Did horse-riding Poles knock down Nazis?

Imagine this. The Nazis are invading. They have the most fearsome, modern armed force in the world. And what do the Poles do? They charge on horseback, sabres drawn, into Panzer tanks and heavy artillery. Can that be true?

This just might be the origin of the Polack joke. Only idiots would do this. Alas, this myth shows we’ve been falling for yet more Nazi (and later) Stalinist propaganda. It didn’t happen that way.

It happened this way:

On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. World War II had started.The invasion not only included tanks, but German mounted soldiers, and German infantry. The Polish army was prepared to try to repel the invasion with their own tank battalions, heavy guns, mounted soldiers, and infantry.

In the early afternoon of the first day of the battle, in the woods near the Polish village of Krojanty, the 18th regiment of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade spotted a battalion of German infantry–that is, foot soldiers unprotected by artillery. The Polish commander (a colonel) decided to attack with a sabre charge. They quickly overran and defeated them.

But before the Polish cavalry could reorganize and get back to their position, a German tank column and other motorized troops appeared from down the road and opened fire on the Poles.

It was a quick massacre. Twenty Polish troopers were killed while the regiment was trying to turn and retreat. The rest of the Brigade was able to escape, but it was a very bloody scene: dead cavalry and horses everywhere, sabres scattered, and German tank tracks that led right up to the original Polish position.

Not surprisingly, when Italian war correspondents were brought to the scene, it looked as if the Poles had brought sabres to a tank battle. This idea was reinforced by German troops who brought the war correspondents to the scene. These Germans may have not known exactly what happened, and they secured the notion that the Poles had launched a suicidal cavalry charge against modern tanks.

The story went out, and got pick up uncritically by all kinds of people. The German General Heinz Guderian, leader of the tank invasion of Poland, wrote in his memoirs that “The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and suffered tremendous losses.” But he was in a different part of the invasion force and hadn’t witnessed the battle at Krojanty.

Word soon spread through the German army, and the Poles were ridiculed heavily for trying to defeat modern weaponry with 18th-century tactics. Even Winston Churchill bought into the myth, writing that the Poles “charged valiantly against the swarming tanks and armoured cars, but could not harm them with their swords and lances.” As late as 1959 (and even in Poland), the fallacious tale was being retold. The Polish film “Lotna” included a dramatization of the scene at Krojanty, complete with the mythologized version of the story.

And so it was that one of the most persistent myths about World War II spread further. It’s still repeated today, even by military experts. A 2005 article in the Canadian Army Journal refers to Polish cavalry, “with little more than courage and lances,” that were “slaughtered” when they charged German tanks.

The implication of this myth is that the Poles did not have modern military equipment.

Not true. They were equipped with anti-tank weapons and anti-tank guns that could penetrate the armor of the German Panzer I and Panzer II tanks. Also, in 1939, the Polish cavalry brigades were in the process of being reorganized into motorized brigades.

Here are some genuine facts about the Polish contribution to the Allied victory.

–The Polish Navy captured the first German Enigma message coding machine. And they were the first to crack the code, providing the British with vital intelligence that helped cracked Ultra, the re-vamped Enigma code that was supposedly uncrackable.

–The Polish resistance was also crucial. The Polish “Home Army”, about 400,000-strong, inflicted serious damage on German occupying forces, and pinned them down in Poland when they might have been better-employed by the German army elsewhere. The “Eastern Front” for the Germans did not just mean fighting the Russians.

Historian and correspondent for The Times Ben Macintyre recently wrote: “The Polish contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War was extraordinary, perhaps even decisive, but for many years it was disgracefully played down, obscured by the politics of the Cold War.” And played down, we might add, by the myth of the cavalry charge.

This eagle knows the truth about the Polish cavalry myth.