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Polish Cavalry Charges Tanks!

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: August 22, 2009 
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The headline of this post is one of the greatest and most enduring myths of World War II. Despite a complete lack of evidence to verify it, the notion keeps coming back: that on some unnamed battlefield, on some imprecise date, some unidentified unit of Polish cavalry–presumably with lances lowered–decided to have a go at some German Panzers.

Like a lot of the mythology of the war, this one has come under attack by scholars and specialists for a long time now. As far back as 1991, Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej wrote a good book called The Polish Campaign that, to my mind, should have demolished the myth once and for all. They discuss a charge by the Polish 18th Lancer Regiment (part of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade) against a weak German infantry position near the town of Krojanty in Pomerania on the first day of the invasion. Initially successful in dispersing the Germans, the 18th Lancers later came to grief when several German armored cars happened on the scene and opened up with their machine guns and light cannon. The regimental commander, Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz, was killed in the incident. This "skirmish at Krojanty," described in sensationalist terms by journalists like William Shirer, is almost certainly the source material for the fanciful tale of Polish cavalry charging tanks. We might also add that at times during the campaign, as Polish mounted units sought to evade or escape encirclement, they may indeed have encountered German Panzers. But that's a long way from "charging" them.

Such myth-busting has hardly seemed to matter, unfortunately. The story continues to have legs, as anyone who has ever taught a course on World War II can testify. Forget how improbable it is, even ridiculous. It's almost as if we want it to be true, perhaps as an illustration of the power of the new German "Blitzkrieg," perhaps as proof of the central role that technology plays in modern warfare, perhaps simply as a tribute to doomed heroism. German General Heinz Guderian included the tale in his memoirs as a sign of Polish backwardness ("The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances…") But Polish cavalry would hardly be surprised by the capabilities of tanks: each cavalry brigade had an armored troop attached to it, and the Polish army in 1939 contained the not-inconsiderable number of 600 tanks.

Cavalry charging tanks. A lot of people have bought this one for years. It makes me wonder what other "facts" about the war we still need to call into question.


26 Responses to “Polish Cavalry Charges Tanks!”


  1. 1

    [...] Polish Cavalry Charges Tanks! » HistoryNet [...]

  2. 2
    Philip L. Bolte says:

    The U.S. Cavalry Association requests permission to reprint the Polish Cavalry article in it quarterly "The Cavalry Journal," providing credit and any reference you would like.

    The U.S. Cavalry Association is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving the history, traditions, equipment, and heritage of the U.S. Cavalry.

    Thank you,

    Philip L. Bolte
    Brig. Gen., USA, Ret.
    Chairman, USCA

  3. 3
    kathryn murdock says:

    Why does even so distinguished a magazine as this continue to misuse the word myth. Myth is not another workd for lies. Myth if it must be used in this case should be used in the context of this "Charge" as a metaphor for doomed gallantry not as a tissue of lies.

  4. 4
    Harold S. Wood says:

    These were gallant men, even if they did not "charge" tanks. If they were charging German infantry positions, I am sure they were charging light machine guns at least. "Into the valley of death rode the 600". Gallant and brave mem. (We won't say anything about their leadership, now will we?)

  5. 5
    Torstein Eirum says:

    Poland had on paper 1 september 1939:693 TK and TKS tankettes,169 7TP,52VAU and 67 Renault FT17.A small nuber of R-35(ca.60) had also recently been deliverd.numbers mobilized:440,130,30,49,55. Of the polish armour only the 7TP and VAU could be considered useful at 1939 standard.

    • 5.1
      Hussar says:

      Polish TKS with 20mm gun were deadly to the German tanks when employed correctly and with brains even though Polish TKS were smaller and had thiner armour. A German tank officer captured during first days of September 1939 was praising speed and nimbleness of a Polish tankette, claiming that: "…it is very hard to hit such a small cockroach from a gun"." Polish Plutonowy podchorazy rez. Roman Edmund Orlik (71 armoured dyon of Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade) was most likely one of the first allied tank aces of WW II and he commanded Polish TKS armed with a 20mm gun (his driver was Kapral – Corporal Bronislaw Zakrzewski). On 14th of September during the battle of Brochów he eliminated 3 tanks from Panzer-Regiment 36 from 4. Panzer-Division. On 18th of September during the combat of Pociecha he eliminated 3 tanks from Panzer-Regiment 11 from 1 Leichte-Division. He also destroyed several motorized vehicles during that combat and took 2 prisoners of war (tank crew). He also tried to rescue the crew of one of those eliminated by him German tanks – which started to burn but unfortunately, he didn't manage to rescue them and all of them died.

      Among tanks eliminated by Orlik from his small tankette on the 18th of September there was German PzKpfw IV Ausf. B tank of Leutnant (or Oberleutnant ?) Victor IV Albrecht von Ratibor – commander of a platoon. The whole of his tank platoon was eliminated during that combat and Prinz Victor IV Albrecht von Ratibor was heavily WIA and severely burned – and after a few minutes he died.
      On 19th of September Orlik eliminated 7 German tanks (from Panzer-Abteilung 65 or from I battalion of Panzer-Regiment 11) during the battle of Sieraków. Most of those 7 tanks eliminated (most probably 6 of them) were Pz-35(t) tanks.

      Plutonowy Orlik's tankette was one of 2 tankettes from 71 armoured dyon of Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade (both of them were TKS tankettes with 20mm guns) which broke through to Warsaw (during the night from 20th to 21st of September 1939). He was later fighting in Warsaw until 28th of September 1939.

      As can be seen in the example above, this type of the Polish tankette (with 20 mm gun) was quiet useful at 1939 standard – this usefulness was experienced by a number of German tank crews to their own detriment as illustrated above.

      • 5.1.1
        joecempa@yahoo.com says:

        Where did you get this information? I am of Polish descent and a journalist working on article of these times, please contact me my friend.
        Thank you,
        Joe

  6. 6
    Caitlin Newman says:

    Philip–

    Could you please send your request to worldwar2@weiderhistorygroup.com?

    Thanks,
    Caitlin Newman
    Associate Editor, World War II

  7. 7
    N. Cusca says:

    Here here to Mr Philip L. Bolte's comments. If I was to find one fault in the recent direction of Military History Magazine is that it tries to be sensational at the expense of scholarship.

    A Myth is not a lie, Myth's invariavblly have an element of truth in it, in this case the heroic charge of the 18th Lancers (and I think the writer does a diservice to the poles in describing the Germans as a "weak German infantry position", if memory serves the infantry unit attacked was stonger than he implies). What the author of this article leaves out (because it would reduce his 'myth busting' contention ) is that this charge did result in a delay in the offensive of the German 20th Motorised Infantry Division (which actually considered retreating till countermanded by Guderian) and bought time for the Polish Army.

    If memory serves an Italien newscorrespondant surveying the scene after the battle misunderstood misunderstood what was be relayed to him by the Germans giving him the after action tour (likely a problem of translation) and wrote the story of the Lancers Vs Tanks. The Italien, despite being a member of the axis wrote it romantically, the German picked it up to show the "backwardness" of the poles.

    Myth it may be, misunderstanding it may be, but if this Myth causes the interested historian to look for the truth and discovers the heroism of Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz and his Lancers, then the Myth serves a useful purposes .

  8. 8
    Joseph R. Martan says:

    The myth of Polish cavalry charging German tak units with lances lowered was the result of German propaganda. As noted previously, the real incident involved a Polish cavalry regiment coming upon a target of opportunity – a German infantry battalion out in the open. The Poles attacked because they were trying to break through and out of the so-called "Polish Corridor." After slaughtering the infantry battalion, the Poles ran into the German armored cars who were responding to a call for help. The next day the Germans conducted then-neutral Italian journalists on a tour of the battlle site. It behooved the Germans to "spice up" the details.

    In 1940 the Germans made a propaganda movie called "Schlachtgeschwader Lutzow" which portrayed the cavalry-charging-tanks myth on film. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Fact: Polish cavalry brigades were trained to fight as dismounted infantry. Each brigade had several batteries of horse artillery – "the elite of the elite" – armed with rebarreled Tsarist Russian 3" guns. These were superb anti-tank pieces which blew the stuffings out of any German tank encountered. The lance had been officially discarded as a weapon several years prior to 1939. The Poles also coordinated their cavalry units with their armored train units. On the first day of the war an armored train came to rescue of a cavalry unit being roughly handled by the 4th Panzer Division – the armored train, possessing several 75mm guns gave the vaunted German armored unit a very bloody nose at Mokra.

    • 8.1
      Andrzej S. says:

      Thank You for posting this information, for myself, It answers alot of questions. You see, my mother is from Zarkie, Malopolska, and was taken away for germanization, her brother was an officer cadet in the Polish Cavalry, and was taken prisoner, and subsequently murdered in Katyn Forest, along with roughly 20,000 other Polish officers of various rank's. I myself was in the Cdn Army for almost 16 yrs, and during my posting in Germany, I had tried to find out any info regarding this, w/ very little luck, I had even requested to be allowed leave for this purpose(being allowed to travel to Poland), but was denied several times as Poland was still W/Pact. Thank's.

    • 8.2
      joecempa@yahoo.com says:

      Where did you get this information from??
      I am of Polish descent, and journalist working on article of this time.
      Joe

  9. 9
    paul penrod says:

    The Polish penchant for fighting an open-style warfare was rooted in their experiences from the Eastern Front of World War I and the 1919-1920 debacle with the Soviets. They were spared the bloody attrition of trench warfare and were not exposed to the horrors of massed artillery, multitudes of machine guns, poison gas and aerial attack. their style of combat resembled the Mexican reviolution of the early 1900's. The Polish army was the opposite of the French. The latter stressed the defensive above all and the former stressed the offensive. In a battle of equals the Poles could win with this philosophy, but against unexperienced technology they could not. During the Bzura counterattack, their infantry swarmed un waves in the open, and on countless occasions artillery battery horses were driven mad by the shreil of the Jericho trumpets of Stukas

    • 9.1
      Hussar says:

      …"During the Bzura counterattack, their infantry swarmed un waves in the open,"..

      hmmm… that is not exactly correct… and to be fair, when terrain is open and you must cross it (as it was at the time), there is no option but to move across the open terrain. Germans also did the same in Poland except that they had more fire support. During Bzura counter attack, the Poles knew what they were facing but had no choice but to push on.
      Bzura counter attack in the initial stages was quiet successful and forced the German commanders to respond to it quiet quickly and with additional forces. Having said all that, other allied forces did not fare much better with their tactics (then the smaller and more poorly equipped Polish forces) later when faced with the invading Germans despite all that was already demonstrated in the 1939 invasion of Poland and despite having more time to prepare (for German attack) and having better armed forces.

  10. 10
    Charles W. Raymond III says:

    Yes, this piece of Nazi propaganda of Polish lancers charging tanks thrives, long after the event. Just as the invincibility of the German combined arms forces of bliztkrieg, overlooking the reality that most German units were foot infantry and the artillery was horse drawn at that time. Another bit of Nazi propaganda was the "elite SS". However, SS Germania, a motorized infantry regiment, albeit with several subunits on detached missions, yet with an accompanying motorized artillery battalion, was severely mauled west of Lvov in the period 13-17 September 1939.

  11. 11
    Light brigadier says:

    When I was a child I read a book by Sven Hassel, a German tank soldier, who described in this and other books he wrote his experiences during WW2. I clearly remember his description of the incident when during a fight a number of polish soldiers charged against them riding horses. I doubt very much he made this up so I would say it actually happened. Before one or other side jump over me, please have in mind that a) I only came here while looking for the result of yesterday's friendly match Spain-Poland, b) those who say Sven Hassel lies also say that gas chambers and Anna Frank did not exist (Erik Haast being his main leader) and c) if i was going to die anyway would I stand put waiting for the tanks to kill me, or would I charge? What would you have done there and then?

    • 11.1
      Hussar says:

      You would charge on your horse at full speed to try and break out (from encirclement) but not to charge AT the German tanks rather to get away from them/in between them whilst hoping that you and your horse will make it out alive…. This indeed did take place but not deliberate attacking cavalry charge designed to attack the German tanks on horseback!

  12. 12
    porhus says:

    Of course Sven Hassel wrote that. It's natural and logical that he wrote that, cause his beloved Nazi Germany made a propaganda about it, so he couldn't say something different, don't you think? They were soldiers, they were trained, they were brave but not stupid. Poland was using cavalry in war but that's another story, so if you're interested browse the internet.

  13. 13

    [...] Polish Cavalry Charges Tanks! The Myth That Will Not Die. [...]

  14. 14

    [...] Misconception 17: Polish Cavalry Charged German Tanks – YouTube Polish Cavalry Charges Tanks! Charge at Krojanty – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Polish cavalry – Wikipedia, the free [...]

  15. 15
    mattias says:

    I think the Polish Cavalry general was drunk when he ordered a Cavalry attack with horses. i mean Panzer iv VS man on a horse, its not a good combination.

  16. 16
    Andrzej S says:

    I suppose that this debate will carry on forever. Yes the Polish army did attack tanks with horses, of course they would, all of their anti-tank equipment,ie,.bofors guns,etc, were all horse drawn. another thing that most people seem to forget is that the majority of German forces were in fact horse drawn as well, and only their forward units were mechanized, all supply was still horse drawn,if not attacked from Soviet forces from the east, the Poles could of easily held the German forces at the Vistula for months, or at least until the allies(France, Britain & its Commonwealth troops) could get their shit together, But as it stands, where they were supposed to have their "last stand" was already being over-run by soviets, the polish leadership started to fall apart under the massive strain of what to do, where to go next.I must also add that,The myth that Polish Calvary stupidly attacked anything that moved was started by the German Command to say that Poland was not a valuable ally, and therefore not worth saving. Cheer's, and Have a nice Day.

    • 16.1
      MartinZibellina says:

      Blitzkrieg was necessitated by the fact that the germans did not yet have resources for a traditional advance, a battle "in depth". Had the september campaign lasted more than 6 weeks, they would have been in serious trouble.

  17. 17
    eric says:

    The sole problem here is with the word "charge."

    It's most certainly the case that Polish cavalry forces _attacked_ tanks (and in at least some cases, with success).

    Obsession with the "myth" gives it wings. Much of the "myth-busting" I've seen on this topic consists of accounts of Polish light horse units attacking German motorized infantry units, interspersed with accounts of men on horseback attacking tanks with grenades. The fine distinction means a lot to you, and rightly so, but it's lost on the audience.

  18. 18

    [...] device that can do anything, everything, at increasingly fast speeds. It’s like the old rumour of Polish cavalry charging German tanks, only it happens every day in every school that hasn’t gotten around to taking measures against [...]



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