|Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
by Alexander Zakrzewski
At 2:00 P.M. on September 1st, 1939, Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz, commander of the 18th Regiment of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, spotted a badly exposed battalion of German infantry in the woods near the Polish village of Krojanty. He hurriedly assembled his troopers for a sabre charge and fell upon on the unsuspecting enemy, easily overrunning them. For the Colonel, the short but brief action must have seemed a fortuitous start to the war for he and his men. Their first encounter with Hitler’s vaunted Wehrmacht had proven a tactical success at negligible cost. However, his victory would prove short lived. Before the Poles could reorganize, a column of German tanks and motorized troops appeared from around a bend and unleashed a devastating hail of fire. Some twenty troopers, including the Colonel himself were killed before the Poles could turn their horses and retreat, abandoning the recently won field to the advancing Germans. The next day, Italian war correspondents were brought to the scene and told that the Polish cavalrymen had charged the German tanks.
It was in this way that one of the most enduring myths of the Second World War, and the defining image of the September Campaign, was born. The German General Heinz Guderian wrote in his memoirs that “The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and suffered tremendous losses.” Winston Churchill wrote that the Poles “charged valiantly against the swarming tanks and armoured cars, but could not harm them with their swords and lances.” Even today, some seventy years later, the myth remains widely believed even in military circles. A 2005 submission to the
Canadian Army Journal, written by a Major in the Canadian Army recounts how Polish troopers “with little more than courage and lances” were “slaughtered” when they charged German armoured cars and tanks. How is it that such a blatant historical inaccuracy can perpetuate to this day? The answer lies in the various contexts through which the myth has been interpreted and disseminated. That is to say, that while the image of a Polish cavalryman charging a tank has been used to denigrate the Poles and the interwar Polish state, so too has it served as an important national symbol of self-sacrifice and romantic tradition. However, before delving into the myth’s different interpretations, it is important to clarify the role of cavalry in the pre-war Polish Army and its use in the September Campaign.
The Polish Cavalry was the last to constitute a strategically autonomous military arm. The 70,000 men that comprised the Polish Army’s eleven brigades of cavalry represented not only about ten percent its total strength but also its elite. Distinguished by their elegant boots and well-tailored uniforms, cavalrymen were typically recruited from the landowning and educated classes and shared a profound sense of loyalty to their regiments and tradition. During the 1930’s tactics and organization were updated in response to the changing face of modern warfare. The lance was dropped as a weapon in 1934 and though cavalrymen were issued sabres, mounted charges were discouraged in favour of attacks on foot. In fact ninety percent of Polish cavalry engagements during the 1939 campaign were fought dismounted. The horseman’s primary advantage was thought to lie not in the charge but in his mobility and capacity to respond in accordance with any situation. Nor were any illusions held as to the realities regarding combat between cavalry and tanks. In 1937, the Polish army issued a “Directive on Combat between Cavalry and Armoured Units.” It states that, “In view of the massive development of armoured forces the cavalry will continually face them and must learn to deal with them if they are to fulfill their assignments.” Cavalrymen are instructed to combat tanks by luring them into rough terrain and attacking them with anti-tank guns, horse artillery and anti-tank ammunition for rifles and machine guns. Nowhere does it say that cavalrymen should attack tanks mounted, let alone with sabre or lance.
However, no amount of capability and morale on the part of its officers and men could alter the fact that the Polish Cavalry was essentially a relic of a bygone age of warfare. As one British observer wrote, “I remember spending a day with a Polish cavalry regiment at their headquarters outside Warsaw, and one saw the most marvellous demonstrations of horsemanship. But somehow I knew enough about military affairs to realize how sad that was. This was an old-fashioned army.” The invaluable role played by cavalry during the Russo-Polish War of 1920 led to a mistaken confidence among military leaders as to the value of cavalry in battle. Many felt that the tank was overrated as a weapon, difficult to manoeuvre and liable to break down in rough terrain. Moreover, fodder for a horse was easier to procure than the enormous amounts of petrol required to power tanks. While there were individuals such as Władysław Sikorski, who recognized the importance of rapid mechanization, there were other considerations. The dictator of Poland, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, was widely recognized as the “founder and father of the Polish Army” and insisted on retaining the final say on all military matters. As the Marshal grew old and ill it became impossible to draw his attention to fundamental problems in doctrine and armament. There was also the question of Poland’s limited financial resources and industrial productive capacity. In 1939, the cost of equipping an entire armoured division exceeded the total annual budget for the entire Polish Army. Despite the fact that Poland spent a sizeable portion of its domestic product on the military, its defence expenditure between 1935 and 1939 sadly amounted to only one thirtieth that of Germany’s.
It should be noted however, that Poland was by no means the only combatant country in 1939 to retain a place for cavalry in its military doctrines. Throughout the 1930’s the British Army, encouraged by the Minister of War Duff Cooper, maintained what one writer described as a “mystical” attachment to the horse. Such sentiments were echoed in the United States by General John Knowles Herr who, as late as 1939 was urging the strengthening of the cavalry and its tactical importance in the next war. In June of 1941, the Red Army had thirty divisions of cavalry in the field and Soviet cavalrymen played an important role throughout the war, not least of which was spearheading the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Even the German Wehrmacht, the leader in mechanized warfare, depended on horses for some eighty percent of its mobility during the invasion of Poland. Five divisions of cavalry accompanied the German Army into the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and as the war progressed and the logistical and geographic realities of fighting a war in Russia became apparent, both the German Army and the Waffen S.S. significantly expanded their cavalry units.
Close examination of the performance of Polish Cavalry in September of 1939 reveals a combat record markedly different than that of horsemen suicidally charging tanks. Throughout the campaign the cavalry repeatedly proved itself to be the elite of the Polish Army by maintaining its discipline and resolve in the face of a situation that was untenable from the start. In fact, the morning of the encounter at Krojanty, the commander of the German 20th Motorized Division asked for permission to withdraw in the face of “intense cavalry pressure.” That same day at the village of Mokra, the
Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade, entrenched in excellent positions, repulsed repeated attacks by the German 4th Panzer Division. The
Podolska Cavalry Brigade even managed to slip behind German lines and briefly invade East Prussia, where it caused considerable confusion and consternation. Reluctant praise for Polish Cavalry can even be found among the recollections of the invading Germans. Guderian writes:
***During the night the nervousness on the first day of the battle made itself felt more than once. Shortly after midnight the 2nd (Motorised) Division informed me that they were being compelled to withdraw by Polish cavalry. I was speechless for a moment; when I regained the use of my voice I asked the divisional commander if he had ever heard of Pomeranian grenadiers being broken by hostile cavalry. He replied that he had not and now assured me that he could hold his positions. I decided all the same that I must visit this division the next morning.
It should be noted that cavalry units fighting around Kock in central Poland did not surrender until October 6th, while some elements of the
Podolska Brigade even managed to avoid surrender altogether and escape into Hungary.
The German victory over Poland in 1939 was the Werhmacht’s first major military success since the First World War. While the Poles fought valiantly, inflicting over 50,000 casualties in four weeks, German victory was never in doubt. The Soviet Union’s September 17th invasion, coupled with blatant inaction on the part of the British and French, all but ensured Poland’s swift collapse. For German propaganda, the image of Polish horsemen naively charging tanks served to highlight the technological and intellectual superiority of the new German Armed Forces and was disseminated widely. Hans J. Massaquoi, a thirteen year old resident of Hamburg at the time of the German invasion, recounts in his memoirs how newsreels presented the image of horsemen charging tanks as “one big Polish joke.” Among the most famous depictions was that in the 1941 propaganda film “Kampfgeschwader Lützow” (Fighting Squadron Lützow). In order to heighten the film’s realism, filmmakers enlisted the help of the German army in filming what was said to be genuine battlefield footage of the September Campaign. In one sequence a column of German armoured vehicles is suddenly attacked by Polish horsemen who charge at them uphill with sabres drawn. The German vehicles promptly turn to face their attackers who are quickly put to flight leaving behind them a field covered in dead bodies and riderless horses.
Following the Second World War, Poland fit awkwardly into official Western and Soviet historiographies. As a result, the September Campaign remained largely unexplored and various inaccuracies were left uncorrected. The staged footage found in Kampfgeschwader Lützow has even appeared in documentaries as authentic battlefield footage. As historian Norman Davies states, for many Russians and Westerners, the image of foolhardy Polish horsemen charging tanks has been easier to accept than the, “unworthy parts played by their own governments in 1939.” Nazi apologists and sympathizers have also seized upon the myth as a means of slandering the interwar Polish state and its people. In his bestselling work
Hitler’s War, disgraced historian and convicted Holocaust denier, David Irving uses the myth to do just that. Irving depicts interwar Poland as a backward and aggressive state that goaded Germany into war. He describes the Poles as being a barbaric people that viciously persecuted German minorities and planned their own invasion of Germany. He writes that the Polish countryside was in 1939, “tangled and unkempt, as though from prehistoric times.” Given these facts it is no surprise that Polish horsemen “convinced that German tanks were only tinplate dummies” would attack them with their lances.
It would be inaccurate however, to state that interpretations of the myth have been universally negative. One of the undeniable reasons it persists to this day is its value as a symbol of selfless courage and sacrifice. Certainly one cannot help but be reminded of French General Pierre Bosquet’s famous words upon witnessing the Charge of the Light Brigade, “C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” In his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, the first instalment in his epic “Danzig Trilogy”, Gunther Grass depicts the cavalryman as the Don Quixote (Pan Kichot) of Poland. Riding to certain death, the cavalryman is seen as a beautiful anachronism typical of a lost age of Polish romanticism. “Oh, so brilliantly galloping!” he writes, “Ye noble Poles on horseback, these are no steel tanks, they are mere windmills or sheep, I summon you to kiss the lady’s hand.” Another such depiction is found in the 1959 Polish film “Lotna”. Due to political reasons, films about the 1939 Campaign were not favoured during the communist era and “Lotna” is one of the few important exceptions. Directed by legendary filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, the film garnered considerable controversy due to its surreal depiction of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks. At one point a Polish Uhlan even strikes in vain at the barrel of a tank with his sabre. While many Polish critics and audiences felt the film to be derisive of the country’s military traditions, Wajda was completely aware of the historical facts. His father had been a cavalry officer during the war and he made a point of using veterans of the September Campaign as consultants. The cavalry’s foolhardy charge against German tanks is not meant to be taken as historical fact but rather as emblematic of an era and tradition in Polish history that after 1939 was gone forever, destroyed by the new wars of technology.
The notion that Polish cavalry charged German tanks in September of 1939, while utterly false, has found a seemingly permanent place in the annals of military history. While some will always use the myth to illustrate recklessness and ineptitude in battle, others will see it as a timeless act of martial valour. One thing that remains certain however is that the myth will not be laid to rest any time in the near future. The September Campaign, while largely forgotten in the West, remains in Eastern Europe one of the war’s most controversial chapters. This past summer, prior to the seventieth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, the Russian Defence Ministry officially accused Poland of being responsible for the Second World War by refusing to give in to German demands. The accusation was made following the establishment of the “Committee for the Counteraction against Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia.” Established by the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, the Committee seeks to undermine such “distortions of the historical record” like that of the 1939 Katyn Massacre in which 22,000 Polish officers were summarily executed. So long as major historical events are being deliberately negated rather than re-examined, it is highly unlikely that such seemingly insignificant questions as whether or not Polish horsemen charged German tanks will ever be unequivocally answered.
Show Footnotes and
. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1952), 72.
. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War and Epilogue on the Years 1945-1957 (London: Cassell, 1959), 168.
. Tod Strickland, “Cavalry Charging Panzers: An Evaluation of Leadership Doctrine in the Canadian Army,” The Canadian Army Journal 8, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 39.
. Steven Zaloga, The Polish Army 1939-45 (London: Osprey Publishing, 1982), 9.
. Steve Zaloga, The Polish Campaign, 1939 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985), 38.
. Nicholas Bethell, The War Hitler Won: September 1939 (London: The Penguin Press, 1972, 99.
. Richard M. Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and its Fate, 1918-1939 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1998, 44.
. Steven Zaloga, Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2002), 22.
. Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930's (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 420.
. Christopher Ailsby, Waffen-S.S.: Hitler's Black Guard at War (London: Brown Books Limited, 1997), 23.
. Zaloga, Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg, 42
. Bethell, 30.
. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001), 71.
. Hans J. Massaquoi, Destined to Witness (New York: Perennial, 1999), 141.
. Jo Fox, Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany: World War II Cinema (New York: Berg, 2007), 100.
. Zaloga, Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg, 92.
. Norman Davies, God's Playground Volume II: 1795 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 325.
. David Irving, Hitler's War: 1939-1942 (London: Paperman, 1977), 6, 9-11.
. Günter Grass, The Danzig Trilogy: The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years (New York: Random House, 1987), 195.
. Tadeusz Lubelski, Wajda (Wrocław: Wydawn. Dolnośląskie, 2006), 79.
Copyright © 2009 Alexander Zakrzewski.
Written by Alexander Zakrzewski. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Alexander Zakrzewski at:
About the author:
Alex Zakrzewski is the Online Editor for MuscleMag International and freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada.
He has an Honours B.A. in History from the University of Toronto and a postgraduate journalism diploma from Humber College in Toronto.
He can be contacted for questions or freelance work at email@example.com.
Published online: 12/05/2009.