April 07, 2021
Imagine entire platoons of infantry advancing on an enemy with rifles blasting, and then as one unified body, hunkering down onto the earth. Crackling thunder erupts from the platoon as each man fires his individual mortar, sending a cascade of explosives through the air, streaking toward their mark.
Such was the concept that emanated from the Red Army Chief Administrator of Artillery in 1938. Generals and senior NCOs were espousing a mantra, “Every Infantryman, himself a Mortarman.” On the eve of world warfare, artillery as the world knew it was about to be confounded by a military experiment that empowered the individual soldier’s capabilities beyond an entire Company of 19th century soldiers: The Spade Mortar would soon adorn the belt of many Russian soldiers, offering them—at least in theory—greater firepower than ever before.
Archival information on the development of the Russian Spade Mortar is a challenge to uncover, and the mortar itself is referred to by at least six different monikers: 37mm Mortar, Model 1938 Mortar, Model 1939 Mortar, Model 1941 37mm Mortar, Russian Spade Mortar, 37mm Mortar System Djakonova, 37mm Mortar-Shovel, and more. The official manual dated 1942 refers to it as “37mm Mortar.” For the sake of this article, it will be referred to it as the Spade Mortar.
The Spade Mortar concept seems to have arisen from M.G. Djakonov, who served as an officer beginning in 1916, and gained credit for a number of small arms innovations adopted in the designs of grenades, launchers, and small-caliber mortars. In the 1930s, there was a need to replace the Red Army’s Djakonova cup-type rifle-mounted grenade launcher. The Djakonova grenade launcher required two men to operate, the rifle could not fire bullets while the launcher was attached, and the unit and ammo were cumbersome.
Without a robust military budget, many of the Soviet innovations came forward only when senior officers took it upon themselves to foster conceptual hardware. There are indications that General N.N. Voronov was one of these proactive officers who had some part in propelling the Spade Mortar forward with the blessing of the Chief Administrator of Artillery. In 1938, a Soviet rifle regiment could never be sure what support they might expect with stretched resources. Enter the concept of small unit heavy weapons support, which was at the heart of designing the Spade Mortar.
Spade Mortars could be used to cover a range of 200 to 500 yards forward of advancing infantry. A table of organization on the mortar’s use has not been uncovered, although it can be expected that not every soldier would have been issued a mortar. The command apparatus fostered the concept of turning the entrenching tool into a dual-purpose device.
Between 1938 and 1939, the caliber for such a weapon was set at 37mm and the combat load of the rifleman carrying his Mosin-Nagant Rifle and the Spade Mortar increased by the weight of the mortar (3.4 lbs.), and 15 37mm mortar rounds weighing 1.1 pounds each.
On the Battlefield
Production of the Spade Mortar commenced in July of 1939. Russia had just come out of a horrifying few years of purges where 30,000 officers were sacked, imprisoned, and/or executed by Stalin. The Mortar was to be field tested in the snows of the Karelian Isthmus as the Russo-Finn War began in November 1939. While there were massive numbers of Red Army soldiers sent to fight with the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 14th Armies, there is scant information on how the Spade Mortar was employed although some details came out of experiences of the 85th Rifle Regiment from the 100th Rifle Division. In short, the Spade Mortar had a notable but lackluster effect on the Finnish front lines. Rounds were fired in lengthy volleys, but it was believed that the rounds sank too far into the mud and snow and thus reduced the effective shrapnel radius.
Contrary to fire and maneuver tactics, only one H.E. (high explosive) round was available at this time but smoke rounds to cover the infantry’s advance were not. The rounds themselves initially had a coating of grease or oil, which the soldiers had to wipe off before firing the round. In the Arctic cold, this was a challenge in combat. Other problems were a lack of training and sights on the mortar. Rounds falling in the snow didn’t leave much a signature to allow for adjusting of fire. The troops had to apply the Russian equivalent of Kentucky windage and guess at elevation. The Russian soldiers had a very difficult time during the Finnish operations of November thru January, in particular as a new wave of officers were sacked.
As the German juggernaut approached Russian borders, the Spade Mortar would engage a new enemy. Hundreds of thousands of rounds of H.E. ammunition had been stockpiled for the 37mm mortar. The mortar itself was distributed widely by 1941 and was used against the German Army through at least 1942.
As more powerful Mortars were fielded in calibers 50mm and greater, the Spade Mortar began to fall out of favor. During the 1942 Vyazma/Rzhev “meat grinder” operations conducted by the 4th Russian Airborne Corps, the Spade Mortar was employed and there was a concerted effort to move great numbers of the Spade Mortars into the hands of partisans behind enemy lines. Several other types of 37mm rounds were also issued including smoke rounds. A lighter 15-round canvas and leather bandolier was issued. Disposable fiber inserts were used to protect the base and fuse within the pouches. The German Army captured some the Spade Mortars in 1941 and as with all captured ordnance, designated it a singular name, 3.7cm Spatengrenatwerfer 161 (r).
After the Vyazma salient battles subsided, so too did the history of the Spade Mortar. It vanished from the front lines as quickly as a Stalinesque purge. However, the ammunition continued to serve—as mines and booby traps. The rounds were pressed into field service with several types of fuses, the most popular of which were the HUV/MD2 used with tripwires. It worked well and was designated the POMZ-37 mine. As was found with the round in use by the Spade Mortar, the POMZ-37 mine was effective in wounding the enemy, but not substantial enough to cause major damage to surrounding targets.
Reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the Spade Mortar from the standpoint of an observer with some field experience, I would impress upon the reader the fact that Russia brought this item to fruition is very commendable. Despite field reports, the item had great promise if only it had been developed a little further. For example, it needed a sight. Much like America’s M19 paratroop mortar of WWII, a clamp-on sight with a level and aperture would have helped, and an angle adjustment scale would have also got more rounds on target. Secondly, a well-vetted plan of use, outlining the employment of the device in field operations would be essential to success. Unfortunately, the Spade Mortar is relegated to a footnote in Russian infantry history.
Spade Mortar Specifications
Barrel: Smooth bore, 400mm
Weight: 3.3 pounds
Rate of Fire: 30 per minute
Weight of Rounds: 1.1 lbs.
Firing Rounds: 250 meters (maximum)
Minimum Safe Distance: 60 meters. This was perceived to be the magic number for keeping your own troops safe from shrapnel.
Deflection: The mortar tube can be deflected or moved right or left by about 12 degrees without moving the baseplate.
Emplacement: When afforded time, it was recommended that the soldier dig a small berm to place the baseplate at an angle of 30-45 degrees. This was optimum for sustained fire stability when stationary and not conducting static.
Editor’s note: While the Spade Mortar has been long out of production, Sarco, Inc., has made a limited number of faithful reproductions of the 37mm Russian Spade Mortar. The reproductions are spec’d off of a real unit that was found in a warehouse in Germany, and can be had with inert rounds, the 15-round bandolier and belt rig. The mortar in the lead photo is an actual Sarco unit. For more information, call 610-250-3960 or visit www.sarcoinc.com.