Britain and the United States did not utilize cavalry to any appreciable extent, but other Allied countries deployed horse cavalry because they could not afford sufficient mechanized equipment. Cavalry supplemented motorized vehicles. Especially on the Eastern Front, horses proved to be capable transportation and combat mounts that could overcome difficult conditions and the lack of paved roads. Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, China, Japan, and Hungary all employed horse cavalry units in the war.
Cavalry charges sometimes enabled soldiers to take enemy troops by surprise, and they provided shock value. Mounted raids permitted soldiers to seize property and destroy military supplies and encampments. Horses also provided a means for scouts to conduct reconnaissance. But modern weapons with high-volume firepower were serious obstacles for the vulnerable unarmored cavalry; also, procuring forage and veterinary care for their horses were problems for all cavalry forces.
Poland maintained cavalry reconnaissance units and brigades. In September 1939, it had 41 cavalry regiments, of which only 3 were mechanized. Armed with guns and antitank rifles, the Polish cavalry confronted German tanks. At Morka, for example, the Wolynska Cavalry Brigade engaged the 4th Panzer Division for three days and disabled 80 German tanks and armored vehicles before retiring. World War II myths include tales that Polish cavalry armed with lances charged German tanks, and Italian newspapers printed stories about a Polish cavalry attack that did not occur and was actually German propaganda. Some notable authentic cavalry charges of the war included the 1 September 1939 engagement between German lancers and Polish troops at the Ulatkowka River and the 12 August 1942 Italian charge at Chebotarevsky in the Soviet Union. Most World War II cavalrymen, however, were really dragoons who fought dismounted.
Germany fielded five cavalry divisions in 1940. In addition, the Germans assigned reconnaissance cavalry squadrons to infantry divisions and stationed a cavalry brigade in East Prussia. The German 1st Cavalry Division covered some 1,200 miles in the Battle for France. France also had horse cavalry that endeavored to stop the German advance. The German army then expanded its cavalry strength and capabilities for Operation barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Red Army employed some 1.2 million horses to support its cavalry, artillery, and supply needs. At the time of the June 1941 German invasion, the Soviets had reduced their 7 cavalry corps and 32 cavalry divisions of 1937 to 4 corps and 12 divisions, of which 4 were mountain cavalry. One of the last significant cavalry charges on the Eastern Front occurred in November 1941 outside Musino, near Moscow, when the 44th Mongolian Cavalry Division attacked the Germans. The defenders used machine-gun fire to kill many of the attacking troops and an estimated 2,000 horses in only 10 minutes. No Germans died in the battle.
The Soviets supplemented their mounted forces with artillery. Given the primitive Soviet transportation system and the weather that turned tracks into seas of mud, horses were often more effective at transport than vehicles. Guerrillas in Ukraine also utilized horses to raid the Germans, and a number of these fighters, including Cossacks and Kalmucks who were highly skilled horsemen well familiar with local conditions, actually fought the Soviets, even after the end of World War II. When the XV (SS) Cossack Cavalry Corps surrendered to the British and were turned over to the Soviets in 1945, the troops were either executed outright or sent to labor camps in Siberia.
The British army deployed the 1st Cavalry Division, as well as the Royal Dragoons and Royal Scots Greys, both of which were mechanized in 1941. The Cheshire Yeomanry and Queen's Own Yorkshire Dragoons fought Vichy French troops in Syria in 1941 before becoming mechanized. The final horse cavalry charge in British history occurred on 21 March 1942, at Toungoo, Burma. Captain Arthur Sandeman commanded the Central India Horse of the Burma Frontier Force. Mounted on mostly Burmese ponies, his column of primarily Sikh horsemen spotted Japanese troops constructing trenches and defenses. Sandeman and his men mistook the Japanese for Chinese soldiers and approached them. Too late, they realized their mistake. Sandeman, an old-fashioned officer who preferred horses to machines, then waved his sword to lead a charge and was killed. Some of his men followed him, but many retreated to a nearby airfield.
The U.S. Army also had horse cavalry units at the start of the war, although half of its 17 cavalry regiments were dismounted by 1941. Most were mechanized, although some fought as infantry. On 1 April 1941, the army activated the 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas. Almost 6,000 cavalry horses were stationed at Fort Riley early in the war, but by the end of 1942, all U.S. cavalry regiments had been mechanized. They nonetheless retained emblems and traditions of the horse cavalry.
The U.S. 26th Cavalry Regiment served in the Philippines, arriving there in December 1941 to counter invading Japanese troops. The American cavalry successfully deterred Japanese tanks and led a counterattack so that U.S. and Filipino troops could withdraw into the Bataan Peninsula. Because the Allied forces were short of food, the cavalry horses were subsequently killed for meat. The 26th Cavalry was then mechanized and fought until the 9 April 1942 surrender to the Japanese.
Major General Lucian K. Truscott Jr. formed the 3rd Provisional Reconnaissance Troop Mounted in Italy in 1943. The horses of this unit proved useful for traveling in the mountains during the fighting there. Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. emphasized that "as good as U.S. armor was, the war could still have used some horses. If we'd had a brigade or a division of horse cavalry in Sicily and Italy the bag of Germans would certainly have been bigger."
The National Defense Act of 1947 officially ended mounted units in the U.S. military. In post–World War II military actions, cavalry horses seemed obsolete except in parts of the Third World where deep snow and mountainous conditions hindered movement by vehicle. Modern cavalry is primarily known as mechanized, armored, or air cavalry.
Elizabeth D. Schafer
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