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1939 - Polish Army - World War II

The Polish army of 1939 was not as backward as it is often portrayed and fielded a tank force larger than that of the contemporary US Army. The Polish cavalry was well trained, fought bravely, and may well have been a serious threat to other cavalry or even dismounted troops. During the famous Battle of Vienna (1683), Polish cavalry, known as "winged horsemen," charged the enemy. By 1939 Polish mounted cavalry units, distinguished since their days of Napoleonic service, were used for scouting, screening, and reinforcements.

Russian cavalry had not distinguished itself particularly during World War I. By 1920, under civil war conditions, cavalry recovered its place as the combat arm of a war of maneuver. Strategic cavalry repeatedly played the role of shock force striking deep into the enemy rear, disrupting his command and control, and demoralizing his forces. Budennyi's Red Cavalry quickly became the stuff of legends. Among the most celebrated of these operations were those in the Ukraine in June-July 1920, when Konarmiia was redeployed from the Caucasian front to the Southwestern Front to form the strike group for a drive to liberate Kiev and push the Poles out of the Ukraine. The Polish 3rd Army was spread thin and had few effective reserves. Thus, one cavalry division was able to break through the lines and mount a raid on Zhitomir Berdichev in the first week of June. The Polish commander responded by shortening his lines and giving up Kiev. The blows of the Konarmiia were in this case combined with pressure from the Soviet 12th Army, and this created the impression that the Polish defenders faced the possibility of being surrounded and cut off. Polish cavalry proved totally ineffective in maintaining contact with Budennyi's forces.

In World War Two, many nations still saw the value in having mounted troops. Contrary topopular conception, most of the supplies and artillery of the armies of the world in 1941 were in fact horse drawn. Many countries in Europe continued to use horse cavalry, including Germany, Russia, Italy and Poland. The Polish cavalry of 1939 was an effective force within its own borders but completely inadequate when confronted by German tanks The armies of the 18th and 19th centuries could not wage war successfully were it not for aththproficient cavalry arm, and bold and courageous cavalry leaders, scouting in advance of the army, gaining vital information to be transmitted to the commander. With the advent of advanced weaponry (rifled artillery and small arms), with a greater range and rate of fire, the cavalry charge was a decidedly risky tactic that had to be used wisely, and at exactly the right moment.

The Poles had wanted to mobilize much sooner, but delayed at the insistence of the French and British, who feared mobilization would provoke Germany. The Germans, however, did not succeed in gaining tactical surprise as some historians suggest. Poland's defeat was inevitable so long as France and Britain avoided engaging invading German forces. Even under favorable conditions, Poland could not have resisted the German threat singlehandedly. While the Polish armored forces would not compare with those of Germany or the Red Army, it was large, and in some respects, more modern than tank units in the United States at the time.

Polish handicaps during 1939 were the lack of operational mobility and poor communication and control. Polish High Command was surprised by the speed of the Panzer division and shocked by the intervention of the Red Army against Poland. Although armor played a subordinate role in the campaign from the Polish view, Polish tactical anti-tank policy was sensible and vigorously pursued. German Panzers, prepared to meet a symmetric threat of other tanks and mechanized units, were easily able to deal with the Polish cavalry. Thus, the Polish cavalry, although different from the symmetric threat, was not an asymmetric threat.

A popular myth is that Polish cavalry armed with lances charged German tanks during the September 1939 campaign. This often repeated account, first reported by Italian journalists as German propaganda, concerned an action by the Polish 18th Lancer Regiment near Chojnice. This arose from misreporting of a single clash on 1 September 1939 near Krojanty, when two squadrons of the Polish 18th Lancers armed with sabers surprised and wiped out a German infantry formation with a mounted sabre charge. Shortly after midnight the 2nd (Motorized) Division was compelled to withdraw by Polish cavalry, before the Poles were caught in the open by German armored cars. The story arose because some German armored cars appeared and gunned down 20 troopers as the cavalry escaped. Even this failed to persuade everyone to reexamine their beliefs -- there were some who thought Polish cavalry had been improperly employed in 1939.

Germany's Wehrmacht decimated the Polish cavalry - and later the entirety of the largely agrarian Polish society - because of Poland's reluctance to advance. Polish troops fought as well as the German infantry when the odds were even, and better than the French and British once they engaged in 1940. Of the 1.1 million Polish mobilized in 1939, at least 320,000 died during the war - half of these in the September 1939 campaign. Polish troops continued fighting after Poland fell; their scattered forces making up the fourth largest Allied army by the end of the war.

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