It is amazing the myths that are being told and retold as fact about World War II.
One myth I can think of is of Hitler dancing a jig when he learned of the fall of France.
The cavalry charge against tanks and others.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, kicking off World War II. The attack was followed by a Soviet invasion on September 17, catching the nation in an inescapable pincer. Even though the ultimate outcome was a foregone conclusion, Polish soldiers put up a heroic defense. With the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II approaching next year, today we are going to take a look at the truth behind some of the popular misconceptions surrounding the invasion.
Lancers against tanks. Probably the single most enduring story about the fall of Poland is that of poorly equipped Polish cavalrymen attacking German panzers with lances and swords. In actual fact, however, this never happened.
The story was born out of the events of the Battle of Krojanty on the very first day of the invasion. Poland at the time did have cavalry troops, and was in the process of mechanizing them, but they weren’t alone. Small numbers of elite cavalry were also maintained by other countries, most notably Germany and the Soviet Union. Such troops could be used as patrols and sometimes to run down infantry, but they were more typically used like 17th-18th century dragoons: they would travel on horseback but dismount and fight on foot.
One exception occurred at Krojanty. Sometime before 7 p.m., the 18th Pomeranian Uhlan(cavalry) Regiment of the Polish army spotted a group of German infantrymen resting at a clearing in the Tuchola Forest inside Poland. At 7 p.m., a surprise charge by about 250 horsemen dispersed the Germans. What the Poles didn’t spot were the German armored recon cars located along a nearby forest road. These opened fire on the cavalry shortly after the charge, forcing them to retreat.
Later that day, German and Italian war correspondents were brought to the battlefield, where they noted the dead horses and Polish soldiers. By this time, there were also some German tanks present, which arrived after the actual skirmish. Italian correspondent Indro Montanelli incorrectly connected the dots and assumed that the tanks and the cavalrymen fought one another. He sent home an article praising the courage of the Poles who attacked the superior enemy.
The story was quickly adopted by German propaganda as a story underlining the might and technological superiority of the Wehrmacht. Later it was also picked up by the Soviets who used it as a story of Polish stupidity.
Historically, while the skirmish ended with a Polish retreat, it still achieved much. The German 20th Motorized Infantry was greatly delayed, giving time for Polish troops to withdraw and reorganize. In fact, the Germans even considered a tactical retreat which was only prevented by a personal visit from General Heinz Guderian.
Had the Poles actually attacked German tanks, it might have actually gone poorly for the invaders. Polish cavalry units were equipped with anti-tank rifles and 37mm Bofors cannons, which had no difficulty penetrating the armor of Panzer I and II tanks.
The air force that never flew. It’s sometimes claimed that the Polish air force was destroyed on the ground during the first couple of days of the war. While some planes, mainly trainers and other auxiliary craft, were destroyed, the majority of the pilots actually met the Germans in the skies. The Luftwaffe lost 285 planes and another 279 were damaged, against 333 Polish losses. The ratio is nothing to scoff at, especially considering that the Germans had over 2,300 planes against the Poles’ 400, and that Polish fighters were 15 years older and 50-100 mph slower than the attackers.
The Lightning War that fizzled. The invasion of Poland is sometimes cited as the first example of Blitzkrieg (lightning war) but this is false on two counts. Firstly, tactics similar to Blitzkrieg were already used by German troops in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and also saw use in China and Siberia. Secondly, even though journalists did adopt the name during the invasion of Poland, the German attack there wasn’t actually Blitzkrieg. The term denotes an offensive in which armor and motorized infantry break through at a single point and attack targets behind enemy lines to unbalance and panic the defenders. In contrast, German tanks in Poland were not used as a spearhead but dispersed over the area to support slower infantry, with the goal being not a breakthrough the but the encirclement of the Polish defenders.
You can learn more about the valiant but doomed defense of Poland, the hardships suffered under Nazi occupation and efforts of Polish patriots to liberate the country on our all-inclusive War in Poland Tour scheduled for August 30-September 9, 2019, which coincides with the 80th anniversary of the first shots of World War II!