Horses vs Tanks: the Polish myth gone wild

Based on this article:
Original author: Zbigniew Mikesz

Hello everyone,

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).

95 thoughts on “Horses vs Tanks: the Polish myth gone wild

  1. četl jsem to v češtině, hodně těžkých slov – skvělý překlad!
    (= great traslation )

  2. And also it’s good to say that not only poles got cavalry. Germans got some cav. regiments too. Plus during september ’39 there was actually a clash between german and polish cavalry with polish victory btw :)

    • The Germans kept their horses for most of the war. I think Listy posted an article on them or SS did… Cant recall which. The US also had horses in WW2 but they are not something mentioned very often.

      • the US had mounted Infantry in the far East, though most were gone by the surrender of Corregidor. The Soviets also maintained a large cavalry force that was used pretty effectively in spite of heavy casualties.

    • IIRC the last succesful cavalry charges on the record were by the Italians in the late-middle years.

  3. Well whatever the number of casualties was, they broke Poles pretty fast…but that’s probably because they were attacked from both sides.

      • rotfl, learn history. Even polish historians states that polish army was practically defeated around end of first week (after that day polish army was only retreating and trying to regroup on whole front). You know why russia attack 17 September, not 7, 14 or 27? Because they knew that Poland was totally fucked and there’s no army, even without their attack. Just love that myth “we could win, but bad commies attacked from behind! >:U”
        Oh, and funny thing, polish government also didn’t declare war after aggression, because Britain and France didn’t allow. That was one of the problem with sikorski-mayski agreement.

        • The USSR attacked late because Stalin kept waiting for active French-British involvement. He was planning for the european armies to decimate each other, and then soviets could take the entire continent with little resistance. But as western allies did not join the war he was risking the Germans would take his lack of action as a violation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement and break the alliance with USSR. And, with the state of the Red Army in ’39, the result of potential war with the 3rd Reich could be very much different than years later.

        • That sir, it’s a lie. Stalin attacked because he saw that French and Brits are doing nothing. He was afraid of their reaction (like the Hitler was, that’s why he needed Stalin to help). In 17th September Polish forces managed to regroup on the main defense line witch was the river Wisła. And like the Germans generals said, they were surprised how the intense fights were, witch caused that in the end of defeating Poland, they were short on their ammo (so, if the fight get longer, there was a possibility that had to stop their invasion).
          And tell me, how long the French hold against Nazis with their ‘the strongest army in the world’?

          • Yeah, 17th. The day that Polish government had fled to Romania – Soviets informed by their agent(s) in government used this as an excuse to roll out the invasion.

          • Hitler needed the alliance with Stalin to secure his rear while he figures out what the fuck to do about the Entente, which was the necessary step #1 in his masterblasterplan. Stalin was just being opportunistic and had absolutely no desire to escalate what insofar he was concerned was a convenient buffer-zone land-grab into a Great Power pissing contest, which was clearly evident in the effect the looming threat of a Franco-British intervention had on the Winter War.

      • Yep, this campaign was won by Soviets. Before 17th it wasn’t actually going bad, after there wasn’t even sensible to fight anymore.

  4. Thanks, very interesting indeed, although local retards and trolls will use it as an excuse, but what can you do.

  5. intersting, it shows us once again a lot of stuff has been written about ww2, yet not everything is true, not eaven all off those “well known stories” I wonder how much more we will know one day, and how much more we will never know.

    also i find it funy to see that the way you describe those cavalery units, its more like infantry equiped with horses to make them mobile, while still retaining the name of cavalry.
    corect me if i am wrong but hadnt the germans stuff alike? i once read a statement in a book that said “in german doctrine a force was already considered mobile if they had bicycles for the troops” Also germans used horses a lot, though only for suplys and field guns IIRC

    • Nothing funny about it, they retained the name for the sake of tradition. It was a remarkable force as far back as 16th century.

    • Bicyckle troops were present in most armies at the start of WWII. Polish, German, French.
      Even elite Bersaglieri units were motorized with motorbikes AND bicycles.
      And cavalry was used as mounted infantry by Poles during already in World War One and Polish-Bolshevik war.

    • The germans used a lot of horses in WW2, just because there weren’t enough trucks and halftracks available.
      German doctrine was based on the ideas of Guderian, who wasn’t really keen on cavalry forces…

    • Nowadays you also get cavalry units in some armies altough there don’t use horses at all. Ever thought why?

    • Cavalry had increasingly evolved into de facto dragoons, ie. mounted infantry, apace with the developement of increasingly potent small arms which increasingly rendered the old shock-attack mission moot. Still quite useful since they were more mobile than foot infantry and FAR easier to supply than gas-guzzling motorised forces, and usually better over bad terrain.

      You may also note that a fair few armies retain any amount of old cavalry symbols, unit names, terminology and what have you regardless of long since having swapped the horses for armoured cars, IFVs and tanks. Hell, the US at least used to call heliborne units “air cavalry”…

  6. Můžu se zeptat odkud jsi? má obchod u nás ve vesnici a zrovna dneska jsem tam pro něco byl.

  7. So the myth is wrong in that the cavalry did not charge German tanks, but it is right in that there was a battle in WWII between German tanks and Polish cavalry.


  8. Very interesting article.
    Also, didn’t the polish develop their own tanks? They would at least have a basic understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the tank, so I don’t think the Polish army would order a cavalry charge into the enemies armoured divisions.

    • Yes, of course. Their main armored force however were the tankettes and the 7-TP light tank (basically a T-26/Vickers clone with some improvements). The Polish were well aware of the tanks and their weaknesses.

      • Nitpicking: 7TP not 7-TP ;)
        Basically it was developed from license-built Vickers but with excellent 37mm Bofors AT gun and with Saurer engine. Several captured 7TPs were kept by Germans for security duties.

      • Tankettes were mainly for scout/recon, which was a very flawed idea. Still, they perforemed better then expected for everything during this campaign…

    • That was completely re-designed Vickers E, only suspension was not touched. 7-TP was a first diesel engine tank, had awsome 37 mm Bofforst AT gun (also first tank with true AT gun) and much more improvements. Much better than Panzer II

    • Oh. ffs. Polish tank units saw combat as early as of 1920-21 Polish-Soviet War, armed with Renault FT tanks.

    • And how are you better, when u are read posting a TL;DR comment here? If u have nothing to say, dont comment.. Better for all of us.(im not polish but people like u make the internet sometimes really annoying)

    • haha nice joke.. Every nation has retards and noobs in this game and i met so many idiots from Germany, Czech Rep. France etc. in random battles so stop it and be polite.
      And another thing if Poles are so sucks in this game, so why best players and teams on EU server are from Russia and… Poland?! Pls tell me. Every ESL tournament wins Polish or Russian team! ESL WInter season won Red Rush, IEM in Katowice won EPS (Polish team) Cebit in hannover won LTR (another Polish team) Proleague season I won Dignitas (Russian team) but 3rd place took Mousesports (ex- LTR) and season II won another Russian team Virtus Pro but 2nd place took EPS. For me it seems like Russian-Polish domination, but you’re right Poland sucks in this game and Poles are dumb…

      • The reason for the bad rep of Polish players is pretty simple. Most of the bad Polish players are the more ignorant ones that doesn’t understand english and start games with talking in Polish, thus feeding the myth.

        • Yeah, because other nations speak only pure English in-game. Specially the Clan spam in German, French and other native languages. I think one of the reasons that us (yep, I am another one ;) ), Poles, have so bad rep in the game is due to the amount of Polish players, that is why it seems that by percentage we are worse. Pure statistics.
          Personally I laugh at guys who write some stupid things about Polish players being weak, especially when they themselves are low-skill players, unless they cross the line and start being racist d..ckheads. But that is what the report system is for ;)
          I am not going to glorify all Polish community players, but for many people it is generally easier to flame and blame someone else for own inability to play the game on higher level. Usually a quick glance into their statistics says it all.

          • I don’t give a shit what country you come from, every country has its bad apples and you can find some of those bad apples in the game. It’s just that there are 2 factors that make bad polish players.
            1. They tend to be more vocal in their native language so it attracts attention towards them
            2. Then they die and keep yammering in polish / start blaming their team about their death

            Again, not that different from other countries, but you guys are found more often in battle and are more vocal. Not to say that I haven’t seen good polish players or anything…

            • I think that is the main problem with newbies (regardless of country of origin).
              They are too vocal. I hate Polish newbies as any other guy, especially when they play and behave badly. I understand how much bad they are doing to the whole Polish community. It comes though to my previous statement: Statistics. More player – more visible.

  9. >>(the “Germans just rode over Poland without casualities” is another common misconception).

    You should make an entry about that too!

  10. When I was in a high school in my history book there was a chapter “For curious” and there it says that a Polish cavalry unit made a suicide charge into a column of German tank… I believed it back then.

  11. nice and quite interesting article. didn’t know how this “myth” worked, or really is, as it was told different up here (northern germany) but way different. The “myth” up here is, that there were attacks by polish cavalry to german armored forces, so far so common.
    but here the story goes that at least in one battle, the polish riders outmanouvered the tanks in close combat (coming out of the woods also in this one) and destroyed them with limpet mines. With the moral, that you should A never underestimate the other and B the one who fights to his strengths will win.

    never considered it a mockery story towards the polish as the way I heard it is way more abt arrogant idiots defeated by bravery and wit

  12. Yeah, yeah…

    The Uhlans were top notch, and cavalry charges OF ANY KIND, were, generally, a “great idea”, ever since WW1.


    Poles (and other ex-Warsaw blocks) grow a pair and admit it: your pre-WW2 countries sucked (militarily, economically etc.) just as much as they sucked post WW2.

    • it is so easy to prepare for war when you have 20 years after 123 years occupation, WW I and with soviet invasion in meantime (1920).
      Poland definitely should already be prepared for everything…

    • Yes, and I am sure you can back your claims up with… you know, data. Because pre-war Czechoslovakia was pretty much an arms superpower (early 30′s – the biggest arms exporter in the world for example). Poland wasn’t that bad off either, but its army was based on old principles, unlike the modern German and Czechoslovak armies. You can’t blame them: for plains of Poland and bogs of eastern borders, the cavalry was perfect.

      If anything, post war Soviet bloc armies were pretty powerful forces: lots of tanks (and modern ones too until the 80′s), Soviet doctrine.

    • Because, you know, West Germany was pumped with money by Marshall Plan and not sucked dry by Great Uncle Ivan… While at the same time trying to rebuild from incredible disaster, much worse than the West suffered.
      But it’s easy to benefit and laugh at others.

    • That’s funny, because pre-war Poish Army was considered to be the fifth power in the Europe (after Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy – and Soviet Russia was ‘outside’ of the Europe, lol).

      That’s the fact – if Poland sucked, then where wouldyou put the rest of Europe?

      • Pretty much all of Central Europe was a backwards shithole in most terms you care to name, and most people don’t realise that Germany at the time was in fact a mostly (rather poor) agrarian country too. An awful lot of states actually went into the conflict with hair-raisingly feeble industrial bases and that showed.

  13. Calvary performed well in the 1920s war against Soviets. In fact, in the harsh Russian winter and the boggy ground in Ukraine, Polish Uhlans wont be stuck in the muds and waiting for fuel supply all day like the Germans did.

    • Some times low tech thing beats high tech. For example heat seeking guided rockets are useless vs older planes with no jet engines. Not enough heat to target them.

    • That’s why the Red Army was a noted user of the arm right up to the end of the war, too. While the lack of heavy firepower tended to be limiting the ability to operate with minimal supply in conditions of near zero infrastructure had very obvious merit.

  14. “There is only one thing in the lives of men and nations that is without price. And that thing, is honor.”

    Even if the Polish cavalry had really charged German tanks, it would not have been shameful. Nothing the Poles did in the Second World War could be considered shameful.

  15. Even if USSR hadn´t attacked, Poland would have not been able to have held out against Germany. Germany had complete control over air and many more men and tanks. Almost the entire Wehrmacht was concentrated on Poland. No doubt, the conquest of Poland would have been delayed without USSR but it was going to happen no matter what, even when some weeks or months later.

    • Another thing is: by the end of the campaign the equipment was worn out. I read a book about Polish armored cavalry (tank) brigades during the september and the data from this book showed that almost as many tanks/tankettes were lost due to mechanical failures or lack of fuel as in combat. Forgot the title and the author though…

  16. To be hones, the highest reachable is being cavalryman.
    Sorry I’am just a humble Hungarian, but it is really the top.
    It is very difficult to ride, do not speak about to handle a weapon meanwhile like a carbine, pistol, saber or a lance. But if you master it …
    There were in the 2WW Hungarian hussars, which drown back Russian infantry charges.
    Even when the Wehrmacht officers want just to surrender.
    As far as I know there is still cavalry in China, Mongolia and in South Africa.
    You know; a horse eat grass, could move on very-very bad terrain and of course can swim too.

  17. Before I forget! Respect for all those brave Polish soldiers. Even at the time of Market Garden were those Polish para’s outstanding. Once again, I am Hungarian not Polish ;)

    • Thank You for kind words :)
      As they said long time ago: Lengyel, Magyar – két jó barát, együtt harcol, s issza borát :)

      • Those are not kind words; it is the reality. And I have to know this verb in Polish but sorry I just remember … venger …. Once again sorry! Actually Your verb is without any fault, wouw nice work!

  18. I have also heard that myth, but I thought anyway that they didnt only use sabers and lances to attack german tanks but also rifles and grenades. As much as I have heard germans actually feared polish cavalry, they even managed to destroy some of german forces but eventually german armored forces surrounded them and then they were destroyed by germans. 20. cent. cavalry tactic was mostly that horses are used for movement and when battle starts you dismount and fight as infantry. Of course some cavalry fought on horseback. But the main weapon at these time was rifle(carabine) not sword or lance.

    • IIRC the lance had been removed from active Polish service some years before the war actually – but that didn’t keep the cavalry units from taking them out of storage on their own initiative and cheerfully employing them fairly succesfully.
      And durting retreats in the East Front German medics were initially somewhat bemused about having to treat sabre wounds inflicted by pursuing Soviet cavalry.

      • And believe me, sabers could do very mean wounds. Those gives a not to deep, but a very long cut, which difficult to titch.
        Actually those swords are not really sabers; only the Persians and the Magyars en used real sabers. Those are even more mean weapons.

        • “Saber” or “sabre” is a general term for any convex-curved sword, and more generally tends to be used for concave ones (eg. the kukri) as well – and for maximum confusion is occasionally used for the *straight* swords Modern Era heavy cavalry tended to use.

          Anyways, the WW2-era ones were the real deal enough in design terms and unless the metallurgy had been totally fucked and/or the blade left without proper sharpening (neither, alas, an uncommon occurrence especially in the 19th century) oughta done well enough if the user had any idea of what he was doing. Which also wasn’t a given. Their extended use by cavalry forces isn’t very surprising though (although IIRC both the British and US cav opted for a specialised thrusting type for their last standard-issue designs instead), as the type oroginally developed among the Pontic steppe nomads (around 7th-8th century AD or so) specifically for the purpose and its main weakness, relatively poor armour-piercing ability, was a nonissue by the World Wars.

          • Without any intention to be annoying, please let me tell the one and only difference between the curved swords (convex or concave) and the real saber (the Hungarian word for it is szablya, speek out like sabya). The handle and the blade of a saber is never in a right line; there is an obtuse angle of approx. 75 degrees between them. Because of this angle it could be handled very quickly; you have to use just your wrist not whole your arm to cut. The saber is besides just a very precise cut weapon and you can not thrust with a saber. It is unnecessary to thrust or cut with much force, because – again – you have to handle a saber lightly and fast not slowly and forcefully. The aim to cut of the fingers, cut through the arteries or cause a not deep but very bleeding ugly wound on your enemy. If it is possible, by the first strike … The lightly curved, just on one side sharpened blade glided along the body and armor to find the smallest opening to cause a cut.
            If the first strike was not satisfactory the nomadic horseman had also a (classical) sword to fence or a kind of floret to thrust through the enemy armor. In modern times there been attempt to blend those three pole arms together; one of this attempts is the cavalry-sword which is indeed curved and could be used for cut, but this is not the classic saber. Trust me; a sword is a sword a (classical) saber is a saber.

      • I might be possible that you are meaning scimitar but sabers are curved swords. The shape of the curved blade can vary, sometimes they are more and sometimes less curved. Mostly heavy cavalry was using straight bladed swords but during the WW2 times there was no heavy cavalry but the sword type should be called anyway palašš (palash). That kind of sword was meant both for cutting and thrusting.

        • Yes and that is the difference between a saber and a sword of any kind. A classic saber was meant sole to cut a not deep but long and ugly wound. Not to thrust by any means.
          In Hungarian we call those heavy sword which you mentioned also pallos. Thanks for your explain, by the way are you Polish?

  19. Wait, what? You try to tell me, that there actually ARE people stupid enough to believe polish cavalry charged at tanks with sabres?
    I though that it was just stupid trolling and people actually knew it was all lies…
    Somehow I feel a little less respect for people from the west…

  20. Cannot thank you enough that you published that article.

    I wish that Polish authors made such to the wide audience (especially English speaking) an impact demystifying that and other long lived myths.

    Once again thank you, keep up the good work.

  21. Interesting. I thought it was true. My history teacher in a (german) school told us with the intend to show just how mean and evil the Nazis were by attacking an obviously outgunned enemy. The logic goes along the lines of “if the Polish had had any harmful intend, wouldn’t they have had tanks instead of cavalry – and this is proof the Nazis really surprised peacefull Poland.”

    I guess you can spin any myth two ways…