Thursday, May 29, 2014

Kawaleria Polska

A Thousand Years of Polish Cavalry
(Pomnik Jazdy Polskiej)
When I was a kid, we learned about many things, some of those things were true, some - not so much. A few days back we looked at the whole "hiding behind rocks and trees" to defeat the British during the Revolution.

Okay, we did do that to a certain extent. But that isn't what won the war. No matter what you learned as a kid.

Another enduring legend/myth I had been taught as a kid is that when the Germans invaded Poland on the 1st of September in 1939 (starting WWII), the silly Poles had nothing but infantry and cavalry to fight the "hordes" of German tanks and motorized infantry. They actually attacked German tanks on horseback! With swords!

Nope. Wrong. Didn't happen like that. That was German propaganda, not fact.

Polish Cavalry in the 1930s

Polish cavalrymen made quite a name for themselves over roughly a thousand year period. The terrain of Poland is mostly flat, lots of fields and is admirably suited to cavalry. Of course, because it's so flat, and there aren't many convenient barriers to outside enemies, Poland got invaded, a lot.

In fact, Poland has moved around a bit since the founding of the Polish nation. Seems the Russians, Austrians and Prussians liked to invade Poland, back in the day. Afterwards they would divide the spoils. Everybody would get a piece of Poland. Sometimes the Poles were left some of their land, sometimes not. Many was the time in history where Poland as a nation ceased to exist as a political entity. But the Polish people remained.

These maps will give you an idea how Poland has drifted about over the centuries. Always the Polish people remained, paying taxes to first one king, and then another. Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin always seemed to anchor Poland, even when the state itself had been submerged by foreign invaders.

The modern Polish state (in gray above) really started up again in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the rise of the Solidarity movement and the fall of the Soviet Union. Finally Poland was free to be Poland, no longer under the heel of some larger state. The freedom-loving Poles were free once again.

Now what about that Polish cavalry versus German tanks myth? First of all, let's look at the battle honors inscribed on that monument at the top of this post:
  • Cedynia 972
  • Psie Pole 1109
  • Legnica 1241
  • Płowce 1331
  • Grunwald 1410
  • Obertyn 1531
  • Orsza 1564
  • Byczyna 1588
  • Kircholm 1605
  • Kłuszyn 1610
  • Trzciana 1629
  • Beresteczko 1651
  • Warka 1656
  • Alsen 1658
  • Podhajce 1667
  • Chocim 1673
  • Wiedeń 1683
  • Parkany 1683
  • Zieleńce 1792
  • Samosierra 1808
  • Lipsk 1813
  • Stoczek 1831
  • Grochów 1831
  • Walewice 1863
  • Rokitna 1915
  • Krechowce 1917
  • Jazłowiec 1919
  • Koziatyn 1920
  • Komarów 1920
  • Korosteń 1920
  • Krojanty 1939
  • Mokra 1939
  • Bzura 1939
  • Wólka Węglowa 1939
  • Kock 1939
  • Montbard 1940
  • Tobruk 1941
  • Monte Cassino 1944
  • Falaise 1944
  • Moerdijk 1944
  • Ancona 1944
  • Bolonia 1945
  • Borujsko 1945
(There are links to many of those battles here.)

For nearly 1000 years Polish cavalry have fought the enemies of Poland. One of the earliest types of Polish cavalry were the "winged hussars." (Read more about them here.)

Polish Winged Hussars

These troopers were tough, masters of their horses and their weapons. The weapon most famously associated with the Polish cavalry was the lance.

The Emperor Napoléon was so impressed with the Polish lancers that he incorporated a unit of them into his Imperial Guard. A detachment of these men went into exile with the Emperor on Elba upon his first abdication. (Lancers were also known as ułani in Polish, which translates as uhlan, another popular term for cavalry armed with lance and dressed in the Polish style. Especially in eastern Europe.)

Polish lancers of the French Imperial Guard

One of the most famous incidents involving Polish cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars was at the Battle of Somosierra, in Spain. (Source)
The Battle of Somosierra occurred November 30, 1808 in the Peninsular War, when a French army under Napoleon I forced a passage through the Sierra de Guadarrama shielding Madrid.

At the Somosierra mountain pass, 60 miles north of Madrid, a heavily outnumbered Spanish detachment of conscripts and artillery under Benito de San Juan aimed to block Napoleon's advance on the Spanish capital. Napoleon overwhelmed the Spanish positions in a combined arms attack, charging the Polish Chevau-légers of the Imperial Guard at the Spanish guns while French infantry advanced up the slopes. The victory removed the last obstacle barring the road to Madrid, which fell several days later.
Because the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked by infantry movement, and Napoleon was impatient to proceed, he ordered his Polish Chevaux-Légers escort squadron of 125 men to charge the Spaniards and their fortified artillery batteries. To that number must be added members of other squadrons, totalling some 450 men, but these entered the battle later.

Jan Kozietulski, who commanded the 3rd squadron that day, mentioned that he called, "Lekka jazda kłusem!" ("Light cavalry at the trot!") and, passing the little bridge, added, "En avant, Vive l'Empereur!" (Forward, long live the Emperor!")
Polish Light Horse at Somosierra

The Poles fought (and died) at Waterloo. Many died in the massive cavalry charges which took place on that field.

Polish cavalry uniforms.
2nd Uhlan Regiment (1914-1918)

1st Wielkopolska Uhlan Regiment

The jacket and traditional four-cornered Polish cap are called the kurtka and czapka. These were worn by most nations fielding units of uhlans.

German Uhlan, 1914
(The German czapka had a rather Teutonic look to it!)

The Poles were tough, well-disciplined troops. As with many armies throughout history, their politicians failed them. The Poles went to war in 1939 with the army they had, perhaps not the army they wanted. However, here's a couple of extracts from a great write-up concerning the opening moves in September of 1939. (Read the whole thing here.)
By late afternoon of that first day, the German 20th Motorized Infantry Division was approaching the city of Chojnice, in the Tuchola Forest, about 165 miles northwest of Warsaw, and it was threatening a key railroad junction in the village of Krojanty about four miles northeast of Chojnice. Army Pomorse forces in this area consisted primarily of the 18th Lancer Regiment of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, commanded by Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz. Having been ordered to hold the area, Colonel Mastelarz decided to take the regiment’s 1st and 2nd Squadrons through the forest and attempt to attack the German infantry positions from the rear. That evening, Mastelarz’s two cavalry squadrons surprised a German infantry battalion in an open area.

Ordinarily, after cavalrymen had arrived at a battle area, they would dismount and use their rifles and other weapons to engage the enemy. However, in this case, Mastelarz had the advantage of both surprise and mobility, so he ordered a mounted saber attack against the German infantry.

The 1st and 2nd Squadrons, a force of about 250, charged out of the forest across an open area and into the German formation. With only a few casualties, the Poles quickly gained the advantage during the close-in fighting, and the Germans started falling back.

Just when it looked like the Poles were going to win the skirmish, several German armored cars equipped with machine guns and automatic cannon appeared and opened fire on the Polish cavalry who then broke off the attack and retreated from the battle scene. Losses to the Polish squadrons were about 20 killed, including Colonel Mastelarz, and an unknown number, probably about 60, wounded or captured. This was the first cavalry charge of World War II.
A MYTH IS BORN. Two days later, General Heinz Guderian, commander of the 19th Corps, of which the German 20th Motorized Division was a part, wrote that, “…we succeeded in totally encircling the enemy on our front in the wooded country north of Schwetz and west of Graudenz. The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and had suffered tremendous losses.”
The myth led to the belief that the Poles had no armored vehicles, and that they were so primitive that they thought military tanks could be attacked and destroyed with saber and lance. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Polish cavalry units were trained and equipped to combat both tanks and infantry.

Polish cavalrymen were essentially mounted infantrymen using their horses to move quickly from one location to another, and the weapons that they normally used against enemy infantry were their rifles. Sabers and lances were seldom used in combat except for close-in fighting from horseback where they were more effective than rifles with affixed bayonets.
However, there was no need for the Polish cavalry to use sabers or lances against German tanks. Each cavalry battalion carried deadly Swedish Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns and Polish-designed Maroszek WZ 35anti-tank rifles for use against enemy tanks. A projectile from the Polish anti-tank rifle, with a muzzle velocity of over 4000 feet per second, could penetrate the armor of any German tank in the field. Polish anti-tank rifles were so effective that hundreds of them captured by Germany were reissued to German military units that then used them against French tanks when Germany invaded that country in 1940.

Nor was there reason to believe that the Poles were ignorant of the nature of tanks. In 1939, Poland had more than 600 tanks. Most of them were small tankettes armed with only machine guns. In addition to these, Poland fielded 38 British-built Vickers 6 ton tanks and 135 7TP tanks of Polish design based on the Vickers tank. Each single-turret version of these Polish 7TP tanks carried a 37mm main gun and up to 17mm of armor plate. They were superior in both armor and armament to most of the invading German tanks, and they were the world’s first diesel powered tanks to see action.

Another, perhaps less-familiar, fact regarding Polish knowledge of tank technology is that the rotating Vickers Tank Periscope used in 40,000 allied tanks during the war was originally called the Gundlach Peryskop obrotowy and was invented in Poland in 1936. It was the first periscope to provide a tank commander a 360-degree view without turning his head.
Yup, the guy driving the motorcycle is toast!

Even today, the Poles remember their traditions.

The Polish cavalry lives on!

Niech żyje Polska!

For my buddy Paweł. (Yes Paweł, I will get to 303 Squadron eventually!)


  1. Great history lesson, thanks!

    1. And I do love me some history!

      (Thanks, Cajun.)

  2. I have a few videos my grandmother shot of my grandfather's horse artillery battery crossing Memorial Bridge in DC before the War. The videos of the 1st Infantry Division gallop in review were fascinating. Just before we entered that war, the Army was still almost all horse drawn. FDR and Hitler were very good for defense contractors.

    1. I had no idea your grandfather was in the horse artillery. Have you ever posted about that?

      As a glutton for history, those things fascinate me.

  3. So glad to have stumbled on this post! You've included some background that I haven't learned before and the images are wonderful, especially the Winged Hussars. Thanks, it was fascinating reading for this little old lady in NJ.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.