Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Myth Busting (or Obalanie Mitów, for Our Polish Chanters)

Sounds like a job for us!
Uh, no. Sorry guys, I loved your show, I mean SCIENCE! What's not to love? But I'm going to bust a couple of historical myths today. More up my alley than yours I think, but I have no doubt that if there were things that were alleged to go fast, or things that are supposed to go BOOM, you'd be just the guys to call on.

But not today.

Today I want to talk about Poland in World War II and, as a special treat, introduce you to an historical (kind of) YouTube channel I stumbled across over the weekend (thanks to a tip from one of the readership) which also features a band which is, I understand, very popular in Poland. In fact, our own Polish Correspondent Paweł has mentioned them on more than one occasion.

(No, it's not the Foo Fighters, PLQ, you can keep reading...)

Polish Cavalry on Maneuvers in the 1930s
As a kid I learned that in World War II, Germany invaded Poland and in the space of a month forced Poland to surrender. During that short campaign I was taught that the Polish horse cavalry actually charged German tank units and were shot to pieces. The first statement has some truth to it, but it's certainly not the truth. The second statement is absolute horse dung. (Seeing as how we're talking about cavalry here.)

In reality the Poles fought hard, damned hard, killing 16,343 Germans, destroying 236 panzers, and shooting down 246 Luftwaffe aircraft. The Germans were rather shaken at the ferocity of Polish resistance and that some of their own tactics weren't as good as they thought.

Hitler had wanted to invade the West soon after the Polish campaign, his generals convinced them that they needed to rethink some of their tactics. If they suffered the same level of casualties against the French, with their very large army compared to Poland's, they might face a repeat of the First World War. Or worse.

Hitler agreed to a postponement, eventually, because of the weather the Germans didn't invade the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France until the spring of 1940. The Poles bought the West eight months. Eight months in which the western Allies essentially sat on their hands, they too expected a repeat of WWI in which staying on the defensive proved to be the winning plan. They were wrong.

Now as to Polish cavalry, men on horseback, attacking German tanks? Didn't happen. At least not in the way the propagandists and journalists (but I repeat myself) claim it happened. You can read full accounts here and here, but I'll synopsize what happened for you. (A brief off-the-top-of-my-head history lesson. A general account of Polish cavalry and propaganda can be read here. )

It's the evening of the 1st of September 1939. A German infantry battalion is resting after a hard day's slog into Poland, the invasion seems to be going well. While the tankers get all the press, these men marched into battle much the same way as Frederick the Great's troops went to war. On foot.

In a field near the town of Krojanty, in Polish Pomerania (parts of Pomerania lie in Germany as well, it's called Pomorze in Polish, Pommern in German) Polish scouts have discovered the enemy infantry, resting, obviously tired from a long day. The Poles don't care, their ancient enemy has again violated the land of Poland, for that they must die.

Polish cavalry emerges before the tired Landsers can react, many are killed, the rest are scattered as Polish steel slashes down upon the old Teutonic enemy. The Germans flee in great disorder, those who can still move anyway.

But nearby German reconnaissance elements, mounted in armored cars, react to the Polish attack and counterattack the Polish horsemen. Men on horseback are no match for machine guns firing from behind armor. With no antitank support available, the Polish cavalry are forced to fall back, leaving a number of men and horses dead upon the field.

The attack bought time for nearby Polish units to fall back to more defensible positions. It takes time for a rattled and demoralized infantry battalion to regroup and for the officers to convince the men to advance one more.

The next day, after German tanks had also arrived on the scene, a number of journalists came upon the site of the recent battle. One newsman, from Italy, assumed that because there were German tanks on the field, and a number of dead Poles and their mounts, that the Poles must have insanely attacked German armor. On horseback.

The Germans present weren't going to argue with that report, it made people forget about the embarrassment of having a battalion from the mighty Wehrmacht defeated and dispersed by Polish cavalry.

In later years the western Allies added to that myth, the goal being to paint the Germans as these efficient bad asses with this really efficient army. It's all about appropriations after all, then as now. If you paint your enemy as larger than life, you'll get more money. Sad but effective, after all, your average western politician doesn't like spending money on the armed forces unless you hold a metaphorical gun to their collective heads. In late 1939, early 1940, the Wehrmacht was that metaphorical gun. (Truth be told, the British and the French were all set to pick up where they left off in 1918. The Germans weren't.)

Remember, the Poles weren't just fighting the Germans, the Soviets stepped in to steal their piece of Poland as well. A piece they hold to this day. (Even though the USSR is long gone.)

Strength of the forces attacking Poland:

Starting on 01 Sep 39

Germany: 60 divisions, 6 independent brigades, 9,000 artillery pieces, 2,750 tanks, and 2,315 aircraft.

Slovakia (a German puppet): 3 divisions

Joined on 17 September:

Soviet Union: 33+ divisions, 11+ independent brigades, 4,959 artillery pieces, 4,736 tanks, and 3,300 aircraft.

Total manpower: 1,500,000 Germans, 466,516 Soviets, and 51,306 Slovaks

Strength of the forces defending Poland:

Poland: 39 divisions (24 of which were mobilized on September 1st), 16 independent brigades, 4,300 artillery pieces, 210 tanks, 670 tankettes (essentially a very small tank), and 400 aircraft.

Total manpower: approximately 1,000,000 men.

The cost?

Germany: 16,343 killed, 3,500 missing, 30,300 wounded 236 tanks destroyed, and 246 aircraft lost.

Slovakia: 37 killed, 11 missing, and 114 wounded.

Soviet Union: 5,327 killed, missing, and wounded - 43 tanks destroyed

Total attacking casualties: 59,000

Poland: 66,000 dead, 133,700 wounded, 660,000–690,000 captured, 132 tanks and armored cars destroyed, and 327 aircraft lost.

Total Polish casualties: 859,700–889,700 men. (Source)

Some of the German POWs held by the Poles at the cessation of hostilities in 1939.
Not the usual picture we're used to seeing of the Wehrmacht during the Polish campaign, is it?

If you get the impression that I really like the Poles, you'd be correct. I have written of their cavalry before, and probably will again. To the brave men and women of Poland, may you always be free in truth as much as you have always been free in your hearts! Niech żyje Polska!

As for the band and the new historical website? The band is Sabaton (which also has this meaning - A sabaton or solleret is part of a knight's armor that covers the foot) these guys from Sweden perform a number of songs with an historical basis, now they have a YouTube channel which combines the two - Sabaton History. Here's the first episode, which covers a battle in Poland in September of 1939. Again proving to the Germans that the Poles were not pushovers on the battlefield!

Let me know what you think. I didn't think I'd care for these guys at first, but hey, history, it's what I live for!


  1. Don't forget that the Poles are about as smart as they come. Copernicus, and all that, you know.

    1. I have a number of friends of Polish descent, wicked smart they are. There were a lot of Poles in my hometown, folks who know how to have a good time!

    2. the biggestg gift of Poles to allied cause...
      without our foundation work Ultra would have hard time even taking off

    3. Absolutely, the Poles were absolutely critical to breaking Enigma Near the end of that story at the link is this:

      "We want to present a more complete picture of the past. It’s important to do justice to the people involved but to underline and underscore the strong cooperation between Britain and Poland when it came to Enigma."

      Polish pilots had the highest kill rates in the Battle of Britain, Polish troops fought in the North African, Italian and Normandy campaigns, and were involved in the Battle for Berlin.

      Despite their efforts, a British desire to appease Stalin meant that Polish forces, still under the command of Poland's independent government in exile, were banned from taking part in official V-E Day celebrations.

      Yup, gotta keep Stalin happy. Stupid bastards.

      Great comment, Paweł!

    4. hardly being sympathethic to Stalin, I cannot let be understated Soviet effort in the war.
      basically, between start of Barbarossa and the D-day, they were killing Germans in larger numbers than any other allied war effort, and even after the D-day they kept doing their fair share
      German KIA casualties by theatre according to Field Army (Feldheer) stats
      Poland 1939 16,343
      Norway 1940 4,975
      West until D-day 1939-44 66,266 (French were underestimated!)
      West after D-day 1944 54,754 (until november)
      Africa 1940-43 12,808
      Balkans 1941-44 24,267
      Italy 1943-44 47,873
      home front (air bombardment and so on) 64,055
      Russia 1,419,728 !!!!

    5. We in the West cannot deny that the USSR did the bulk of the heavy lifting on the ground in the war against Fascism. However, it has also been documented that without aid from the West the Soviets might have negotiated a separate peace with Hitler. Detroit motorized the Red Army more than most people know.

      But yes, the Russians suffered greatly, more from Stalin than from Hitler, but oh did they suffer!

    6. A half million "Studers", as the Russians called the Studebaker version of the 2 1/2 ton truck we gave them under lend lease certainly helped a bit. I love " Studer ", if I ever get a Studebaker pickup, I shall name it that!

    7. That's a (pardon the expression) boatload of trucks. (Actually several boatloads.)

  2. A good number of our fellow citizens don't know much of American history let alone other countries, although I believe that is not true of my fellow Chanters. A good many Poles ended up in the RAF, sixteen squadrons I believe by the end of the war. The office I worked at while I was in Chicago was located in a Polish neighborhood and several co-workers were of Polish extraction. Hard workers and a couple were chain-smoking fiends....ya.. smoking was prevalent in the break-room along with the work area. Good post Sarge.

    1. Ah, the old days.

      Thanks Nylon12!

    2. I once bought a 1/72 Spitfire, to make a Seafire out of it. But when I saw the decal sheet, and realized it was a Polish Spit, I decided to find another Spit to convert. The Polish Squadrons are too honored!

  3. Huzzah! Needs more Polish cavalry songs!


  4. Replies
    1. It was an image of the Polish flag... didn't translate well.

    2. Ah yes. I get why Blogger is particular about images in the comments, Lord knows what chaos would ensue...

      I like the Polish flag comment though,

    3. Or their army badge - Quarterly, argent and gules, a bordure counterchanged. Translated, a square with 4 squares in it, top right white, top left red, bottom right red, bottom left white, and then you take 1/4 of the outside and make it the other color. Look it up. Trust me. I'm a heraulde... Not Harald, who had a blue tooth and died. Not Harold, who got an arrow in the eye...

  5. The Poles have always been a premier fighting force. Unfortunately, our government and our media has portrayed them for a long time as less than brilliant people. I remember all the Pollack jokes growing up. Not cool, but we were mean to everyone, so...

    But then, when growing up, started finding out about how absolutely kick-ass cool the Poles were. Which made me angry at teachers who denigrated them, which meant I did not do well in those classes (do not ever ever try to buck the socialist propaganda machine, it will mangle you... Instead, destroy it outright with the blinding light of truth, taped to a baseball bat....)

    And not one of my 'teachers' told us about the Soviets shafting Poland for their own reasons. Bastiges, bastiges all.

    I still maintain that we should have supported England and what French forces actually wanted to fight ON OUR SIDE, and should have left Russia to hang by themselves. They would have done as much damage to Germany, while correspondingly taking many much more damage in return, and probably would not have been able to make a play for Manchuria and Japan in the last weeks of the war. But then again, I am a firm believer that the enemy of my enemy is just the enemy of my enemy.

    Go Poland. Let the Winged Hussars ride again! (And, yes, I really like the way they are currently handling certain political issues, which I won't go into right now. But unlike Germany the Polish Leopards are capable and actually run!)(And so do their planes, their infantry rifles shoot, and the few ships they have actually work...)

    1. I cannot disagree with a single word. Well said, brawo!

  6. The Poles played a big part in the Battle of Britain, the air war over Europe and had ground forces in a lot of the major ground engagements. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._303_Squadron_RAF https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._303_Squadron_RAF

    1. Yes, indeed. 303 Squadron has been written of before, here for one. Valiant lads those Poles. Read up on the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Poles fought hard in that one, and of course many others.

  7. Screwed up second link. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_contribution_to_World_War_II

    1. There just ain't no "quit" in the Polish soul.

    2. tell me about it... think about persistence to get our state back...

    3. Took a long time, but you guys didn't give up.

  8. Good post. Despite their inferior numbers, they didn't waver a bit, and the casualties on both sides are indicative of that. I'm curious to know how many casualties did the French inflict and suffer when they were invaded. By the way, the Poles were a welcome part of our coalition during the post-911 Long War. I escorted a bunch of them around Ft. Bragg when I was running exercises at CENTCOM.

    1. The Germans suffered 157,621 total casualties (27,074 dead) in the Battle of France in 1940. They also lost 1,236 aircraft and an estimated 795–822 tanks.

      The French and British combined lost 360,000 dead or wounded, 1,900,000 captured, 2,233 aircraft lost, 1,749 French tanks destroyed and 689 British tanks lost. Of course, the captured included the bulk of the French armed forces when their government surrendered.

      The Poles are one of our best allies these days.

  9. If you like heavy metal and historical battles you'll love Sabaton.


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