Calgary Highlanders mortar crew in action on the Continent, 1944.
Each infantry battalion in the Canadian Army in the Second World War had its own artillery to draw on; by 1944 six 3-inch mortars made up the Number Three Platoon of the battalion. The mortar had certain advantages over conventional artillery; it was small and easily transported (usually by Carrier but it could be man-packed in an emergency), it did not give off a visible muzzle flash when it fired, and as it belonged directly to the battalion it was in theory always on call.
The weapon was fired indirectly, and as such, was only good against infantry or other “soft” targets. It was also an effective weapon for laying smoke or firing illumination rounds at night. Mortar bombs exploding in woods could also be a nightmare for enemy infantry, as the trees themselves would be converted into deadly fragments which would rain straight down into enemy entrenchments.
The mortar was a rather “stealthy” weapon in that it could be dug in underground, making it invisible to enemy troops. Also, the mortar bomb made comparatively little noise while in flight, giving very little warning to enemy troops, as was often the case with artillery shells.
The standard 3-inch mortar bomb (measuring 76mm by the metric scale) would not penetrate heavy enemy fortifications, nor was the mortar platoon a real substitute for having gun and howitzer support both on the attack and the defence. The Canadian infantry battalion also equipped each rifle platoon with a 2-in (51 mm) mortar which was effective against infantry and for laying smoke. Each infantry division also had 4.2 inch mortars included in the arsenal of the divisional machine gun battalion.
In February 1944, when the mortar platoons of all nine infantry battalions in the Second Division were reviewed, only the Calgary Highlanders mortar platoon was rated “well trained in every respect.” An official report was critical of the other platoons in the division, with the Black Watch only being graded “fair” and other platoons faring even worse.
Two different shots of Calgary Highlanders mortar men. At the top, a shot of men from the Mortar Platoon just prior to the Dieppe Raid. Two of the standing soldiers (second from left and far right) are holding aiming stakes.
Below, early Calgary Highlanders recruits training at Mewata Armoury in Calgary shortly after Mobilization. Note the First World War uniforms, denim pants and “homemade” khaki glengarries. All were expedients in the early days before Battle Dress was issued.
THREE INCH MORTAR COMPONENTS
Typical Mortar Platoon
By 1944, the Carrier Platoon of an infantry battalion fielded 6 tubes and was the Number Three Platoon of the battalion. The platoon was a part of Support Company.