Those Ukrainians and their stubby shovels
“The Ballad of the infantry” is a 2-minute recruiting video/saga that was produced in 2016 and talks about service of the Ukrainian soldier told in part around his love of the traditional entrenching tool used by the 135,000-man force.
The Russian E-tool design dates back to the time of the Tsars and is still in use both by the Russian army as well as many that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union.
Red Army GRU officer Vladimir Rezun, who defected and wrote a series of slightly over-the-top books under the pen name of Viktor Suvorov in the 1980s and 90s, spoke at length about the use of such stubby one-man E-tools, and it almost feels as if he wrote the storyboard for the above video.
The ordinary foot soldier, armed with his rifle and shovel, can dig a trench to make it difficult and sometimes impossible for the enemy to cross the Line. If you put the same soldier, armed with his rifle or even a light machine gun, not into a mud-hole in the middle of a field, but into even the most simple dismantled , then his tenacity and firmness will increase tenfold. He will have at least one metre of reinforced ferro-concrete over his head, a metre and a half of it in front of him and a metre on each side, all carefully camouflaged from the enquiring gaze of the enemy. If 170 first-echelon Soviet divisions were put into these albeit dismantled boxes, it would have been no simple matter to break through their defences. Defending troops always need something to hold on to: the dismantled forts at Verdun; the bastions at Brest- Litovsk; the walls at Stalingrad; or the trenches in the Kursk salient, which had been abandoned two years previously. Once they have such a foothold, the infantry will dig in in such a way that nothing will smoke them out of their lairs and burrows.
From Spetsnaz: The Inside Story of the Soviet Special Forces:
Every infantryman in the Soviet Army carries with him a small spade. When he is given the order to halt he immediately lies flat and starts to dig a hole in the ground beside him. In three minutes he will have dug a little trench 15 centimetres deep, in which he can lie stretched out flat, so that bullets can whistle harmlessly over his head. The earth he has dug out forms a breastwork in front and at the side to act as an additional cover. If a tank drives over such a trench the soldier has a 50% chance that it will do him no harm. At any moment the soldier may be ordered to advance again and, shouting at the top of his voice, will rush ahead. If he is not ordered to advance, he digs in deeper and deeper. At first his trench can be used for firing in the lying position. Later it becomes a trench from which to fire in the kneeling position, and later still, when it is 110 centimetres deep, it can be used for firing in the standing position. The earth that has been dug out protects the soldier from bullets and fragments. He makes an embrasure in this breastwork into which he positions the barrel of his gun. In the absence of any further commands he continues to work on his trench. He camouflages it. He starts to dig a trench to connect with his comrades to the left of him. He always digs from right to left, and in a few hours the unit has a trench linking all the riflemen’s trenches together. The unit’s trenches are linked with the trenches of other units. Dug-outs are built and communication trenches are added at the rear. The trenches are made deeper, covered over, camouflaged and reinforced. Then, suddenly, the order to advance comes again. The soldier emerges, shouting and swearing as loudly as he can.
The infantryman uses the same spade for digging graves for his fallen comrades. If he doesn’t have an axe to hand he uses the spade to chop his bread when it is frozen hard as granite. He uses it as a paddle as he floats across wide rivers on a telegraph pole under enemy fire. And when he gets the order to halt, he again builds his impregnable fortress around himself. He knows how to dig the earth efficiently. He builds his fortress exactly as it should be. The spade is not just an instrument for digging: it can also be used for measuring. It is 50 centimetres long. Two spade lengths are a metre. The blade is 15 centimetres wide and 18 centimetres long. With these measurements in mind the soldier can measure anything he wishes.
The infantry spade does not have a folding handle, and this is a very important feature. It has to be a single monolithic object. All three of its edges are as sharp as a knife. It is painted with a green matt paint so as not to reflect the strong sunlight.
The spade is not only a tool and a measure. It is also a guarantee of the steadfastness of the infantry in the most difficult situations. If the infantry have a few hours to dig themselves in, it could take years to get them out of their holes and trenches, whatever modern weapons are used against them.
Surprisingly, the spetsnaz soldiers also carry the little infantry spades. Why do they need them? It is practically impossible to describe in words how they use their spades. You really have to see what they do with them. In the hands of a spetsnaz soldier the spade is a terrible noiseless weapon and every member of spetsnaz gets much more training in the use of his spade then does the infantryman. The first thing he has to teach himself is precision: to split little slivers of wood with the edge of the spade or to cut off the neck of a bottle so that the bottle remains whole. He has to learn to love his spade and have faith in its accuracy. To do that he places his hand on the stump of a tree with the fingers spread out and takes a big swing at the stump with his right hand using the edge of the spade. Once he has learnt to use the spade well and truly as an axe he is taught more complicated things. The little spade can be used in hand-to-hand fighting against blows from a bayonet, a knife, a fist or another spade. A soldier armed with nothing but the spade is shut in a room without windows along with a mad dog, which makes for an interesting contest. Finally a soldier is taught to throw the spade as accurately as he would use a sword or a battle-axe. It is a wonderful weapon for throwing, a single, well-balanced object, whose 32-centimetre handle acts as a lever for throwing. As it spins in flight it gives the spade accuracy and thrust. It becomes a terrifying weapon. If it lands in a tree it is not so easy to pull out again. Far more serious is it if it hits someone’s skull, although spetsnaz members usually do not aim at the enemy’s face but at his back. He will rarely see the blade coming, before it lands in the back of his neck or between his shoulder blades, smashing the bones.
The spetsnaz soldier loves his spade. He has more faith in its reliability and accuracy than he has in his Kalashnikov automatic. An interesting psychological detail has been observed in the kind of hand-to-hand confrontations which are the stock in trade of spetsnaz. If a soldier fires at an enemy armed with an automatic, the enemy also shoots at him. But if he doesn’t fire at the enemy but throws a spade at him instead, the enemy simply drops his gun and jumps to one side.
Anyway, the moral of the story is to watch out for guys East of Prague who carry stubby spades and know how to use them.