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Taking a page from J. E. B. Stuart, Soviet horsemen proved that the cavalry was still a potent fighting force, even against the German blitzkrieg.

On September 19, 1939, the Times of London grimly informed the British people that “the heavy mechanical superiority of the enemy”was breaking the resistance of their Polish allies. A terrible poignancy was added to the report by accounts of desperate gallantry. Polish cavalrymen had, apparently, charged German tanks in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the Nazi juggernaut. The only reward for their reckless courage had been “the useless sacrifice of brave men.”

Heinz Guderian, the Nazis’ panzer maestro, made a sneering remark in his memoirs that “the Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with sword and lances and had suffered tremendous losses.” The lesson was clear: cavalry had no place on modern battlefields dominated by armor, automatic weapons, and aircraft. Only a hopeless romantic could think otherwise—and he had better be prepared to pay with his life for clinging to that outmoded dream of chivalric combat.

Most historians since have assumed that those dreadful days of September 1939 were the last hurrah for the horse soldier. Yet the truth is surprisingly different. Those tales of Polish lances broken on the hulls of German tanks were ill-founded—and the mounted arm would prove itself yet on the battlefields of Eastern Europe.

In the case of the Polish campaign, it is likely that the newspaper accounts of charges against tanks reflected either journalists’ ignorance of modern cavalry tactics or editors’ taste for the melodramatic. Guderian’s testimony is similarly unreliable. His claim that the Poles did not understand the nature of tanks was demonstrably untrue. The Polish army had been using tanks since 1920, when they deployed French Renault FT17s in their war against the Soviets. Furthermore, Polish cavalry units were well prepared for action against armor in 1939. Lt. M. K. Dziewanowski recalled how his brigade engaged panzers with antitank guns and grenades and reserved the saber for a successful charge against a German infantry regiment it caught marching on an open road toward Warsaw.

In the long run, though, Polish troopers could do little more than contribute to the heroic but doomed defense of their nation. It would fall to Stalin’s Red Army to prove that cavalry still had a viable role in modern warfare.

That the Soviets should have maintained mass formations of cavalry—the Red Army had twenty-six cavalry divisions, each of five thousand sabers, in June 1941—was not as odd as might seem. Russia had a rich heritage of mounted warfare that survived even the Bolshevik Revolution. Russian military doctrine had long emphasized the “deep strike”—strategic raids by horse-mobile forces against distant targets.

To Russian military thinkers, the cavalry raids of the American Civil War had affirmed the importance of the deep strike, and their example informed Russian doctrine for decades afterward. In 1943, the Western journalist Walter Kerr was astonished to hear from Soviet troopers that “their idea of a perfect cavalryman was J. E. B. Stuart.”

The tactical heritage of Russian cavalry also prepared Soviet horse troops well for the new circumstances posed by the mechanized warfare of World War II. In 1884 Britain’s military attaché at St. Petersburg had noted that the tsar’s troopers were “specially taught to pride themselves upon their ability to fight on foot, and to take the place of infantry.” Gatling guns were issued to provide both fire support for mounted action and defensive firepower in the face of attacks by Turkmen cavalry during campaigns in the Caucasus in the years 1863 to 1881.

To counter their own vulnerability to enemy firepower, Russian troopers used open-order formations for mounted shock combat. Cossacks, the freebooting people of the frontiers, were particularly adept at a swarm attack: the lava. As British journalist Robert Wilton described it:

When the signal for the lava has been given the [horsemen] gallop wildly without any semblance of order. Their commander has, however, remained behind, and they are watching him. With a movement of his sabre he directs exactly what each sotnia [squadron] and each man has to do. Suddenly the confused mass separates, dashing off in different directions. Then another wave of the sword, and lo! as if by magic the helter-skelter resolves itself into a combined onslaught upon the enemy’s flank or rear. To use a homely simile, it is something like the charge of American footballers, with consequences even more fatal.

This cavalry tradition might well have ended with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks were initially dismissive of the cavalry arm as a tool of the aristocratic-bourgeois counterrevolution and maintained only small formations. Yet, by 1919, the White Guard counterrevolutionaries were giving a practical demonstration of the might of mass-mounted forces. In August 1919, Lt. Gen. K. K. Mamontov had smashed his way through Soviet lines at the head of eight thousand Don Cossacks. He wreaked havoc for more than a month, blowing up bridges, destroying supply dumps, and even “liberating” twenty thousand reluctant Red conscripts.

Moscow learned its lesson, and Soviet headquarters issued a proclamation: “Proletarians to horse!” Thus was the thirty-thousand-strong First Red Cavalry Army (the KonArmiia) called into existence, to be commanded by an ex-sergeant of the tsar and swaggering crony of Stalin, Semyon Budyonny.

The war taught important tactical lessons too. The Whites set the pace, integrating new weapons systems into cavalry formations. British-supplied tanks supported White cavalry at the capture of Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) in June 1919, punching through fortifications and allowing the horsemen to exploit the breakthroughs. Overhead, the Royal Air Force’s 47 Squadron flew close support missions to assist the White cavalry forces.

In Ukraine, Makhnovist (anarchist) forces developed the tachanka, a horse-drawn carriage mounting a machine gun, which could keep pace with cavalry across most terrain, providing fire support for shock combat. As the swelling ranks of the Soviet horse armies established their battlefield dominance, they adopted and refined these techniques. The blueprint for modern cavalry became clear: motorize logistics to take weight off the horses’ backs and thereby increase their radius of action; deploy light tanks, armored cars, and tachankas to bolster the integral firepower of large cavalry formations; provide antitank and antiaircraft guns to protect against enemy armor and aerial attack.

The Soviets were not alone in their vision. In the armies of the other leading powers there were those who argued not against mechanization, but for the retention of some proportion of horse cavalry, with its own integral armor and artillery to add firepower. In Germany the case was made by Hans von Seeckt; in Britain by Sir Douglas Haig; in the United States by George S. Patton.

Yet nowhere else did cavalry receive the kind of patronage it was enjoying in the Soviet Union. In the West, the self-proclaimed prophets of future war invariably derided the horse soldier as an anachronism. J. F. C. Fuller, Britain’s fractious guru of armored forces, went so far as to pronounce the “doom of all muscular warfare” in 1920. The military theorist Basil Liddell Hart sneered at the cavalry’s record in World War I, dismissing its contribution as “trivial.” Britain and America set about mechanizing their cavalry, replacing horses with tanks.

However, even as Fuller was consigning the horse to history, masses of Polish and Soviet cavalry were locked in combat along the Vistula. The eventual failure of the Red Army before Warsaw did not shake the Soviets’ faith in the mounted arm. Its cross-country pace was unmatched. Against prepared defenses it suffered heavily, but on the long fronts with low troop densities common in Eastern Europe, it could pierce enemy lines and strike into hostile territory, ripping up communications and overrunning troop concentrations. When deployed in mass, as a corps or as a horse army, cavalry could undertake these operations independently; self-provisioning allowed it to live off the land and cut loose from its supply lines.

With the Red Army’s doctrinal preference for mobile, offensive warfare, it is unsurprising that veterans of the KonArmiia, such as Budyonny, Klimenti Voroshilov, and Semyon Timoshenko, dominated the Soviet military throughout the interwar years. Indeed, Russian historians have spoken of a dictatorship of the cavalry unique among the great powers. While they would prove poor field commanders during World War II, these men did ensure the survival of a viable cavalry alongside the Soviets’ armored, airborne, and artillery arms.

At the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934,Voroshilov asserted “first and foremost, it is necessary to put an end once and for all to the wrecking ‘theories’ on the substitution of machines for horses, on the ‘withering away’ of the horse.” The 1940 Field Regulations specified the operational missions of cavalry as flank and rear attacks; penetration of weak defensive lines independently or in conjunction with infantry and armor; envelopment and encirclement; harassment in active defense and in pursuit.

Although Stalin had himself been a patron of the cavalry, the successes of German panzers in Poland and France in 1939–40 gave him pause. The Red cavalry was actually being reduced when Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Yet, as a result of its performance in the fighting that followed, the cavalry not only earned the right to survive but was significantly expanded. In the defensive battles of the summer, cavalry was used as a mobile reserve, delivering counterstrikes against the lead elements of the invading army. For example, on June 30, German and Romanian troops hit the junction of the Soviet 47th and 35th Rifle Corps and threatened to take the town of Kishinev. The 2nd Cavalry Corps, under Lt. Gen. Pavel Belov, was ordered to blunt the attack. His command covered almost a hundred miles in three night marches, through an area with no proper roads and under a constant downpour. Belov deployed a proportion of his command to meet the enemy head-on, pinning them with fire. The rest of the corps remained mounted and maneuvered to threaten the enemy’s flanks. By July 8, the Germans had given up the fight into Kishinev and switched their attack northward.

The speed of the German advance often spread out the units thinly, allowing Soviet cavalry formations to launch raids into its enemy’s rear. At dawn on August 28, Col. Lev Dovator led a cavalry group of three thousand sabers (accompanied by medium and light machine guns but no artillery or armor) in a mounted attack which broke through the 450th German Infantry Regiment.

Over the next two days, Dovator’s command inflicted some twenty-five hundred casualties on the Germans; they overran two regimental headquarters and the topographical department of the Sixth Army; they destroyed two hundred motor vehicles, two tanks, four armored cars, four artillery pieces, and six mortars; and they captured fifteen hundred rifles and automatic weapons, which were used to arm a partisan detachment left behind the German lines.

More significantly, the raid so unnerved the German high command that it slowed its advance in that sector, withdrawing units from the frontline. Aircraft, armor, and motorized infantry all failed to intercept Dovator as he weaved across the country and passed safely back through the lines. By late summer, a number of new cavalry formations had been established, and the Soviet army would eventually field eight full cavalry corps. The contributions of Belov and Dovator in slowing down the Nazi advance were recognized, and they were given command, respectively, of the 1st and 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps.

Yet the campaign had also revealed shortcomings in the equipment and handling of Soviet cavalry. Like many Red Army units, they were often short of heavy weapons: antiaircraft guns, artillery, and mortars. Furthermore, Soviet military analysts concluded that some front commanders had violated the principle of mass in deploying their cavalry, feeding units piecemeal into action, or throwing them against fortified positions, a task for which they were utterly unsuited. The 44th Cavalry Division arrived from Mongolia in mid-November only to be hurled over open fields at German entrenchments near Klin, fifty miles northwest of Moscow. The division was practically destroyed. Another serious blow followed during the fighting in front of Moscow; on December 19 Lev Dovator was killed in action near the village of Palashkino, just west of the capital.

Nevertheless, over the winter the cavalry continued to prove itself indispensable by its ability to move swiftly cross-country. The deep snows were an obstacle for all units, but the horses of the Red Army proved more mobile than motorized or armored formations. The same was true when the spring thaw turned roads and fields alike to deep, clinging mud.

In these conditions, the Soviet cavalryman was dependent on his mount, and he was rarely let down. From the late nineteenth century onward, the Russians had taken the science of horse breeding seriously; by crossing English thoroughbreds with native breeds, they had added two or three inches to the height of their ponies without detracting from their ruggedness or stamina. To Western eyes, Russian warhorses may have seemed scruffy-looking little animals, but they were highly specialized pieces of military kit, as fit for purpose, in their own way, as the T-34 tank. In winter, they were expected to make eighteen to forty-five miles a day; in summer, they sometimes covered seventy miles. The Soviets had ample reserves of skilled horsemen too, who knew not only how to ride but also, crucially, how to care for their mounts in the field. Although their communities had been viciously persecuted by the Soviet regime, the Cossacks had, since the mid-1930s, been allowed to form their own units and wear their distinctive clothing once again. By 1943, the journalist Walter Kerr estimated that Cossacks made up 50 percent of Soviet cavalrymen.

With audacious leaders, hardy horses, and skilful riders, the Soviet cavalry needed only plentiful supplies of the right arms to fulfill its potential. Once the Soviet war economy and Lend–Lease began to redress the initial shortages of equipment, cavalry divisions developed impressive integral firepower: each division was assigned 118 light machine guns, 48 heavy machine guns, 74 mortars of varying caliber, 76 20mm antitank rifles or bazookas, 12 45mm antitank guns, 16 76mm antitank guns, 10 light tanks, and 15 antiaircraft guns. In addition, infantry and armor divisions might be assigned to cavalry corps. These, however, could be a mixed blessing, first because they compromised mobility and second because they encouraged front commanders to believe cavalry corps might be used for set-piece attacks against prepared positions.

These problems were exposed during the deep strike undertaken by Belov’s 1st Guards Cavalry Corps from December 20, 1941, to June 26, 1942. Group Belov comprised two guard cavalry divisions, three light cavalry divisions (three thousand sabers each but weak in artillery), and two rifle divisions. The mounted elements passed easily through German lines in deep snow. But much of the infantry, the artillery, motorized logistics, and tanks lagged behind, and the defenders closed the gap in their line before they could catch up. The cavalry divisions and two weak rifle divisions were therefore on their own.

Belov wanted to strike at the German Fourth Army Headquarters, which had withdrawn about a hundred miles southwest of Moscow. Instead he was ordered to attack a strong position at nearby Vyazma, coordinating with an offensive by the Soviet Thirty-third Army. Without artillery or armor and lacking sufficient infantry, Belov’s group suffered heavy casualties in attempts to seize fortified villages and fight their way through elements of two panzer divisions along the Smolensk–Moscow highway. Soviet paratroopers had been dropped in the vicinity, and the 8th Airborne Brigade was subordinated to Belov’s command, but it too lacked the necessary heavy weapons for the task. Throughout January and February, the cavalrymen achieved little more than a local stalemate.

Only in March was Belov’s corps released from this operation. For the next three months, his troopers occupied an extensive area of the enemy’s rear, severing lines of communication, raiding garrisons, activating partisan units, and driving German commanders to distraction trying to find this elusive enemy. By the end of May, three panzer divisions and two motorized divisions were all trying to run Belov to ground. He feinted east, pulling more Axis units out of the front line, then darted south, sweeping away much of the German 221st Infantry Division in the process. On June 17, 1942, Gen. Franz Halder, chief of staff of the German army, noted in his diary, “Cavalry Corps Belov is now floating around in the area west of Kirov. Quite a man, that we have to send no less than seven divisions after him.” On the night of June 26, the corps fought its way back through German lines to safety.

With the Soviet switch to the offensive in 1943, the practice of forming cavalry-mechanized groups (KMG), comprising one or two cavalry corps alongside an armored or mechanized corps, was established. These were used for breakthroughs during the Donbas offensive of 1943 and in the Odessa, Belorussian, and L’viv-Sandomir operations of 1944. The 1st Guards KMG led the advance through Romania and Hungary later that year. The Soviet-Mongolian KMG assisted in the defeat of the Japanese Kwantung Army in August 1945.

In these final stages of the war, Russian cavalrymen had lost none of their audacity, even using shock tactics when opportunity arose. On January 31, 1944, Rafael Lubotnik’s regiment of Baikal Cossacks charged an infantry regiment disembarking from a train near Lutsk, in northwestern Ukraine. “The great mass of German soldiers panicked and took cover behind the tracks, under the railway wagons, and between the station buildings,” Lubotnik recalled. “Some officers tried to restore order, and a few machine guns opened up, but nothing could stop the charge. We poured into the station, slashing, hacking, and cutting down the enemy soldiers with our sabers.”

The Soviets were not alone in fielding cavalry during World War II (indeed many White Russians and anti-Soviet Cossacks served with the German 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps). Yet the Red Army’s use of mounted troops surpassed that of any other combatant, and they maintained postwar cavalry formations. In 1953, retired major general John Herr, the U.S. Army’s last chief of cavalry, pointed out that the Soviets still had twenty-five cavalry divisions capable of moving across rough terrain in a way that American mechanized forces, then fighting in Korea, could not. Few in his country took Herr’s viewpoint seriously.

Neither, ultimately, did the Soviets themselves: they disbanded their cavalry soon after. One wonders whether twenty-five years later, fighting an elusive enemy in the difficult terrain of Afghanistan, they came to regret that decision.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here