Britain’s Ugliest Cold War Vehicle Is Back… In Ukraine
The U.K. retired the Saxon armored taxi because it’s an obsolete death trap
To the soldiers who rode inside, it was the “armored bread van.” At least, that was one of its politer nicknames. More prosaically, it was the AT105 Saxon.
For much of the Cold War, the Saxon armored personnel carrier served as a troop taxi for the British Army. One of the most awkward-looking post-war fighting vehicles to enter service, the Saxon could conceivably have been a refugee from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
It’s not hard to see why—the Saxon was simply a steel troop-carrying hull bolted onto a truck chassis. The result is a boxy vehicle that looks like an armored pig.
But it’s an armored pig that once served a highly practical purpose. During the Cold War, the British Army based soldiers at permanent locations in West Germany. These troops would need rapid support from back home if Warsaw Pact formations ever rolled across the border.
The answer was the wheeled Saxon, which could quickly rush soldiers across Europe to the front lines.
Now the Saxon finds itself gearing up for battle once again. In December, Kiev’s state-owned defense conglomerate, Ukroboronprom, reported that it struck a deal to supply dozens of Saxon APCs to local “volunteer forces.”
The deal reportedly involves Witham Specialist Vehicles, a British company that describes itself as “specializing only in the sale and marketing of purely ex-Ministry of Defense vehicles, plant and equipment.”
The first shipment of 20 Saxons arrived at the Ukrainian port of Odessa around Feb. 11. Photos soon appeared on social media depicting the vehicles prepared for transport on flatbed trucks.
But these vehicles are also extremely vulnerable in modern combat.
Crude but practical
The Saxon derived from the four-ton Bedford MK, a four-wheel-drive truck and a standard British Army vehicle. Manufacturer Alvis—later GKN Sankey—took the truck and added an all-welded steel hull with accommodation for up to 10 troops.
Unlike an infantry fighting vehicle, the British Army didn’t expect the Saxon to fight its way out of trouble. But it was relatively cheap, and had a wheeled—as opposed to tracked—chassis. This meant it could make long journeys at speeds up to 60 miles per hour on roads.
Even better, the crew could use commercially available truck components in the event of a breakdown.
The Saxon evolved from two Alvis projects in the early 1970s. The company built the early AT100 and the AT104—an all-wheel drive counterpart—intended as tactical police vehicles.
Alvis developed the fully-revised AT105 armored personnel carrier in 1976. By the mid-1980s, Britain had sold them to Bahrain, Kuwait, Malaysia and Oman. The British Army ordered an initial batch of three Saxons for evaluation, and placed an order for 50 vehicles in 1983.
The next year, Whitehall began issuing the Saxon to infantry battalions based in the British homeland. Because the plan was to reinforce troops in Europe, the Army modified the Saxon to be a right-hand-drive vehicle.
At the time, the British Army had a requirement for as many as 1,000 Saxons. By the end of the Cold War, the U.K. deployed little more than half.
With the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the Saxon fast became an anachronism. The British Army made efforts to find alternative roles for the “troop taxi,” but with little success.
During the Troubles, British security forces adapted a number of vehicles for riot patrol, and added extendable “wings” that served as protective shields.
U.K. peacekeepers used Saxons as ambulances in the Balkans, but they were unpopular. There was only limited internal space for treating casualties, and the armored truck was bumpier on the road than tracked vehicles.
Peacekeeping operations in Bosnia saw the first serious attempt to arm the Saxon with weapons. Troops grafted a machine gun turret from an FV432 vehicle. The idea was to provide return fire—especially against snipers—should the Saxon get caught in the open.
The Saxon’s swan-song in British Army service came in Iraq. Crews suffered under the heat of the steel hull despite the addition of air conditioning. With little use left for them, the British left around 60 Saxons in Iraq. The Iraqi army picked them up and gave them to local police.
Not fit for fighting
The transfer of the “troop taxis” to Ukraine was front-page news in Britain. The timing was unfortunate for the British side.
As the U.N. Security Council prepared an emergency session to try and broker a ceasefire between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists, Washington reiterated the fact that Russia was still providing the separatists with heavy weapons. Now it looked as if London might be doing something similar.
The British Ministry of Defense was quick to respond that the Saxons are simple troop transporters and not intended for combat. Moreover, Witham inked the deal with Kiev in 2013, prior to the current conflict.
The ministry hasn’t confirmed the numbers of Saxons heading to Ukraine, but local reports give a figure of 75, with a per-unit cost of $50,000, including transportation.
As delivered, the APCs are unarmed. But to be sure, armored vehicles of any kind are useful to Ukrainian volunteer battalions, some of which have resorted to using unarmored civilian buses to move soldiers.
Ukroboronprom stated that it hopes to equip the vehicles with 0.5-inch machine guns and, if possible, grenade launchers. “It all depends on the assigned combat missions,” said Sergey Pinkas, the firm’s first deputy general director, told reporters.
Clearly, the Saxons’ new owners expect to deploy the vehicles into battle in the east of the country—where Russian-backed separatists continue to clash with Ukraine.
While British officials downplayed the arrival of the Saxons in Ukraine, Ukroboronprom has been busy testing whether the vehicles really can cope with the rigors of 21st-century warfare.
During trials at the Ukrainian national guard’s training center, defense council secretary Oleksandr Turchynov examined the pockmarked side of a Saxon hull after Ukrainian troops subjected it to small arms fire—and worse.
As built, the Saxon includes a degree of protection for its occupants, with areas above the wheels made of lightweight sheet steel, designed to blow away in the event of the vehicle running over a mine.
The all-welded steel hull can withstand small-arms fire, including armor-piercing rounds of 0.5 inches in size, and 155-millimeter shell splinters.
During the tests in Ukraine, the APC demonstrated an ability to withstand hits from the B-32, an armor-piercing 14.5 x 114-millimeter projectile in widespread service among post-Soviet armies.
But retired Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, the former chief of the British general staff, waded into the controversy—with a few choice words about just how useless the Saxon is.
“I took these [Saxons] out of service by the U.K. Army in 2005–06 as completely unsuitable for current operations, so I find it incredible that they are being sold/gifted to Ukraine,” he told the Telegraph. “I am incensed by the thought we are supplying, even via a third party, Saxon APCs to the hapless Ukrainians.”
“They are quite useless, semi-armored lorries that should be nowhere near anyone’s front line.”
Dannatt added that the decision to supply the vehicles “seems bizarre at best and downright dangerous at worst.”
Ironically, it’s likely the Saxons will supplement or eventually replace ad hoc “semi-armored lorries” that the Ukrainians have already adapted into troop transports.
The Ukrainian side makes no secret of the fact that they aim to throw the vehicles into the fray against the Russian-backed forces in the east of the country—as soon as they can.
However Ukraine’s Saxons fare in battle, it’s been an unexpected turn of events for an unloved armored vehicle, that until recently looked as if it would end as a footnote in Cold War history.