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.