Polish light tanks and tankettes were the first opponents for the German Panzers. Patriotic but outnumbered Polish tank crews with their mostly outclassed equipment fought bravely and managed to destroy a number of enemy vehicles, while defending their homeland from both Germans and Soviets. Polish Campaign is surrounded by numerous myths such as the destruction of Polish Airforce in the opening hours of the invasion and Polish Cavalry charges against German armored units. Both myths are creations of German and even Italian propaganda and are very far from truth. Polish cavalry was active during the campaign and acted as horse mounted infantry. One of the most successful cavalry charges took place at Krojanty, where elements of 18th Uhlans Regiment attacked and destroyed German infantry battalion only to be counterattacked by German armored unit. Uhlans attempted to withdraw and suffered heavy losses. This event lead to the story of Polish cavalry charges on panzers. Polish Airforce was deployed at numerous airfields and although numerically inferior and partially obsolete was very active during the course of the campaign (e.g. over Warsaw). Polish pilots shot down in combat over 137 enemy planes. Polish cavalry brigades never charged tanks with their sabres or lances as they were equipped with anti-tank weapons such as 37mm Bofors wz.36 (model 1936) anti-tank guns (that could penetrate 26mm armor at 600m at 30 degrees). The cavalry brigades were in the process of being reorganized into motorized brigades.
The myth of Polish cavalry charges
If a single image dominates the popular perception of the Polish campaign of 1939, it is the scene of Polish cavalry bravely charging the Panzers with their lances. Like many other details of the campaign, it is a myth that was created by German wartime propaganda and perpetuated by sloppy scholarship. Yet such myths have also been embraced by the Poles themselves as symbols of their wartime gallantry, achieving a cultural reconance in spite of their variance with the historical record.
ZALOGA, Steven J. Poland 1939 - The birth of Blitzkrieg. Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 2002.
The story of cavalry charges against Germans tanks has become a wide-spread myth throught the ages. There is, however, no evidence that any major Polish forces ever charged German tanks. If you look into the stories of these events, you will see a pattern of no units, no specific locations, etc. being mentioned. Only the mentioning of the Brave Poles charging with their lances, on horseback.
The root of the myth seems to be, that a group of Axis (some say Italian, some say German) press/propaganda photographers came across a number of Polish cavalrymen, with evidence of them being killed by German tanks. The German propaganda machine used this to the last drop, of course, to show the German superiority.
What actually happened was that a group of Polish cavalry had been surprised by German armoured forces, and had no other choice but to get away fast. Thus, they mounted, and tried to ride away, but naturally with heavy casualties.
It is quite interesting that the German propaganda machine has been so effective that it still sends aftershocks throughout the Internet more than sixty years after the events.
Cavalry and the Polish army
A side note on cavalry: not even during the US Civil War was it normal practice for cavalry to fight mounted. The reason for the cavalry was swift movement, not cavalry charges. The cavalry charges died out more and more, as back-loading and automatic weapons became standard, but even a Civil War 'woolly', with its inacurate rifles, could take out the punch of a cavalry charge.
Besides the Polish, both Russia, France and Germany used cavalry in World War II, as well as just about all the eastern European countries. The US forces didn't give up military cavalry until the late twenties/early thirties, and then still only reluclantly. The German army utilized horses to a very great extent (especially for transport - horses was the key transport method for Germany throuhgout the war), and there was even a mounted SS division.
Furthermore, the Poles (as well as the rest of the world) were perfectly aware of Germanys armoured forces, even though little attention was given to them because of the way tanks were percieved in both Poland, as well as France and England (i.e. primarily as infantry support vehicles).
The Germans held several parades and ralleys featuring tanks as early as 1935, (although these were mainly the Pz.Kpfw. I and Pz.Kpfw. IIs), and also used their armoured forces in the invasion of Czekoslovakia and Austria.
The Poles armoured forces mainly consisted of
7TP tanks (improved 6-ton Vickers, featuring a 37mm gun) &
TK and TKS tankettes (of which some were modified with a long 20mm anti-tank gun).
Additionally, the Poles had about 1,200 37mm anti-tank guns (27 per infantry division and 14 per cavalry division) as well as anti-tank rifles (92 per division). The Polish tanks were in general equal to the German ones, but because of their low numbers and low concentration (the bulk wieght of their tanks were scattered throughout the infantry and cavalry divisions), they had little importance in the outcome of the campaign.
Another point to be made is that the German armoured forces actually suffered some heavy casualties from time to time. For example, the fighting for the Warzaw suburbs was first conducted headed by Panzers. This was the first major attack on cities with tanks, and the outcome was inevitable - a large portion of the German Panzers were knocked out.
The most infamous myth is the fantasy that the Polish cavalry charged at German tanks. These units were thought to be the best horsemen in Europe, but were relied upon mainly for their cost-effectiveness, since few vehicles were available. Despite their antiquated means of travel, Polish cavalry were used primarily as heavy infantry for break-outs or surprise attacks. They carried machine guns, 7.92mm anti-tank rifles, and 37mm anti-tank guns which could easily take out German armor. Cavalry charges were not a standard tactic, but on the first day of the war a Polish cavalry regiment discovered a battalion of Germans in a field and led a charge against them. The Germans were caught off guard and suffered severe casualties, but were rescued by the advancing panzers, who opened fire on the exposed cavalry. The Poles fled, but only lost 20 men, including the commanding officer, Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz. However, when Italian journalists visited the battlefield the following day, the Germans told them that the cavalry had charged against their tanks and were wiped out. This fabrication was put into print and the Nazi propaganda made sure it was widely publicized, and therefore widely believed.