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Das Paradies der Erde liegt auf den Rucken der Pferda.

— Motto of the German Army Cavalry School

Cavalry's Fall
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2012

Panzer Grenadier: Eastern Front and White Eagles include a number of scenarios featuring the German 1st Cavalry Division. German cavalry didn’t have much of a place in the first edition of Eastern Front, but we upped their numbers significantly for the Deluxe version and added several scenarios featuring the 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 obsession.


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 as well.

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 in Panzer 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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