21 November 2013

The Volhynian cavalry brigade 1939 part 1

As I have around a total of 1 hour of travel time to and from work I realized a great time to spend it was to do some reading of the many books I bought a while back.

I started out reading the book titled (when translated into English) "The combat operations of the Volhynian cavalry brigade: First phase of the September campaign 1939" by Marcin Paluch.

This is an interesting book written very much like an essay, the author explains the background of the equipment, organization and preparation for war that the cavalry brigade went through, as well as allowing the reader to follow the combat operations of the opening days of the September campaign when the Volhynian cavalry brigade was made famous for their fighting at the battle of Mokra with the support of armoured train nr.53 "Smialy"/("Bold").

I figured it would be nice to share some historical information as I make my way through the book - since it is in Polish and I'm not sure if there is a English version out there.

1) The equipment of the Polish cavalry brigade

The author starts out by explaining the equipment of the Polish cavalry brigades, and compares their armament with those of primarily Germany and the Soviet Union - both of whom fielded cavalry during the invasion of Poland.

It's immensely interesting to read about the combat trials during the inter-war years and how the Polish army was scouting equipment to arm its forces.

The armament of cavalrymen:

Sabers, the primary cold steel weapon of the cavalryman when mounted. The Polish cavalrysaber models 21 and 34 both had curved blades made out of high quality steel that was exceptionally durable and did not break upon impact or bending. The handle was made out of brass.

The lance, which was only used very sporadically during the September campaign, was a French model steel lance.

All soldiers were also equipped with bayonets for their rifles.

Polish officers were equipped with a Vis wz.35 9mm pistol, a Polish interpretation of the US Colt 1911.

Polish cavalrymen were mainly equipped with wz.29 carbines which was an improved upon version over the carbine wz.98. The weapon measured 1100mm without mounted bayonet and weighed 3.9kg. The rifleme battalions operating as part of the cavalry brigade were equipped with Mauser wz.98 rifles, and - during the battle of Mokra, also with French rifles of the model Berthier 07/15. The difference between the Mauser and the Berthier was mainly that the Mauser was very accurate but had a relatively complex construction that was prone to malfunction if the weapon got dirty. In comparison the Berthier was unaffected by "battlefield conditions" but required the less common 8mm ammunition and the rifles were quite worn..

In the 30's the cavalrymen received a new weapon, the light machinegun Browning wz.28. The choice for this particular weapon was determined by trials that took place in 1922 where the American BAR and the French Hotchkiss lmg's secured first place. The BAR was an easy weapon with relatively few parts and easy to operate, the main drawback of the BAR was that the barrel was prone to overheating during sustained combat and the inability to quickly replace the barell if needed. The Polish version of the BAR rifle weighed 9kg and had a rate of fire of 400 rounds per minute, it kept the 20 round magazine of the parent design.
Around the same time other nations also experimented and added light machineguns to their infantry formations. The British used the Bren LMG, which used a 30 round clip, the Czechoslovakian army used the ZB.26 and ZB .30 lmg's, both used a 20 round clip.  The Germans used the MG34, in the role of a lmg when mounted on a bipod, and a hmg when mounted on a tripod, the weapon used a 250 round belt.

The Polish cavalry mainly used 3 types of heavy machineguns, this mix was a leftover from the interwar years even though the Poles aimed to standardize their equipment through an ongoing 6-year plan. The models used were the Maxim wz.08, Browning wz.30 and Hotchkiss wz.25. The Maxim machineguns were in fact leftovers from the German army and WW1. This model was heavily worn out and prone to jamming, the construction was also very complex, but the ballistic features of the weapon were good and the weapon was fed ammunition from a 250 round belt.

The Maxim machineguns were cumbersome, 30kg, weapons that the Poles mounted on Austrian tripods originally designed for the heavy machinegun "Schwarzlose" and weighed on its own 20kg. This weapon was mounted and transported on a so called "Taczanka" wagon pulled by horses. However, the weapon was wildly inaccurate when mounted this way, and it was really only meant for transportation - at first sight of battle the machinegun was dismounted. The design of the wagon and the tripod however enabled the machinegun to be aimed up and used as an AA weapon if needed.

The Hotchkiss machineguns were a leftover from a short lived decision by the Polish army in 1924 to incorporate this weapon into the arsenal. During trials in 1926 the army was shocked by how fast the barrel of the machinegun overheated - a side effect of Polish manufactured ammunition which had a much faster exit velocity than the French original rounds. While the French rounds used cartridges made out of brass the Poles used a cartridge made out of soften steel. When firing the Polish soldier had to break up his fire - in a way that was not favorable in a defensive situation. Despite this serious drawback the weapon was used to equip units dedicated to protecting artillery and also mounted in Polish tankettes and armoured cars. The Polish units also received a small amount of "anti-tank" ammunition for these machineguns, ammunition which could penetrate up to 11mm of armour at 100 meters if the weapons was firing concentrated salvos at a single spot on a enemy vehicle.

The best heavy machinegun that the Polish troops had at their disposal was the wz.30 Browning hmg, a water-cooled machinegun based on the American design. The few parts that made up this weapon meant that it jammed very rarely, and the cooling system allowed for sustained fire. The cavalry units didn't receive this machinegun until 1938, due to research and production of a new Taczanka model which was given larger wheels and was made up of two separate parts joined together at the middle which improved off-road characteristics immensely. The crews of these limbers were drilled to dismount the weapon and be ready to open fire within 45 seconds when given the order.

Infantry units armed with Berthier rifles within the cavalry had acess to rifle grenades of the model V.B. 07/15 and 07/16. These were innacurate weapons designed for defensive trench warfare and with a maximum range of 190 meters.

Comparing light mortars, the Polish constructed 47mm light mortarwz.36 which was added to the equipment of the cavalry formations late in the 30's had a greater range (900 meters) than the German counterpart "Granatwerfer 5cm" which had a maximum range of 520 meters. Lacking large amounts of medium mortars, the Polish infantry relied on the light mortar to provide them with close proximity artillery support to take out MG nests and other entrenched targets.

When it comes to medium Mortars the Poles used the French manufactured Stokes-Brandt 81mm mortars which had a range of 3000 meters and could also fire a special heavier round meant for taking out entrenchments and barbed wire obstacles - at up to 1200 meters. The Soviet army had their own medium mortars, 82mm model 1937 - which rivaled the one that the Poles used and was able to deliver a barrage at the slightly longer distance of 3040 meters. Comparing both of those medium mortars to the one used by the Germans - the Granatwerfer 34 - the German mortar had a maximum range of 2400 meters when firing regular rounds, and 540 meters when firing special heavy ammunition.

One critical weakness of the Polish cavalry brigade formation was the poor anti-aircraft protection. Each brigade had only two Bofors 40mm wz.36 AA guns. Realizing that the guns were not enough to properly protect the entire brigade with an umbrella of flak fire they were meant to be used at critical locations - such as protecting river crossing. The cavalry was to mainly rely on the inaccurate and ammunition consuming AA protection provided by heavy machineguns. In comparison the German cavalry brigade which took part in the invasion of Poland fielded 12 2cm Flak 30 AA guns, while the Soviet cavalry brigade included 12 heavy AA machineguns.

Just before the outbreak of the war, the cavalry was given a brand new weapon - the 7.92mm Polish AT-rifle wz.35. Constructed and distributed in secret Polish AT-rifle was slightly different from the German counterparts. The exit velocity of the round was 1270 meters per second, the round itself was made out of soft metal which flattened against the armour of an enemy vehicle and punched through creating a hole three times larger than the calibre of the AT-rifle itself. Fired at 100 meters the rifle could punch through 33mm of armour at a 90 degree angle, and 25mm of armour at a 60 degree angle. The weapon was easy to use, and easy to learn - differing very little from a bolt action rifle used by the Polish infantry.

The Germans were also researching their own AT-rifles around this time, the Panzerbüchse 38 could penetrate 30mm of armour at 100 meters but was very heavy with its weight of 16.7kg. And while the Polish AT-rifle was widely distributed among fighting units at the start of the invasion, only part of the German infantry force had been equipped with their own AT-rifles. Fortunately for the Poles, the secrecy was complete, and the Germans learned about the wz.35 rifle only during the invasion. It was out of great fear that the German army would increase the armour thickness on their tanks if they learned about the Polish design that the weapon was kept secret even from the vast majority of the Polish troops until the (and sometimes even a day or two after) the invasion began.

In order to stop enemy tanks the Poles relied on the Swedish designed Boforts 37mm AT-gun. This weapon was able to punch through 30mm of steel armour at 1400 meters. As most tank designs during the interwar years leading up the outbreak of the war in 1939 were using less than that for protection it was deemed to provide satisfactory results. Nevertheless there were thoughts and research revolving around a 47mm gun for the future. The majority of the German tanks invading Poland were PzI's and PzII's, these had about 15mm of armour at the most - while the Soviet tanks invading from the east ranged from 9mm on T-37/38, 13mm on T-26 and 13mm on BT 2/5/7 tanks.

Despite being able to destroy almost any tank the wz.36 AT-guns used by the cavalry brigade were limited to 4 guns per regiment. This meant that the main burden of providing AT-tank fire at the front line fell upon the soldiers armed with AT-rifles.

Late in 1939 the cavalry brigades were expanded with a so called "Armoured unit", this was a company of tankettes armed with 7.92mm Hotchkiss machineguns. The Volhynian cavalry brigade also received a few wz.34 armoured cars armed with machineguns and a few with the 37mm Puteaux SA .18 gun.

Depending on the number of regiments in the brigade, a Polish cavalry brigade had between 3 and 4 batteries of artillery. The main armament of such artillery batteries was the 75mm wz.02/26 gun which had a range of between 1100 and 11000 meters. The piece had a relatively good rate of fire with 6-8 shots per minute but it had been debated within the army whether the gun was suited for the role of "companion artillery" to support infantry directly. The gun was rather difficult to reposition quickly if needed and the Polish army considered solutions similar to that of the German light infantry gun le IG18 to provide infantry with a light artillery piece instead.

The fact remained however the Poles were stuck with their 75mm horse artillery batteries, and they were mainly meant to be used to counter enemy infantry and not as a frontline defense unit. However, as the fighting would prove, the 75mm artillery was perfectly suited to act as a second line of defense - behind friendly infantry - in order to provide direct fire.

Summing up the first chapter about the Polish cavalry the author stresses the combat role of Polish cavalry brigades - they were in fact defensive formations. Their large amount of machineguns, and ability to relocate fairly quickly from one point to another along the front made them ideal for a defensive purpose. The brigade was poorly suited for an offensive role against a well equipped enemy like the panzer divisions of the German army. It relied on fairly inexpensive AT-assets and machineguns to hold the line and protect the exposed flanks of less mobile Polish forces long enough for them to regroup at the next defensive line.

The author provides the reader with an interesting comparison of equipment numbers within Polish, German and Soviet cavalry formations of 1938-39.

German cavalry brigade:

LMG's 133
HMG's 44
Light mortars 9
Medium mortars 18
AT-rifles 0
AT-guns 21
AA-hmg's 0
AA-cannons 12
AA-guns 0
Field guns 12
Howitzers  0
Armoured cars  6
Tanks  0

Soviet cavalry division:
LMG's 145
HMG's 64
Light mortars 0
Medium mortars N/A
AT-rifles 0
AT-guns N/A
AA-hmg's 12
AA-cannons 0
AA-guns 0
Field guns 36
Howitzers  N/A
Armoured cars  20
Tanks  40

Polish cavalry brigade (with 4 regiments):
LMG's 104
HMG's 95
Light mortars 9
Medium mortars 2
AT-rifles 78
AT-guns 18
AA-hmg's 0
AA-cannons 0
AA-guns 2
Field guns 16
Howitzers  0
Armoured cars  7
Tanks  13

In part 2 I will summarize the chapters about Polish cavalry tactics and in Part 3 the rest of the book which is about the fighting of the Volhynian cavalry brigade at Mokra. Stay tuned.


  1. Is it true that the main burden of providing AT-tank fire at the front line fell upon the soldiers armed with AT-rifles???/

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  2. For the soldiers serving in cavalry brigades - yes. There was simply not enough AT-guns to provide adequate coverage of the entire frontline of the brigade. The troops at the front had AT-rifles, the second and third line had AT and artillery support.

    However, as I will talk about in the next part - the German tank doctrine had the German tanks race past the Polish first and second defensive line and attempt to knock out the artillery first with the German first wave of attack. The second wave attacked the second line of defense, and the third wave was supposed to mop up the infantry at the front. This meant that, in many cases, the AT-rifles were bypassed by tanks who were then fired upon by rear and flanking fire from the Polish infantry positions.


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