Vicker’s on the Border: South African National Defense Force Use Of The Grand Old Lady During The 1980’s

By Adam Geibel

For most of the twentieth Century, the African continent has been a repository of obsolete weapons that would make any collector salivate. However, most of these antiques served with various armed forces and, six decades after World War One ended, the Vicker’s watercooled machinegun was still burning .303 in anger.

The South African Defense Force (SADF) had been equipped with these machineguns during both World Wars and retained them in their armories up until the 1963 United Nations Voluntary Arms Embargo. With increasing guerilla activity by the African National Congress, replacing the Vicker’s became less likely with each passing year.

During ‘Operation Savannah’ (as the SADF called the Angolan Civil War of 1975-76) the Vicker’s was still front-line issue for SADF units but afterwards became reserved for Citizen Force static defense up on the border (such as the South African Coloured Corps base on the Eerste River).

According to Wayne Coetzee, a member of the 1 Parachute Battalion pathfinders attached to CSI (chief of Staff Intelligence) during the mid-80’s and a veteran of Operation ‘Modular’, the range and firepower of the old machineguns impressed his comrades too much to leave them behind at base.

The pathfinders mounted six Vickers on a Blesbok (An open-back utility version of the Casspir four-wheeled Mine Protected Personnel Carrier), three on each side. At first there were a few raised eyebrows and muffled chuckles when the idea was mentioned, but after seeing their potential the South African soldiers were soon fighting for a chance to man the guns. Eventually, the two-man Blesbok crew took over as the Vicker’s ‘gunners’. Though they were still supplemented with other troops when the need arose.

One of them, Sgt. Sterzel, used the machineguns to excellent effect during a contact of 6 Sept ’86, where 15 of Paras took on an estimated 350 FAPLAs (Angola Communist troops) according to the FAPLA Colonel they later captured. The Sergeant kept on firing even after the Blesbok took a direct hit from an RPG, with shrapnel flying up to hit him in the chest.

The Vicker’s were used to support the .50 Brownings mounted on the Casspirs, their amazing range making them very effective when FAPLA units moved into the open while attempting river crossings, etc. The only drawback was that the combination was heavy, and the Blesbock got stuck in soft sand a few times.

For long range fire, none of the complicated indirect fire sights were used and the only sighting aids were the Pathfinder’s binoculars. In some circumstances, the Vicker’s would be fired into an area where FAPLA units were hiding while the ‘Ground Shout’ Casspir ( a wheeled armored personnel carrier with a public address system) broadcast psychological warfare messages. The Pathfinders were later told that this produced the desired results.

As late as 1988, there were instructional posters for the Vickers (and the Bren) hanging in the SADF Armorer’s workshop in Grahamstown.

NOTE: Around or shortly after Operation ‘Savannah’, South African Vickers (as well as Bren guns) were converted to 7.62mm NATO. Apparently, this was a gradual process which allowed those weapons remaining in .303 to consume the dwindling stocks of .303.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)
and was posted online on February 24, 2017


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