The World War II Myth That Will Never Die

78 years ago today, the military of Nazi Germany crashed across the border of Poland and began the Second World War.

On that first day of battle, a skirmish took place between German and Polish troops that would become mythologized as an example of both Polish stupidity and the awesome power of the German war machine.

In what became known as the “Charge at Krojanty,” a group of Polish mounted cavalry supposedly rode headlong into German tanks, either because they’d been tricked into thinking they were fake, or because they simply weren’t smart enough to fight a modern mechanized war.

I wrote about the Charge at Krojanty back in 2014 for Skeptoid, diving into the story and finding that no such “horses vs. tanks” battle happened. Instead, the Poles leveraged their excellent mounted troops to do exactly what mounted troops did in 1939: quickly blunt enemy infantry advances.

As I wrote at the time:

Only hours after the German invasion, two squadrons of horsemen from the Polish 18th Lancer Regiment caught a German infantry unit in the open near the town of Krojanty. Having the advantage over the unaware and lightly armed infantry, and tasked with delaying the German armored thrust, the Poles swiftly attacked.

Sabers were drawn and the order to charge was given. The 250 Polish horsemen broke up the enemy unit, inflicting 11 dead and 9 wounded on the stunned men of the German 76th Infantry regiment. The Germans panicked, broke ranks and ran for it.

But as the Poles consolidated their position, several German armored cars appeared, opening fire with machine guns and 20 millimeter cannons. The Lancers were caught in the open, just as they had caught the German infantry in the open. In the ensuing melee, about two dozen Polish troops were killed and the rest scattered.

Such a fight would have been lost to history as one of countless small group actions in a major conflict, except that the Germans brought several Axis journalists to the site, and told them that the carnage of dead Polish Lancers and their horses was the result of a charge against German tanks, several of which had recently arrived. Accounts differ as to whether these reporters were told the charge happened, as a way to discredit Poland’s usefulness to the West, or that they simply connected what they thought were the dots.

American outlets like Time and the New York Times, as well as legendary American journalist William Shirer, picked up the story, (as did German and Soviet propaganda organs) and it was quickly cemented as truth – the Poles were backwards but gallant, and the Germans swept them aside with little effort.

Shirer in particular, despite probably not being at Krojanty (accounts differ as to whether he was there or repeating the story secondhand,) bit wholeheartedly into the myth. He wrote in his legendary 1959 history “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,”

“At one point, racing east across the [Polish] Corridor, [The Germans] had been counterattacked by the Pomorska Brigade of Cavalry, and this writer, coming upon the scene a few days later, saw the sickening evidence of the carnage. …

Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught.”

He’s far from the only historical great to fall for what started as Nazi propaganda.

No less than Winston Churchill bought into it, writing in his seminal history “The Second World War” that Polish cavalry,

“charged valiantly against the swarming tanks and armoured cars, but could not harm them with their swords and lances.”

And legendary German panzer commander General Heinz Guderian, who had to personally intervene to stop his panicked division from retreating in the face of what many believed was a massive oncoming Polish charge, was a believer too. Guderian wrote in his 1950 memoir “Panzer Leader” that,

“The Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade, in ignorance of the nature of our tanks, had charged them with swords and lances and had suffered tremendous losses.”

The war faded into memory, but the myth never quite died. Polish films repeated the myth, as did Soviet propaganda and American jokes. Gunter Grass wrote of it as fact in his acclaimed novel “The Tin Drum”. In 1989, Churchill biographer William Manchester wrote that the Polish military command,

“Cherished an absolute faith in the power of cavalry charges to defeat modern tanks.”

They did not. Even so, a 2005 publication by the Canadian Infantry Association wrote that,

“With little more than courage and lances, the troopers of the 18th Uhlan Regiment gained the distinction of mounting one of the final cavalry charges of modern warfare against several German armoured cars and tanks in the area of Krojanty.  The Poles were slaughtered.

There are several reasons that this action took place, but foremost among them is the fact that the Poles did not realise the lessons of the First World War and had not developed, or copied, a doctrine of mechanised combat.”

None of this is true. In fact, the “doctrine of mechanized combat” didn’t exist in September 1939. The Germans had only light tanks, meant to be used as infantry support, not for heavy combat. Mounted cavalry was used to interdict these vehicles, and Polish horse units routinely carried light artillery and anti-tank rifles. And horses never disappeared from the World War II battlefield, with hundreds of thousands used in Europe for transportation, scouting, and couriers.

But none of these facts matter when you’re dealing with a nearly 80-year-old myth.

That myth reared its ugly head one more time just a few months ago, when CNBC financial screamer Jim Cramer compared the struggling department store chain Macy’s to hapless Polish Lancers, saying on TV that

“Macy’s is like the Polish Army in World War Two — it tried to field cavalry against German tanks and it did not end well.”

Cramer was appropriately scolded by the Polish Embassy for passing on Nazi propaganda, he apologized, and everyone moved on.

Despite their loss to the Axis, Polish troops punched far about their weight both during and after the fall of Poland. As I wrote in Skeptoid,

“Nearly 45,000 Germans were killed or wounded [during the Polish September Campaign]. The Germans lost 300 aircraft and 12,000 vehicles, including over 1,000 tanks and armored cars. And … as many as 1 in 12 of the British pilots who saved the United Kingdom in 1940 [was] an exiled Pole.”

The Poles fought hard in the face of overwhelming odds, and treachery on all sides. Their sacrifice deserves more than this racist myth.

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