock-absorbers, and the three axles featured lockable differentials and longitudinal differential locks.
There was a similar body design for all models, with small variances in some measurements between models, and some turret differences.
The big differences between the types were in the turret configuration, main armament, and operational implementation. The 3-man crew consisted of Commander, driver and gunner. The 4-man crew added a rear AA gunner. All models, except for the Ratel-81 and Ratel-Log versions, had two-man turrets.
In addition, the fact that it was wheeled not tracked, made it an easy vehicle to deploy, as it could be driven to its destination, instead of being transported, as the tracked vehicles had to be. In the wide-ranging battles of the South African Bush War, this also meant that the Ratel was always fully operational.
The Ratel achieved an on-road range of 1000 km, and an off-road range of approx. 700 km from its 430 litre fuel tank, making it one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles of its type. This meant that the Ratel could deploy for some time without logistic support.
The 350mm ground clearance, superb off-road performance, and ease of field maintenance and repair of the Ratel made it a superior tactical vehicle, whether traversing rolling country-side, the soft sands of Namibia, or the dense bush of Southern Angola.
This was proven during Ops Moduler in August 1987, when SADF forces made a long-distance dash over poor or non-existent roads from Rundu in eastern Namibia to the Lomba River in southern Angola.
You will find an insightful assessment of ‘Ops Moduler’ at http://www.rhodesia.nl/modhoop.htm
“South African armour and infantry would appear to have fought with their usual verve – moving faster than the terrain would seem to allow, and delivering massive violence suddenly once in contact. Their ability to move rapidly, manoeuvre to gain the best relative position, and then to engage and destroy an enemy force in the extremely dense bush and, often, soft sand of south-eastern Angola is testimony to an exacting training system.” (Helmoed-Romer Heitman)
AN AMAZING VEHICLE
Defenceweb provides the following list of general capabilities
Can climb a 0.6m vertical step
Can cross a 1.1m wide trench
Can ford water 1.2m deep
Can climb a gradient of 60 degrees
Can traverse a gradient of 30 degrees (dynamic, loaded @ 10km/h)
Most versions of the Ratel carried two 7.62 mm ring-mounted machineguns for ground and air defence – one mounted on the turret/main hatch and the other on a rear roof hatch. The versions with a turret included a 7.62 mm coaxial MG mounted beside the main armament. Just the secondary armament alone represented a significant short-range firepower capability.The “fire belt” strategy was typically used – massed Ratels charging down on the target together, 20 mm cannons firing continuously at medium-range targets, accompanied by a blizzard of small arms fire at short range.
If one then adds in the main armament of a quick-firing 20 mm or 90 mm cannon, a 60 mm mortar or 12.7 mm cannon, and that Ratels moved together in groups, shrouded in dense smoke, the enemy were faced with a truly fearsome quick-moving weapon charging at them out of the bush.
The Ratel boasted an impressive range of primary and secondary armament, as well as the ability of the infantry section in the back being able to fire through ports in the side of the vehicle.
In a number of Ops, the SADF came up against Russian-built T55 and T62 tanks. The earlier models of Ratel were not effective against tanks, until the Ratel-90 came out. But even then, it was found that it took a group of Ratels firing multiple shots from the 90 mm cannon from close-range, to destroy a tank.
This experience led to the development in 1988 of the Ratel-ZT3. This was designed specifically to be a tank killer, and was armed with a roof-mounted missile pod that fired three Swift 127 mm laser-guided anti-tank missiles.
The ZT3 first saw service in 1987 during Ops Moduler, at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, when 10 enemy tanks were destroyed.
In order to preserve mobility and fuel-efficiency, a compromise on armour protection was reached in the design of the Ratel. The sides and back of the vehicle were given just enough armour to protect the troops inside against rifle fire, grenades and airburst shrapnel. Only the front of the vehicle was more heavily armoured, to withstand up to a 12.7 mm round. It was known that the enemy employed 12.7 mm AA guns in ground defence roles, and that the front of the vehicle would be most vulnerable as it approached the enemy positions.
Unfortunately, this compromise was to prove fatal during Ops Smokeshell.
A typical mechanised Infantry Company usually comprised 16 Ratels:
3 x platoons with four Ratel-20 infantry section vehicles each
2 x headquarters Ratel-20 vehicles
A mechanised Support Company usually comprised:
3 x Ratel-90 fire support vehicles
3 x Ratel-ZT3 anti-tank vehicles
6 x Ratel-81 mm Mortar vehicles
3 x Ystervark 20 mm AA vehicles
To demonstrate the devastating effect of massed Ratel movements during battle, during Ops Moduler in 1987, 61 Mechanised Battalion formed a Task Group which comprised:
Two infantry companies with Ratel-20s, an armoured car squadron with fourteen Ratel 90s, a mortar platoon with twelve 81mm Ratels, an anti-tank company with a mix of ATGW and Ratel-90 vehicles, as well as other attachments. (Wikipedia, ibid.)
Interesting Ratel Facts from 61 Mech website
• That as many as 7 foreign contenders were evaluated before the decision to proceed with Ratel?
• That Ratel’s next-to-immediate predecessor was “Buffel”? No, not the venerable Unimog-based Mine Protected Vehicle but a locally-developed 6×6 IFV!
• That Ratel’s “pa” is Ratel “SS”? No not “Schutzszstaffel” but “Sagte Staal”!
• That the “braai rooster” on each Ratel actually has another primary aim and was already in the TOTE during early series-production?
• That the first Ratel to be produced and the very last share exactly the same driveline – despite the number of variants produced and the wide variety of roles for which the vehicle has been used?
• That the Ratel evaluation covered virtually the whole of geographical South Africa and culminated in full destructive tests (including firing tests with 140mm and 88mm artillery, 20mm F1 cannon, petrol bombs, personnel and tank mines and others)? Although such tests may be the norm nowadays, getting permission in the 1970’s to destroy a new, complete and serviceable armoured vehicle wasn’t easy!
• That ex-SA Army Ratels are now in service with at least five other armies?
• That General (then Colonel) Jannie Geldenhuys was one of the original project officers on the SA Army’s “ICV” project?
• That Roland De Vries was the first (and only?) person ever to physically bend a Ratel?
• That Wessie van der Westhuisen and Tony Savides were the first to (inadvertently) demonstrate that Ratel is as amphibious as a brick?
Feature Article Sources: