The Deluge:
Polish Cavalry, 1939
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
June 2020

Since the wars with the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland’s cavalry has stood atop the country’s military hierarchy. Even when there was no Poland, Polish cavalry regiments added to their nation’s military prestige in the Napoleonic Wars.

When Poland re-emerged from the chaos that followed the First World War, her cavalrymen gained new honors fighting the Soviets in the early 1920s. Juliusz Rommel and his 1st Polish Cavalry Division destroyed the Red “First Cavalry Army” at the Battle of Komarow, ending the war in a decisive Polish victory. Poland dictated peace terms to the new-born but enormously larger communist state, annexing a wide swath of territories. In the years that followed, her cavalry regiments remained the army’s most prestigious.

The Pride of Poland.

When the Germans attacked Poland in the late summer of 1939, the Polish Army included 40 cavalry regiments, all of them regular army units. Three of them had been motorized during the late 1930s, but the other 37 remained horsed — by way of comparison, the Polish army only had 90 regular infantry regiments (supplemented by reserve infantry regiments). Polish cavalry received 58 million zloty in the 1938-39 military budget, or 7.3 percent of the total, compared to 46.3 million for the entire Air Force (5.8 percent).

Based on Polish experience of their war with the Soviets — and in the 1930s, this represented the most recent combat lessons of any army in Central or Eastern Europe — the slant toward cavalry made good sense. The Poles went to war in 1919 with but 110,000 men, eventually raising this number to 540,000. Clearly, however, Poland could never match the manpower resources of the Soviet Union and could not match those of Germany unless operating in alliance with France.

Polish cavalrymen in action, 1939.

Both the Russian Civil War and the Soviet-Polish War showed that cavalry remained a viable combat force. The mobility provided by horses allowed troops to cover wide regions, without being tied to transportation networks of roads, railroads or rivers. Polish doctrine therefore gave cavalry a defensive mission — the cavalry would rush to threatened areas and hold them until the infantry could counter-attack. Wartime experience had also shown that cavalry could not hope to match the firepower of infantry formations, and so infantry divisions would undertake offensive operations.

In 1939, the 37 regiments formed 11 brigades, four of them each including four regiments and the other seven with three each. When Poland mobilized for war, each of the seven field armies received one or two brigades; they were not concentrated into higher-level formations. Each army needed a cavalry contingent to help counter German moves, the high command believed, and every individual army commander wanted cavalry under his command.

Mounted firepower: a Polish taczanka.

A Polish cavalryman went to war with a Karabinek 1898 carbine, a shortened version of the German-designed Mauser M98 manufactured by the PMK arms factory in Warsaw. The lance had been abolished in 1934 over strong objections of many traditionalists in the army. When Poland secretly ordered mobilization in August 1939, Polish cavalry regiments issued lances anyway — on such a broad scale that the move had to have official sanction, though in the chaos of Poland’s collapse no one would ever be held to account for the order. A Polish cavalry lance was made of a steel tube just under 10 feet long, with a wicked four-bladed head. Just under the head came a small pennant in the regiment’s colors. Leather straps helped the lancer balance the weapon.

A Polish cavalry regiment had four squadrons, each of about 120 men, each in turn divided into three troops. Each troop included an anti-tank rifle and a light machine gun (a Polish-made licensed copy of the American Browning Automatic Rifle). The regiment also had a machine gun squadron with a dozen heavy machine guns — Polish-made wz.30 copies of the excellent American Browning M1917 water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun. After paying John Browning for the BAR license, lawyers at the Polish Ministry of War realized that the American inventor had never registered his patents in Poland and when he entered his weapon and plans for it in the 1927 competition for a standard machine gun, the Poles simply appropriated it and made 8,000 of them without paying a single zloty to Browning. Four of the weapons were carried on light horse-drawn carts known as “taczanka” for firing on the move, the others on pack horses.

A myth that refuses to die; Polish cavalry never charged German tanks in the 1939 campaign.

The regiment also included a section of four anti-tank guns (37mm Bofors guns, built in Poland under a Swedish license for which the Poles actually paid), a small anti-aircraft section with four machine guns on high-angle mounts, and a platoon of cyclists.

A cavalry brigade had three or four such regiments, plus a battalion-sized artillery regiment with twelve 75mm field guns (16 of them in a four-regiment brigade). The brigade also had a small tank battalion with 13 tankettes and eight armored cars, a truck-mounted rifle battalion and two-gun sections of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Some brigades also had a bicycle company. The organization totaled just under 6,000 men on the three-regiment pattern, just under 7,000 for those brigades with four regiments.

Scattered along the Polish front when the Germans invaded on 1 September 1939, the cavalry brigades immediately became involved in heavy fighting. Two brigades had been slotted for daring attacks in the event of war with Germany — the Podolska Brigade would ride straight for Berlin, while the Pomorska Brigade captured the free city of Danzig.

Poland is not yet lost.

Instead the Polish horsemen found themselves facing overwhelming numbers and firepower. Some brigades scored impressive tactical successes: On the first day of the war, the Wolynska Brigade destroyed 76 tanks and 74 other vehicles of the 4th Panzer Division. The Pomorska Brigade veered from its assigned assault on Danzig when its staff realized that the German 20th Motorized Division had blundered past them and exposed their rear flank. The lancers mounted up and rode down an entire German infantry battalion before encountering German armored cars and giving rise to the slander that Polish lancers had stupidly attacked German tanks. The Suwalska Brigade invaded East Prussia, but withdrew from its untenable positions; the Wielkopolska Brigade inflicted another defeat on the hard-luck 4th Panzer at the Bzura River in mid-September.

Thousands of cavalrymen slipped over the Hungarian, Romanian and Lithuanian frontiers following Poland’s collapse. One of them, Brig. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders of the Nowogrodzka Cavalry Brigade, would command the famous Polish II Corps in the Italian Campaign after his release from a Soviet prison.

Polish cavalrymen fought well in 1939, but could not prevent their nation’s fall. The Polish high command might have deployed them better, but this would only have delayed the inevitable. Spending more than four times as much on the cavalry arm as on the Armored Force in the years before the war was a much greater miscalculation than any on the battlefield.

Don’t wait to put The Deluge on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before anyone else, at a better price than anyone else!

Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, 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. Leopold approves of this message.