The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 6 - December 2015


By Richard Henry
Ditsong National Museum of Military History

*These command offices-on-wheels typically resembled armoured buses built onto truck chassis. Developed by the British, examples captured by the Germans in the North African Campaign (1940-1943) were readily adopted and re-used, nicknamed 'Mammoths' owing to their large size. During the Italian Campaign (1943-1945), the 6th South African Armoured Division used three of these vehicles.

Early development

The first Armoured Command Vehicle (ACV) came into British service in 1927. This was a Vickers Medium tank with a square superstructure in place of the turret. In 1934 experimental wheeled Leyland and Morris ACVs were tested. In 1937 up to fifteen were manufactured but there was a need for a four-wheel drive and a more substantial chassis. In 1940, Guy Motors produced 21 ACVs on a 4x4 Lizard chassis with a 5-cylinder Gardner diesel engine. These were allocated the British War Department (WD) numbers L 4144684 to L 4144688, L 4144690 and L 4144693 to L 4144707. Most of these Guy manufactured ACVs were used in training the four British armoured divisions at home in 1940/41. Some of these ACVs went to North Africa with the one British armoured division, where one was captured by the Italian forces. Vehicle returns from the Middle East reveal that there were only six ACVs (of all kinds) in the Western Desert in May 1941. Guy also built three ACVs on an AEC Matador chassis with the WD numbers L 4144689, L 4144691 and L 4144692 on contract number B 6164, dated 2 July 1941. Guy Motors later relinquished the production of armoured vehicles in favour of trucks and AEC became the main manufacturer of Armoured Command Vehicles.

The Associated Equipment Company Ltd (AEC) of Southall, near London, England used their model 0853 'Matador' Tractor chassis and drive train for the comparatively large, spacious and comfortable Armoured Command Vehicle, 4x4, named the 'Dorchester' after the very affluent London hotel of that name.

The crew

The armoured bodies were manufactured by the Birtley Ordnance Factory at Birtley, near Newcastle-upon- Tyne, in County Durham, England, as well as Weymann Motor Bodies Ltd of Addlestone, Surrey. The bodies were bulky boxes with a maximum armour thickness of 12mm. When mounted on the AEC chassis the dimensions of the vehicle were 240 x 93 x 114 inches (6.1 x 2.36 x 2.9 m). Access was by two front doors to the cab and one to the rear of the command/signal area. The crew of the ACV was seven, later increased to eight. A driver and co-driver were seated in the forward cab while the other five or six personnel were behind the full height bulkhead separating the 'office area' from the cab. Here were two swivel chairs for the two most senior officers, while the mid chair at the forward desk was for the signal/operations officer. The other two or three crew were normally signal/operations/intelligence NCOs or clerks. Also in the 'office area' were tables, map boards, battery cupboards, storage cupboards, two wireless sets - one on each side - field telephones, cipher machines, paper, pens and other office necessities. At the rear was the important battery-charging unit.

Communication equipment

At first, the large medium range Roust No 9 set, introduced in 1939 and with a maximum range of 35 miles (56km) was used for communication with higher headquarters. The portable, low power, No 11 set introduced in 1938 with a range of 20 miles (32km) was used for local communication. By the end of 1941, the well-known N019 set started to come into British service and was used until the end of the Second World War.

There were two basic types of bodies for the ACV: the High Power, with one No 19 wireless set and a powerful R 107 High Frequency reception set; and the Low Power body, which had two No 19 wireless sets. Although the interior of the ACV was spacious, it was not large enough to house the No 33 Medium Range 250 watt output set with a maximum range of 80 miles (130km) as well as the other equipment required, so commanders had to be content with the No 19 set with a maximum output of 30 watt and maximum range of 45 miles (72km) for communications with higher commands.

The order from AEC

The earliest War Department contract signed with AEC, number T 9291 of April 1940, was for 137 vehicles. At this time there was a requirement for an Armoured Mine Layer (AML), an Armoured Demolition Vehicle (ADV), an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) as well as the Armoured Command Vehicle (ACV). The bodies were to be supplied by Weymann Motor Bodies and the drive and mechanical components by AEC, on the Matador 0853 chassis, each costing 1 576 and 15 shillings. The body of the AML was priced at 657, the ADV at 540 and the APC and ACV at 625 each. By August 1941 an Armoured Mine Layer was no longer required and Weymanns were asked to convert 30 AMLs to ACVs. Another 30 were to be converted in September 1941. About 415 of all types were ordered from AEC. Most of these were made as, or later converted to, Armoured Command Vehicles.

Rommel's 'Mammoths'

The Armoured Command Vehicle was popular with armoured and other formation commanders. The Germans generally used only the best of British equipment they captured. The Afrika Korps did not have a comparable vehicle and were delighted to use AEC Command Vehicles captured from the British, such as when they marched on the village of EI Mechili on their advance to Tobruk on 8 April 1941 , to find Lt-Gen Sir Richard O'Connor's AEC Armoured Command Vehicle lying abandoned but undamaged and intact after he and General Neame had lost their way in their staff car two nights before and were captured by a German reconnaissance group as they were driving north from EI Mechili towards Derna. With the capture of Major-General Michael Gambier-Perry, the commander of the 2nd Armoured Division on 8 April along with his Armoured Command Vehicle, the German commander Erwin Rommel had three captured British generals and their three large command vehicles. On inspection of the vehicles he recognised their potential as command vehicles. He also found a pair of sun-and-sand glasses in the one of the vehicles. Taking a liking to the glasses, he smiled and said: 'Booty permissible, I take it, even for a General' (Douglas-Home, 1973, p 90). These glasses stayed with Rommel from then on until the end of the North African Campaign and became an inseparable part of Rommel's 'Desert Fox' image. Rommel allocated one of the command vehicles to Lt-Gen Streich of the 5th Light Division and kept two for his headquarters staff. They quickly christened the command vehicles as 'Mammoths' and gave them the names 'Max' and 'Moritz'. German crosses were painted on the vehicles and used for the next two years.

Amongst Rommel's staff, Colonel von dem Brocke, Major Ehlert, Major Otto, Lieutenant Himmler, Lieutenant Behrend and the signals officers would have used the Mammoths most often, on a daily basis. The other members of his staff would have used the command vehicles when necessary.

For some time, Rommel used his Mammoth for visiting the front lines around EI Adem and Tobruk and for following his tanks so he was more able to control the battle. The Mammoth afforded protection against shrapnel and numerous British fighter planes strafing his forces and vehicles. Rommel often sat on the roof of the Mammotn as it made an excellent observation tower. When seated he had his legs dangling over the open doorway. On these visits lasting from early morning to late at night, Rommel often took over the driving from his exhausted driver at night as the General had an inborn sense of direction and could navigate by the stars.

En route back from Bardia on 19 April 1941 , Rommel and his HQ staff in the Mammoth were twice attacked by British ground attack aircraft. Corporal Eggert, driving the crosscountry vehicle, received 25 hits and was killed as was Rommel's despatch rider, Kanthak. The driver of the Mammoth was wounded in the chest which entered through the driver's side visor and narrowly missed Rommel's head and splashed against the inner bulkhead. Several vehicles were hit and the wireless van had to be abandoned. One tyre on the Mammoth was damaged and had to be repaired by Lieutenant Schmidt. Rommel took over the driving of the Mammoth and headed for his HQ driving by the stars in the pitch-black night, reaching the HQ early the following morning.

On a lighter note, the inside of the Mammoth used by Lt-Gen Streich had a Knight's Cross made of cardboard but, in place of the central swastika, was a large fly. This cardboard Knight's Cross was awarded to one of Streich's staff who had 'shot down' the largest number of Irritating flies during the day. A few weeks later Streich was relieved of his command.

In August 1941, General Cruewell took command of the Afrika Korps. Most of Rommel's staff, except his ADC, Lieutenant Schmidt, clerk Corporal Bottcher and his batman L/Cpl Guenther were transferred to General Cruewell who was allocated one of the Mammoths. Rommel became commander of Panzergruppe Afrika with a new staff headed by Lt-Gen Gause as his Chief of Staff. In November 1941, Cruewell and his staff were suddenly surrounded by British Crusader tanks. The German crosses of the Mammoth were faded and all hatches were shut. One of the tank commanders knocked on the armour plate and was astonished to see a German general looking back at him. Luckily for Cruewell, at that moment a German 2cm Flak gun opened fire on the dismounted tank men who quickly mounted their tanks and roared off. Presumably, the Crusader tanks had no ammunition.

On 24 November, after visiting 21st Panzer Division and returning to Sidi Omar, Rommel's one and only vehicle broke down with engine trouble. By chance Cruewell and his battle staff came past and gave Rommel, Gause and Lt Schmidt a lift. The Mammoth, now carrying all the most senior officers of the Panzergruppe could not find a gap through the barbed wire fences and it was impossible to drive through them. 7 Rommel grew impatient and drove the Mammoth himself but even with his legendary sense of direction, he could not find a gap in the wire. They were now driving in a British held area with Indian despatch riders buzzing to and fro past the Mammoth. Later British tanks and trucks drove past, not knowing that three German generals were just metres away. The ten officers and five men in the Mammoth spent a restless night. The following day, with Rommel still driving, they stumbled into a New Zealand hospital, later crossed a British air strip and were chased several times by British vehicles but managed to evade capture.

In South African use

The 6th South African Armoured Division (6th Div[SA]) was formed in February 1943 in South Africa under the command of Maj-Gen W H E Poole. It went 'Up North' to Egypt where training in all aspects of armoured warfare such as gunnery, maintenance, driving, signals and infantry work was completed. Slowly the Division became well equipped with all types of equipment and vehicles, such as motorcycles, cars, trucks, scout cars and tanks. The equipping of 6th Div was mostly complete by the end of January 1944. The order of battle called for twelve Armoured Command Vehicles, plus one spare. These were to be allocated as follows: ACV1 to 'G' Command, ACV2 to 'I' Command, ACV3 to Ciphers, ACV4 to Signals (lateral command), ACV5 to the Commander, Royal Artillery, ACV6 to the Deputy Assistant Quarter Master General, A VC7 to the Staff Captain 'Q' Services Corps, ACV8 to the Commander, 'Q' Services Corps, ACV9 to Administration, ACV10 to the Commander, Royal Engineers, ACV11 to Divisional Mechanical Engineers, and ACV12 to 'Q' Services link to Corps. Not unexpectedly, 6th Div(SA) was not allocated thirteen ACVs. The Division had to be content with three AEC, 4x4 Armoured Command Vehicles built on the Matador 0853 chassis and powered by the AEC, A187, 7580 cc, 95 bhp (71 Kw) engine. They were driven and maintained by signals personnel who had wireless sets fitted for forward, lateral and rear communications. Field telephones were also installed for use when the vehicles were static.

Operations/command staff vehicle ACV1

ACV1 had the War Department (WD) Registration NQ F 89182. This vehicle was ordered on contract VM 11373 signed in 1942 for 210 vehicles. It was the operations/ command staff vehicle and was manned 24 hours a day by the 'G' duty officer and crew. Colonel E O'C Maggs was General Poole's GSO(1), effectively Chief of Staff and in charge of ACV1. The officers making up the staff of ACV1 were Colonel Maggs, Major I Moore and Captains H Wade, R Waklin, A McAllister, W Osler and R Barron. Other NCOs, clerks, signallers and drivers completed the crew.

Many of the command orders and conferences of senior personnel took place in General Poole's command caravan, called the 'Gin Palace'. General Poole used a Crusader tank as his personal command vehicle during training in Egypt. From January 1944 until about November 1944 General Poole used a converted M3 Grant Mk1 tank with the sponson main gun removed and a dummy 75mm gun fitted to the turret. At a distance this resembled a standard Sherman tank, so as not to draw attention to his Tactical HQ command tank. After 6th Div was re-equipped with new 76mm, 105mm Shermans and some Sherman Fireflies, he used a converted Sherman as his personal Tactical HQ tank.

Intelligence Command vehicle ACV2

ACV2 had the Registration NQ L 4426507 and was initially built as an Armoured Demolition Vehicle but modified to an ACV late in 1941. This was allocated as the intelligence command vehicle commanded by Major R Leslie and also carried, amongst others, Captain C Wright as the 'I' Officer and Captain H Betzler as the divisional POW Interrogation Officer. In Italy, the staff of this vehicle discovered the operations room and maps of Field-Marshal Kesselring's headquarters on the slopes of Monte Soratte, 35 km north of Rome. In the operations room dug into the mountain, 'I' staff found a map showing the German positions in the Gothic Line which stretched across Italy from Rimini to Pisa and another map showing the axes of retreat of the German divisions. Kesselring's Army Group Headquarters sign was also captured and adorned ACV2 for the rest of the Italian campaign. This sign was donated to the Museum by Captain Herbie Wade in 1989 (Acq 25489).

Artillery Command Vehicle, ACV7

The third Armoured Command Vehicle, ACV7, carried the WD registration NQ L 4426445. As 6th Div's artillery commander, Brigadier J N Bierman and his staff was the crew of this vehicle.

The Italian Campaign

The 6th Div ACVs were shipped from Alexandria, Egypt in the middle of April 1944 and landed at Bari in Italy on or about 20 April. The tanks and heavy vehicles landed at Bari while personnel disembarked at Taranto. The three ACVs travelled with the South African division northwards up Italy. The only known incident took place on about 5 June near Colonna, about 25km south-east of the centre of Rome, when ACV1 overturned and Major Ian Moore was injured and the wireless sets damaged. The command vehicles followed the fighting formations and after the surrender of German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945, took part in the victory parade at the Monza racetrack on 14 May 1945. All the 6th Div vehicles were paraded before General Poole and American General Mark Clark, commander of the United States 5th Army. After the parade all vehicles but a few scout cars and M3 Stuart tanks were handed into the 6th Armoured Division Vehicle Park at Monza. Later all the vehicles were railed to Genoa to the new vehicle park to await shipping to the Union of South Africa.

The vehicles were listed, weighed, measured and prepared for shipping. ACV2 - Registration L 4426507 and ACV7 - Registration L4426445 were loaded on board the SS Samnesse on Tuesday, May 21, 1946 for shipping to Durban, South Africa. ACV1 was loaded under command of Lt Hughes on the SS Ocean Stranger at the end of July 1946 and left Genoa for Durban on Sunday, 28 July.

Where are they now?

The fate of the thee ACVs is not known after their arrival in South Africa, but a Defence Force document dated about July 1958 lists 4x4 AEC Command Vehicles and AEC 4x4 Armoured Signal Office vehicles as being on South African Defence Force strength. Also in the Archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History is a first edition handbook (March 1945) for the AEC 6x6 Mk 1 High Power and Low Power Armoured Command Vehicles. Does this indicate that South Africa also used the later 6x6 AEC Armoured Command Vehicle? To date, the writer has found no evidence of the use of this vehicle in South Africa.

Associated Equipment Company, Maintenance Manual and Instruction Book for Tractor 4x4 Medium AEC Matador Model 0853 (HMSO, London, 1944).
Blake, A, W/T Layout: HQ 6 SA Armd Div (UDF, Feb 1944, unpublished).
Douglas-Home, C, Rommel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1973).
Fletcher, D, 'British Armoured Command Vehicles' in Wheels and Tracks No 47.
Foss, C, The Encyclopaedia of tanks and Armoured Fighting Vehicles (Spelmount, Stapelhurst, 2002).
Istituto Geograficao, AA Road Atlas of Italy.
Jackson, W G, The North African Campaign 1940-1943 (BT Batford, London, 1975).
Joslen, H F, Lt Col, The North African Campaign 1940-1943 (HMSO, London, 1990).
Liddel-Hart, BH (ed) The Rommel Papers (Collins, London, 1953).
Nalder, R F H, Maj-Gen, The History of British Army Signals in the Second World War (Royal Signal Institution, London, 1953).
Orpen, N, Victory in Italy (Purnell, Cape Town, 1975).
South African Defence Force document, 'B Vehicles List' (1958, unpublished).
Vanderveen, B, Historic Military Vehicles Directory (After the Battle, London, 1989).
War Department, Chilwell, Handbook for the ACV HP & LP (AEC) 6x6 Mk 1 (HMSO, 1945).

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