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1939 - Polish Army - World War II

The tales of Polish caGalry charges against tanks stemmed from a small skirmish near the village of Krejanty on the evening of 1 September 1939. Two squadrons of the 18th Lancers, after executing a successful charge against a German infantry battalion in a wood’s clearing, were suddenly attacked by two German armored cars, losing several dozen men before they could withdraw to a nearby copse. Italian journalists visiting the scene the next day were told that the troopers had been killed while charging tanks, and German propaganda further embellished the tales. Even the Poles have promoted the tales, if only as a metaphor for the bravery of Polish troops in 1939.

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.

Although Polish army officers came to realize in the 1920's that widespread adoption of machineguns by the Red Army would drastically reduce the viability of mounted charges, in the absence of a mechanized counterpart the cavalry was still viewed as a vital mobile force in the vast reaches of the Ukraine and Eastern Poland. Mechanization of the Polish Army was slowed by the conservative traditionalism of the cavalry as well as by formidable economic barriers. Mounted charges had been frequently successful in the 1920 war, but cavalry doctrine after that war gradually turned to the employment of the cavalry in a dragoon fashion, using the horses for mobility, but attacking on foot. In 1934, the lance was officially dropped except for training, though the sabre was retained to supplement the standard arm of the cavalry, a 7.92-mm carbine of the Mauser pattern. Mauser pattern.

Polish field regulations of the 1920's did not seriously consider cavalry-tank configurations as the Red Army had even fewer tanks than the Polish Army, and the German Reichswehr, by law, had none. The speedy growth of Soviet tank forces in the 1929-32 period prompted the Poles to issue new instructions for the cavalry in 1933 dealing with antitank combat. Enemy tanks were to be dealt with by the new "P" armor piercing machinegun ammunition and by cavalry, armored cars, and tankettes at short ranges. At greater ranges, horse artillery batteries were to be used.

What was not appreciated at the time was that newer Soviet tanks were more heavilty armored than their Polish counterparts and were largely invulnerable to heavy machinegun fire as the "P" type ammunition could only penetrate 9-mm of armor at 250 meters. Nevertheless, the 1933 instructions did not view antitank operations as a predominent concern of the cavalry, and foresaw no major difficulty in a direct tank-vs-cavalry engagement, if properly handled.

By 1936, this view had completely changed. The Cavalry Department was shocked when the German cavalry began to be mechanized following the Nazi rise to power, and both Germany and the Soviet Union embarked on massive tank production programs. The 1937, cavalry instructions offered a more sophisticated tactical approach to dealing with armor than the 1933 instructions. The new instructions covered the organization of opposing forces, the use of terrain in defeating armor, and the means available to a cavalry brigade in defending against tanks. The instructions pointed out the revolutionary tactical implications of armored divisions and acknowledged that “cavalry forces will continually face (armored forces) and must learn to deal with them if they (Cavalry) are to fullill their assignments.”

The 1937 instructions finally recognized the central role that armored formations would play in a future war, but misperceived both the striking power of armored divisions and the means necessary to defeat them. These mispercep tions were based to some extent on Polish inexperience with armored formations larger than battalion size as well as internal controversy within the Polish Army over cavalry mechanization which made any objective evaluation of German or Soviet armored divisions very difficult.

Officers outside the cavalry were irritated by the generosity shown to the cavalry brigades in the annual Polish military budget, and were skeptical of the cavalry’s reputed abilities in modem war. Polish cavalry brigades, though only 37-43 percent the size of infantry divisions on war footing, received 80 percent of the annual funding allotted to an infantry division due to the high cost of their mounts and their larger professional cadre during peace time.

The cavalry’s reactionary position would have been given less credence elsewhere in the army had it not been for Poland’s own disappointing experience with tanks. The Polish armored force, until 1936, was equipped almost entirely with tankettes and light armored cars. The cavalry was very familiar with these vehicles as each cavalry brigade had an armored troop equipped with 13 TK or TKS tankettes and seven Model 1934 armored cars. The tankettes were so lightly armored that they were vulnerable to heavy machine gun fire under 250 meters and were only armed with a single machinegun. Their mobility was very limited and they were extremely prone to mechanical breakdown. The armored cars were little better, though some were equipped with short barrelled 37-mm guns of WWI vintage.

Polish cavalry officers failed to display the imagination to realize that counties which enjoyed more extensive technological facilities could develop armored vehicles which transcended the technical and operational fi-ailties of their own meager armored force.

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.

There were charges of cavalry with the saber, during the brief September Campaign just over a dozen of them were recorded. They were punctual actions in which they had a clear advantageous position for the cavalry, or else the situation was already totally desperate. Usually these charges were against infantry units, never directly against armored units, and in most cases these charges culminated successfully for the attacking cavalry.

A more representative example of cavalry-vs-tank action occurred on 1 September 1939 near Mokra between the Wolynian Cavalry Brigade and the 4th Panzer Division. The success of the Wolynian Cavalry Brigade on 1 and 2 September in repulsing the attacks of a force considerably larger and with far greater firepower than itself is illustrative of both the excellent training and tenacity of Polish cavalry in the 1939 fighting.

During the attack on the positions defended by the 12º Uhlan Regiment “Podolski”, 4th Panzer Division lost about 40 cars and armored vehicles. When finally the Polish Cavalry had to retire, the following day, had suffered about 500 casualties against the 1,200 dead and wounded and 40 destroyed tanks of the Germans. Also the same of September 1st, during the Battle of the Woods of Tuchola, in the Pomerania corridor, the 20th German Motorized Division was stopped by the Cavalry Brigade “Pomorska”, the head of the division arriving to request permission to retire before an “intense pressure of the cavalry”.

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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Page last modified: 27-02-2019 18:52:44 ZULU