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 SAAF Museum - Cactus restoration

To many of the younger generation the word Cactus might merely be a reference to that thorny desert plant featured in American westerns. To many older folks, however, Cactus refers to something else

Cactus is the name given to the Crotale land mobile surface-to-air guided-weapon system that was in service with the South African Air Force between 1973 and 1992. The system was developed for South Africa in 1969 by two French firms: Thomson-CSF, which produced the vehicles and system, and Engins Matra, which developed the missiles. France paid 15% of the development costs, taking a version of the system Crotale into service for air-base defence. Several other countries purchased Crotale since then, and it has also seen further development into the Sahine, Sirocco and Crotale Navale systems.

The lightly armoured vehicles of the Cactus system are unusual in that they are powered by a diesel-electric system, each road wheel being driven by an electric motor. Steering, brakes and the three levelling jacks are hydraulically operated, and the vehicle can be raised to various heights to suit the terrain.

The Cactus system, together with the Hilda (Tigercat) mobile surface-to-air missile system, ZU-23-2 Anti-Aircraft Gun and 40 mm Bofor, formed an integral part of the Air Defence Artillery Group that was based at Ditholo for several years. The group consisted of 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129 and 130 Squadrons, with is own Citizen Force component. The Air Defence Artillery Group was disbanded in 1992, with only the remains of 120 Squadron, now operating the upgraded Cactus Container system, becoming a part of Air Command Control Unit at Snake Valley. 120 Squadron was finally disbanded in 2002.

Two Cactus vehicles - one acquisition unit and one firing unit - have been saved for posterity and are on display with the SAAF Museum. At the entrance to Mobile Deployment Wing two similar Cactus vehicles can be seen amongst the host of radar equipment on display as gate-guards.

Under the guidance of WO1 Theuns du Toit, a former 4 Air Depot Cactus mechanic, the Cactus acquisition unit stored at the Air Force Museum was recently started and run for the first time since 1992. A lot of work still lies ahead to restore the vehicle to its former glory, but he and his team are determined to have the Cactus in a basic working condition before the end of the year. Users of Swartkop airspace can rest assured, however, that only the basic vehicles remain in working order; the missile-firing and radar-acquisition components were removed and rendered safe when the vehicles were withdrawn from service years ago!
Members who would like to get involved in the restoration project or who might have information or photos of that era are welcome to contact the Research Officer, Capt Leon Steyn, at the Air Force Museum at 012 351 2282 or 2290

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