The portable mortar: Ersatz firepower for Russia’s artillerymen
“This artillery surrogate does not merit particular attention,” was the Russian General Staff’s 1913 assessment of the new weapon devised by Tsarist Army officers eight years earlier and first tested in combat against the Japanese during the siege of Port Arthur (now Lüshunkou in north-eastern China).
Neither field guns nor earlier giant, non-portable mortars had much in common with this new design of cannon. Consisting of an iron tube mounted on a wooden platform, instead of conventional shells it fired mines fitted with fins, at an angle of 45-65 degrees.
However, because the weapon’s mounting proved to be unstable during testing and its accuracy was questionable, the Tsar’s military chiefs decided to shelve the mine thrower.
On the eve of the First World War, no one could have guessed that this weapon so summarily rejected by the General Staff would become one of the most widely used armaments of the 20th Century.
Today, mortars are in service in regular armies and guerrilla forces, and while known by numerous names in different languages, their deadly firepower is undisputed. Few people, however, are aware that this weapon originated in Russia.
As was the case with many Russian innovations, the mortar was devised as a result of extreme circumstances. In 1904, Russia entered a war with Japan, but fighting brought mixed success. By the summer of 1904, the Russian Fleet’s main base in the Pacific, Port Arthur, was encircled and besieged by the Japanese.
While the city was protected by a powerful garrison, its strength did not prove decisive in the defense of the fortress, which was located in mountainous surroundings. Port Arthur was armed with direct fire heavy weapons, but their effectiveness was severely reduced in closed or restricted firing positions.
The situation was addressed with some good old Russian knowhow: Obsolete bronze weapons were converted into portable mini-mortars, their barrels reinforced and mounted on wooden platforms to project mines rather than shells. The defenders of the fortress also used mine-throwing devices removed from warships, and, by using modified combinations of this equipment, a group of naval and army officers under the command of Captain Leonid Gobyato built the prototype of the modern mortar.
The maiden barrages produced devastating results as eight of the weapons systematically destroyed the Japanese field fortifications.
“As soon as we saw that the Japanese were digging a trench we would launched a few mines and force them to abandon the work,” Gobyato later recalled.
It was from the use of mines as ammunition for the captain’s weapon that its name minomet, or mine-thrower, was derived.
Even though Port Arthur eventually fell to the Japanese, the experience of its defense had not been in vain. From 1905 to 1914, Gobyato worked at getting the weapon mass-produced, but his efforts only plodded along until the First World War.
The Russian imperial military bureaucracy still lived in the era of cannons and giant cumbersome mortars, and it was only after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe that the generals were forced to return to the idea of the portable mortar. The specifics of trench warfare once again demonstrated that infantry could not operate without moveable armaments.
Consequently, Capt. Gobyato’s experience in this area was hastily revived, and mortars were put into crude mass production. The most widely used design, deployed by 1917, was the mortar of Captain Yevgeny Likhonin, which fired shells weighing 16, 28 and 36 kilos.
But mortars did not enable the Russian Empire to win this trench war, and they were rarely used in the more mobile Civil War.
Only on the eve of the Second World War did a group of Soviet engineers design and manufacture the first fully home-produced mortar, but Gobyato did not live to see the day, having been killed in action in 1915.
Nonetheless, he is still credited with the invention of one of the most effective mass-produced weapons of the modern age.