In preceding articles we have seen how Otokar produced armoured Land Rovers but the Turkish company also made both military and civilian Defender Ambulances, writes Bob Morrison.
The Turkish manufacturer of buses and military vehicles, formerly Otobus Karoseri Sanayi A.Ş. and now Otokar Otomotiv ve Savunma Sanayi A.Ş. but usually just called Otokar, licence-produced coil sprung Land Rovers from the late 1980s until shortly before Jaguar Land Rover took the original Defender out of production in 2016.
Although Otokar used CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits of parts, including engines and drive trains as well as body components, produced and packed by Land Rover in Solihull to assemble their Defender 110 and Defender 130 softskin vehicles the company manufactured their own chassis and wheels to meet national regulations on including local content. In due course high quality strengthened Otokar chassis would be brought back to the UK to upgrade UK Forces CAV (Composite Armoured Vehicle) and WMIK (Weapons Mount Installation Kit) Land Rovers. Also, with Turkey having one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Otokar was nicely positioned to service Middle East and Muslim markets which might have proved a little problematic for Land Rover so both companies benefited from the partnership.
After visiting Otokar’s original factory in Istanbul, on the European side of the Bosporus, in 1992 and borrowing a Defender 110 Station Wagon to allow me to cover a major multinational AMF(L) or ACE Mobile Force (Land) exercise in Thrace, the company provided me with some duplicate slides of the various models they were producing at the time and in my archive I still have a scan of one these showing two Ministry of Health Defender ambulances. These were single stretcher civilian versions of the 110 with sufficient storage to also be used as a dispensary and mobile treatment centres capable of operating over rough roads and tracks to isolated villages. Those who have visited Turkey and ventured away from the overcrowded major cities or the tourist trap coastal areas will be aware that much of this vast and often beautiful country, spanning two continents, is both rural in nature and often remote.
Early in 2005, a couple of years after the invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein and his regime, the US Government issued international tender requirements for a fleet of ambulances to re-equip the armed forces of the fledgling Iraqi Government. Otokar secured the initial contract for in excess of three hundred units, based on both price and delivery, despite heavy competition including from Land Rover themselves. The initial tender stated that a small batch of production specification trials vehicles had to be delivered within a few weeks of the order, with the balance following on by the end of the summer, but it was soon decided that the initial quantity was too low and a second batch was commissioned bringing the total supplied up to nearly four hundred.
While in Iraq working with the US Army in late 2005 our man Carl Schulze chanced upon a contingent of these new Otokar-badged Iraqi Defender ambulances, which had been booked into the equipment distribution point at Camp Cooke near Taji prior to delivery to their new owners along Main Supply Route Tampa. The unit tasked with moving the ambulances, what the Americans call line-haul, through bandit country to their final destination was Gators Company of the 3rd Forward Support Battalion, which performed the same sort of duties that Britain’s Royal Logistic Corps tackles. Carl was embedded with the battalion’s parent unit and covered the perilous journey in one of their armoured trucks.
Of course these Otokar ambulances were perfectly capable of being driven between Camp Cooke and Camp O’Ryan, their final destination under US escort, but as MSR Tampa was a major communications artery on which military vehicles were regularly targeted by Improvised Explosive Devices the Americans chose to transport the unprotected ambulances rather than drive them. Even Red Crescent markings on the side of ambulances were little guarantee of safe passage through certain parts of Iraq, and especially on main roads used regularly by the Americans. Consequently, in addition to being transported on or on trailers behind trucks with armoured cabs, the Land Rovers were also escorted by armed Hum-vees. Fortunately, only one IED was discovered on the route, and this was swiftly dealt with by the accompanying bomb disposal team.
The ambulances supplied to the Americans by Otokar for distribution to the Iraqi security forces were two-stretcher Defender 110 versions with over-cab body, of the style first introduced around the start of the 1990s. However, they did not have the right side window as found on the side of the standard NATO codified 4-stretcher version. The louvres above the windscreen, plus the two circular grilles in the roof above, were an indication that the vehicles had the air-conditioning necessary for operations in Iraq in summer. They also had raised air intakes to reduce dust ingression by the 300Tdi engines. On their roofs were two large inverted bucket style blue lights plus a circular ventilator for the rear compartment. The body colour was matt NATO green and Red Crescent markings were applied to all four sides, and no doubt on the roof as well. Incidentally, Otokar also produce a Defender 130 ambulance, but it has a separate rectangular rear body, rather than the curved front roof over the cab found on the 110.
Internally, the casualty compartment of the Iraqi vehicles was rigged with a simple flip-down stretcher rack on each side. When the racks were raised, there was room for up to eight seated wounded, plus an attendant on a central rear-facing seat, but six casualties would be a more reasonable load. There was an oxygen bottle stored vertically at the head of each stretcher, plus drop down stowage locker flaps below the seats. Stretcher stowage, when not in use, appeared to be by way of internal roof-mounted straps. The rear doors, which each had a very large rectangular window, were full-width and opened through 270 degrees. The rear step then dropped on a wheel well width tailgate to give access. The bulkhead was not walk-through, but there was a small sliding communicating window connecting cab and casualty compartment.
The three images of ambulances outside the Otokar factory were supplied by Global Government & Military Sales at Land Rover, the civilian 110 ambulance shot was provided to me by Otokar in the early1990s, and the operational photographs were taken by Carl. Finally, the Otokar Defender ambulance with the bomb disposal robot in the foreground belonged to the Albanian EOD team deployed on the NATO eFP (enhanced Forward Presence) mission in Latvia in 2017.