By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier: Eastern Front includes a
number of scenarios featuring the German 1st Cavalry Division. In reading the
reports and other battlefield accounts to design those, something
became clear: the German cavalry was not the elite force that
nostalgic later writers made it out to be. Why the disconnect?
Cavalry officers had dominated the old Imperial Army, and
their influence continued after the First World War. The Weimar
Republic’s professional army, the Reichswehr, was limited
by the Versailles Treaties to 100,000 men. These were organized
into seven infantry and three cavalry divisions.
The Reichswehr’s cavalry divisions each had six battalion-sized
regiments, a structure adopted to preserve as many regimental
standards as possible rather than to streamline tactical deployment.
In the event of war, the Reichswehr planned to introduce three
brigade headquarters, each controlling two regiments. The
“regiments” had a large machine gun component,
but otherwise the Reichswehr’s cavalry prepared itself
for a style of warfare that had already been proven obsolete.
When the Nazis came to power, they brought with them a desire
to expand and modernize the armed forces, especially the army.
Nazi ideology and propaganda celebrated modernity: there’s
a good reason there aren’t many extant photographs of
Adolf Hitler on horseback. Instead he’s riding in automobiles
or boarding airplanes. Cavalry did not fit this forward-looking
vision the way tanks, airplanes and submarines did. And the
cavalry regiments were seen as a breeding ground for reactionary
sentiments within the officer corps.
In 1935 the newly re-named Wehrmacht disbanded all but two
of the 18 cavalry regiments. Most became “mechanized
cavalry” or the reconnaissance troops of infantry divisions.
By 1939 only two of them remained, grouped together in the
1st Cavalry Brigade stationed in East Prussia.
At the Cavalry School in Hannover, the heart of the cavalry
arm, officers filled the void left by the loss of their proud
regiments by taking pride in their riders’ international
accomplishments. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, under their
Führer’s approving gaze, the Army team swept the
equestrian evenets, winning all three individual and all three
team medals — a feat never equaled in Olympic history
before or since. The team’s poster boy was Ludwig Stubbendorf,
riding a beautiful Trakhener named Nurmi. While the cavalry
school worked on steeplechases and dressage, tactical training
fell by the wayside. The 1940 Olympics became the German cavalryman’s
Ludwig Stubbendorf and Nurmi win
the Olympic steeplechase, 1936.
First Cavalry Brigade invaded Poland as an independent unit under Third Army,
fighting the Poles at Mlawa in early September and then participating
in the advance on Warsaw. The brigade performed well at Mlawa
and in the forced crossings of the Narew and Bug rivers, gaining
a good reputation as a fighting unit.
Thanks to the success in Poland, the brigade would now be
combined with the newly formed 2nd Cavalry Brigade to form
a division. The new brigade’s regiments came from a
dozen mounted reconnaissance battalions transferred by infantry
divisions that had been converted to motorized or panzer formations.
But the cavalry had lost its exalted status, being abolished
as a separate arm of the service and rolled into the “mobile
troops.” It would eventually lose the Cavalry School
In February 1940, the two brigades were abolished and the
squadrons re-arranged to form three regiments, each of two
battalions. The new division received additional motorized
service units, more firepower in the form of 75mm infantry
guns adapted for mounted service, and motorized signal, engineer
and anti-tank battalions.
In May 1940, the 1st Cavalry Division invaded France as part of 18th Army,
seeing little action in the early days of the campaign. It
saw more use in the pursuit of broken French units, but came
up short at Saumur on the Loire when faced by cadets of the
French cavalry school. For three days the school’s instructors
and students, 2,190 men and boys in all, most of them raw
teenagers only arrived on campus in April, fought the entire
1st Cavalry Division to a standstill. With the armistice near,
the French army command gave the school’s commandant,
Col. Daniel Michon, direct orders to capitulate.
The French stand at Saumur quickly became the stuff of legend,
inspiring the defeated French and embarrassing the German
cavalry. While the panzer divisions had rolled over the world’s
foremost army in a matter of weeks and driven the tough British
professionals out of Europe, the German Army’s proud
cavalry regiments had been beaten by a pack of schoolboys.
German cavalrymen in Greece, April 1941.
The cavalry division was attached to 24th Panzer Corps for the invasion of
the Soviet Union, where it was hoped that it could use its
mobility to good effect among the swamps of the Pripet Marshes.
The tanks soon left the horsemen behind, and the cavalry division
struggled to keep up with the advance. A widespread “tank
panic” on the first day of the campaign did little to
boost confidence, and the division did poorly in the handful
of engagements it did fight. Most of these battles are portrayed
Grenadier: Eastern Front.
At the Cavalry School,
the division’s performance was greatly overshadowed
by what all saw as the greater disaster: Both Stubbendorf and Nurmi
had been killed in action.
By November, the high command had had enough of the horsed
cavalry division; Hitler was pressing for more panzer divisions
to be organized and this anachronism seemed the perfect candidate
for conversion. The division was withdrawn from the front
in November 1941, despite the dire need for reinforcements
in front of Moscow, and sent to camps east of Paris to become
a panzer division. Apparently the initial decision was to
retain the name and traditions and call the unit the 1st Armored
Cavalry Division, but in February 1942 the old cavalry colors
were cased for the last time and the division became the 24th
Panzer Division. Its troops retained the golden-yellow color
on their collar tabs (instead of white for infantry or pink
for panzer) but all other tradition faded away. The 24th would
be destroyed at Stalingrad a year later, and revived as a
new division immediately afterward.
Just what caused the 1st Cavalry Division to falter where
the brigade had done well is not clear. The great increase
in size may have diluted the division’s quality, bringing
in troopers who had not been part of “real” cavalry
regiments for years. The division had the same command staff
as the brigade; Kurt Feldt commanded the unit until its conversion
to a panzer division. But none of that compared to the steep drop in morale after the death of the cavalrymen’s
hero, Ludwig Stubbendorf.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.