By Second Lieutenant Ryan Bartlette, 3rd Canadian Division Support Group
Shilo, Manitoba — It’s not often you see infantry milling about the gunline at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in Manitoba, but that’s exactly what was going on during a three-week mortar detachment member course run in June 2018 by 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1 RCHA).
Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) were there because the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has determined that indirect fire support is a capability that should be integral to light infantry battalions.
Indirect fire support is provided by mortars and other weapons systems that can be fired from cover without direct sightlines to the target. The mortar can be taken apart and carried by a crew. It can be strapped to a parachutist to deliver it to a location, unlike other larger artillery systems.
When the ramp dropped on the A Battery, 1 RCHA Commander’s Light Armoured Vehicle and I joined the course, I couldn’t help but notice all the tattooed Patricia cap badges adorning the hands in the meal line-up.
They belonged to soldiers of 3 PPCLI, who were joined by Reservists from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Calgary Highlanders.
By all accounts, the infantry soldiers were excited to have this indirect fire capability back. Corporal Tyler Graham, a 3 PPCLI soldier from Martensville, Saskatchewan said, “I was really excited just to get on the course. It’s a big opportunity for pretty much everybody.”
The 81-mm mortar has been a staple of the artillery corps for several years. My unit used it while deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
The 81-mm’s flexibility and versatility are highly regarded among the artillery faithful, and I can’t imagine it being any different for our infantry colleagues.
Its ability to provide a high volume of fire at relatively close range serves well to get the blood pumping.
Cpl Graham agreed. “I am very excited,” he admitted, when asked if he was looking forward to dropping bombs. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
He’s not alone. It’s that promise the recruiter made you when you joined, after which all you could do was wait and hope. This is one promise they’ll actually deliver on.
When mortar charge increments burn, not only does a fine smoke waft out of the 81-mm’s blast attenuating device – or “BAD” as the soldiers call it – but it produces a distinct odour as well. It hits your nose like a floor freshly mopped with bleach, and once you smell it, you’ll never forget it.
What’s more, it’s addicting. I couldn’t help but reminisce about my own time on the tubes both as a Reservist, and on deployment.
I asked Cpl Graham, who is part of an airborne company, his opinion about the prospect of jumping with the mortars.
“I saw the arty [artillery] guys jump them during Exercise MAPLE RESOLVE. It looked … interesting,” he chuckled, with an unmistakeable airborne grin.
The extra weight of a base plate or tri-pack of mortar shells certainly won’t stop an airborne company from completing their mission. They are professionals.
Lieutenant Kevin Little, the course officer, from Cambridge, Ontario, agreed.
“They more than met the challenge,” he said. “They dedicated themselves to this course the entire time they were here.”
He was equally proud of his own Battery’s contribution.
“Ultimately, A Battery is the lead on this,” said Lt Little, who noted that all the Detachment Commanders, Second-in-Commands and support staff were A Battery members. “The staff did an amazing job.”
Recognizing the unique set of circumstances, Lt Little tailored the field portion as best he could to his candidates’ trade, using Infantry School tactics to aid him.
“We wanted to perform as best as we could as a mortar platoon,” said Lt Little, who was proud of what the course participants accomplished in three short weeks.
“The concepts of fire discipline, all those artillery concepts – they grasped that quickly and it’s really rewarding to see.”