1939: Polish Cavalry vs. German Panzers

Horses are led across the Weichsel River bridge (National Archives).
Horses are led across the Weichsel River bridge (National Archives).

No mounted Polish cavalrymen ever charged at German tanks with lances in World War II…What really happened is a far more interesting story, one of bravery and professionalism in the face of overwhelming odds.

This post is only a snippet. Please purchase the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History to read the entire article.

On September 1, 1939, German land, air, and sea units struck targets all across Poland. Although it was not a surprise attack, the speed and level of violence of the assault were unprecedented. Polish defenders had to react quickly as planes, tanks, and infantrymen surged into their country. To Poles, this was Kampania wrzesniowa (the September Campaign), when every branch of the armed forces produced heroes and myth. In the front ranks stood ulanow (uhlans, or lancers), szwolezerow (light horsemen), and strzelcow konnych (mounted riflemen)—all cavalrymen employed to cover retreats, gather intelligence, and when possible capture key terrain to support infantry counterattacks. This put these troopers into many of the initial skirmishes, some successful, more not. Soon, dead horses and their riders littered the fields.

Some died after being caught in the open by Ju-87B Stuka dive-bombers; others were mowed down by small-arms fire. Especially unlucky were those cavalrymen who encountered armored vehicles. German general Heinz Guderian recalled Polish uhlans armed with lances and swords charging “in ignorance of our tanks’ capabilities.” Time magazine described German panzers sweeping Polish cavalry “out of the way like rubbish,” while the New York Times suggested Polish tactical methods echoed those used by the British during the Crimean War, most famously in the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. Even Hollywood was intrigued: In the movie In Our Time (1944), Paul Henreid’s Polish character recounts how his cavalry was wiped out by German tanks.

Uhlans spearing tanks with lances became an enduring image of the September Campaign. American generals and high-ranking diplomats peppered speeches with allusions to “quixotic Polish cavalry charges

Although mounted Polish troops took part in several battles during the month-long Battle of Poland, they never attacked German tanks while on horseback (Map by Baker Vail).
Although mounted Polish troops took part in several battles during the month-long Battle of Poland, they never attacked German tanks while on horseback (Map by Baker Vail).
against invading German panzers” as metaphors for stupid futility. Even as recently as 2009, an editorial in the Guardian called on politicians to stop comparing modern conflicts to World War II, when “Polish lancers turned their horses to face Hitler’s panzers.”

The problem with all these reports is that no mounted Polish cavalrymen ever charged at German tanks with lances in World War II. It was, as an abashed Guardian confessed two weeks after its gaffe, “a myth of the second world war, fostered by Nazi propagandists….There is no evidence that this occurred.” Indeed, Poland’s cavalrymen—wielding rifles, machine guns, and antitank guns—played an important role in just about every major battle of the September Campaign, yet for seven decades they have had to face down the propaganda promulgated by the Nazis and inflated into myth by the Western press. What really happened is a far more interesting story, one of bravery and professionalism in the face of overwhelming odds, a story that clearly indicates that far from being a military anachronism, the Polish uhlan in 1939 was a tough and dangerous adversary.

This post is only a snippet. Please purchase the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History to read the entire article.

Click For More From MHQ!
Click For More From MHQ!

5 Responses

  1. M

    Why people sill believe that in that myth? :(
    It was all made up…

    Reply
  2. 61st Cavalry's Mounted Review at Jaipur

    […] was in the Imperial German Army ~1910. As for the Polish Uhlans (ulnai), here is one account: 1939: Polish Cavalry vs. German Panzers The problem with all these reports is that no mounted Polish cavalrymen ever charged at German […]

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I’m Polish and I’m sad that many people still believe in this myth. I love my country. If Polish Army not resisted Wehrmacht for over a month, English and French generals, completely surprised, will not have time to prepare their armies and can even lose the war.

    Reply
  4. Pyrka

    Cavalry never charged tanks or armored vehiciles at all. There was a battle when cavalry unit spoted and nice oportunity – enemy infantry in open ground. When they charged they literaly slaughter them (something like a little charge of rohirims from LOTR movie :P). But as the fight goes krauts called for a vehicle support. When they arived and started to shot polish cavalry suffered many casualites before retreating.

    The only close enough to actualy charging tanks was a situation when a panzer unit was on the field with their crews siting on them eating sasuage, drinking bear or whatever they eated durning the war. Poles hit hard and fast enough too not let them mount their tanks – polish cavalry killed lot of germans, disable couple of tanks and run like hell before krauts could strike back.

    If you still believe in that nazi propaganda then you should feal bad about this :p

    Reply
  5. Helorider

    Polish Cavalry were trained in all the skills Cavalry needed to support the rest of the Army. They gave the Germans fits. Because of their mobility, time and time again they were able to avoid the German’s mechanized encirclement tactics. The Cavalry were elite troops with their own artillery, anti-tank guns, heavy machine guns and supply wagons. The troopers fought dismounted using their carbines and when threatened with encirclement, rapidly withdrew to their next positions.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.