Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught.
William L Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960)
Few images are as evocative of Poland’s martial pride than charging ranks of cavalry.
From the winged Hussars who salvaged the glory of Vienna in 1529 to the stateless patriots of Napoleon’s Polish Legions, they remained the core of the Polish Army well into the first quarter of the 20th Century, attracting the cream of society to produce a highly educated and motivated fighting elite.
These heirs to the hussars were just the men needed to save the fragile Polish Republic from the twin evils of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, looming in the east and the west like a belligerent chokehold. But they’re also the men who lost the Polish Republic, their streaming pennants and plumes a black joke against the mechanised horror of Blitzkrieg.
The Poles, it is often said, charged straight into the guns of German tanks. This isn’t really true, but in a strange way it very nearly is.
The myth was born on 1 September 1939, in one of the very first engagements of the Invasion of Poland.
Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz was a particularly battle-hardened cavalry officer and veteran not only of the Austro-Hungarian army’s Polish Legions in World War I, but in the Polish–Soviet War of 1919-1921, which saw the emerging Bolshevik state beaten back by the confidant new Polish Republic.
He was no fool and seeing a larger force of German troops camped in the forest near the Pomeranian village of Krojanty, Mastalerz knew surprise was his only edge – ordering in the 18th Pomeranian Uhlan Regiment – supported by a small number of TSK/TK-3 tankettes – to draw their sabres and tear through the unprepared ranks of the invader.
Queried by an underling about the seemingly impossible odds, the old warhorse replied simply:
Young man, I’m quite aware what it is like to carry out an impossible order.
In principle at least the Charge at Krojanty was a success – the enemy advance was slowed and the panicked infantry were scattered, but the cost to the Polish ranks would prove more far-reaching than anyone might have foreseen.
As hooves churned up discarded canteens and Stahlhelme, German armoured cars emerged from the forest road, raking the cavalry with machine gun fire and forcing a withdrawal. 20 to 25 Poles were killed in the offensive – including Mastalerz, who valiantly charged in to try and rescue a brother officer – but death would not be their final indignity.
The Germans then invited ‘neutral’ Italian journalists to tour the battlefield – festooned with dead horses and slaughtered Uhlans – and used the idea that the foolish Poles had Quixotically charged into the treads of German tanks, a stretch by any means as the relatively diminutive three-man Leichter Panzerspähwagen (at best guess) was far from being an intimidating wall of armoured might.
This cruel myth became a part of German propaganda (and was later reinforced by the Soviets in order to illustrate how the Polish peasants had been failed by their decadent aristocratic masters. It was recreated for a 1941 newsreel that appeared to show Polish biplanes soaring hopelessly overhead as cavalrymen drew their sabres like Napoleonic relics and charge uselessly into the treads of oncoming panzers.
This myth outlived the Thousand Year Reich itself, popping up in documentaries well into the 1970s (such as the supposedly peerless The World at War) when filmmakers found themselves bereft of footage depicting the Invasion of Poland save that carrying Goebbels’s dubious seal of approval.
Insidiously, the myth crept into history – polluting the likes of Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich, and Panzer Leader, the 1950 memoir by Heinz Guderian that ‘remembered’ encounters that never occurred:
[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 Polish Army knew better than to charge tanks with lances and sabres, and from 1937 the standard weapon of the Polish cavalryman was an anti-tank gun, anti-aircraft gun or anti-tank rifle. Lances and sabres were at the commander’s discretion and had a significant psychological impact on infantry, but the role of the Uhlan was that of a rapid and mobile reaction force, able dismount and creep forward to stage ambushes and mount raids from the treeline, supported at brigade-level by horse-drawn artillery and light tanks.
In particular horse cavalry was the cornerstone of any future war with the Soviet Union, which would be fought of Poland’s under-developed eastern fringes on dirt tracks, thick forests and marshland.
Despite being outnumbered and lacking in comparable heavy armour to the Panzer I or airpower that could match the shrieking Stukas, Poland fought hard and the cavalry fought well.
There were 16 confirmed cavalry charges by the Polish Army in 1939 and most of them were successful. The reputation of the German army as a well-oiled machine had yet to form fully – co-operation between armoured and infantry units was poor, the men were still untested, and Blitzkrieg was largely a theory, applied inconsistently and with varying degrees of success.
Against the backdrop of chaos and inexperience, Polish cavalry wreaked havoc as W Jackiewicz recalled in his papers, now held at the Imperial War Museum:
The Germans dispersed before us, tried to set up their machine guns, loose shots were fired and strangest of all, there was total panic among the Germans. In this first phase I hardly had any losses.
The crude rewriting of the Charge at Krojanty may have forced its way into military history, but so too has the jaw-dropping heroism of the Battle of Mokra.
While the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade dismounted and dug in against a formidable onslaught destroying some 50 armoured vehicles without giving an inch of ground – testament to their high morale, excellent training and flexible use of anti-tank weapons – a cavalry detachment accompanying the TSK tankettes of the 21st Armoured Division found themselves hurtling toward German panzers, sabres held high.
This – the only time that Polish cavalry, it could be argued, charged into German tanks – was entirely an accident.
Lost in the clouds of smoke, Captain Jerzy Hollak’s horses found themselves in the middle of a German tank column in the confusion. Amazingly, they punched straight through the startled Germans and seized the high ground, forcing the Panzers to withdraw. Hollak’s unlikely victory, however, was fleeting.
Three days later, on 3 September 1939, the cluster of beleaguered hamlets fell. Mokra was lost, but it remained a potent symbol of the heroism, sacrifice – and most importantly – the surprising effectiveness of Polish cavalry doctrine.
Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt of Army Group South wrote in his report:
The Polish cavalry attacked heroically; in general the bravery and heroism of the Polish Army merits great respect. But the higher command was not equal to the demands of the situation
- No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in World War II By Kenneth K Koskodan
- The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski
- Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg by Steven Zaloga
- The Polish Army 1939-45 by Steven Zaloga and Richard Hook
- Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939 byy David G. Williamson