The account I am going to give you is of a cavalry charge in which I took part at the very beginning of World War II in September, 1939, in Poland. Although it all happened 59 years ago, it now seems like a century away! It may well be that this attack will rank in the history of warfare as the last great charge of cavalry. Is there another chance of the whole cavalry brigade, sword in hand, obeying the order “Gallop, march!”? The old Marshal Semion Budenny, former commander of the Soviet First Cavalry Army during the Civil War, would not agree with this. (In 1967, during an interview with The New York Times correspondent in Moscow, the old retired marshal, who is over 80 and still rides horses every day, was asked: ” What role do you think cavalry will play during the next war? “Decisive!” answered Budenny without hesitation.)
My story is a fragment of the fight the Polish armed forces put up, defending their country against the German invasion in September of 1939. I was a platoon commander in the 3rd squadron, 3rd Light Horse regiment. My place was on the extreme left of the charge, so that I was able to see the whole mass of men and horses wheel around to the gallop. A grand spectacle, never to be forgotten.
The group was pushed back by the sheer weight of German firepower and armor. The brigade, being more mobile than our infantry, and assigned to the right wing of the Narew group, was less affected by the initial German push; consequently, we had relatively small losses during the first days of fighting.
Early on September 7, the brigade still stood almost 40 miles from the border of East Prussia. It was fighting a defensive battle against a light German army group, reinforced by the East Prussian cavalry division, which was the only great cavalry unit the Germans possessed at the time.
The advantage of numerical superiority was definitely with the invaders. All we could throw in against their hundreds of tanks were about 20 light armored scout cars and two dozen antitank guns. In firepower, the Germans had a superiority of about nine to one. It seemed, therefore, that the Germans, because of their superiority in firepower and armor, would cut through the live mass of Polish cavalry like a knife through a loaf of bread.
And yet, in spite of this unequal struggle, we refused to give up. We were fully aware of the fact that we had to adapt ourselves to new methods of warfare.
After all, we had to make the best conditions imposed on us by war, not of our seeking. Each day, our techniques of fighting the enemy hiding behind armor improved. It was a technique of pursuit, of ambush, and of ruses.
A machine that looked formidable at a distance began to show, especially at night, its impotence against daredevils who had the nerve to approach the tanks and throw gasoline-filled bottles. Others crept up to wreck the caterpillar treads of these tanks with bunches of hand grenades. During the first week, our antitank guns destroyed 31 enemy armored vehicles. We smashed at least a dozen of them with bottles and grenades. We took over 200 prisoners.
Thus, step by step, from a proud cavalry brigade we had turned into an outfit of tank hunters. By night we lost ourselves in woods and marched over trackless ground to harass the enemy’s armored columns at rest stops or on the march.
We realized, however, that in the long run, it was all hopeless. The numbers and the firepower were against us. Moreover, the beautiful, sunny weather seemed to be conspiring with the invaders, helping the speedy progress of their armor facilitating the bombardment.