The first battle of WWII featured one of the last cavalry charges ever

On August 23, 1939, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed a non-aggression pact between their two countries. Contained within the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was a secret protocol for the division of Poland and the Baltic states between German and Soviet “spheres of influence.”

Just eight days later, German operatives disguised as Polish saboteurs carried out a false flag operation against at German radio station at Gleiwitz. On September 1, without a formal declaration of war, German forces invaded Poland in an operation that many historians agree was the opening battle of World War II in Europe.

last cavalry charges

Nazi Armor moves through Poland in 1939.

Polish planning did not anticipate an attack from Germany before 1942, so the Poles were still building up and modernizing their military. Without much of a defense, Warsaw relied on its British and French allies for protection in the event of an attack.

The audacity of the Nazi invasion caught everyone by surprise, and the Poles were left to fight the Germans with anything they had at hand – including World War I-era horse cavalry.

Despite the dawn of the mechanized era of warfare, the Polish army included horse-mounted cavalry based largely on its experience during the Polish-Soviet war, where it decimated Soviet lines at the Battle of Komarów. But as technology advanced, the Poles learned that cavalry could be used as mounted infantry armed with the latest weapons and able to quickly move within the battlespace. To this end, Polish cavalry carried machine guns and anti-tank rifles but still retained their sabers on the chance that they might be useful in a typical cavalry fight.

last cavalry charges

Polish cavalry in Sochaczew (1939).

On the first day of the Nazi invasion — 77 years ago today — the Polish cavalry met the Germans at the battle of Tuchola Forest. The Germans caught the Polish army off guard and were advancing quickly through what defenses Poland could muster. In an effort to save the main Polish force, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans – a cavalry unit – were deployed to cover the retreat.

At the Tuchola Forest, the Polish cavalry spotted German infantry in a clearing. Polish commander Col. Mastalerz ordered a charge in hopes of taking the Nazis by surprise and dispersing the German unit. He ordered the 1st squadron commander, Eugeniusz ?wie?ciak, to lead two squadrons in the charge.

Wielding modern weaponry along with their sabers, the cavalrymen surprised the Nazis and were soon in close combat. The Germans were quickly overwhelmed.

The Polish victory was short-lived. As the German infantry retreated, armored cars mounted with machine guns appeared from the woods and opened fire on the Uhlans. Caught in the open with no time to deploy their heavy weapons, the cavalrymen rushed for cover. ?wie?ciak was killed and Mastalerz later fell to the German guns trying to rescue his comrade.

last cavalry charges

German armored cars at Tuchola Forest in 1939.

Despite suffering numerous casualties, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans completed their mission and stalled the German advance in their sector. This allowed other Polish units to fall back to a secondary defensive line. The Uhlans’ cavalry charge on horseback would be one of the last cavalry charges in history.

When reporters surveyed the battlefield the next day, they saw numerous dead horses and cavalrymen — with their sabers — and German armor still nearby. This led one Italian journalist to the incorrect conclusion that the Poles had charged German tanks with nothing but swords and lances. German propaganda quickly took this version of the story and used it as a means to convey the superiority of the German army and its technology.

The myth was then perpetuated further by the Soviets after the war to show the ineptitude of Polish commanders. The myth continued long after the war, with some Poles even retelling it as a story of the gallantry of the Polish military.

last cavalry charges

Polish Cavalry during World War II .

Ultimately, the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans would only hold out for three more days before ceasing to exist as a fighting unit. Poland would continue to resist, though once the USSR joined the Nazi operation on September 17 to claim their portion of the country, it was all but over. Most Polish resistance was finished by the end of the month, but a brave few held out until October 6 before finally surrendering.

Many other units, as well as the Polish government, managed to escape the Nazis and take up the fight from abroad in other Allied nations. Polish troops would later return to help liberate Europe, taking part in such famous battles as Operation Market-Garden. Unfortunately, Poland would never regain most of the territory seized by the Soviet Union during 1939, greatly reducing the land area of Poland to this day.

TOP ARTICLES
This is the latest version of the M9 service pistol

The M9A3 offers a bigger magazine, a user-friendly grip, and a host of improvements based on lessons learned from over three decades of service.

This is what the DoD has planned for a zombie apocalypse

It does touch on many of the pop culture elements of zombie lore, but it breaks things down to become applicable to most situations that would similar to an actual outbreak.

Some dirtbags messed with an Iwo Jima memorial — and Marines caught 'em on film

Officials say an Iwo Jima memorial in Fall River was doused with the contents of a fire extinguisher last weekend. Police are investigating

Vets are going to get a new ID card, and they'll be ready for use next month

The new identification card will provide employers looking to hire veterans with an easier way to verify an employee's military service.

This is the story behind the rise and fall of the Islamic State group

The Islamic State group, responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against civilians in recent history, appears on the verge of collapse.

Now the Iraqi army is going after the Kurdish forces who helped beat ISIS

Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces exchanged fire on Oct. 20, capping a dramatic week that saw the Kurds hand over territory across Northern Iraq.

This Kurdish female militia refuses to stop its hunt for ISIS terrorists

A Kurdish female militia, after helping free the city of Raqqa, said it will continue the fight to liberate women from the extremists’ brutal rule.

The US just sent nearly 1M bombs and missiles to Guam — here's why

Hint: There's this guy a few thousand miles away who's threatening to lob a nuke in their direction.

This is what the 400 US troops in Somalia are actually up to

The US has quadrupled its military presence in Somalia after Al-Shabab killed nearly 300 civilians in two truck bombings. Half of them are special ops troops.

The war between the US Army and Magpul is heating up over ice

Magpul officials are calling foul on the Army's claim that its rifle magazines don't work in the cold — and they say they can prove it.