Based on this article: http://www.valka.cz/clanek_13222.html
Original author: Zbigniew Mikesz
the myth about Polish cavalry charging into tanks is one of the most outrageous and blatant WW2 myths to ever see the proverbial light of day, yet it keeps popping up over and over on Worldoftanks forums, most of the time with malicious intent to troll Polish players. Recently, a Polish author (named above) wrote an interesting article about it and I will be taking it as a starting point to address this issue.
This myth came to be during the Polish campaign of 1939. It is not clear who personally started it, but it did spread for years until well after the war was over. As the myth goes: during the early campaign days, a Polish cavalry unit made a suicide charge into a column of German tanks, sacrificing itself in a futile attempt to somehow stop the advancing Panzers with sabres and pistols only. As you might have guessed from the article introduction, that is a lie.
So, how did it happen then?
On 1st of September, in the so-called Pomeranian corridor, German 20th Motorized Infantry Division is attacking the town of Chojnice. Late in the afternoon, several small-scale battles are fought around the Chojnice-Nakło railway between the German vanguard and two incomplete squadrons of 18th Uhlan regiment, led by colonel Mastalerz of the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade. The Uhlans recieve the order to counterattack the German infantry in order to cover their own infantry’s retreat. In order to do that, they get in a loose formation and form up in a small forest near the village of Krojanty. The cavalry then charged from the forest, surprising a German infantry batallion, caught in the open. The charge and subsequent brutal close combat decimated the Germans. However, the Uhlans weren’t aware of an armored column (armored cars and halftracks), arriving from Chojnice.
This time it was the Germans, who caught the Polish off guard. Storm of bullets and light shells raked the Polish cavalry with terrible effect. Within minutes, the Polish lose half of their number, coloner Mastalerz being one of the first casualties. The rest of the cavalry retreated, but it was possibly this attack that the myth was based on.
The next day, Italian war journalists were taken to the site of the massacre to witness the bodies of men and horses and a story was fed to them by the Germans. It was the Germans, who made up a tale about the Polish cavalry foolishly charging the tanks. The Italians – having the same sentimental relationship to the “horse units of old” believed every word and made a huge story out of the incident.
One journalist named Montanelli wrote back to Italy about the whole event and embellished it even further, in fact glorifying the bravery of the Polish troops (not exactly what the nazis wanted to hear). His letters were published in Italy and started circulating around the whole Europe. The Germans decided to use this to their advantage once again and on 13rd of September, German army propaganda magazine “Die Wehrmacht” published an article about the foolish Polish cavalry trying to attack tanks with sabre and spear. The Germans also started to spread the lie that the Polish troops were in fact fooled by their own officers, who told them the tanks are made of wood. The point of the nazi propaganda was obviously to make the Polish look stupid in the eyes of Great Britain and France and in this, they partially succeeded. In addition, in 1941 a German propaganda movie, depicting the “silly Polish” was made (with German actors of course) and even today, some sources claim parts of this movie to be the real historical footage from 1939, thus spreading nazi lies on and on.
In post-war Poland, this myth about suicidal cavalry was actually fuelled further, because the new communist regime wanted to discredit the officers, who were members of Polish nobility and bourgeoisie, as they were the “class enemies” of the regime. In this, the regime succeeded and one of the movies from (later very well known) Polish director Andrzej Wajda had significant impact on young Polish generation. This, combined with the fact the truth, that was deemed inconvenient was covered up by the regime actively meant, that despite the protests of real Uhlan veterans, the nazi lie survived long after the war.
So how was it really with the Polish cavalry?
Despite partially being an anachronism by 1939, the Polish cavarly was considered to be the elite of the Polish army, thanks to its proud traditions and history. Its survival as a unit was dictated by the fact that the Polish doctrine was based on the assumption that the natural enemy of Poland are the Russians (resp. Soviets), not the Germans. General Polish army development was based on this too – and the position of this idea was streghtened by the fact that in 1919-1920, the cavalry proved to be very useful in the Polish-Russian skirmishes in the boggy terrain of Poland borders.
Polish cavalry of the 30′s was in fact not a classic “sabre” cavalry, the men were trained as dragoons (fighting on foot with rifles and using the horses for rapid movement), the Uhlan name was kept because of the respect towards traditions. Cavalry charges with sabres were also trained, but the emphasis was put on infantry tactics. The cavalry units did have sabres, that much is true, but they were not the primary weapons – in fact, the cavalry weaponry was practically identical to the infantry weapons. Before the war, the cavalrymen also trained with lances, but those were kept around for decoration and parades, not as real weapons – and they were never used as such. So all in all, the cavalry was not a corps of suicidal maniacs, charging tanks with lances, but a unit of highly-trained and discliplined soldiers.
In September 1939, the Polish army had 37 cavalry regiments, concentrated in 11 brigades, which were supposed to be used for securing the army flanks and the flanking itself. The cavalry units consisted of roughly 70 thousand men and formed 8 percent of the whole army.
One cavalry brigade with three regiments had a wartime count of 6143 men and 5200 horses. The brigade also had 12 75mm field guns, 90 heavy machineguns, 18 anti-tank guns, 2 anti-aircraft 40mm guns and 66 anti-tank rifles. The brigade also had an armored company attached to it with 18 TK-3 and TKS tankettes and various armored cars. It was a force to be reckoned with.
The pre-war cavalry brigade roughly corresponded in strength to a weaker infantry regiment (without its heavy artillery detail), but it had more anti-tank guns and some armor. Most of the time however, despite their considerable firepower, Polish cavalry brigades were used as flanking forces and recon, occasionally attacking enemy frontline weakspots.
According to the doctrine, each brigade was to guard a 2-4km long frontline, if used as static force. The frontline troops (3 regiments) were the dismounted cavalrymen without horses, with 4th regiment (that was added to the brigade, when it was to be deployed as a static force) being the real mounted cavarly plus the armor held in reserve, either to support the front line troops, or to cover their retreat.
In cases of mobile defense, the brigade could cover as much as 8 kilometers of front lines. In such a case, only one regiment acted as frontline dismounted troops. This one regiment was to take the brunt of the enemy onslaught, retreating back to another previously prepared position, leading the enemy so that the rest of the brigade could flank him, attacking his formation sides and shelling the units caught in the open with the brigade artillery.
So, what to do with this myth?
Well, we have to face reality: there’s not much we can do. This myth – along with other notorious myths of the WW2 (just remember Belton Cooper) – is here and it will stay. The Polish author is actually wondering about one thing: other nations had their “glory charges” too, such as the Italian cavalry on river Don, or the Light Cavalry attack at Balaklava. Why is it only this myth that is used maliciously?
The truth is – as the Polish author notes – that the Polish themselves started believing this myth, turning a blatant nazi lie into a thing to be admired, the bravery of the men charging steel boxes with nothing but their lances, sabres and their courage being obviously something to be proud of. In a way, it’s a historical irony, that with which the nazis tried to mock becoming a source of pride.
But however it happened, one thing is absolutely clear: the Polish cavalry fought bravely along with the rest of the Polish army and the war with Poland took a toll on German army (the “Germans just rode over Poland without casualities” is another common misconception).