With saber against tanks – the absurd myth of the Polish September 1939
The legend of Polish cavalry attacking German tanks with sabres and pikes is perhaps the most famous myth of the September 1939 campaign. I do not believe it is possible to determine conclusively exactly where and when this myth originated, but it is nevertheless still alive both in Poland and beyond its borders. The myth was created throughout the Polish campaign and the years that followed.
The fact that such an attack would have been a clear suicide, and no commander in his right mind would have given such a stupid order, in no way diminishes the popularity of these stories, repeated with wonder even by well-known authors.
It shows that it is very hard to remove any stereotype, however utterly absurd, when it is so deeply ingrained.
How is a myth born?
On September 1, 1939, in the so-called Pomeranian Corridor, the German 20th Motorized Infantry Division attacks Chojnice from the west. In the late afternoon, along the Chojnice-Nakło railway line, a battle ensues between the leading German troops and two incomplete squadrons of the 18th Hulan Regiment, under the command of Colonel Mastalerz of the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade. The Hulans are ordered to counterattack to allow their own infantry to retreat. The horsemen form up in a loose formation in a sparse forest near the village of Krojanty. The cavalrymen jet out of the woods and surprise, poorly secured and in a long line, a battalion of German infantry stretched out in uncovered terrain. They immediately switched to a cavalry charge and decimated the surprised Germans. At the end of the engagement, a column of armoured cars appeared from Chojnice, unbeknown to the Hulans. A hail of bullets from the armoured personnel carriers rained down on the Poles, and before they could turn their wild horses, the carnage began. Staff Sergeant Świeściak, who is attacking, falls from his horse to the ground, death also finds the regimental commander, Colonel Mastalerz (the first regimental commander to fall in 1939). In a few moments, the Hulans lose half their numbers.
This attack by the Hulans at Krojant would later give rise to the legend.
The following day, Italian war correspondents were brought to the scene of the clash where the fallen Poles lay and were given the story of the cavalry attack on the tanks. The Italians, having a similarly sentimental relationship with the cavalry troops as the Poles, could not miss such a sensation of the fighting in northern Poland.
Montanelli's correspondence, tinged with some literary colour by the journalist, glorified the courage of the Polish cavalrymen before the Italian public. After its publication in Italy, the article circulated almost all over Europe. The Germans immediately picked up on the Italian idea, and as early as 13 September an article about grotesque Polish cavalrymen attacking German tanks with sabres and spears appeared in the propaganda magazine Die Wehrmacht. The latter, moreover, allegedly naively believed their officers that German armoured vehicles were made of plywood.
Unlike the Italian journalists, the German propagandists were not concerned with the good image of the Polish soldier; they were mainly concerned with ridiculing his resistance in the eyes of the Western Allies: France and Great Britain. The mocking campaign of Nazi propaganda continued throughout the war. An interesting episode in this campaign is the 1941 film by director Hans Bertman, Kampfgeschwader Lützow. In this feature-length "pseudo-documentary", the filmmakers of the Tobis studio presented a "demonstrative" course of the Polish campaign and the alleged Hulan attacks. The film was largely shot in a German training area near Kolobrzeg and, unfortunately, excerpts of it are still used to illustrate the Polish campaign in many documentaries from the early days of World War II.
The nonsensical myth continued to be fed in post-war popular Poland. The official propaganda of the PLR, promoted the myth of attacking Hulans because it was very concerned with discrediting the pre-war officer corps - the arch-class enemy. Party officials thus found the film about the Hulan shvadrona "Lotna", by the young director Andrzej Wajda (the acclaimed director and author of "Katyn" himself later described his 1959 creation as the worst film of his career), very useful. However, much to the satisfaction of his comrades, viewers (mainly the young who had not experienced the events of September 1939) were disgusted to watch officers mindlessly leading ordinary soldiers - sons of workers and peasants - to certain death in the name of defending their sanctioned Poland...
Even the veterans' protests did not change this picture. The lack of truthful and, more importantly, easily accessible work on the subject, created an empty corner in which falsehoods were brilliantly spread. Many a journalist, columnist and historian has been seduced by it...
So how did the Polish cavalry actually fare?
Despite a certain anachronism, the cavalry, thanks to its glorious traditions, was considered the elite of the Polish army. Its preservation was the result of a binding interwar military doctrine. During this period, the Soviet Union was considered the main enemy, and the army's development plans were subordinated to this policy. These were influenced by the wartime lessons of 1919-1920, when it was the cavalry manoeuvring on the Polish-Soviet border in densely wooded and marshy terrain, without adequate communications, that demonstrated its qualities.
The Polish cavalry was trained in the late 1930s primarily as dragoons (dragon regiments originally originated as infantry using horses only for movement), their historical names "hulans, skirmishers, mounted riflemen" were retained out of piety for tradition. During training, emphasis was placed on foot combat tactics, simply cavalry fighting as infantry transported on horseback. It had, of course, training in mounted combat, including the characteristic mounted charge - the last phase of the charge of the cavalry with drawn sabres, when the horses gradually go from a trot to a canter followed by a gallop.
The cavalry armament did not lack sabres, but the main armament was actually identical to that of the infantry units. In the pre-war period, the hulks had also received training with pikes, but they were certainly not used in any way in September 1939, except for those with regimental flags and chevrons, which, as a decorative element, traditionally marked the location of the commander.
Cavalrymen were therefore not romantic suicides, but disciplined and well-trained soldiers.
In September 1939, the Polish cavalry had 37 cavalry regiments grouped into 11 brigades, designed mainly to secure the wings of armies. The cavalry units, numbering about 70,000 men in total, accounted for 8% of the Polish army.
The cavalry brigade, with three regiments, numbered, according to the war record, 6,143 men and had 5,200 horses. The brigade had 12 75 mm calibre field guns, 90 heavy machine guns, 18 anti-tank guns, 2 40 mm calibre anti-aircraft guns and 66 anti-tank rifles. In addition, an armored convoy was assigned to the brigade with 18 TK-3, TKS tanks and armored cars.
The Polish pre-war cavalry brigade was equivalent in strength to a weak infantry regiment, deprived of heavy artillery support. Its strengths, however, were a greater number of anti-tank weapons and armoured vehicles. Nevertheless, Polish cavalry brigades were unable to conduct independent operational tasks and their role was mostly limited to reconnaissance and covering manoeuvres or surprise attacks on enemy weak points. In accordance with the regulations, a cavalry brigade of four regiments was to defend, in the case of a positional defence, a stretch of 2-4 kilometres. The first sequence consisted of three dismounted regiments without horses. In their rear, at a distance of about 2.5 kilometres, was deployed a fourth regiment on horseback and an armored convoy (tanks, armored cars), ready to quickly support the first sequence or cover the retreat of the front troops.
In the case of a flexible defense, a cavalry brigade could stretch its lines up to 8 km. The first sequence was occupied by only one regiment, which was to receive the enemy's blow, then initiate a retreat and bring it into the area of the flank counterattack of the remaining parts of the brigade, supported by the concentrated fire of the cavalry artillery section (12 or 16 guns 75 mm).
The dismounted cavalry units were held about a kilometre behind the fighting position. About 30% of the troops were then assigned to guard the horses, thus reducing the combat strength of the regiment (depending on the type of dismount) to 360-430 men and that of the entire brigade to 600-800 men. Only the addition of an infantry battalion significantly increased the strength of the brigade, but the interaction of the infantry with the fast-moving cavalry was often problematic.
What next for the nonsensical myth?
It will probably go on living its life and remain the most popular allegory of the hopeless situation of the Polish army in September 1939. Moreover, during the four decades of Communist rule in Poland, the image of a hulking man rushing against a German tank became almost an image of heroism. The Poles themselves, instead of fighting against these false accounts, became hostages of false theories and often their faithful believers.
It is a question of whether its negation has any meaning at all, if by chance in this way it does not lead to its further popularization. Furthermore, the question arises as to why it is only the Poles who still have to refute this nonsense, unlike, for example, the Italians, whose "Savoia Kavalleria" attacked machine-gun nests and trenches on the Don in 1942, as did the British light brigade at Balaklava during the Crimean War, and no one blames them...
But back to the actual cavalry attack with sabres in hand. The Germans may have seen it from tanks at some point and the Poles will stubbornly deny it. But the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle in this case as well.
After all, what was a cavalry charge to Guderian or a war correspondent may in fact have been quite a different manoeuvre.
A cavalryman charging on horseback through an enemy position (maybe armored) had to draw his sabre to have at least some sort of weapon in his hand.
Otherwise, could the German tanker have accurately guessed what maneuver his mounted enemy was performing? If he could see through the narrow window of the tank, people on galloping horses, he automatically saw for himself a Hulan attack and did not think that perhaps he had only met a reconnaissance squadron. If, moreover, he was leading the fire and saw a lot of fleeing horses without riders, he certainly thought he had carried out a proper massacre, and meanwhile, the Polish riders could have led the horses of dismounted Hulans from the battlefield to safety - well, there goes the myth!
The Polish cavalry in September 1939, sharing the tragic fate of the entire army, paid a huge and bloody toll. Without doubt, it knew how to fight bravely, and it carried out its tasks honourably in most cases. The soldiers often compensated for the numerical and technical superiority of the enemy, with high morale and courage.
That the hooting, whether with patriotic enthusiasm or in confusion or fear, but probably with a mixture of these emotions that accompanied these young boys on the battlefield, sometimes stuffed themselves right under the barrels of machine guns in the heat of battle - is quite another story.
With our heads bowed to the heroes of those events, the best we can do is to consider what the Battle of Mokre, for example, would have been like if it had not been fought by the Volyn Cavalry Brigade but by - let's say - the Volhynia Armoured Brigade...
Piekałkiewicz Janusz, "Wojna kawalerii 1939-1945", AWM publishing house, Warszawa 2004, ISBN: 83-7250-074-6
Piekałkiewicz Janusz, The Polish Campaign - Hitler and Stalin are smashing the Polish Republic publishing house Naše Vojsko, ISBN 80-206-0759-5
Dziubiński Piotr, "Krojanty - fakty, myths, wątpliwości", Histmag.org, https://histmag.org/?id=1154
Battle of Krojanty, Wikipedia, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitwa_pod_Krojantami
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