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A Brief History of the Marmon Herrington

Range of Armoured Cars


By Karl Furrutter - South Africa


Until the outbreak of World War 2, South Africa’s armoured capability consisted of 2 outdated Crossley armoured vehicles imported from England in February 1925. By 1939 certain key figures within South Africa, the most notable being Gen Smuts and Cabinet Minister Van der Byl, realised the need for such vehicles in the foreseeable war.


At first, attempts were made to purchase armoured vehicles from the United States and the United Kingdom. However the US designs, due to US isolationist policies, were incredibly inferior or lacking and English vehicles were not available due to Britain’s own war needs and preparations. They were also not suited to African conditions. As in the Great War, Africa was where the South African General Staff expected to be employed during the initial stages of this new conflict. 


Hence the decision was taken to develop and build a local vehicle suitable for African conditions and to be rugged and dependable. It was also to be supplied to the British or so read the initial design brief off July 1939. So was born the South African Reconnaissance Car. By the end of 1944, 5,746 cars had been built at Dorman Long in Germiston Johannesburg, 1,180 of which were supplied to British and other Commonwealth Forces as well as the Arab Legion.


The Mark 1 and 2 Models


The original design specifications outlined a car that was to incorporate a 134-inch chassis, light armament, to incorporate commercial truck components of such a type as familiar to His Majesty’s Forces and to be very quick to develop from design to operational status.  Ford was approached to provide a reinforced truck based V-8 engined rolling chassis, ISCOR to provide the armour plate and welding of the hull and Dorman Long to provide final assembly. So evolved a partnership to last the rest of the war.


The vehicle was completed in a record 28 days during Aug/Sept 1939, was of rear wheel drive configuration, had a combat weight of 6 tons, maximum speed of 80km/hour and a range of 320km.  Armament consisted of a single Vickers .303 machine gun. The vehicle was extensively tested over 1200 km in the Eastern Transvaal during November but flaws became quickly apparent, especially the durability of the suspension springs, cooling systems and armament/weapon performance.


These vehicles were principally employed in the East African Campaigns of Italian Somalia, Abyssinia and the invasion and capture of Vichy held Madagascar.  The vehicle was unpopular with its crews as they continued to be hampered by the original failings and had no more off road capabilities than the truck on which it was based. Crews also found the main armament largely ineffectual and often mounted captured Italian Bredas or other salvaged weapons to improve firepower, sometimes removing the turret to achieve this. This practise was to continue throughout the production run of all 5 operational marks.


The very similar MK2 tried to rectify some of these failings but was largely unsuccessful. Production of both Marks continued until May of 1941 with 113 vehicles produced.

The Mark 3 Model

The Mark 3 was an advanced redesign and facelift aimed at addressing the inadequacies of the earlier cars. Attention was focused on all the original design gremlins as well as chassis flexibility, which had been revealed on the difficult terrain of Italian East Africa. The biggest failing to date had been the absence of 4x4 capability and this had to be addressed as a priority particularly if these cars were to play a significant role in the new theatre of operations-North Africa.


Marmon Herrington of Indianapolis USA was approached to provide the off road drive trains as they already had a very close working relationship with Ford, which they provided with all wheel drive conversions for their commercial vehicles in the US and Canada. They even had offered a 4x4 version of the 1940 sedan as a staff car to potential South American customers. Therefore they were a natural choice and thus became the fourth partner in the South African Reconnaissance Car story. The application of their 4x4 drive trains were so successful that the cars were dubbed Marmon Herringtons by the troops to distinguish them from the earlier rear wheel drive cars. The tag stuck and the cars have become immortalised as MH cars.


These cars had increased armour plating thickness to counter the German Armour soon to be met in the Desert, mechanical improvements to cope with Desert conditions and a heavier 13.9 mm Boys Anti Tank Rifle in a redesigned turret as main armament. Secondary armament consisted of the proven .303 Vickers Machine gun in a co-axial mount.  However ‘the boys up North” as the South African troops were referred to at home continued to upgrade the main armament with captured weapons; the German 20mm gun being a favourite. Incidentally this car and it’s replacement were much favoured by the Deutsche Afrika Korps as a “turned capture” used against it’s former owners. Rommel made much use of captured vehicles and ordinance as his supply line was stretched or destroyed later in the campaign. Incidentally, the DAK also highly prized captured stores of South African Army boots!!!


The vehicle had a combat weight of 5450 kg or 5.4 tonnes, top speed of 80 km/hour and range of 320 km. The vehicle was used many times in the absence of Allied tanks, until the Sherman became widely available to British and Commonwealth troops. This model as well as the Mark 4 was issued in large numbers to the Arab Legion.  Incidentally these vehicles were used by the Arab States during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which saw the creation of the State of Israel and some as even late as the 1956 war.


Production ran from May of 1941 to August of 1942.


The Mark 4 and 5 Models


These were the most successful of all the marks and were produced in the most numbers. These vehicles were employed by the old South African Union Defence Force and after1962, by the newly created South African Defence Force until the early 1970’s when most were sold as scrap or became gate guards. There are still many derelicts to be found in South Africa.  I have recently seen one advertised for the equivalent of US$2000.


These cars were a total redesign dispensing with the truck chassis and now incorporating a monocoque reinforced chassis of South African design. The engine was still a Ford flathead V-8 and the gearbox and the final drive still built by MH. However, the engine had now been relocated to rear of vehicle. The vehicle did not resemble any of it’s forbearers in appearance and for the first time mounted an adequate main armament in the form of a 2 Pounder; and in instances where available a 4 Pounder as standard. Secondary armament was now changed from the Vickers .303 to a Browning .30 cal. due to the Browning being a new, more numerous and far superior weapon to the Vickers.  In fact, so many more Browning .30 cal mg's were being made available to British and Commonwealth Forces that it had also been adopted as their standard heavy HMG as well.  In instances where production outstripped supply of 2 and 4 pounders a .50 cal Browning would then be mounted as main armament.


These cars won themselves a legendary reputation during the latter part of the Desert War and during the Italian Campaign, which was the only European Theatre that the South African Union Defence Force was actively involved.  The vehicle had a combat weight of 6755 kg or 6.7 tonnes, making it the heaviest MH in operation. Top speed was now 84 km/hour and range 350 km. Production ran from July 1942 until April of 1944, which saw 2116 units produced.


The Mark 6 Prototype


During the later part of 1942, as part of an on going improvement of this type of car, thought was now given to the replacement for the Mark 4 and 5 range of car. During the North African Campaign, the South African troops had been in awe of the range of 8 wheeled German Armoured Cars known as the SdKfz 231. The South Africans thought these vehicles were well suited to the desert warfare and that their 20 mm guns were also ‘bakgat” (South African slang for Excellent) armament. Thus a range of armoured cars was designed around this concept.  Initial design of the 8x8 wheel drive vehicle began in late 1941 with a prototype built and testing occurring by January of 1943. They were to be designated Mark 5 or 6 depending on configuration.


These cars where to be powered by the higher output (95hp) Mercury V-8 of which 2 were located in tandem in the rear of the vehicle. The purpose of two engines was increased power as each motor was to power two sets of wheels. The car was also to have 4 wheel steering, the first and last set of wheels being steerable. Armament was now to consist of 2, 4 or 6 Pounder main armaments and .30 cal Brownings as secondary armament. Provision was also made for x2 Browning .30 Cals to be mounted atop the turret. Armour was increased to 40 mm plates. The weight was 11,185 kg, speed 65km/hour and range 400km. Britain placed an order for 250 vehicles, which was to be a financial boost to South African war efforts. Two prototypes where built and tested in SA and the UK but severe reliability problems were encountered, centred particularly on getting the two V-8’s to work reliably in tandem and also with the 4 wheel steering mechanism.


By this point the Desert Campaign was winding down and the British, as well as senior South African military experts believed that there would not be a need for armoured vehicles in Italy because of the mountainous terrain of the countryside. This resulted in a September 1943 cancellation of the British order that the South Africans were relying on. The Union Defence Force followed suit and the project was mothballed and finally abandoned in late 1945. Only in the 1970’s would the idea be resurrected in SA, and developed into the highly successful RATEL range of fighting vehicle.


Both prototypes exist. One prototype was equipped with a 2 Pounder and sent to Britain for battle testing and evaluation. This vehicle now is preserved at the Bovington Tank Museum. The South African retained vehicle which has a 6 Pounder as main armament, was restored to operational status between 2002-2005 and now resides in the National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.


Copyright: Karl Furrutter - June 2006