The Myth of the “Polish Cavalry Charge Against Tanks”

When World War II kicked off with the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland, a pernicious, racist myth soon followed: the backwards, poorly-equipped Polish army rolling over at the first blow from the mighty Nazi war machine.

Probably the most famous example of this myth is the so-called “Polish cavalry charge against German tanks.” As the story goes, the Polish army was desperate, gallant, idiotic and relying on Napoleonic era tactics, while the Germans were cool, professional, mechanized and unstoppable. The nadir for the Poles came at the small town of Krojanty, when Polish lancers drew their sabers and rode their horses straight at German tanks, thinking that either the tanks were fake or that the Germans would break and run. Instead, the Germans cut them down, and proceeded to rampage through Poland as the first step toward conquering Europe.

The contributions of Polish soldiers and pilots during the invasion of Poland have been cast aside in favor of the Blitzkrieg mythos. But the truth of what happened in those first days of what became known as the Polish September Campaign is much more complicated than that. And in the process of that truth fading away, history has swallowed a nasty bit of Nazi propaganda.

To begin with, the myth of the Polish cavalry charge against tanks did actually involve an actual Polish cavalry charge. The reason for this is quite simple: in 1939, mechanized warfare existed mostly in theory. Almost every army in Europe, including Germany, still used mounted cavalry for scouting and as mobile infantry. The purpose of these units wasn’t to engage tanks on horseback, but to quickly move to areas where firepower was needed, dismount, and fight the enemy with towed anti-tank guns and small arms.

The aftermath of the actual charge at Krojanty.

The aftermath of the actual charge at Krojanty.

And while the Germans did have a number of tanks operating in Poland, they had yet to perfect the all-powerful Blitzkrieg that’s come to dominate our thinking about German victory. Tactical thinking of the time thought of tanks mostly as infantry support, and that was the role the German army was using them in.

Even when the tank became the dominating mobile force on the battlefield, both the Axis and Allies made extensive use of horses in a number of key roles. Germany had six horse-mounted divisions in its active ranks as late as 1945, and would employ over two million horses in the course of the war. And while the Poles never used horses against tanks, the mighty Soviet Army did. The early days of the German invasion of the USSR saw incompetent and sycophantic commanders throwing masses of horse-riding cavalry against German armor, with horrific results for both man and beast.

All of this is to reinforce the idea that the Poles weren’t “backwards” for employing horse-mounted soldiers – they were perfectly in keeping with the established military doctrine of 1939. Nor was the actual charge at Krojanty “the last cavalry charge in history” as some have suggested.

So what did happen the day “Polish cavalry charged German tanks?” Very little, as it turns out. It was a small skirmish in a campaign that lasted over a month, one battle out of many that only became famous because of the myth that rose up around it.

Only hours after the German invasion, two squadrons of horsemen from the Polish 18th Lancer Regiment caught a German infantry unit in the open near the town of Krojanty. Having the advantage over the unaware and lightly armed infantry, and tasked with delaying the German armored thrust, the Poles swiftly attacked.

Sabers were drawn and the order to charge was given. The 250 Polish horsemen broke up the enemy unit, inflicting 11 dead and 9 wounded on the stunned men of the German 76th Infantry regiment. The Germans panicked, broke ranks and ran for it.

But as the Poles consolidated their position, several German armored cars appeared, opening fire with machine guns and 20 millimeter cannons. The Lancers were caught in the open, just as they had caught the German infantry in the open. In the ensuing melee, about two dozen Polish troops were killed and the rest scattered. Despite the losses, the Lancers had done their job. They had delayed the German advance by several hours and sent panic through their lines – a feat that Polish cavalry would accomplish many other times during the September Campaign through charges against infantry.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the skirmish at Krojanty that the myth of the “charge against tanks” was born. After the Lancers scattered, the Germans retook the area in force, bringing tanks in as reinforcement. At that point, several war correspondents, including Italian journalist Indro Montanelli and the future author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer, were escorted onto the battlefield. They were told that the corpses they saw were the result of an attack with horses and lances against the tanks they saw, and breathlessly repeated the story in their papers, playing up the bravery – and foolishness – of the Poles.

The cover of a Hitler Youth magazine from 1939, exploiting the myth of the "charge against tanks."

The cover of a Hitler Youth magazine from 1939, exploiting the myth of the “charge against tanks.”

Shirer especially got caught up in the romantic notion of doomed horsemen charging tanks. He wrote about the charge in his 1941 book Berlin Diary, and embellished it even more in 1959 in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Despite 20 years having passed, and no evidence ever surfacing to confirm the story, Shirer imbued the incident with an almost Homeric mythos, writing:

“At one point, racing east across the [Polish] Corridor, [The Germans] had been counterattacked by the Pomorska Brigade of Cavalry, and this writer, coming upon the scene a few days later, saw the sickening evidence of the carnage. It was symbolic of the brief Polish campaign.

Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught.”

What Shirer “saw” was only what the Germans had told him happened.

Equally guilty in propagating the “horses against tanks” nonsense was the famed German panzer commander General Heinz Guderian, who wrote in his memoir Panzer Leader,

“[W]e succeeded in totally encircling the enemy on our front in the wooded country north of Schwetz and west of Graudenz. The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and had suffered tremendous losses.”

The myth was later used by the Soviet Union as an example of how Polish officers, who Stalin would order massacred in 1943, were backwards, untrustworthy, uncaring about the fate of their men and useless as combatants.

With respected figures like Shrier and Guderian pumping it up, the myth became an accepted part of World War II lore, even as subsequent writers tore it down as an example of Nazi propaganda. Even as recently as 2009, the British newspaper The Guardian ran an editorial that referred to the bravery and stupidity of the non-existent incident, a mistake they later printed a retraction to correct.

Poland may have fallen to the German invasion, but her troops exacted a heavy price. Nearly 45,000 Germans were killed or wounded. 300 aircraft were destroyed, along with over 12,000 vehicles, including over 1,000 tanks and armored cars. And Polish soldiers, sailors and pilots would make great contributions to the war effort, with as many as 1 in 12 of the British pilots who saved the United Kingdom in 1940 being an exiled Pole.

These sacrifices deserve far more attention than one debunked, racist and incorrect bit of made up history.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
This entry was posted in History, Urban Legends and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Myth of the “Polish Cavalry Charge Against Tanks”

  1. Castielstar says:

    Funny how these stories spread…or don’t, according to where we are in the world. Despite the Guardian (Groaniad) story, I’ve never heard of this growing up, yet I know all about Polish pilots. Maybe the part of UK I’m from took a different slant because I grew up in Lincolnshire, home of lots of airbases even now; Or my grandad serving in the RAF; Or the local Polish community that has been round here since WWII; But I never heard denigratory stories about Poles in WWII like this one. Good to hear it is just stories, blown out of proportion really, because there were a lot of real brave and foolish deeds on all sides – why should any one nation be picked on?

    • Michael says:

      unfortunately UK haven’t appropriately commemorated polish pilots, just after WWII they tried to hide presence of polish pilots fighting for UK.
      Funny thing, those pilots were far more better pilots then rest, Czech’s were also top pilots in this air battel

  2. Walter Clark says:

    Excellent report Mike. The effectiveness of the lesser mechanized over the more mechanized is all over history. Why the more mechanized eventually wins has to do with the ability to win the battle of attrition. If you can afford expensive weapons you can continue to supply weapons of any kind along with 18 year old’s whose parents are paying for the war. But just imagine how far that attrition could go if the good guys used the tactics of WW2 Poles or the Viet Cong.
    There’s two groups of friends that Democrats and Republicans share; financiers and weapons makers. The last thing these statists would consider is how effective gorilla war is as a defense. War establishes the supremacy of the state. Obedience and tax collecting are easy during a war. In peace time preparation for war against a perceived enemy is a good substitute.

  3. Richard Goth says:

    Poland in 1939 had about 150 modern 7TP tanks ( arguably better than German or Russian models), 38 less modern Vickers mark E, and 174 largely obsolete French Renault FT17. Add to that about 200 armored cars. Its ironic that Polish tank development led to a real scare in soviet circles and kicked off the tank race that lead to Germany’s defeat at Kursk.

    I have always been led to believe the Polish failure was due to deploying tanks in “penny packets” following WW1 French and British doctrine. That and losing air superiority at an early stage. The cavalry charge story has always struck me as ridiculous, so its good to finally get a coherent explanation!

  4. Jeff McLennan says:

    Is ‘racist ‘ the correct term to use here? I don’t believe Poles are considered a race by any normal definition. Maybe an ethnicity. Although I guess ‘ethnicist’ doesn’t roll off the tongue.

    • Martin says:

      In the Nazi dogma the Slavs were considered Untermensch, so I think “racism” probably is the correct term. Also don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that white (or black or Asian, or Middle Eastern or etc.) people are all the same race. Same species, yes; same race, no.

  5. Douglas says:

    German tanks with lances, keep in mind why this isn’t necessarily as foolhardy and ridiculous as it might seem today:

    1) The Poles were highly over-confident as to the true German armed might. They believed that reports that their own military attache, observing the Luftwaffe formations flying overhead on Hitler’s B-Day, were flying the same aircraft over and over again, repainting different unit markings each time. They believed anecdotes that only one of three Bf109s and Ju88s actually had engines, and of those that could fly, their engines would seize up after only a few hours flight time. They believed that the Panzerwaffe was also a sham, employing wooden mockups mounted on trucks to inflate their numbers (which HAD been used in exercise which Polish officers, observing war gammes per the 1934 non-agression treaty, reported on). To suppose that a brave Polish officer charged a German Panzer I on horseback, using his lance to reveal the sham, is believable.

    2) The Poles did resist bitterly and even handed the Germans some setbacks, notably (a) at the Battle of the Bzura and (b) when the Panzers reached the outskirts of Warsaw on Sep 8, 1939, they were stopped cold by hurriedly improvised anti-tank ditches and gun positions, which resulted in the loss of 40 German tanks that day. Their doom was in fact sealed by the Soviet invasion on Sep 17, 1939, which although relatively few Polish forces were left to oppose them, denied a “Carpathian Redoubt” which the Poles hoped to make a stand until the UK and France could get into the war.

    3) The Polish Air Force was not caught on the ground and largely destroyed on the outset of the German attack. They were simply outnumbered and their planes largely outclassed, though they gave great account of themselves against the Luftwaffe. In fact, many Polish pilots would serve in the RAF (No. 303 “Koziusco” squadron) and the Soviet V-VS and further harry the Luftwaffe.

    4) The Poles were doomed not only by being outnumbered (the German High Command knew that it would take weeks for the French to effectively mobilize, so they could leave but a token screening force in the West and fully commit to subduing Poland) but also by their insistence on defending their frontiers, especially in the “Corridor” and in Silesia. It’s true that these were economically valuable areas, but staging fully a third of their army in and near the Corridor practically invited encirclement from a massive pincer movement from Silesia and East Prussia. Also, analysts agree that what is commonly considered “Blitzkrieg” was not truly employed in this campaign. Though German armor would play a role, a decisve factor in the German victory was the punishing effect of their artillery, which the Polish deployment played right into.

    5) Considering the contribution that the Poles made alongside the British (three RAF squadrons, Polish Airbrone brigade, Long Range Desert Group to name a few), and even the Soviets (First and Second Polish Armies), we can put to rest any disparagement of the fighting abilities and spirit of the Poles.

  6. Factchecker says:

    In the interest of correctness, which you are right to emphasize, it’s Shirer who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

  7. Michael says:

    Western Europe don’t know anything about Polish contribution during WWII.
    We suffer the most but we fought till last end.
    Most of you don’t know that except Nazi Germany we had to fight with far more dangerous enemy – Soviet Russia. Every grands tell you that soviets were much more likely to behave like barbarian, even comparing to nazi germans ‘achievements’.
    Soviets have done more bad things to our nation than Germans.

Leave a Reply