Which army deployed more horses in WWII?
Warsaw's allies, England and France, declared war on Hitler, but did little to help the Poles. And when, on September 17th, the Soviet Union finally incorporated the territories guaranteed in the secret additional protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (read more here), Poland's fate was sealed.
From a military point of view, the real "Battle of Krojanty" in the Tuchel Heath near Chojnice does not play a role. It happened on the evening of September 1, 1939, the first day of the war. Near the village, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz ordered his Uhlan regiment to relieve the pressure on a battalion of the 76th Motorized Infantry Regiment. This was to buy time for the "Pomeranian Army", which was in retreat.
About 250 men then rode - without the support of the weakly armored and poorly armed vehicles - with drawn sabers at the poorly secured Wehrmacht unit - and forced them to retreat. The Germans panicked. It was only when unexpectedly armored Wehrmacht vehicles appeared that the attack turned into a catastrophe for the Uhlans. About 100 of them died in the firestorm because they could not turn their horses in time.
The event briefly shocked the Wehrmacht leadership, as General Heinz Guderian admits in his memoirs. Formed attacks had actually not been ridden for decades - cavalrymen usually got off their horses when they arrived at the scene and fought with infantry weapons. Poland's cavalry also had the task of luring tanks into impassable terrain and attacking them there with anti-tank weapons, but not on horseback with sabers and lances - the latter had actually been abolished in 1934.
Hatred and contempt of the German generals
Although the Poles hadn't attacked the tracked vehicles at all and tanks weren't even there, German soldiers told a journalist the following day - and the story went around the world. Nazi propaganda took full advantage of the incident by accusing the riders of naivety, overconfidence and fanaticism. The rulers of the Third Reich praised themselves for their technological and intellectual superiority, for example by having the supposed tank attack re-enacted for the propaganda film "Kampfgeschwader Lützow" (1941).
One of the stereotypes of the Polish campaign is that officers and common soldiers later thought they remembered that the Polish cavalry had repeatedly attacked German tanks at the beginning of the attack - in the erroneous opinion that they were made of cardboard or sheet metal. Of course, this perception cannot be proven.
Nevertheless, this myth was sneeringly spread, for example in the Kampfblatt The army: "Irresponsible propaganda persuaded the Polish soldiers that our armored vehicles were better sheet metal busters. This led to an almost grotesque attack by a Polish Uhlan regiment against some of our tanks. One can imagine the devastating consequences of this attack."
The historian Markus Pöhlmann examined the tank legends in 2017 and analyzed several "strange hybrid combat situations" for the first days of the war. But all encounters between Polish horsemen and German combat machinery were due to chance and not irresponsible Polish warfare. And the Polish Foreign Ministry occasionally reacts very harshly when the myth is spread somewhere: "The Polish army has never used cavalry against German tanks."
All of these contemporary statements can of course only be understood against the ideological background of the Nazi worldview. Most of the young soldiers had no combat experience and attacked a country they did not know. They had been taught to provide the empire with the urgently needed "living space in the East", to fight against a state that had no right to exist, and to meet people with a "devious Slavic character" or "fanatical haters of Germans" who would sabotage and sneaky raids are capable of.
Inexperience, fear and increasing aggression against the supposed insidiousness of the Polish fighters were ultimately the causes of the increasing brutality against prisoners of war, civilians, intellectuals and Jews since the first day of the war. So it fit well into the picture that these backwoods Poles were so stupid as to ride against tanks; It would hardly be easier to condense all prejudices into a metaphor in order to denigrate an opponent.
It may be true that individual officers showed respect for the Polish riders for their "knightly" work, but that was not the general opinion. What the generals thought of the Poles can be read in the war diary of the Chief of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder. After a meeting with Hitler he noted on September 27th: Some units "have had a fight that made ridiculous demands". For the planned attack on France this means: "Campaign in Poland best exercise = maneuver."
The notion of the impossible struggle of tradition with modernity has always moved the minds - that of those involved and that of the artists. The legend also inspired Günter Grass, who was born in Danzig. Based on this, he called German tanks "the stallions from the studs of the Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach".
In the "Blechtrommel", published in 1959, a Polish Don Quixote drives his riders to a duel: "You noble Poles on horseback ... Squadrons melancholy and tradition. Attacks from picture books ... Oh, galloping so gifted. Always waiting for the sunset. Only then does the cavalry attack, when the foreground and background are splendid, because the battle is picturesque, death a model for the painters ... And so squadrons rode the steel into the field-gray flank and gave the evening glow a little more reddish glow. "
So this is not so much about the pointless but brave attack, but about creating an appealing picture of the downfall of a nation for posterity.
Allegory of the futility of war
The then young Polish director Andrzej Wajda also contributed to the spread of the legend. In the same year as the "Tin Drum" appeared, namely 1959, he brought his first color film "Lotna" into the cinemas - much to the displeasure of the communist rulers, because the story touched on the taboo tragedy of the defeat by the Wehrmacht.
The captain of a cavalry regiment is given a noble gray mare named Lotna ("the flying one") on the way to the front. The Uhlans ride against German tanks in a seemingly surreal sequence that is reminiscent of Saint George and the dragon - the officer dies and the mare, admired by many soldiers, is passed on to the ensign. But shortly afterwards he dies in an air raid, and the cavalrymen realize that the horse will bring bad luck; in the end - of course - the horse dies too. With the film he shows the final decline of feudal Poland, explained Wajda, whose father was an army officer himself.
But Polish patriots saw it very differently and insulted the director; he denigrated tradition and portrayed the defeat in 1939 only as a series of heroic but completely absurd actions. For them, the fight against the overpowering and brutal opponent was also an act of self-sacrifice that should not be ridiculed. Wajda countered that the expression "With swords against tanks" would forever remain an integral part of the Polish collective memory.
The legend of Krojanty, "The Tin Drum" and "Lotna" - today one would say that everything is an allegory of the futility of war.
The text first appeared in September 2014 and has now been updated and revised in some places on the 80th anniversary of the start of the war.
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