The Mythical Polish Cavalry Charge
Polish American Journal, July 2008
Polish cavalry during maneuvers before World War II. In addition to the lances chosen by some of these mounted cavalrymen, all of them were issued sabers and carried rifles slung on their backs.
by Gilbert J. Mros
A Clash at Krojanty
In the early morning hours of September 1, 1939, military forces of Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Later that day, events unfolded that would lead to one of the most fanciful and enduring legends of World War II.
The Polish 4th Army, or Army Pomorse, had been placed in the Pomeranian area known as the Polish Corridor to prevent Hitler from taking this northwest section of Poland unopposed as he had done in the Czech Sudetenland a year earlier. However, since a full-blown war had broken out, the Army Pomorse was in the process of withdrawing while continuing to oppose the German advance.
By late afternoon of that first day, the German 20th Motorized Infantry Division was approaching the city of Chojnice, in the Tuchola Forest, about 165 miles northwest of Warsaw, and it was threatening a key railroad junction in the village of Krojanty about four miles northeast of Chojnice. Army Pomorse forces in this area consisted primarily of the 18th Lancer Regiment of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, commanded by Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz.
Having been ordered to hold the area, Colonel Mastelarz decided to take the regiment’s 1st and 2nd Squadrons through the forest and attempt to attack the German infantry positions from the rear. That evening, Mastelarz’s two cavalry squadrons surprised a German infantry battalion in an open area.
Ordinarily, after cavalrymen had arrived at a battle area, they would dismount and use their rifles and other weapons to engage the enemy. However, in this case, Mastelarz had the advantage of both surprise and mobility, so he ordered a mounted saber attack against the German infantry.
The 1st and 2nd Squadrons, a force of about 250, charged out of the forest across an open area and into the German formation. With only a few casualties, the Poles quickly gained the advantage during the close-in fighting, and the Germans started falling back.
Just when it looked like the Poles were going to win the skirmish, several German armored cars equipped with machine guns and automatic cannon appeared and opened fire on the Polish cavalry who then broke off the attack and retreated from the battle scene. Losses to the Polish squadrons were about 20 killed, including Colonel Mastelarz, and an unknown number, probably about 60, wounded or captured. This was the first cavalry charge of World War II.
A MYTH IS BORN. Two days later, General Heinz Guderian, commander of the 19th Corps, of which the German 20th Motorized Division was a part, wrote that, “…we succeeded in totally encircling the enemy on our front in the wooded country north of Schwetz and west of Graudenz. The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and had suffered tremendous losses.”
The incident was not unlike other reported occasions where Polish cavalry, rather than surrendering, attempted to break through the encircling German forces giving Guderian’s troops the impression that the Poles were attacking the tanks rather than trying to dash between them.
Afterwards, German military officials brought war correspondents William L Shirer and Indro Montanelli to the scene, and told them that the carnage they saw before them was the result of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks. Neither reporter witnessed the actual battle, so they could only report what they were told and the aftermath that they saw. From this, and the report of General Guderian, came the myth of the Polish Cavalry charge against German tanks that was to endure to this very day.
Shirer mentioned his experience in his 1941, “Berlin Diary.” Then, in his 1959 book, “The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich,” he wrote: “Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught.”
References to the legendary charge occurred repeatedly since then in books, magazines, and so-called documentaries that included staged scenes of Polish cavalry charging German tanks. As recently as 2007, a World War II Magazine Special Collector’s Edition article entitled “Blitzkrieg” contained a photograph of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade on maneuvers, taken before the war began. It was captioned: “The Pomorska Cavalry Brigade gallops to the front wielding sabers and lances like their medieval forebears.”
Polish-designed 7TP light tank carried a Bofors 37mm anti-tank gun and was the first diesel-powered tank to see combat.
FAR FROM MEDIEVAL. The myth led to the belief that the Poles had no armored vehicles, and that they were so primitive that they thought military tanks could be attacked and destroyed with saber and lance. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Polish cavalry units were trained and equipped to combat both tanks and infantry.
Polish cavalrymen were essentially mounted infantrymen using their horses to move quickly from one location to another, and the weapons that they normally used against enemy infantry were their rifles. Sabers and lances were seldom used in combat except for close-in fighting from horseback where they were more effective than rifles with affixed bayonets.
However, there was no need for the Polish cavalry to use sabers or lances against German tanks. Each cavalry battalion carried deadly Swedish Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns and Polish-designed Maroszek WZ 35anti-tank rifles for use against enemy tanks. A projectile from the Polish anti-tank rifle, with a muzzle velocity of over 4000 feet per second, could penetrate the armor of any German tank in the field. Polish anti-tank rifles were so effective that hundreds of them captured by Germany were reissued to German military units that then used them against French tanks when Germany invaded that country in 1940.
Nor was there reason to believe that the Poles were ignorant of the nature of tanks. In 1939, Poland had more than 600 tanks. Most of them were small tankettes armed with only machine guns. In addition to these, Poland fielded 38 British-built Vickers 6 ton tanks and 135 7TP tanks of Polish design based on the Vickers tank. Each single-turret version of these Polish 7TP tanks carried a 37mm main gun and up to 17mm of armor plate. They were superior in both armor and armament to most of the invading German tanks, and they were the world’s first diesel powered tanks to see action.
Another, perhaps less-familiar, fact regarding Polish knowledge of tank technology is that the rotating Vickers Tank Periscope used in 40,000 allied tanks during the war was originally called the Gundlach Peryskop obrotowy and was invented in Poland in 1936. It was the first periscope to provide a tank commander a 360-degree view without turning his head.
CAVALRY VERSUS TANKS! While the battles at Krojanty and Graudenz ended badly for the Polish cavalry, this was not always the case. On September 1, the same day of the Battle of Krojanty, the German 4th Panzer Division clashed with the Polish Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at the village of Mokra, about 126 miles southwest of Warsaw. The German 4th Panzer Division lost over 100 armored fighting vehicles including at least 50 tanks. During the thirty-six day 1939 campaign against Poland, Germany lost 674 tanks and 319 armored cars.
However, the mechanized German war machine did prevail over Poland’s mounted cavalry, but it was not because the Poles were ignorant of the nature of tanks or that they could not design a suitable tank.
To view Poland’s cavalry from an historical perspective, it should be pointed out that all of the other major combatants also deployed mounted cavalry during World War II including Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States, whose last horse-mounted cavalry charge took place near Morong, the Philippines, on January 16, 1942. Contrary to the myth that the entire German army raced across Europe on modern vehicles, most of Germany’s ammunition and equipment was transported by the Third Reich’s 2,750,000 horses and mules.
Early successes with its tanks prompted Germany to start dismantling its cavalry force. However, after 1942, the German army started increasing the number of its mounted cavalry units for some of the same reasons that Poland had initially employed its cavalry—insufficient industrial production capability, and the need to fight the Soviet Union on the great trackless wasteland, impassable marshes, and forests of Eastern Europe.
Ironically, as Germany was rebuilding its cavalry in Europe, the Poles were in Great Britain rebuilding their tank force. Ultimately, tankers of the Polish 1st Armored Division fought their way from Normandy to Wilhelmshaven where they entered the German port city on May 5, 1945. There they accepted the surrender of its German garrison and naval fleet of over 200 warships and vessels.
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