It was Lenin who said “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” History can certainly attest to that, as lies, or rather the artful application of propaganda is a practice that has gone hand-in-hand with every battle or war that has ever occurred in the history of mankind. What makes propaganda so insidious is that it sometimes, but not always, incorporates a small sliver of truth amid a torrent of lies, making it all the more credible to gullible masses. World War II was fueled by such propaganda which was designed by the Nazis to undermine and exploit the weaknesses of the Allies, in particular Poland.
It is disconcerting to discover that much of the Nazi propaganda from World War II has survived to this day. What I find surprising is that otherwise intelligent individuals readily accept its precepts though they do not recognize its nature, and are unaware of its origins.
One case in point is the on-going controversy that continues to baffle and fascinate people of each generation: the myth that the Polish Cavalry charged German tanks with sabers. ( I use the words “myth” and “propaganda” interchangeably as their objectives are the same.)
In my special series called about the September Campaign, ie Invasion of Poland 1939: A Re-Enactment, I mentioned the cavalry only briefly but it needs to be addressed more thoroughly. It is true that the Polish armed forces included cavalry regiments, and they did indeed engage the Nazis in several battles. If you have followed my daily posts, you will have read about the Polish cavalry and their successful attempts to defeat German advancements, especially during the Battle of Bzura.
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, they did not expect a tough fight from the Poles. They were in for a surprise. Poland had 39 divisions, 16 brigades, 4,300 guns, 880 tanks, 500 aircraft and over one million troops. Though Poland was outnumbered and outclassed by the German war machine, Polish troops were highly skilled in warfare and ferocious fighters.
The Polish armed forces also included eleven cavalry brigades, each composed of three or four regiments with armoured and infantry battalions. After 1937 the Polish cavalry was equipped with modern armaments including tankettes, 37mm AT guns, 40mm AA guns, anti-tank rifles, 75mm guns, and other pieces of modern warfare although cavalrymen continued to carry their sabres as part of a tradition.
The Polish brigades functioned as mobile reserve units, filling in strategic gaps in the front, and acting as cover in the event that Polish units had to withdraw. Polish infantrymen had to dismount before engaging the enemy in battle. In many situations, the Polish cavalry also served as a vital tactical instrument of warfare. Their objective was not to “charge” enemy tanks with sabers in an effort to overpower them! Their power was demonstrated by their skill, agility and swiftness on horseback to surprise, disorganize and confuse enemy ranks.
From September 1 to September 26, 1939 there were sixteen documented cases in which the Polish cavalry battled German infantry units: the Poles succeeded in either dispersing, defeating or breaking through German barriers. Many attempts met with success.
On September 1st, 1939, the Polish 18th Uhlan Regiment encountered a large unit of German infantry in the woods near the village of Krojanty. Polish Colonel Mastalerz ordered a surprise attack and his cavalry charged, successfully dispersing the enemy.
The myth (propaganda) about Polish Calvary may have begun here. German war correspondents, accompanied by two Italian journalists, were brought to the battlefield. What they saw were the corpses of Polish cavalrymen and their horses next to German tanks. (The German tanks arrived on the scene only after the battle.) Upon seeing this, one of the Italian correspondents dispatched an article in which he described the bravery and heroism of Polish soldiers who “charged German tanks with their sabres and lances.” [It’s difficult to corroborate this story without reference to the newspaper in which this article was published. If anyone knows where I can get a copy, please email me.]
Another source of the myth, or propaganda, is a quote from Heinz Guderian's memoirs. He was a General in the German army and military theorist and claimed that the Pomeranian Brigade had charged on German tanks with swords and lances. It is utter nonsense.
Such a charge could not have happened, because tanks were not used in that combat. It is German propaganda at work. The Nazis often staged events to perpetrate their lies and never failed to film such events for posterity. For example, among many of the German propaganda films, is a 1941 reel entitled, “Geschwader Lutzow” which showed a staged Polish cavalry charge. And in that same film, the Germans filmed Luftwaffe Avia 534B trainer planes, and tried to pass them off as Polish PZL-11 fighters. That fraud succeeded, until the Soviets were caught trying to pull off the same ruse after the end of World War II. German and Soviet propaganda were aimed to discredit and humiliate Poland by claiming that Poland was unprepared for war and wasted the blood of its soldiers. They were lies. The fact is that the Polish Army had expected that Germany would attack. Poland was the first to fight. Though England and France gave Poland their assurance that they would intervene, no assistance was provided by either nation.
September 1, in the Battle of Janów the 11th Polish Legion Uhlan Regiment encountered a similar unit of German cavalry. Lieut. Kossakowski ordered a cavalry charge, but the enemy was resistant and after a brief skirmish, they withdrew towards their positions. (Unfortunately, I did not mention this battle and a few others in the special presentation of Invasion of Poland 1939 - due to my shortsightedness for which I am embarrassed, and do apologize)
In the Battle of Mokra, on September 1st, 1939. The Polish 19th Volhynian Uhlan Regiment took the Germans by surprise causing a number of units of the German 4th Panzer Division to retreat in panic.
September 2, the 1st squadron of the Polish 19th Volhynian Uhlan Regiment charged a squadron of German Cavalry at Borowa. The Germans withdrew.
September 11, the Polish 1st squadron of the 20th Uhlan Regiment succeeded in charging through German infantry lines at Osuchowo, in an effort to avoid being encircled.
September 12, the Polish 4th squadron of the 11th Polish Legion Uhlan Regiment charged at German positions at Kaluszyn during the night. Though the commander issued an order to move forward the regiment misinterpreted it as an order to charge. It was a success nonetheless. However the town was retaken by the Germans the next morning with heavy casualties on both sides.
September 13, the Polish 1st squadron of the 27th Uhlan Regiment battled the Germans near Maliszewo and succeeded in beating them back. The Germans retreated when the Polish cavalry charged. The Poles took the village and a large number of German prisoners.
September 13, the Polish 1st squadron of the 2nd Grochów Uhlan Regiment charged German infantry positions at Minsk Mazowiecki, but was repelled by German MG and artillery fire.
September 15, elements of the 17th Wielkopolska Uhlan Regiment attacked German positions near Brochow. The Polish cavalry charged towards the Germans to intimidate them but just before reaching the range of enemy weapons, they dismounted and continued their assault on foot. The attack was successful.
September 16, a Polish platoon from the 4th squadron of the 17th Wielkopolska Uhlan Regiment charged towards a small German post near Dembowskie. The small number of Germans there withdrew.
September 19, most of the 14th Jazłowiec Uhlan Regiment (without MGs and AT platoon) was ordered to probe the German positions near Wólka Węglowa. Upon arrival of the Polish 9th Małopolska Uhlan Regiment arrived, the group charged through German lines. This opened the way towards Warsaw and Modlin for the rest of Polish forces who were withdrawing from the Battle of Bzura. The Polish cavalry charged through a German artillery unit in a surprise attack. Polish losses were high (205 killed and wounded), the German losses remain unknown.
September 19, a Polish squad of the 6th Mounted Artillery Detachment charged through German lines near Lomianki to allow the rest of the unit to head toward Warsaw.
September 21, in the Battle of Kamionka Strumiłowa the Polish 3rd squadron of the 1st Mounted Detachment charged through German infantry lines which were preparing to attack Polish positions. Unable to carry out their plans, the Germans withdrew.
September 23, the 1st squadron of the 25th Wielkopolska Uhlan Regiment charged towards the town of Krasnobród. They reached the hilltop upon which the town was located. Polish casualties were very heavy. A unit of German cavalry from the German 8th Infantry Division countercharged from the hill, but was repelled. The Poles captured the town, and German HQ of the division, as well as taking prisoner some 100 German soldiers, and freed 40 Polish combattants who had been taken prisoner by the Germans.
September 24, the Polish reserve squadron of the 14th Jazlowiec Uhlan Regiment (with about 500 sabres), was reinforced with cavalry units of police and a few of the divisional organic cavalry. They were ordered to break through the Soviet infantry surrounding the Polish positions in the village of Husynne. Soviet forces withdrew in panic. However, the attack was soon halted by a strong Soviet tank unit. Casualties were similar on both sides.
September 26, the Polish 27th Uhlan Regiment charged twice at a German infantry battalion positioned at Morańce. Both charges were repelled with heavy casualties (the Poles lost 20 KIA and about 50 wounded, German losses are unknown). After the Poles charged a second time a German soldier was sent out bearing a white flag. After a short discussion with the Polish commander of the Nowogródek Cavalry Brigade, the Germans withdrew.
It is a wonder to me how historical facts have so easily been usurped by myth and lies. Propaganda seemed to have taken a life of its own even after World War II had ended. A German novelist, Gunter Grass, wrote “The Tin Drum” in 1959 in which he made references to the Polish cavalry. He was widely accused of anti-Polonism for perpetuating this Nazi deception.
O insane cavalry... with what aplomb they will kiss the hand of death, as though death were a lady; but first they gather, with sunset behind them - for color and romance are their reserves - and ahead of them the German tanks, stallions from the studs of Krupps von Bohlen und Halbach, no nobler steeds in all the world. But Pan Kichot, the eccentric knight in love with death, lowers his lance with the red-and-white pennant and calls on his men to kiss the lady's hand. The storks clatter white and red on rooftops, and the sunset spits out pits like cherries, as he cries to his cavalry: "Ye noble Poles on horseback, these are no steel tanks, they are mere windmills or sheep, I summon you to kiss the lady's hand".
Most recently, on September 1, 2009, an article written by Sir Simon Jenkins, appeared in the Guardian, a London newspaper, in which Jenkins accused the Poles of “the most romantic and idiotic act of suicide of modern war”. The Guardian printed a retraction on September 21st, stating that Jenkins article "repeated a myth of the second world war, fostered by Nazi propagandists, when it said that Polish lancers turned their horses to face Hitler's panzers. There is no evidence that this occurred."
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of people who believe Nazi propaganda and lap it up like pap. Their point of view, though skewed, is virtually impossible to sway. Public forums on the web are overflowing with such propaganda, hotly defended by neo-nazi diehards, undereducated “intellectuals” and the common folk who follow blindly and ask no questions. For more than 70 years, Nazi lies continue to circle the globe almost undetected, permeating the soft minds of every new generation. Whether the Nazis knew it or not, they set into motion a Perpetual Propaganda Machine, because now there are so many more simpletons to keep the lie alive. And if the lie is repeated often enough, it is adopted as fact.