It’s one of the more famous moments of Word War Two — In September 1939, the beleaguered and hopelessly outclassed Polish army threw its 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 quite happen that way.
In fact, there is little or no compelling evidence that Polish cavalry ever did dash headlong into 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 75 years after the outbreak of the conflict.
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 into the German ranks with sabres drawn. The Germans broke and fled. A subsequent 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.”
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.
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)