You have probably heard the story about Polish lancers making a cavalry charge against a German panzer battalion in the opening days of the Nazi invasion of Poland. Men on horses armed with spears attacking tanks. Often the one telling the story will claim they saw a newsreel of it.
You might also have heard it never happened. That is true. It is a great story, but Polish lancers never charged that Panzer unit. It was a myth. The Poles had horse cavalry in 1939 (so did every other nation, including the United States) and actually did launch 17 cavalry charges during the Polish Campaign, fifteen of which were successful. They never charged tanks though. When Polish cavalry encountered German Panzers they dismounted and attacked the tanks with the anti-tank guns organic to Polish cavalry regiments and Molotov cocktails. The only mounted charge around German tanks was an attempt to escape encirclement – and it succeeded.
So how did the story get started? It turns out the myth was the outgrowth of a real-life version of the game of telephone: the one where someone whispers a phrase to a person next to them, who repeats it to the next person until it works its way around a circle getting distorted with each telling. It involves impressionable Italian journalists, mischief-making Panzer troops, the Nazi propaganda machine, Allied occupation forces, and sloppy US newsmen.
It started with an action against a German mechanized division. On September 1, at the Battle of Krojanty, the Polish 18th Uhlans Regiment attacked and scattered German infantry belonging to the 20th Mechanized Infantry Division. Some of the Poles were armed with lances. The charge was successful, but the Poles took casualties, leaving dead horses and men – some armed with lances – on the battlefield.
Hours later, as evening approached a German panzer unit occupied the battlefield. They had not been involved in the fighting. They were looking for a place to rest for the night. After they set up camp they were joined by a group of war correspondents from Germany and still-neutral Italy.
The correspondents assumed the dead lancers had attacked the panzer unit. They asked the camped panzer troops to tell them about the battle. The German soldiers probably saw an opportunity to pull the legs of the gullible newsmen. They not only allowed the misconception to go uncorrected, they embellished it, giving details of the Polish cavalry charge against their tanks.
One Italian correspondent was a romantic. He was so moved by the tale he wrote a story about the doomed heroism of the Polish cavalry, attacking tanks with nothing more than lances and sabers. The story proved irresistible. It was translated to English and widely reprinted in the Western press.
The Germans knew a good story when they saw one, too. They seized on the tale as an example of Polish backwardness, and the folly of their opposing the Reich. Their propaganda ministry made a documentary about the German invasion of Poland, “Geschwader Lützow.” It included a staged cavalry charge, reproducing an incident which never occurred. Both cavalrymen and Panzer troops were actors; the filmed scene was vivid.
After the war Allied historians went through Nazi archives, duplicating material of historical interest and sending it to archives in their home countries. This included copies of “Geschwader Lützow.” It was marked as a documentary. Information about the provenance of the Polish cavalry charge scene was lost.
Captivated by the dramatic imagery, many documentaries about World War II made in the United States ended up using that footage in sections about the invasion of Poland, including (I believe) the weekly series The Twentieth Century. As a result many people believe they saw footage of a Polish horse cavalry charge against German panzers.
It was not until the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Empire that access to Polish accounts became accessible in the West. During that period what really happened – and the game of telephone running from Italian war correspondents to American documentary makers – was finally explained. It turns out fake news can be the product of innocent misunderstanding combined with mischief making.
Like the myth of the first bathtub in the White House, created by H. L. Menken, the myth of lancers attack tanks has been debunked – but continues to live on.
Users who have liked this post: