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Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Steve Cole reports:

When I was in high school world history class, we got to World War II. (I had already read more books on WW2 than anyone in the school, including all of the teachers, but never mind.) The teacher took a class to regail us with funny stories of Polish cavalry units charging German tanks with pointy sticks. (Funny, all of the WW2 books I had read barely mentioned the Poland campaign, but then, it didn't last very long.) The stupid and vainglorious Polish cavalry, their pointy sticks hopelessly behind the times, became an article of faith, repeated by college level military history professors and ROTC officer instructors. I even designed a wargame (Poland 1939) without hearing anything to the contrary.

The funny stories turn out not to be entirely true. Well, not even remotely true. The Polish cavalry had stacked their lances in the warehouses in 1935 and only got them out for parades. Polish cavalry in 1939 carried rifles and operated as horse cavalry did during all of World War II (except for one battle), as dragoons, that is, as mounted infantry. (Yes, there were over a hundred thousand horse cavalry in World War II, mostly German and Russian, but some Japanese, Romanian, and even Italian.) The Polish horse cavalry would ride to the battle, dismount, and fight on foot with rifles, machine guns, and even small anti-tank cannons. No, there were no charges against tanks with pointy sticks.

If the myth has any basis in fact at all, it comes from a strange incident on the first day of the war. The 18th Polish Lancers, part of the Pomorski Brigade, caught a group of German infantry resting in a forest clearing. They launched a mounted charge with sabers, wiped out the small group of  infantry. Then, a group of German armored cars appeared, and fired on the still-mounted cavalry, causing horrendous casualties. The surviving cavalry, trying to find a way out of the trap and trying to escape, galloped through the formation of armored cars, leading the armored car crews to report that crazy Polish cavalrymen had charged them (with swords, not pointy sticks).

Poland had a long history of good cavalry. Napoleon delighted in his Polish Uhlans (lancers, those pointy sticks were used in the wars of 1800-1815.) Poland was a conquered nation for the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming independent by the force of its own soldiers in 1920 (and only because Russia had collapsed into its own Civil War). Polish soldiers, the most elite of whom were the cavalrymen, drove the Russians out of Poland after two years of desperate fighting. The Polish cavalry beat the vaunted Russian Cossacks in stand-up fights, and outmaneuvered the Russian infantry. The Polish cavalry brigades were the elite of their Army. Poland was slowly converting cavalry brigades to use tanks; one had been converted to light armor in 1939 and the rest were scheduled to be converted by 1943.  The Poles were not stupid; they were just broke. Poland was a poor country in 1939, having been free for only 19 years and slowly working its way up from the squalor in which the Czarist Russians had left it.

The truth is usually so much more interesting than the myths.