Last Great Charge of the Polish Cavalry

The news grew steadily worse. On the evening of September 8, we heard over the radio that the Germans were closing in on Warsaw. We resolved to do our duty, come what might. Most of the time we were hungry, and for a week we had about three hours’ sleep at night. Our poor horses, those beautiful chestnut horses of which we were so proud, could not be unsaddled for days on end. With fodder growing scarce, they were becoming dispirited and vicious, sheer skeletons.

One desire was uppermost in our minds, and we discussed it in our short talks at officers’ roll calls. Should modern warfare depose the cavalry, then we would make a dignified exit after just one more glorious tradition of our cavalry.

Suddenly, on September 9, we received the following order: “To relieve German pressure on Warsaw and to give the capital time to organize its defenses, the Suwalki Brigade will make a diversion on the enemy’s rear, blow up the bridge over the Narew River, near Tykocin, and tear up the railway track between the stations of Rypno and Fastow.” At the officers’ roll call, the tall, gray-haired, taciturn brigade Commander, General Podhorski, told us:

“Gentlemen, we have received an important assignment. We are to sabotage the enemy communications. To execute our task, we must march all night over the field-paths and avoid main highways, and penetrate behind the enemy lines to reach the region of Tykocin. When on the spot, the engineering squadron will proceed with the wrecking jobs as ordered, while the rest of the brigade will act as a covering screen. Once the assignment is executed, we shall head eastward and plunge into the Bialowieza Forest. From then on we shall wage partisan warfare.”

Dead tired though we were, the news electrified us. The order of the brigadier was received with joy by officers and men alike. We felt that finally we would have the chance for action as a body of cavalry in a task for which we had been trained.

On that very day, we made four ambushes against tanks and fought two skirmishes. We had little more than two hours of sleep.

We moved off around 7p.m., after the sun set. Regiment after regiment, squadron after squadron, marched at a trot before our brigadier, a smart, proud, gray-haired veteran of the last war, as he reviewed his decimated, but still brigade. It was a grueling all-night march over broken ground, through thickets and over rugged terrain. We were protected by a dense screen of patrols, but we avoided human settlements, cut across roads, and stuck to the forests and untraveled ground.

On September 9, an early dawn, misty and chilly, found the brigade at the northern edge of the large Zambrow forest, eight to nine miles from the bridge that we had to blow up.

It was almost 6a.m. when the patrols suddenly reported to the brigadier a startling piece of intelligence: a battalion of enemy infantry was marching along the highway between Rypno and Fastow.

Our sentries did not see any patrols, but reported that a column of transport trucks was moving parallel with the infantry. What an unexpected chance!

The brigade commander was hard put for a decision. We were hidden in the woods about a mile and a half from the enemy. The condition for a surprise attack seemed ideal. It was now or never. On the other hand the risk was great. An attack by the entire brigade was bound to betray our purpose.

Moreover, the firepower of a German infantry battalion was superior to that of our brigade. They seemed to have no armor but our patrols might have been mistaken.