Polish cavalry charging tanks and the Battle of Krojanty

One interesting aspect of early World War II was the story of how Polish cavalry were known to charge German tanks, all in vain as horsemen armed with sabers and lances are no match for heavily armored tanks firing high explosive shells and machine guns. This story just goes to show how cavalry was an obsolete form of warfare that the Polish desperately hang on too regardless of the changing times. At the time Poland’s cavalry forces were considered the finest cavalry units in Europe, however having the finest cavalry in World War II was like having finest quality sword when everyone else armed with machine guns.

Except nothing I wrote above is true, at all. During World War II having cavalry was not something that was odd or unusual. While it might seem so from an American or British perspective since both fielded armies that were 100% mechanized, the French, Soviets, Italians, and Germans also had cavalry units. In fact from the invasion of Poland until the final surrender, Germany operated a number of army, SS, and Waffen SS cavalry divisions, brigades, and regiments. During World War II only about 25% of the German Army was mechanized, a number which would shrink as the war progressed due to Germany’s critical lack of petroleum resources. As a result the German army utilized millions of horses. Bottom line, if you saw German soldiers riding something in World War II, most likely they would be riding horses, not tanks and halftracks.

Finally Polish cavalry never charged tanks, to do so would be suicidal. In fact the cavalry charge started to die out around the mid 19th century. By then the invention of rifled muskets and use of canister shot by artillery made using cavalry to charge infantry a disastrous endeavor. The invention of repeating firearms and machine guns further upped the ante for the cavalry. Cavalry during World War II were important for one reason; mobility. Soldiers needed to get around quickly, vehicles were still somewhat scarce, and the horse was the next best most of transportation. Cavalry at the time generally fought as mounted infantry, riding to the battlefield on horseback, but then dismounting and fighting on foot. They could be heavily armed too. Polish cavalry not only had pistols and sabers, but short rifles and carbines, machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles, and even horse drawn light field guns.

This is not to say that cavalry charges never happened. Both Polish and German cavalry conducted successful cavalry charges during the invasion of Poland. Most likely, a cavalry unit would only charge when they had the advantage, such as attacks and ambushes having the element of surprise. Such was the case at the Battle of Krojanty. On the evening of September 1st, 1939, the first day of the war, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans spotted a unit of 800 German soldiers resting for the night out in the open. They were preparing dinner, with their rifles and other weapons stacked and minimal sentries on guard. The commander of regiment, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz, ordered an immediate charge. In the ensuing charge, the Poles manages to kill 11, wound 9, and drive the rest into a panicked rout. Unfortunately for the Poles, shortly after charge, and armored reconnaissance unit counter-attacked with armored cars armed with machine guns and 20mm cannons. 25 men were killed, among them Colonel Mastalerz. Another 50 were wounded. The charge was not in vain however, as it delayed the German advance for a day, allowing the Polish army to reform their defensive lines.

After the battle, German and Italian journalists were brought in, men who were definitely not unbiased. The story created by the press was drastically different from what really happened. Instead of the Polish charging resting infantrymen caught with their pants down, the Poles were reported to have charged armored vehicles, and instead of those vehicles being armored cars, they were tanks. And thus the myth was born.