The Last Cavalry Charge in History? June 16, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
It is a long ago Sunday and Beachcombing, aged ten, is playing with his plastic Napoleonic soldiers. In walks Beachcombing’s father with his dangerous pacifist tendencies and pointing to a group of charging cavalry observes: ‘They must have suffered terribly when their horses were shot from under them. Imagine going through Russia for months and months and then your mount is killed!’ It is in moments like this that our childhood is stolen away from us. Beachcombing was never able to enjoy those plastic soldiers again…
But in the last months Beachcombing has got to wondering about cavalry more generally (‘as you do’). If the first cavalry were horses attached to crude Middle-Eastern chariots when was the last battle-worthy cavalry column out there in the field? Beachcombing had heard that the Battle of Omdurman (1898), where a young Winston Churchill rode for the Empire, was the last successful cavalry charge in history. But this just didn’t sound credible.
In fact, Beachcombing was interested (but not particularly surprised) to learn that the honour of the last cavalry charge – successful or otherwise - is much argued over. The Polish cavalry, the noble Uhlans, proved one of the most effective elements of resistance to the Germans in the terrible thirty days before Poland’s surrender in 1939. The Americans (April 1942 – Bataan) and the British (March 1942 – Burma) both used cavalry charges against the Japanese with predictable results – ‘The British commander Captain Sandeman was killed with his saber in hand’ etc etc.
However, the Italians also did their bit for the Middle Ages. In January 1941 in Eritrea an Italian-Somalian horse column led by the brilliant Amedeo Guillet – ‘a second Lawrence’ – earned the respect of his British enemies: he would later serve the Brits against the Germans in occupied Italy and today lives in Ireland where he continues to ride horses in his 90s.
More celebrated still was the charge of the immortal Savoia at Izbushensky near the Don, 24th August 1942. Here 700 Italian cavalry took on and drove back over 2000 Siberian infantry who were attempting to encircle them in the sunflower-growing plains near the river. A much loved and much honoured survivor of the carica was Albino an Italian horse, who lived, though blinded in the battle, until 1960. And one of Italy’s proudest boasts concerning the Second World War is that they led the last victorious cavalry charge in history. It goes without saying that Italy would have done better to have pioneered radar or to have invented the atom bomb…
In any case, pace, the Savoia there are other contenders. At Poloj (Croatia) 17th October 1942, an Italian cavalry force broke out of a trap being set for them by Tito’s ghastly partisans. Then March 1, 1945 the 1st Warsaw Cavalry Brigade (Samodzielna Warzawska Brygada Kawalerii), fighting under the Soviets, allegedly - Beachcombing’s sources here are poor - charged the Germans in Western Pomeria. The fact that they were fighting for the USSR is perhaps why this last cavalry charge is not particularly celebrated by the Polish today.
To the best of Beachcombing’s knowledge – and he has six books open before him on the table - the Warsaw Cavalry Brigade took part in the last cavalry charge in history. But he can’t quite believe this. Was there not, somewhere in one of the Colonial Wars, another cavalry charge in the 1960s or 1970s? A few colonials in Rhodesia, some gung ho improvising French paras in Vietnam? He waits with bated breath to know more: [drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom]
On a melancholy note Amedeo Guillet, Italy’s greatest warrior (and a gentleman to boot), died on 16th June 2010, aged 101, the very day that the post went up mentioning him… Beachcombing hopes that the spirits of a thousand Somalian steeds escort the Commander to the racing grounds of eternity.
On a happier note Beachcombing was overjoyed to get an email from an American veteran (who wishes to remain anonymous). This veteran reported that he had once talked to a Staff Sergeant in the 10th Mountain Division (US) who had participated in a cavalry charge in April 1945 in Italy while part of a recon platoon. The details were sketchy – here was a conversation that took place many years ago – but this promises to be an interesting lead. Any help with the story would be greatly appreciated. Beachcombing intends to contact the relevant regimental authorities.
Beachcombing has previously thanked ‘American Veteran’ who put him onto a cavalry charge on the part of the 10th Mountain Division. The 10th Mountain Division Historian, Kevin Mulberger, with the courtesy and expertise that Beachcombing has always experienced in his dealings with the American army, sent in the following reference from Packs On: Memoirs of the 10th Mountain Division in WW2 by A. B. Feuer (pp. 39 and 40) [Beachcombing has simplified the paragraphing in what follows].
‘The strangest organization attached to the 10th Mountain was the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop. The unit was originally formed at Ft. Meade, South Dakota, as a horse cavalry outfit. In November 1942 the troop was sent to Camp Hale Colorado for winter training. It was hoped that the men might be able to manoeuvre equally on horses and skis. However, this was not the case. Consequently officers and men of the troop were split up among various quartermaster companies. They were then replaced by expert mountaineers and the horses were replaced with mechanized equipment. The troops mission was also changed. The men became instructors, teaching rock climbing to the 10th Mountain Soldiers at Camp Hale and glacier techniques at Mount Ranier, Washington. In the autumn of 1944, the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop was re-activated at Camp Swift Texas and soldiers with horse experience were transferred into the outfit.
Donald Hubbard recalls his experiences with the Horse Cavalry in Italy ‘After arriving at Naples, we moved inland and were billeted at San Marcello. We received Jeeps (no horses yet) and began reconnaissance patrols into the mountains and high ground occupied by the Germans. In the spring, we were trucked to Florence where we would finally receive our mounts. This good news lifted our spirits and gave us something different to talk about, such as what their color might be or their size, age, and temperament. Our first look at the horses, however, was somewhat disappointing as they seemed very docile. We learned that they had been obtained from the French, Sardinians, Hungarians and Germans. A two day ride to the front revealed that our evaluation of the horses was correct. But then maybe it was better to have mounts that were easy to control, especially underfire. On April 14, 1945 the Po River valley campaign began with the 10th heading the attack. The division rushed ahead so fast that the enemy was unable to establish an effective defense. As mounted cavalrymen, we still didn’t have riding boots or spurs but that didn’t deter us. Our horses stood up well to the attack, but they often lacked the correct diet. The Italian people however often came to the rescue with whatever food they could spare. Our objectives were not always clear, but part of the confusion was due to the large number of Germans who were surrendering. Our instructions were to send the prisoners to the rear. Other orders were to bypass pockets of resistance. It was at one of these so-called pockets of resistance that the Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop fought one of the strangest battles of the war. We had advanced within a few kilometers of the Po River when we came upon a small Italian Village. The troop was moving in formation, single file with the First Platoon in the lead. There were buildings on a side street to our left, giving us a choice of either going straight ahead or turning left and passing in front of the buildings. The Decision was quickly made for us. German machine guns on the second floor of a stone dwelling opened fire on our troops. The Third Platoon commander ordered a pistol charge on the enemy position, but some of his men were unarmed. The First and Second Platoons dismounted and prepared to support the assault. What the Third Platoon lacked in firepower was more than made up for by its overabundance of courage. Our supporting volleys were able to suppress the enemy guns, giving the Third Platoon a chance to recover and withdraw. The pistol charge was unsuccessful but ended without casualties to men or horses.’
Michael Dunn also got in touch with a very productive email. He noted, first, that there may have been some cavalry charges in the colonial wars in Oman in the 1950s – Beachcombing will look into this in the autumn. More importantly he identified a cavalry charge in Afghanistan in 2001! Beachcombing quotes from this remarkable text describing cooperation between American special forces and the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Not the least remarkable point is how the horse attacks relied so heavily on close air support: ‘From 19 to 24 October the Special Forces team operated in a split team manner. One element, Team Alpha, rode on horseback north into the mountains near Keshendeh Bala along with General Dostum to help him plan the attack on Mazar-e Sharif. The other half of the team, the Bravo element, moved south into the nearby Alma Tak Mountains to attack the Taliban in the southern Darya Suf Valley. Team Alpha quickly began helping Dostum directly by calling in close air support (CAS) from U.S. B-1 and B-52 bombers and F-14, 15, 16, and 18 fighter-bombers. At first, however, the team was not permitted to move forward close enough to the Taliban positions to be most effective; Dostum was afraid they would be killed or captured. According to one Special Forces observer, on several occasions he told the team leader ‘500 of my men can be killed, but not one American can even be injured or you will leave.’ As a result, the team had to call CAS from a distance of eight to ten kilometers away from the targets, looking across the Darya Suf gorge with weather conditions often hampering visibility. It was extremely hazy most of the time, making it difficult to visually acquire targets even with binoculars and spotting scopes. Eventually, the trust barrier was broken when it became obvious the team could take care of itself. Choosing observation posts (OPs) at their own discretion, often regardless of the element of danger, the men of Team Alpha quickly became more effective. The massive close air support brought down by Special Forces had a huge and immediate psychological effect on the Taliban, causing panic and fear, and a correspondingly positive effect on General Dostum’s men. Starting on 22 October, Team Alpha, traveling on horseback in support of Dostum’s cavalry, decisively demonstrated to the Afghans the U.S. commitment to their cause. From an OP near the villages of Cobaki and Oimatan, team members began systematicallycalling in CAS missions. In one eighteen-hour period they destroyed over twenty armored and twenty support vehicles using close air support. At first the Taliban responded by reinforcing its troops, sending reserves into the area from Sholgara, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kholm. All that did was provide more targets for the CAS aircraft circling overhead and called into action by the SF team on the ground. Numerous key command posts, armored vehicles, troop concentrations, and antiaircraft artillery pieces were destroyed. Meanwhile, the Bravo element of the team, also mounted on horseback, moved south into the Alma Tak Mountain range to link up with one of Dostum’s subordinate commanders in the southern Darya Suf Valley and prevent the enemy from assisting its forces in the north. They would continue to interdict and destroy Taliban forces in these mountains until 7 November, destroying over sixty-five enemy vehicles, twelve command bunker positions, and a large enemy ammunition storage bunker. The work of Teams Alpha and Bravo quickly eroded the initial Taliban defensive positions. Many Taliban vehicles were destroyed, and hundreds of troops were killed. The survivors fled for their lives north to Mazar-e Sharif. In pursuit, Dostum’s forces began to conduct old-fashioned cavalry charges into the northern Darya Suf and Balkh Valleys. [Beachcombing’s italics] During these attacks SF team members were in the forefront of the action, often on horseback, even though only one member of the team had ever ridden extensively before.’ Beachcombing now realises that his question was fatally flawed. The last cavalry charge in history has probably not happened yet… Thanks to Kevin and Michael
Airminded Blog introduced Beachcombing to the successful Charge of the Fourth Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba in 1917, one of the most memorable achievements in Australia’s short but remarkable military history.
Ricardo R. from Lisbon sent in a fascinating article by Captain Miguel Freire describing Portuguese anti-insurgency horseback units (the Dragões) in Angola in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘The cavalry squadrons were, for the most part, local troops, except for the officers and sergeants. The troopers would come from local recruitment in Angola to do their compulsory two year military service. There were few horses in Angola, so it was very difficult for many of the early recruits to adapt to an animal that they had never seen before. Because of this, the recruiting effort focused on certain native people in Southwestern Angola who were very fierce and had a history of cattle-raising. Familiar with cattle, they adapted easily and quickly to the horse and proved to be excellent riders.’ It goes without saying that they were remarkably successful and one day Beachcombing would love to write a post on the Dragões. Freire also refers to other anti-insurgent horse units in colonial wars: ‘In Rhodesia, the horsemounted Grey’s Scouts, formed in 1976, fought a counterinsurgency campaign using horse cavalry as a solution to mobility requirements in the same way that the Portuguese did. The South African Defense Forces also used horse cavalry (and scrambler motorcycles) to pursue guerrillas in its border war with SWAPO (the South-West African People’s Organization).’
Ostrich, meanwhile, brought Beachcombing’s attention to recent cavalry battles in Sudan: Beachcombing is feeling stupider and stupider about ‘the last cavalry battle’ – clearly that will be a long way off in the future… When it comes though it will probably be somewhere in south-eastern Africa. E.g. ‘29 May 2009 2,000 Rizeigat men on horseback and 35 vehicles, attacked a group of Misseriya near to the village of Meiram.’ Thanks to Airminded, Ricardo and Ostrich for these valuable notices.
31 Dec 2010: HMGS-Mid-South wrote in with this picture of a veteran of one of the last Italian cavalry charge – now aged 90 with his new American wife! - that is well worth a look. Thanks!
24 Feb 2011: Ricardo R. writes in with this extraordinary video of Mubarak supporters charging the enemy. Look out for the camel! Not for the faint of heart! Thanks Ricardo!!
9 July 2011: Voxing History has written a linked post on the question of the last US cavalry charge: ‘The answer may surprise you: it was during World War II. It happened January 16, 1942 near the village of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, when the U.S. Army’s 26th Cavalry surprised a Japanese infantry unit and scattered them.  A nice painting commemorating the charge can be viewed here. But didn’t they have tanks and jeeps and half-tracks in World War II? Sure they did, but while the Army began the process of mechanization during World War I, this process was not complete even at the start of World War II. There was still a little room for an old-fashioned cavalry charge.’ Thanks Voxing History!
12 August 2012: Alma from Jordan writes, read your research article about the Last Cavalry Battle, posted June 16, 2010. I found it on Google, as I was trying to find out about some mention of a WWII cavalry event made by Col. Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, many years ago when he was my guest. Col. von Ziegner is a noted author on equestrian training, having written 3 excellent books. At the time I met him he was well into his 80′s but as vigorous and spry as one could imagine. He was recalling his early days of how young German cavalry cadets were trained and the rigors they went through. And because the saber was the weapon of choice, often the tips of horses’ right ears were missing—a slip of the blade! In explaining his good use of the English language, he related how he was captured by the Americans either in Austria,Eastern Germany or Poland, and the ritual of preparing for their last battle. At the time when they were told to set their sabers in a circle on the ground, without sharpening them, they thought it odd, and later the riders realized that the officers had made their decision to surrender rather than be part of a massacre. It may have been that they preferred surrender to the Americans rather than be captured by the Russians. Such a fate would mean almost certain internment in Russian slave camps, or death. However, it was known that the Americans were more ‘civil’ with the POWs. He found himself in a base (he said Switzerland, but Switzerland was neutral, so it could have been Italy?) and acting as a groom for the polo playing “cowboys” in the Army. So his story goes on, that he was watching one of the “Yanks” trying to jump one of the mounts, and was getting refusal after refusal. Kurd said something to the American, who retorted, not knowing he was talking to a former German cavalryman, “so you think you can do better?” and Kurd “showed” him. From groom he was immediately advance to trainer– and so the story goes. Now, I am not 100% sure of this story, but it sure does make sense. One might say this was a charge not made? I’d like to know more. I am also suspecting after doing more Googling that it was not Switzerland, but maybe France where he was sent? As a result of further searching I did find this information through Google under Horses in War—Germany. In February 1945 German and Hungarian cavalry divisions were thrown into the Lake Balaton offensive; after a limited success, German forces were ground down by Soviet counteroffensive. Remnants of Army cavalry fell back into Austria; 22 thousand men surrendered to Western allies, bringing with them 16 thousand horses. Remnants of SS cavalry, merged into the 37rd SS Division, followed the same route. And, I think–my memory might be a bit enhanced here, that these retreating forces were ‘hightailing” it west to avoid capture by the Russians. Thanks to Alma!