Did Polish Cavalry Charge Tanks During World War II?
The image of Polish cavalry charging German Panzers during World War II is often used as an example of Polish backwardness. As half Polish, I frequently wondered about those stories as I grew up. Unsurprisingly, the truth of the matter is very complex. Let's take a look.
Polish Cavalry in the 1930s
First, let's take a quick look at what the Polish Cavalry looked like on the eve of World War II. These were no longer the Winged Hussars that spread fear across Europe. Instead, they had been transformed "into a highly versatile mobile infantry that shirked swashbuckling charges in favor of dismounted engagement". These men were supplied with "a saber, M1929 Mauser carbine, bayonet, gas mask, ammunition belt, feedbag, and entrenching tool".
They were even supplied with heavy weapons, such as anti-tank guns:
"Each brigade also received a complement of up to 78 “Ur” Model 7.92mm antitank rifles and 18 antitank guns, the best of which were the Bofors 37mm. The former was a close-kept national secret that fired an innovative tungsten-carbide-cored bullet capable of penetrating most armor at a distance of 250 meters. The latter was one of the best antitank guns of its size and capable of knocking out any German tank during the September Campaign. Each brigade also boasted a horse artillery troop armed with up to 16 75mm field guns. These guns were generally old, rechambered Russian pieces that proved surprisingly effective against tanks, mainly due to the superior quality of their crews."
This change had been brought about because the Polish army needed a mobile force, but the country was too poor to built up a tank force. They did have four million experienced horsemen to call upon. In 1939, the Polish cavalry consisted of "11 brigades totaling 70,000 men", which accounted for 10% of the armed forces. In the following years, not much changed. Each brigade was supported by "7 Ursus WZ 29 armored cars and 13 TKS tankettes".
After the German invasion of Poland, the Polish cavalry (and other forces) put up a spirited defense. In one case, the German 2nd Motorized Infantry Division was forced to withdraw after encountering Polish cavalry. The German corp commander Generaloberst Heinz Guderian wrote in his diary, "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."
In another case, Podlaska Brigade actually invaded German territory when they raided East Prussia. They overran bunkers and captured prisoners and ammunition before being forced to retreat.
It should be noted that the Polish were not the only country to have cavalry when World War II started. The Germans had "three active cavalry corps in the field" and the Soviets "boasted 100,000 men on horseback".
Polish Cavalry Encounters Tanks
Now, let's look into the real story of the Polish cavalry engaging German tanks. On September 1st, 1939, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans spotted German soldiers near Tuchola Forest. Colonel Kazimir Mastalerz, a cavalry veteran, ordered the cavalry to charge the enemy. A younger officer questioned the order and Mastalerz replied, "Young man, I’m quite aware what it is like to carry out an impossible order."
The charge caught the German soldiers by surprise, and they fled. However, before the Polish troops could celebrate, German armored vehicles emerged from the forest and opened fire with machine gun. The Polish cavalry was caught out in the open. They fled as quickly as they could, but a third were killed or wounded. Colonel Kazimir Mastalerz was among the dead.
The next day, German and Italian journalists toured the battlefield. They reported that the Polish cavalry had charged the tanks wielding lances and sabers. Thus, the myth was born. The Germans made good use of this story for propaganda purposes.
General Guderian also mentioned the lie in his memoir, writing, "[W]e 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 truth was that the Polish attack had stopped the German advance for the day and enabled other Polish troops to escape destruction. Unfortunately, the myth of Polish horsemen charging German tanks has been repeated by many who should know better, and the true story of heroism is lost.
Why This Story is Cool
Besides that fact that it restores my faith in my forefathers, this story proves that even though they are outnumbered and outgunned, a well-trained force can make their enemy pay for the ground that they capture. All too often, military leaders allow themselves to become overconfident due to perceived advantages. That can their undoing in the end.
This is just one of many stories of bravery in the face of the German invasion. I hope to cover more of those stories in the future. Stay tuned.
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