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.
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.
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.