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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 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.”

A Polish town prepares for the German Invasion, 1939. (Getty Images)

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.

Until September 1, 1939, cavalry had played an important role in every battle on Polish soil, and in more than a few elsewhere. Polish knights smashed their German counterparts at Grünwald in 1410; hussars destroyed Swedish infantry at Kircholm in 1605; and King John III Sobieski’s winged hussars lifted the siege on Vienna in 1683. Uhlans also served as the elite cavalry bodyguard of Napoleon Bonaparte between 1807 and 1815. Although Poland disappeared from the map of Europe for the next hundred years, its cavalry returned with a vengeance as the nation reemerged at the close of World War I.

During the Russo-Polish War of 1919–1921, mounted forces figured prominently in the strategies of both sides. The Poles started out at a distinct disadvantage. Major Elbert Farman, an American observer, described their cavalry as “indifferently trained.” He noted a mixture of Austrian, German, and Russian regulations, a lack of firearms, poor march control, and little interest in dismounted action. He also pointed to an overabundance of staff, and a clublike atmosphere where regimental officers could blackball a new candidate. These handicaps were in sharp contrast to the hard-hitting troopers of the Soviet cavalry army, the Konarmiya.

The Konarmiya, commanded by Semyon Budyonny, sliced through Polish defenses around Kiev in June 1920. An excellent cavalry commander, Budyonny converted Poland’s retreat into a rout; Poland’s mounted forces were unable to stop the Bolshevik raiders. But strong leadership, reorganization, and better equipment allowed for a complete reversal in August.

That month Polish general Juliusz Rommel (a distant relative of future German field marshal Erwin Rommel) lured Budyonny into the Komarow valley, near Zamosc. With infantry dug in to block any quick retreat, Rommel employed regiment- and then brigade-size mounted attacks that forced the Konarmiya to crash through the Polish trench lines, eliminating this once formidable Russian unit from the war. Uhlans also played a key role in turning the Bolshevik Third Army’s flank in September, driving them from their Neman River position. The Poles took 50,000 prisoners in a crushing victory.

The Russo-Polish War profoundly influenced Polish tactical and strategic doctrines. But coming on the cusp of a revolution in military technology—mechanization—the conflict presented a mixed set of clues for future conflicts. For instance, at the Battle of Janow in July 1920, Colonel Mieczyslaw Butkiewicz charged his 13th Wilno Uhlans into a Soviet unit. Weapons of choice included lances, sabers, and pistols.

By the clash’s conclusion, Butkiewicz had cut down his Soviet counterpart, while his troopers had destroyed one enemy squadron and routed the rest. A few months later, victory came from a wholly different direction as Polish armored cars spearheaded motorized infantry to punch through Bolshevik lines, overrunning artillery batteries and capturing the key rail junction of Kovel on September 12.

It took some time to sort these lessons and to establish an operational doctrine. Poland tweaked its cavalry’s mission and organization in 1924, 1929, and 1937. Mounted troops were organized into divisions, small scouting units for the infantry, and independent squadrons of the Korpus Obrony Pogranicny (or KOP, the Frontier Defense Corps). By 1935 divisions were considered too large for the mainly defensive operations envisioned by Poland’s general staff. Subsequently, the largest cavalry unit was the brigade. At maximum strength of 7,184 men, it contained four mounted regiments; a horse artillery regiment; an infantry battalion; cyclist, armored car, and light tank squadrons; plus 12 small support units.

The cavalry regiment, usually kept at full strength even during peacetime, totaled about 850 men. They were divided among four mounted squadrons, a heavy machine gun, and an antitank squadron. Troopers’ weapons consisted of bolt-action rifles, automatic pistols, grenades, bayonets, sabers, and lances. These last were used as weapons in 1920, but never seriously considered for any future conflict. Their function was to assist in physical training and to improve horsemanship. Indeed, misattributed photos aside, few lances left the arsenal in 1939.

Each brigade, however, did have 7 Ursus WZ 29 armored cars and 13 TKS tankettes. Armed only with machine guns or small cannons, these were not state of the art but did help familiarize troopers with armored vehicles. Other support weapons included three UR antitank rifles issued to each squadron. Lightweight and short-range, these could penetrate the armor of most German or Soviet tanks at 100 yards and armored cars at greater range. Automatic rifles and heavy machine guns were also employed, but the most significant firepower came from artillery. A brigade had 22 modern 37mm antitank guns and 16 older 75mm cannons. Both could shatter the lightly armored tanks of this era, and since Polish cavalry gunners had long been considered the crème de la crème of artillerists, a high percentage of hits were guaranteed.

Indeed, the entire cavalry branch maintained an elite status. It attracted a better grade of recruit and trained longer. That motivated troopers, and the prestigious nature of the mounted arm made it a desirable command slot. Several former officers who fought in World War II told me they pulled every string to obtain their positions in mounted units. They also spoke of intense rivalry between regiments. All this helped create a crack force—men who would try to carry out their mission whatever the odds. And most of these soldiers recognized the clear need to field a modern army, which meant replacing horses with motorized vehicles. Some resisted—what group does not have its mossbacks?—but they were too few to halt a program started in 1936 to convert four cavalry brigades to motorized status.

The 10th Cavalry was the first to undergo this metamorphosis, getting a significant upgrade in firepower while maintaining its structure. The new 10th Mechanized, or “Black Brigade,” was completely motorized with two rifle regiments and a battalion of medium tanks. It was envisioned as an “anti-panzer” formation, and kept with the reserves.

When enemy motorized thrusts were identified and the axis of attack determined, the 10th Mechanized would use its speed and mobility to set up ambushes along the road network. These “mechanical cavalrymen” traded their horses for trucks, jeeps, and motorcycles but kept the same basic firepower as their mounted counterparts. What made their units different were additional armored cars and tanks. The former, Ursus models, were average designs with machine guns or 37mm cannons. The latter—VAU-33s, copies of the Vickers six-ton model—had two machine guns or a 47mm cannon. All were useful by modern standards but very expensive for a poor nation like Poland. By the start of World War II, only one more cavalry unit, the Warszawa Brigade, had been motorized.

In fact, by 1939 Poland’s 70,000 horse-mounted troops were still the mobile branch of the army. Traditions and colorful uniforms aside, it was a logical decision for a country with little cash and more than four million horses. “The real Polish military doctrine,” one historian has noted, was “the doctrine of poverty.” The Poles recognized that cavalry was inferior to armored or motorized units. The national economy, however, could not support a rapid conversion to mechanized forces.

There were other reasons a horse-borne force was not ludicrous. Poland faced potential invasion from both Germany and Soviet Russia. Its spotty national transportation network was almost nonexistent in the east, where there were no paved roads and few railway lines, rough going for any foot or mechanized units. Cavalry units, on the other hand, could maintain their mobility off-road, and could even operate with some success in the region’s formidable Pripet Marshes.

Expected to play an important role in Plan Z, Poland’s counter to a German invasion, cavalrymen were supposed to extend the maneuvering potential of the army. Brigades were to fill gaps between infantry divisions and act as mobile strike forces for counterattacks. Most important, cavalry might quickly slip through cracks in an enemy front, and seize vital ground in support of an infantry counterattack. No evidence points to training for mounted attacks in any form, except as a desperate effort to escape annihilation.

Polish doctrine was crystal clear on this point—horsemen were trained to use their mounts to speed to a battle, but once there, they were to fight on foot. As one trooper recalled, “When we heard sounds of battle, we were ordered to dismount. Quickly horses were moved to the rear. They were for transport, not for fighting tanks.”

It was recognized that, if caught in the open, especially by air or mechanized units, cavalrymen had little chance for success. Instead, they were to take advantage of their off-road mobility, move through woods, gullies, or swamps, and hit enemy units in the flank or rear. When the cavalry faced armored vehicles, their directives were clear, calling for ambush and night fighting tactics.


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Polish generals were well aware of their cavalry’s limitations. They did not, as British historian Basil Liddell-Hart once contended, cherish “a pathetic belief in the possibility of carrying out cavalry charges” against panzers. Instead, they were to attack vulnerable units in the most advantageous fashion, using cover and dispersed formations to negate the effect of air attack. The cavalry officers’ school at Grudziadz stressed these points.

Though Poland’s cavalry trained for modern war and did not yearn for boot-to-boot charges against enemy tanks, their very nature guaranteed some tactical handicaps. The horses required regular rest and significant quantities of food. They occasionally panicked when attacked by aircraft, and being rather large, presented easy targets for small-arms fire. “Horse-holders” were required to watch the animals during dismounted action, drawing troopers from combat and making the typical regiment about equal in firepower to an infantry battalion. Finally, in open terrain, horses drawing guns were slower than tanks or motorized vehicles.

In May 1939, despite these and other shortcomings, Poland refused to consider Adolf Hitler’s demand for territorial concessions. In the words of then foreign minister Jozef Beck, who had been an officer of the Horse Artillery: “We in Poland do not recognize the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the life of men, nations, and states that is without price, and this is honor.” Such a response made war inevitable, and while the concept of honor was sadly lacking among Poland’s allies, her cavalrymen lived up to its demands in September.

Months in advance, the Poles prepared for combat. In August, after repeated com- plaints from France and England, they slowed mobilization to avoid provoking Hitler. As a result, many units were incomplete on the first day of the war, a problem compounded by heavy Luftwaffe attacks on Poland’s transport network and by Anglo-French lassitude, which allowed the Wehrmacht to commit nearly all its forces to the Polish front.

Dr. M. Kamil Dziewanowski, then a lieutenant of the famous 3rd Light Horse, told me that no more than 80 percent of his regiment was mobilized.

Massive air assaults had severely degraded Poland’s transport network by September 3. Luftwaffe attacks were especially effective against cavalry units. When caught marching in road column, mounted troops were massacred and hundreds of horses were chased off. This happened to the Kresowa and Pomorska Brigades on September 2. Survivors quickly learned to march at night and maneuver in early morning when mists and fogs shielded their movements, and to hide in forests at first sight of an airplane.

Though German forces on the ground also scored notable victories, the story there was more tit for tat. The wins included saber-to-saber engagements along the Ulatowka River between the Mazowiecka and German 1st Cavalry Brigade. The majority of such battles, however, were dismounted actions. Major Stefan Maiewski, in his war diary, The Eleventh in Action, relates how the Poles set up for such combat: “Heavy machine guns were well concealed and antitank guns were ready to fire, while the Lancers, mostly dismounted, held the line.”

This, not the mounted charge, represents how most Polish troopers fought in 1939.

Even tanks could be defeated, albeit with careful plans and a pinch of luck. Dziewanowski described cavalry combat vs. armor as “a tactic of pursuit, ambush and ruse.” Antitank rifles and 37mm cannons were the tools of choice in such operations. Hidden in bushes, gullies, or other cover, both presented almost invisible targets to the noisy, high-profile panzers. A more dangerous but equally profitable tactic was to get close and attack with grenade bundles or petrol bombs. The former could knock off a track, and the latter started engine fires; in either case the tank was finished. This kind of work required skilled, daring, maybe even foolhardy soldiers—just the kind of men found among Poland’s uhlans.

The most noted antitank action involved Colonel Julian Filipowicz’s Wolynska Brigade. North of Czestochowa, at the forested hamlet of Mokra, he prepared entrenched positions and secured fire support from the armored train Smialy. Guarding the link between Army Lodz and Army Krakow, this was a key position; and drawn like a shark to blood, with twice the personnel and even greater firepower, was the 4th Panzer Division. On September 1 and 2, withering fire smashed the Nazis’ assault. More than 50 tanks were destroyed. The next day, Filipowicz withdrew, but not before his 2nd Mounted Rifles launched a successful night raid on the supply column of the 1st Panzer Division.

Unfortunately, Mokra was an isolated event. Massively superior numbers and technology presented Germany with many victories along the Polish border. These forced the Poles to fight by day and retreat at night. Dziewanowski remembered that three hours of sleep a night was typical, and there was very little food. With no time to rest, horses grew weak and died. Horseshoes became so scarce that they were often pried off the dead.

Decision making also suffered, as units cut off from others had to quickly make choices based on weak or faulty intelligence. It was one such decision that led to the myth of lancers vs. tanks.

Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz appraised a grim situation on September 1, 1939. His 18th Uhlan Regiment, facing German motorized forces, was nearly cut off from the rest of Poland’s Pomeranian Army. Nevertheless, Mastelarz had been ordered to hold the line near Chojnice, in the Polish Corridor—the narrow slice of Poland that connected it to the Baltic Sea, but divided the rest of Germany from East Prussia. Making do, he opted for a mobile defense, counting on local forests and ravines to provide cover and a chance for ambush.

The German army enters Warsaw, Poland, 1939. (Photo 12/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Following this strategy, the colonel charged two squadrons into the flank of a Nazi infantry battalion. Success was both immediate and ephemeral; though the cavalrymen sabered their opponents, German armored cars raced into the clearing and engaged with automatic cannon fire. The cavalry hastily retreated but Mastelarz and 19 uhlans were killed.

The next day, Italian journalists toured the battlefield, and were told the troopers died while charging enemy tanks.

Good copy for newsmen, this tale of lancer vs. tank also served Nazi propaganda purposes since it presented a modern Wehrmacht in contrast to the antiquated forces of their “racially inferior” opponents. A month earlier Das XX Jahrhundret published photos of “Polish cavalry in their strange, outmoded, and pathetic uniforms” but failed to note that they depicted reenacted scenes from the November Insurrection of 1830. The October 1939 issue of Der Pimpf, the official magazine of the Hitler Youth, featured an actionpacked cover showing Polish uhlans being mowed down by a Panzer V (NbFz), a tank that was not even used in the Polish campaign. The story was repeated over and over, even becoming part of Herman Bertram’s 1941 film, Kampfgeschwader Lützow.

After 1945, legend was transformed into fact as writers included the myth in “complete” histories of cavalry or World War II, such as Len Deighton’s Blitzkrieg (1979) and Zvonimir Grbasic and Velimir Vuksic’s The History of Cavalry (1989). Respected historians such as Richard Kennedy and Anthony Polonsky echoed Liddell-Hart’s claim that Polish generals pitted mounted lancers against tanks.

As the war continued, the Polish army had far m propaganda. Many brigade vehicles had been abandoned for lack of fuel or because they couldn’t navigate around fleeing civilians who ore pressing issues to deal with than Axis crowded the roads. Constant Luftwaffe attacks added danger and confusion. Lieutenant John Tabaczynski recalled a five-day trip in which “everything on both sides of the road seemed to be burning.”

Travel via woods or rough terrain became the only safe option. It also proved the most effective way to pierce German lines, producing one of the few Polish victories of the war. Using a slower, stealthy approach, the Suwalska Brigade launched a raid on the small town of Tykocin. Its mission: to destroy a bridge, then return to the Bialowieza Forest and fight as partisans. Riding toward the target, the Poles encountered little opposition. Then, on September 9, with their target in sight and strike units under cover, scouts noted a column of German infantrymen.

General Zygmunt Podhorski, the brigade commander, opted for an ambush. First, machine gun fire raked the enemy flank and created chaos. A mounted assault by the 3rd Light Horse clinched the victory. While not quite a repeat of their famous 1808 charge at Somosierra (when on Napoleon’s orders several hundred cavalry took a well-defended mountain pass from the Spanish), it destroyed the German battalion, netted 200 prisoners, and cost fewer than 20 casualties.

About the same time, elements from the Podolska and Wielkopolska brigades led the largest Polish offensive of the campaign, which became known as the Battle of the Bzura. General Tadeusz Kutrzeba, commander of Army Poznan, started this action on September 8. His goal was to strike the German Eighth Army’s flank and relieve pressure on Army Lodz and the besieged capital of Warsaw. Lasting four days, the offensive captured much-needed supplies and thousands of prisoners. Then a significant Luftwaffe attack, plus ground reinforcements, allowed the Germans to halt and encircle Army Poznan. As spearhead units, Polish cavalry regiments suffered heavy losses. The 9th Uhlans, with a post-battle roster of only 350 mounted and 175 dismounted troopers, suffered a casualty rate of about 40 percent. Equipment losses were also heavy; the same regiment maintained only half of its heavy machine guns and a quarter of its antitank cannons. Seeing no future in his rapidly shrinking pocket, Kutrzeba ordered the mounted troops to break out and make for Warsaw or its fortress of Modlin.

Escape routes threaded through the Kampinos Forest, which featured many troublesome gullies for the horses. But the Germans were even worse off; only their unlucky 4th Panzer Division was available to block the retreat, and mechanized forces were woefully unsuited for fighting in this terrain.

Bloodied at Mokra, then battered in a failed assault on Warsaw, the 4th Panzer Division was now forced to send tanks into the Kampinos’s few sandy clearings. From September 15 to 19, it skirmished with Polish mounted units. With little room to maneuver, the tankers lost a series of ambush and night engagements. By September 20 most of the cavalry had broken into Warsaw. The men provided reinforcements for the city’s defense, while many horses became food for the starving garrison.

There was no time to savor that minor achievement. Though Warsaw continued to resist until the end of September, Polish forces everywhere were in retreat. On September 16 the promised French offensive in the west failed to materialize. A day later, Soviet armies assisted their Nazi allies by invading Poland from the east. The country was lost.

At this point, only one option remained for the defending forces—escape to fight another day. This meant making for a country like Lithuania, Hungary, or Romania, which as neutral states would be compelled to intern them. Although the Poles would supposedly be held for the duration of the war, it was hoped that they might be allowed to “escape” and make for the West to form a new army.

Low on supplies, tired, and facing two enemy armies, Poland’s defenders were hard-pressed. There was no longer a front; instead, individuals and groups forged on. One eyewitness, Franciszek Czarnomski, described one unit’s race for the border: “Such a march was not like the march of an army; it was more like the flight of some Biblical people, driven onward by the wrath of Heaven, and dissolving in the wilderness.”

While moving, not fighting, was a priority, as the Germans and Soviets closed in, heavy engagements could not be avoided. In An Army in Exile, General Wladyslaw Anders describes repeated battles between his Nowogrodzka Brigade and various German and Russian units. After breaking through several Soviet positions, Anders’s cavalrymen made for Hungary, and on September 23 participated in the Battle of Krasnobrod. Here they relearned the ancient “Parthian retreat” (a feigned retreat to draw pursuers into a trap) when German horsemen lured some uhlans into the crossfire of heavy machine guns. Next came more battles with the Soviets, who finally broke up Anders’s force near Przemysl. The general and most of his troopers surrendered, although a few did make it to Hungary. (Anders eventually made his way to the West via Russia and commanded the Polish II Corps at Monte Cassino during the Italian Campaign, 1944–1945.)

Another Polish force, Special Operational Group Polesie, represented the last major field command. Consisting of 16,000 men, one third of whom were cavalry, it fought the Germans near Kock until October 6. On that day, most of these troops surrendered, and organized resistance came to an end.

Despite this capitulation, the story of Poland’s mounted troops did not end in 1939. More than 100,000 men, many from the cavalry branch, escaped to Hungary, Romania, or the Baltic republics. As they expected, it was not hard for these soldiers to leave for the West, where a new Polish army was forming in France. Interestingly enough, almost all of the former horsemen were soon riding tanks, and once again fighting Germans, this time in North Africa, Italy, and Northern Europe. By 1945, four Polish divisions had fought with the Western Allies.

How did the story of “lancers vs. tanks” find a place in so many accounts of World War II? First, few English-speaking historians have a command of Polish, while more can read German. This effectively shuts out half the story from September 1939. Also, the scope of World War II made it easy for writers to gloss over the fairly short campaign in Poland.

Though official government histories might have set the record straight, the post-1945 political world made transparency impossible. The unpopular Stalinist regime of Boleslaw Bierut dominated Poland. To wean the public from any affection for the prewar government, tremendous propaganda efforts attempted to present unfavorable views of its leaders as Fascist collaborators. Since the old army was extremely popular, it too was a prime target in this campaign. Falsified documents appeared and military historians learned to make extensive use of adjectives like “reactionary,” “bourgeois,” “collaborating,” or “pro-Fascist.”

Stories of lancers vs. tanks were used to ridicule the prewar regime until 1956. That year, the nationalist government of Wladyslaw Gomulka emerged from the post-Stalin thaw that had swept through the communist world, allowing a more balanced review of the past. The documentary evidence was revived and writers attacked the lancer myth; since then, modern historians like Andrew Zaremba and Steven Zaloga have convincingly refuted the legend. As historian Zbigniew Zaluski pointed out even several decades ago, Poland’s past has often been “difficult” and “stormy,” but “certainly not stupid.”

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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