Ask many armchair historians when the last ever cavalry charge – as in traditional, pre-tank cavalry, featuring horsemen armed with lances and swords – took place, and most will tell you that it happened during World War II.
They’ll likely go on to say that a Polish cavalry detachment armed only with lances and swords spurred their horses into a foolhardy charge, galloping straight at a German Panzer tank division with lances lowered.
This suicidal charge, the final nail in the coffin of a method of warfare that had existed for thousands of years, took place just outside the village of Krojanty in Poland during the German invasion of September 1939. The brave but quixotic Polish cavalrymen were, unfortunately, slaughtered to a man, and that was it: the final death of the traditional cavalryman.
Except, however, that this incident, described in detail even in revered works about WWII such as William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of The Third Reich and the acclaimed documentary The World At War, didn’t actually happen – at least not in anything like the manner in which it is described.
The description of Polish cavalrymen attacking German tanks with swords and lances was an invention of the Nazi propaganda machine, and it is perhaps one of the most effectively enduring pieces of misinformation that the Nazis ever spread, considering how widely-believed it is today in 2019, some eighty years later.
Perhaps what made this particular piece of propaganda so hard to completely quash was the fact that it was at least partially based on what really did happen near the village of Krojanty on September 1, 1939 – the first day of the German invasion of Poland. That evening a regiment of Polish cavalry came across a German Wehrmacht infantry unit making camp in a clearing in the forest outside Krojanty.
While the Polish cavalry, like all cavalry forces in modern armies across the globe at the time, was in the process of mechanization, a few horse-mounted regiments, relics of a former age, remained in active service while being phased out. The cavalry regiment – the 18th Pomeranian Uhlan regiment – which encountered the German troops outside Krojanty was one of these.
The men of the unit, led by Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz, a long-serving veteran who had seen battle in both the First World War and the Polish-Soviet War, were armed in the traditional manner with lances, swords and small firearms, and mounted, of course, on horses.
When Mastalerz’s scouts informed him of the presence of the German infantry troops in the forest, he knew that if he took the Germans by surprise he could strike a powerful blow against them. He ordered two squadrons, about 250 cavalrymen in total, to charge the Germans.
The cavalrymen did as Mastalerz ordered, thundering through the ranks of surprised German infantrymen and wreaking havoc with their sabers and lances, effectively breaking up and scattering the infantrymen, most of whom fled into the woods. The Poles, however, had little time to rejoice in their victory, for German armored cars suddenly appeared and began pouring machine gun fire into the ranks of the Polish cavalry.
The Polish horsemen, totally exposed in the clearing, tried to gallop away, but swathes of them were cut down by machine gun fire before they could escape. Over a third of them fell to German machine gun fire from the armored cars, which were likely Leichter Panzerspähwagens or Schwerer Panzerspähwagens.
Despite having to ultimately flee, the Polish cavalrymen did disrupt the German advance sufficiently to force them to halt for several hours to regroup.
The next day the Germans, upon viewing the battlefield strewn with the corpses of Polish cavalrymen and horses, figured that they had just been presented with a fantastic opportunity to create some propaganda that would greatly help their campaign.
They brought some German war correspondents and Italian journalists to the battlefield, showed them the corpses of the Polish cavalrymen and horses, and spun a tall tale about how the foolhardy Poles had charged a Panzer tank division – and how they had, in their reckless stubbornness to cling to obsolete traditions, been wiped out by the superior technological might of the German war machine.
The fabricated story was an instant hit: all across the world, people were soon talking about the hopelessly brave but suicidally foolish Polish cavalrymen who had tried to charge a German tank division while mounted on horseback and armed only with lances and swords.
And even after the war was over, and most of the German propaganda stories were revealed for the lies they really were, this particular falsehood endured.
The Soviets used it to mock the Polish, saying that it proved how stupid they were, and how unprepared they were for the German invasion. It was repeated as fact in many high school history classes in the West right up until the 1990s, or even later.
It may seem like a relatively harmless piece of propaganda, but the fact is that it has, for decades, caricatured the Polish cavalrymen who fought with tremendous grit, courage and determination in many other battles. It detracts from the overall contribution Poland made – which was of incredible significance – to the Second World War and the fight against Nazi Germany.
Hopefully, like the rest of the lies the Nazis spread, this one too will eventually fade away.