War Horses — Cavalry’s Contribution to WWII

Far from being obsolete, cavalry still had a place on the battlefield in the Second World War.

“While mechanized warfare did signal the end of the cavalry’s role on the battlefield, armies on both sides still used mounted troops throughout the Second World War.”

IT’S ONE OF the more famous moments of Word War Two — in September 1939, the hopelessly outclassed Polish army threw antiquated cavalry regiments straight at invading German panzers with predictable results. In minutes, the obsolete horse guards were utterly decimated. And with them died an age-old European cavalry tradition — all of it swept away in a maelstrom of mechanized armour and heavy machine gun fire. There’s only one catch: It didn’t actually happen that way.

There is little or no evidence that Polish cavalry ever did dash headlong into Nazi panzers to be slaughtered wholesale. The entire tale is one of the enduring myths of the Second World War, one that is alive and well nearly 80 years after the outbreak of the conflict.

Polish cavalry were far from the quixotic push-overs many think they were. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The truth is that when they were deployed in the first days of the German invasion, the Polish cavalry frequently prevailed in battle. In a series of encounters in the opening days of the war Polish riders managed to  break up German infantry formations, liberate captured towns and overrun fortified positions.

In one encounter near the city of Chojnice, elements of the Polish 18th Lancers surprised a body of troops from the German 20th Motorized Infantry Division. Instead of wasting time dismounting to take on the enemy with their rifles, the Polish commander ordered his men to ride straight into the enemy ranks. The Germans broke and fled. A counter attack by Nazi armoured cars did succeed in driving off Poles back, but it was hardly a mass slaughter. Out of a force of 250, the lancers lost roughly 20 men.

After the battle, foreign journalists surveyed the site, noting the dead horses and cavalrymen along with some tanks that were now in the area and reported erroneously that the horsemen armed with swords and lances had gone up against the panzers. William R. Shirer was one of the correspondents present and reported the story. He even referenced it in his 1959 The Rise and Fall of Third Reich.

In recent years, this myth has been challenged. For example, in 2009, The Guardian newspaper in the UK issued a retraction after it printed an anniversary piece about the invasion of Poland that characterized Polish lancer charges as “romantic and idiotic acts of suicide.”

A U.S. Army reconnaissance patrol in Italy in 1943.

While mechanized warfare did signal the end of the cavalry’s role on the battlefield, armies on both sides still used mounted troops throughout the Second World War — successfully in many cases.

Germany had four cavalry divisions in World War Two. The Soviets had 13. And in 1941, Life magazine reported that the U.S. Army was supplying itself with 20,000 horses. In fact, according to the magazine, it was the biggest order for horses the army had placed since the Civil War. On the battlefield, cavalry made a number of contributions during World War Two.

In January of 1942, the U.S. 26th Cavalry attacked Japanese infantry on the Bataan Peninsula. Later, the same unit even managed to hold off enemy tanks. American mounted units were not used elsewhere during the war, but George Patton supposedly once remarked that had he been given cavalry in the war in North Africa, not a single German would have escaped the Allies.

Mounted SS on a patrol in Russia. (Image source: WikiCommons)

In August of 1942, 700 mounted Italian troops overran a Soviet artillery position along the Don River at the town of Izbusenskij. The event has been heralded often as “the last  successful cavalry charge in history.” But even that isn’t accurate.

In the final weeks of the war, cavalry on the Eastern Front successfully attacked a German supply column. Fittingly, the unit involved in this final charge, which took place on March 1, 1945, was none other than the Polish 1st Cavalry.

(Originally published on June 15, 2012)

12 comments for “War Horses — Cavalry’s Contribution to WWII

  1. 18 June, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    This was fascinating. While mules and horses were routinely used in supply efforts, I had no idea the US utilized mounted cavalry during WWII.

  2. 19 June, 2012 at 8:18 am

    I didn’t either until I started researching. I was surprised too. Thanks for your message.

  3. TrT
    1 July, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    No idea how accurate it is, but I’ve read Germany was expecting whatever unit ran into the Polish horse guards to get a proper shoeing.

    At the end of the day, they were highly trained blokes with guns, explosives and such, who happened to also have horses.

  4. El Sid
    13 July, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Even today the British Army has more horses than helicopters and tanks put together – about 500.

    • 13 July, 2012 at 4:18 pm

      Ha. I never knew that. Thanks for that info!

  5. 18 December, 2012 at 8:57 am

    There is an excellent military publishing house on the internet that offers numerous, unique, detailed and highly researched books on horse cavalry in WW2 including: German, Soviet, Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian. There are also a number of books on Rhodesian, Portuguese and South African during the African Wars of the 1970s-1980s. It is http://www.quiikmaneuvers.com

    • 18 December, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Thanks for that. There is a book that’s been floating around my household since the 1970s on the very same subject. I tried to locate it when I was writing up this, but was unable to.

  6. Sean McNeill
    19 August, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for the re-post. I try my best to read back into the articles I missed before finding the site, but I seem to always miss interesting ones. I have spent several hours of free time researching cavalry use in the first and second war, simply out of interest. Using the best of my web knowledge and the references books I own, I completely missed the accounts of Italian and US engagements. Thanks!

    • 19 August, 2013 at 7:49 pm

      Happy to be of service and I am glad you enjoyed it.

  7. Rick Dill
    5 May, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    I have a question you might be able to help me with. My research has shown that the US used palimino colored horses to patrol the western and eastern sea board of the United States because at the time we felt we might be invaded. These patrols had large radios that were large for a trooper to carry. The palimino color blended in with the coast line/sand. My question is: What unit was have been doing this? US Army, US Navy or US coast guard, or who? thank you, Rick

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