German Cavalry in WW2: Battle Facts and Contributions

German cavalry ww2 featured image

During the Second World War, the German military implemented various tactical and strategic innovations to adapt to the changing nature of the battlefield. One such group that underwent significant evolution was the German cavalry. Despite the shift towards mechanized warfare, German cavalry units retained their relevance and flexibility throughout the conflict. Initially, three cavalry divisions were established, each consisting of six small cavalry regiments and one horse artillery battalion, totaling 5,300 men.

The German cavalry’s roots can be traced back to the 1870s when “uhlan”—a term synonymous with the feared German cavalry across Europe—rose to prominence. As World War II progressed, these soldiers faced more advanced adversaries, prompting German military leadership to adapt their infantry and cavalry divisions accordingly. Despite facing mounting challenges, the cavalry continued to play a crucial role in various capacities, from reconnaissance to skirmishers on the frontlines.

Key Takeaways

  • German cavalry units evolved and adapted to the changing demands of World War II horse warfare.
  • Comprised of three primary divisions, each with six regiments and one artillery battalion, the German cavalry had its origins in the 1870s.
  • Throughout the war, they played essential roles in various capacities, such as reconnaissance and frontline skirmishers.

Origins of German Cavalry in World War II

Source and Video Credit: World War Two

The German cavalry has a long and storied history, dating back to before World War I. During the interwar period, Germany experienced significant changes to its military structure, which impacted the role and organization of the cavalry. The use of horses in the German military was more extensive than in other European armies, with the German Army maintaining a strong presence of horsed cavalry units throughout the war.

At the start of World War II, the German military employed several cavalry divisions, which were designed to provide support for infantry and mechanized units. The 1st Cavalry Division, for example, participated in the invasion of Poland in 1939 and played a reconnaissance role during the early stages of the conflict.

The traditional role of cavalry in warfare, as a fast-moving and highly mobile force for reconnaissance and quick strikes, evolved with the demands of modern warfare. German cavalry units were often used for rear area security or directly integrated into infantry units. While their ability to move quickly across the battlefield was still an advantage, the lack of armor protection and limited firepower proved to be a disadvantage against more heavily armed and mechanized opponents.

As the war progressed, the German military recognized the need to incorporate armored vehicles and other modern technologies into their cavalry units. This led to the formation of mixed units consisting of both mounted troops and modern equipment, such as armored reconnaissance vehicles. These hybrid units proved to be more effective in dealing with the challenges of the changing battlefield.

Although the role of German cavalry changed throughout the course of World War II, their contributions to the German military effort should not be overlooked. Despite facing numerous challenges and limitations, the German cavalry units continued to serve a purpose on the battlefield. They provided critical reconnaissance, security, and support roles, often in difficult terrain and under challenging circumstances. While the horse may have been gradually replaced by mechanized forces, the spirit and tenacity of the German cavalry remain a vital part of their military history.

The German cavalry adapted to the shifting realities of World War II, embracing new strategies and technologies to meet the demands of modern warfare. The enduring legacy of these cavalry units is a testament to their ability to overcome adversity and remain an integral part of Germany’s military history.

Training and Equipment

Cavalry School in Saumur

The German cavalry in World War II had a diverse training regime, which incorporated both traditional horsemanship and modern combat tactics. One of the key places where the German cavalry trained was at the Cavalry School in Saumur. The school focused on a variety of skills, from equestrian techniques and care for their horses to weapon training and combat simulation exercises.

At Saumur, the trainees learned conventional tactics that were adapted to the evolving modern battlefield. This included reconnaissance missions, engaging enemy infantry, and coordinating with other branches of the military. As part of their training, they were equipped with a mix of traditional and advanced equipment. Horse-mounted troops had access to rifles, machine guns, and even anti-tank weapons.

Besides the traditional horse-mounted cavalry units, the German army also utilized mechanized cavalry formations that were equipped with various armored vehicles. These mechanized divisions played a crucial role in the famous Blitzkrieg strategy, as they were able to rapidly advance and exploit breakthroughs, providing vital support to the infantry.

The tanks used by the mechanized cavalry divisions were specially designed for their role in reconnaissance and support. They were typically smaller and more mobile than the heavy tanks used by other branches of the German army, allowing for increased maneuverability on the battlefield.

In summary, the German cavalry of World War II underwent rigorous training at institutions such as the Cavalry School in Saumur, combining traditional horse-mounted tactics with modern mechanized warfare. They were equipped with a diverse range of weaponry and vehicles, allowing them to adapt to the rapidly changing demands of the battlefield during the course of the war.

German Cavalry in WW2 marching to battle
German Cavalry in WW2 marching to battle

Types of Cavalry

During World War II, the German cavalry played various roles in the conflict. The two primary types of cavalry units employed by the Germans were Mounted Infantry and Cavalry Divisions.

Mounted Infantry

Mounted Infantry was a crucial element of the German cavalry in WW2. These soldiers were primarily trained as infantrymen but utilized horses for transportation purposes. The main advantage of this approach was the increased mobility it provided on the battlefield. Mounted infantry units typically comprised of different battalions, which were further divided into companies and platoons.

These battalions often served as reconnaissance units, conducting patrols, scouting enemy positions, and gathering intelligence information. Their mobility allowed them to move quickly and cover vast areas, providing valuable information to the rest of the German forces. Mounted infantry battalions were also used to support other units, such as cavalry regiments and infantry divisions, in combat operations.

Cavalry Divisions

Cavalry Divisions were a more traditional form of cavalry used by the Germans during WW2. These units consisted of several cavalry regiments, which in turn were made up of multiple squadrons. Each regiment was typically comprised of around 1,000 to 1,200 soldiers, making the Cavalry Division a sizable force on the battlefield.

These divisions were geared towards fast and agile combat, engaging in both reconnaissance and offensive actions. Their primary tasks included screening operations to protect the flanks of advancing or retreating forces, rapid advances or retreats, and exploiting breaches in enemy lines.

Cavalry Divisions were often supported by various support units, such as artillery and engineer battalions, which provided additional firepower and infrastructure support during operations.

German cavalry in WW2 consisted mainly of Mounted Infantry and Cavalry Divisions, each with their specific roles and tasks. The agility and reconnaissance capabilities of these units were crucial to the German wartime strategy, helping them adapt to a rapidly changing battlefield and secure strategic advantages.

Role and Tactics

The German cavalry during World War II played a crucial part in various combat operations, especially in the early stages of the war. They were instrumental in carrying out reconnaissance missions, gathering vital intelligence, and providing support to the infantry regiments.

During the war, the German cavalry was primarily deployed on the Eastern Front, where they were used to exploit gaps in the enemy lines, pursue retreating forces, and protect the flanks of advancing armies. They were known for their speed and mobility, which allowed them to perform these tasks effectively.

One of the key tactics employed by the German cavalry was reconnaissance. Their primary role was to gather vital information about the enemy and terrain in order to feed it back to the higher commanders for decision-making. They achieved this by skillfully maneuvering their troops and relying on stealth to avoid detection.

In terms of combat strength, the German cavalry was well-equipped with a variety of weapons and tools. They were armed with machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars to engage enemy forces at different ranges. Additionally, they carried communication equipment to relay information and coordinate with other units.

Another key aspect of German cavalry tactics was their ability to fight dismounted. When faced with superior enemy forces or when the terrain was unsuitable for mounted combat, the German cavalry would dismount and fight as traditional infantry units. This versatility allowed them to adapt to varying situations on the battlefield and contribute to their combat effectiveness.

Despite their traditional role, the German cavalry also acknowledged the increasing importance of armored vehicles in modern warfare. Many cavalry units were equipped with a variety of armored cars, light tanks, and other motorized vehicles that significantly increased their firepower and mobility. This transition into motorized units allowed the German cavalry to maintain their relevance in the face of rapidly evolving military technology.

Throughout World War II, the German cavalry demonstrated its effectiveness in a range of roles, from reconnaissance to direct combat support. Their adaptability, agility, and integrated tactics allowed them to contribute significantly to the success of the German military machine on the Eastern Front.

Major Divisions and Regiments

1st Cavalry Division

The 1st Cavalry Division was a significant part of the German Army during World War II, composed of soldiers mainly from Thuringians, Saxons, and Prussians source. This division played a crucial role in securing several areas and conducting reconnaissance missions.

24th Panzer Division

The 24th Panzer Division was another notable unit in the German Army during World War II. Initially serving as an infantry division, it was later transformed into a panzer division, comprising various armored units and infantry support elements. With a focus on swift and aggressive tactics, the 24th Panzer Division was deployed in numerous battles and campaigns throughout the conflict.

1st Cossack Cavalry Division

The 1st Cossack Cavalry Division was a unique formation in the German Army, composed primarily of Cossacks and former Soviet Union soldiers who had defected or been captured. As part of the German Army, they were used for anti-partisan operations and security roles in occupied territories. Known for their strong equestrian skills, this division was effective at conducting reconnaissance missions, screening the advancing German forces, and countering enemy cavalry.

XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps

The XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps was a higher-level formation in the German Army, composed of multiple Cossack units, including the 1st Cossack Cavalry Division. Organized under the Waffen SS, it played a significant role in anti-partisan warfare and eastern front operations. Although part of the SS, the Cossack units within the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps retained a level of autonomy and continued to follow their traditional military customs and practices.

In summary, these major divisions and regiments of the German cavalry in World War II played vital roles in various aspects of the conflict, from reconnaissance to anti-partisan operations. The unique composition, skills, and tactics of each unit contributed to their effectiveness and continued to influence military strategies and approaches throughout the war.

Leadership and Control

During World War II, the German cavalry played a significant role in the German order of battle. Leadership and control were key aspects that contributed to the success of the German cavalry, as they were essential for maintaining discipline and operational effectiveness.

Adolf Hitler had a profound influence on the military hierarchy and strategic decisions within Nazi Germany. Under his rule, the German military developed a strong sense of leadership and control, which was reflected in the structure and performance of its cavalry units. Despite the shift to focus on armored and mechanized units, traditional cavalry elements were still incorporated into the German order of battle, especially on the Eastern front.

One noteworthy leader in the German cavalry during this time was Gustav Harteneck. As a commander, he exhibited excellent tactical and strategic knowledge, which enabled him to effectively lead and manage his troops during the war. His skills in man management and understanding of the strategic situation contributed to the success of the German cavalry.

Control and discipline were of utmost importance for the German cavalry. Due to the direct influence of the strict and hierarchical leadership, German cavalry units were well-organized and highly efficient. The leadership maintained a tight grip on the reins of control to ensure their troops performed at their best in the battlefield. This control created an environment of discipline where soldiers knew their roles and responsibilities, following orders promptly and effectively.

In summary, the leadership and control within the German cavalry during World War II were instrumental in shaping their performance. The influence of Adolf Hitler on the military, the effective leadership of individuals like Gustav Harteneck, and the strict control and discipline maintained within the ranks contributed to the success and continued use of the cavalry in the German order of battle.

Notable Battles and Operations

Invasion of Poland

In September 1939, the German cavalry played a significant role during the Invasion of Poland. They were tasked with reconnaissance, maintaining communication lines, and engaging in skirmishes with Polish forces. The 1st Cavalry Brigade, for instance, was involved in the capture of East Prussia and participated in various fast-moving engagements.

Operation Barbarossa

During Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, cavalry units faced numerous challenges such as vast distances and rough terrain. They played a supportive role for armored and infantry formations, participating in reconnaissance and anti-partisan operations. One notable instance was the involvement of cavalry units during the Battle of Białystok-Minsk, where they were tasked with clearing pockets of enemy resistance.

Battle of France

The German cavalry’s role in the Battle of France in 1940 was mainly focused on supporting the rapid advance of the German Army. They participated in reconnaissance efforts, helped secure bridges, and provided flank protection. In the Netherlands, the 1st Cavalry Division was involved in capturing strategic locations, like the Moerdijk bridges, to facilitate the advance of other German forces.

Anti-Partisan Operations

German cavalry units were frequently involved in anti-partisan operations throughout the war, especially on the Eastern Front. Their mobility allowed them to effectively counter partisan activities in occupied territories. Instances of these operations include anti-partisan campaigns in Belarus and Ukraine, wherein the cavalry played a crucial role in suppressing resistance movements.

Operation Bagration

Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive launched in June 1944, saw the German cavalry engaged in desperate defensive battles. During this operation, German cavalry units, such as those stationed in Insterburg and Angerburg, faced the overwhelming numbers of the advancing Red Army and played a vital role in the delaying actions that were meant to buy time for retreating German forces. Nevertheless, the German cavalry was eventually overwhelmed and suffered significant losses.

Impact and Significance

During World War II, the German cavalry played a noteworthy role despite the increasing mechanization of warfare. Early in the war, German cavalry units were primarily utilized in reconnaissance and security missions, taking advantage of their mobility and flexibility. According to The Rise of the Wehrmacht, these units comprised six small cavalry regiments and one artillery battalion – totaling approximately 5,300 men.

As the war progressed and the frontlines shifted, the German cavalry’s significance often varied based on the theatre of operations. For instance, on the Eastern Front, the vastness of the terrain required rapid movement for which the cavalry was well suited. In this setting, German cavalry supported flanks, protected supply lines, and acted as a mobile reserve. Their participation was particularly vital during the German advance towards Moscow, assisting in maintaining pressure on the Red Army.

Conversely, in Western Europe, the cavalry saw limited action due to the prevalence of mechanized units and dense urban environments. Instead, they were primarily deployed during the early phases of the war, including the invasion of Poland and France. In these instances, the German cavalry played a secondary role providing reconnaissance and support for the main mechanized forces.

Although ultimately not as impactful as their mechanized counterparts, it is worth mentioning the adaptability of German cavalry forces as the war progressed. They adjusted their tactics and doctrine to better suit the increasingly mechanized conflict by incorporating new methods of communication and maintaining vehicles to support their operations.

In summation, the German cavalry’s impact and significance during World War II was noteworthy in specific theaters of the war, particularly on the Eastern Front. They effectively executed reconnaissance, security, and support missions, showcasing their adaptability in an ever-changing battlefield. While the cavalry may not have been the deciding factor in the broader conflict, their contribution should not be overlooked.

Charging German cavalry in battle
Charging German cavalry in battle

Demise and Surrender

During the final years of World War II, the German cavalry faced significant challenges as the power of Nazi Germany waned. The once-dominant force found itself dismounted and often redesignated to different roles, as the Luftwaffe and the Volks units became more prominent. This ultimately led to the demise and surrender of the German cavalry in the face of the advancing Allies.

In Belgium and other occupied territories, German soldiers who were once members of cavalry units found themselves dismounted and redistributed among other units. This was due to a consolidation effort by the German high command, as they faced an ever-increasing shortage of resources and personnel. The once-mighty force was a shadow of its former self, struggling to maintain effectiveness while adapting to changing conditions on the battlefield.

As the Allies continued their campaign across Europe, they encountered pockets of resistance from various German units, including remnants of the cavalry. However, the dismounted and redesignated units proved to be no match for the combined power of the Allied forces. The superior firepower and tactical capabilities of the Allies quickly overran the German defenses, leading to the eventual surrender of Nazi Germany.

The surrender of the German cavalry, along with the other branches of the military, marked the end of a long and brutal conflict. The once-feared force not only faced a loss in status and resources but also the devastating consequences of the war and the collapse of the Nazi regime. Regrettably, the demise of the German cavalry in World War II remains a stark reminder of the destructive nature of war and the ultimate price paid by those who participated in it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the major German cavalry units in WW2?

During World War II, the German army made use of both traditional mounted cavalry units and more modern mechanized divisions. The major German cavalry units included the horse cavalry brigade and several divisions, such as the 3rd Cavalry Division and the 6th SS Cavalry Division.

How were horses utilized by the German army during WW2?

Horses played a vital role in transportation, logistics, and reconnaissance throughout the war. In addition to being used by traditional cavalry units, horses were also used for pulling artillery, supplies, and in some cases, even transporting infantry on horse-drawn carts. The German army relied heavily on horses throughout the war due to shortages in vehicles and fuel.

Which war horse breeds were common in German cavalry?

The German cavalry utilized various breeds of horses during World War II. Some popular breeds included the Trakehner, Hanoverian, and Holsteiner. These breeds were chosen for their hardiness, stamina, and suitability for military tasks, such as carrying heavy loads and traversing difficult terrain.

How did German logistics manage horse usage in WW2?

Managing horse usage during World War II was challenging for the German army due to the sheer volume of animals needed and the increasing scarcity of resources. The Germans made efforts to maximize the efficiency of horse usage by establishing veterinary units responsible for the care of horses, as well as utilizing local resources in occupied territories for horse feed and water.

What role did cavalry play in WW1 compared to WW2?

Horses in World War I played a more significant role in combat due to the nature of trench warfare and the limited availability of mechanized vehicles. In comparison, during World War II, the usage of cavalry shifted more towards reconnaissance, transportation, and logistical roles. The onset of technological advancements also led to the development of mechanized divisions, which eventually overshadowed the role of traditional cavalry units.

Did other countries, like the US, employ cavalry in WW2?

Yes, other countries also employed cavalry during World War II. For example, the United States had several mounted cavalry units stationed both domestically and abroad. However, the role of mounted cavalry steadily declined during the war for the US and other nations, as mechanized vehicles became more prevalent and efficient in military operations.

Last Updated on November 9, 2023 by Nate Dewsbury

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