Charge of the fake brigade: An enduring myth of WWII is that Polish cavalry charged German tanks. They didn’t
One of the most prevailing myths of the Second World War is that of Polish cavalry charging German tanks.
The origin of the myth most likely comes from the very first day of the war when the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans spotted a group of 800 German infantry resting in a clearing. Two squadrons of Polish cavalry seized the opportunity and charged on horseback striking the enemy down with their swords and lances.
The Poles took control of the clearing, but at the same time German armoured vehicles that had been hiding in the forest appeared and opened fire on the exposed Poles, who galloped away with heavy losses.
The next day, the Germans brought war correspondents to the scene and pushed the false narrative that the Poles had charged the armoured vehicles. The Italian correspondent wrote a colourful piece for Corriere della Sera in which he claimed to be an eye-witness to the purported charge.
The story was taken at face value and spread around the world overnight. Time Magazine and The New York Times ran lurid pieces and Winston Churchill even referred to the incident in his war memoires.
The myth has persisted until the present. On May 11 last year, a CNBC presenter said that Macy’s department store in New York “is like the Polish Army in WWII – it tried to field cavalry against German tanks and it did not end well,” which prompted a robust response from the Polish Ambassador in Washington.
The Germans spun the story because it was useful for their propaganda machine, which painted the Poles as backward and underlined German military superiority. Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels used the myth to prove the stupidity and irrationality of Poles, that the country needed to be crushed and that the Poles were incapable of governing themselves.
The mythical cavalry charge was depicted in the Nazi propaganda film Kampfgeschwader Lützow, in which Slovak soldiers dressed up as Polish cavalry. The allure of the myth is so strong that scenes from the film have been mistakenly used as actual battle footage in documentary films about the 1939 German invasion.
Meanwhile, after the war, Soviet propaganda pushed the myth as an example of the stupidity of Poland’s pre-war military commanders, who were prepared to waste their soldiers’ lives through the use of outmoded and suicidal tactics.
The Poles hate the myth because it draws attention away from their important contribution to the Allied war effort. The Polish 303 Squadron had the best kill rate in the Battle of Britain, Polish cryptologists cracked Enigma cipher machines, 250,000 Polish soldiers served under the British and 400,000 fought a guerrilla war in Poland in the Home Army.
Repetition of the myth of attacking Tiger tanks with swords perpetuates the stereotype of Poles as hopeless romantics who would rather die with honour than have the sense to live to fight another day.
Perhaps a small reason for the endurance of the myth is that the Poles actually fielded a large number of cavalry brigades in September 1939, though their main purpose was not to charge the enemy on horseback.
The brigades, equipped also with artillery, armoured vehicles and anti-tank weapons, were akin to rapid reaction forces and were ideal for covering flanks. The cavalry squadrons used their horses to cover ground quickly, then dismount and engage the enemy on foot.
Cavalry charges were only envisaged against infantry who were off guard, in camp or marching, or possibly against enemy cavalry, which the Wehrmacht and the Red Army also possessed.
Charges against armoured units were considered absurd and military experts have pointed out that it is psychologically impossible for professionally trained soldiers to willingly engage a vastly superior force in open battle. The Polish army rule book at the time recommended that cavalry withdraw or take cover when exposed in the field against heavy armour.
Indeed, historians have noted at least 17 Polish cavalry charges in September 1939, none of which were against tanks and most of which ended in success. The biggest cavalry victory was at the Battle of Mokra near Częstochowa when dismounted soldiers used their anti-tank weapons to destroy or damage around 100 German tanks and armoured vehicles.