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In another question When was the last cavalry charge?, answers discussed several occasions where horses were still used in combat, including in cavalry charges. I thought that the invention of the machine gun had made that tactic obsolete, yet many armies, including the U.S. Army, maintained some horse-mounted cavalry leading into the war. Today, "cavalry" units use helicopters or tanks to achieve the same effect.

My question is: under what tactical situations during World War II were horse-mounted cavalry units still effective? If the opposing side included armor or multiple machine gun teams, would that have discouraged commanders from employing the horse-mounted troops?

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Whenever 20th century cavalry comes up, it often gets confused with mounted infantry. So let's clear that up.

Cavalry is trained to fight from horseback using pistol, sabre, carbine, lance, and the horse itself. Its primary purpose is cross open terrain quickly, crash through the enemy line, and cause disarray. If they can do this from an open flank, rather than charging straight into the guns, so much the better.

Mounted infantry are different; they ride their horse to the battle, dismount, and fight as normal leg infantry. The advantage is mobility, being able to move quickly from point A to point B to surprise the enemy or as a mobile reserve to respond to an attack. They're no different than truck, ski, or bicycle troops... except maybe it's a bit more romantic.

There was far more mounted infantry in WWII than there were cavalry. Mounted infantry often gets confused with cavalry.


Why a horse? Most WWII armies were not fully mechanized. With the exception of the US, they did not have the automotive industry to supply their whole army with vehicles. Infantry still walked. Artillery and supplies were horse-drawn, particularly in the German army.

But in WWII, mobility was key. Getting firepower from point A to point B as quickly as possible could win the day, and that includes infantry. If you don't have enough trucks anything else will do: rail being the first choice, but also motorcycles, skis, bicycles, horses, or sitting on a tank. Mounted infantry made a lot of sense.


With that out of the way, on to the actual questions...

Many armies, including the U.S. Army, maintained some horse-mounted cavalry leading into the war.

I will put forward three reasons for this: the US Army likes its traditions; the US Army was woefully underfunded at the start of WWII; the US Army had no experience in modern war. This all adds up to the fiscally convenient delusion that horse cavalry was still a good idea.

The budget for the US military was slashed after WWI and, with the US intending to remain neutral, only rose very slowly after Germany invaded Poland. Tanks were new and expensive and where was a lot of debate as to how they could be used even after Germany showed the world how it's done. As a result, the US was well behind in tank and aircraft development. The M3 Lee, the first US tank that could be said to be worth a damn, was a stopgap design to shove a 75mm gun into a tank and it only started rolling off the production lines in August 1941 two years after the war started.

The rapid build up of the US Army meant that National Guard units were incorporated into the army. These units, supported by individual US states, had wildly varying budgets and readiness. Horses were a very expedient way to give your underfunded weekend warriors some mobility, especially if they lived in an area which already had a lot of horses.

Again, this is my supposition.

Under what tactical situations during World War II were horse-mounted cavalry units still effective? If the opposing side included armor or multiple machine gun teams, would that have discouraged commanders from employing the horse-mounted troops?

Again, let's be careful to not mix up cavalry with horse-mounted troops. Horse mounted infantry (or cavalry) could be used for a wide flanking maneuver around an enemy strong point to attack from an exposed flank or rear. Their increased mobility over leg infantry still served a role.

Something else to consider is most early WWII infantry were still equipped with bolt-action rifles little changed from WWI. The Poles and Germans and many other armies used the ubiquitous Kar-98K. The British had the 1914 Enfield. The Soviets had the Mosin-Nagant. These typically had a 5 round fixed magazine fed with a stripper clip.

The first self-loading rifles were just being adopted. They were expensive, could malfunction, were sensitive to the ammunition quality, and the logistics folks and bean counters wrung their hands about all that ammunition soldiers might fire. The Soviets had the SVT-40, but stopped production in favor of cheap, stamped sub-machine guns. Only the US adopted a self-loading rifle, the M1 Garand, as their service rifle and had enough to put one in the hands of nearly every soldier.

Sub-machine guns were becoming popular, but they fired small pistol cartridges and had a short range. They were designed as a very cheap assault and close-combat weapon to give the average infantry squad some brutal extra firepower, but they were not a replacement for a light machine gun on the defense. The Soviets had the PPSh-41, the Germans had the MP 40, and the US had the breathtakingly expensive Thompson.

Point is, the firepower of your average early WWII infantryman was fairly limited.

Then there's the mobile nature of WWII. On the Western Front of WWI, there was a continuous front from the Channel coast to Switzerland for years. Armies could build up elaborate defenses, multiple trench lines, and concrete bunkers. They could haul in dozens of artillery pieces, and emplace hundreds of machine guns with carefully thought out firing arcs. Because the line was continuous and so lavish, and the pace of WWI warfare so slow, there was no flank for cavalry to outflank.

In contrast, WWII was very mobile. The front moved constantly and was rarely contiguous (despite those nice lines drawn on the map). There were (almost) always gaps and weak points in the line to exploit. Fast moving mounted infantry could exploit those gaps... but probably not as cavalry. Instead they'd dismount and fight as infantry. Why? Because it was simply more effective. To quote Wikipedia, this is what a US horse cavalryman was supposed to do...

Mounted troopers would attack with their pistols; at the command 'charge', troopers would shorten their reins, lean well forward and ride at full speed toward the enemy. Each trooper would select a victim to his immediate front and bear down on him with his pistol extended at arm's length, withholding fire until within 25 yards.

Charge to within 25 yards of the enemy, and try to hit them with a pistol from the back of a charging horse. Good luck with that. Again, the US Army was pretty naive about what WWII was going to be like.

Where horse cavalry were useful was in the "pursuit" role: chasing a retreating and demoralized enemy who probably wasn't going to give much of a fight anyway. If you're a retreating soldier caught in the open by tons of angry horse bearing down on you with their riders firing pistols and carbines in your general direction, you're probably not going to put up much of a fight.

Cavalry could also be used in hit-and-run tactics against an advancing enemy, appearing out of nowhere, closing the distance rapidly, slashing through the enemy column, and then riding off before resistance can be organized. This was the role of the 26th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines against the advancing Japanese.

That said, charging a machine gun nest was not necessarily suicide. It can be a valid tactic depending on the situation. Cavalry excel at closing the gap with the enemy very quickly. The less time spent getting to the machine gun, the less time spent getting shot at by the machine gun. The aggressive nature of US tactics might accept a few loses now to break the grinding attrition of a stalemate.


That said, while there were many trained cavalry units at the start of WWII, very rarely did they act as cavalry. Instead, they acted as mounted infantry using their horse as a truck. Most cavalry units transitioned to mechanized cavalry, same role, but with armored fighting vehicles instead of horses.

  • Very good answer but I will suggest 2 things to make it better: examples of the Russian Cossacks in WW2, and simple examples of armed scouts. – DrZ214 Apr 6 '17 at 5:38
  • @DrZ214 I don't know much about that, would you write up a supplementary answer? – Schwern Apr 6 '17 at 6:08
  • Mounted infantry are historically also known as "dragoons", but I don't believe that term carried over from horse to armored personnel carrier in the way "cavalry" carried to tanks (and "air cavalry" to helicopters). – Monty Harder Apr 6 '17 at 18:18
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    @MontyHarder I hesitated to bring up dragoons because that term is also muddled. They started as mounted infantry, but by the 19th century were cavalry. Canada, France, and the UK still maintain a few units of "Dragoons" but they're armored cavalry or armored recon. – Schwern Apr 6 '17 at 18:41
  • This raises a really good point. Most soldiers in WWII did not have machine guns, and while most had repeating rifles, they were not the equivalent of modern day machine guns. – enderland Apr 7 '17 at 13:36
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Sometimes Soviet Army (especially during the first two years of the war agains Germany, 1941-43) successfully used its cavalry units. Success depended on many factors including tactical skills of its commanders (General Below for instance was quite successful), terrain (dense forest), weather (heavy rain, deep snow), roads (deep mud), time of operations (night operations, when cavalry could be moving quietly while tanks would be heard form a distance, see "Cavalry Combat at Night" from Tactical and Technical Trends).

The History of Soviet Airborne Forces, by David M. Glantz describes in detail some of these operations. Here is Glantz' quote (page 217) of general Halder concerning Belov's units performance:

Cav Corps Belov has again broken out and moving in the direction west of Kirov. Nothing that we could brag about ... Cav Corps Belov is now again floating around the area west of Kirov. Quite a man, that we have to send no less than seven divisions after him.

Another thing (again, Belov's forces are an example of success) is that even after been encircled, they could break through after spending weeks hiding in wilderness (horses eat hay and do not need gasoline).

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During the first winter of war in the eastern front, Russia used several units of cavalry because they had few tanks during those months, some of these units as part off the called "shock armies". They were not designed for frontal attack, but instead as units to deep explotation of openings in the enemy line and to harass rearguard.
Since the eastern front was so big, there was enough space to use cavalry, but once Russia improved their tank contruction they started to create more mechanised armies instead of the former shock armies.

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    I am not at all certain that these attacks were useful. That was why Bodyony was fired. – Jonathan Rosenne Apr 5 '17 at 18:16
  • @JonathanRosenne without being up to speed on the specifics, a useful delaying action or campaign of harassing supply-lines) may not be good enough to enhance one's military career, even when the boss isn't Stalin. – Chris H Apr 6 '17 at 8:34
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The best place to use cavalry was on the Russian front. The Russians used cavalry from time to time. So did the Axis, particularly Germany's East European allies, such as the Hungarians and Rumanians. The reasons are multiple: 1)large stretches of land; 2) flat stretches of land; 3) the tank had not fully replaced the horse; and 4) weather, which was harder on tanks than horses.

The use of "tanks" is associated in popular imagination in World War II, because it was still a "novelty." The flip side of that fact was that despite their large number of tanks, neither the Germans nor the Russians were fully mechanized. A lower percentage of their armies used motor transport than was true of the American army, which meant that large bodies of infantry marched on foot--and were supplied by horse drawn vehicles. This was a disadvantage during the summer months but an advantage during Russia's cold winters; horses were more resilient to the cold than machines.

Russia had large stretches that were too numerous to be covered by available tanks; horses provided a useful stopgap. Also, much of the land was flat enough to accommodate cavalry charges, even against machine guns, particularly at night, because there wasn't enough barbed wire to cover the whole front, unlike the case in France during World War I.

Cavalry tactics were not useful for whole "campaigns" (as the Russians found out in the Ukraine), but they were useful for local skirmishes, where they could find and exploit weak points in the enemies' (overextended) lines. This was particularly true during the late fall, winter, and early spring months when cold and rain or snow downgraded tanks (and machine guns) more than horses.

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The were effective at getting up close and too personal with tanks or even through them if need be. You have to take into account the fact that tanks had just made it on the scene at the end of WW1, so no one really had much of a chance to get any battle experience in them. Even then, they were also lucky if they didn't asphyxiate in them! I digress, picture if you will, manually adjusting that bamf at soldiers on horseback. depending on distance, you pretty much have one shot unless you have a reloader with arms as big around as a young Arnold S. and the rest roughly the size of Minime. Oh, almost forgot, YOU still have to aim it again.

Other than that they weren't used as much in combat as they were for transporting cargo. BUT that's nothing to scoff at. I haven't read every other post but from what I have there seems to be no mention about the fact that camp placement IS tactical. If you had a small window of time to make the next checkpoint it was going to be up to how many horses you have left. Aside from losing them to enemy fire after the Reich shows up at your front doo... flap, as it were. there was also still disease and injury that could bring a horse down as well. Not enough horses meant you were were going be delaying your European ipptinerary if you were even going to make it at all.

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Two extra points here:

Cavalry is very vulnerable to air attack (horses can't take cover, and are essentially impossible to repair if shot), hence its use on the Eastern front (as opposed to the Western front).

American troops almost never used cavalry because shipping horses across the Atlantic is a logistical nightmare.

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The Poles used cavalry against the Germans. It was not effective for the Poles but I think it was the last major use of cavalry.

One of the last major cavalry campaigns was in WWI with Allenby's in Palestine against the Ottoman army.

  • "Major" could be argued but the other answers state that the Soviets were using cavalry a few years after Poland's surrender. – David Richerby Apr 5 '17 at 20:17
  • They were used but can hardly be called effective. – Jonathan Rosenne Apr 5 '17 at 20:20
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    But you said it wasn't effective for Poland, either! – David Richerby Apr 5 '17 at 20:28
  • I did. The answer, in short, is none. – Jonathan Rosenne Apr 5 '17 at 20:29
  • Allenby faught in Palestine in WWI, not WWII. He died in 1936. – Alex Apr 6 '17 at 4:00

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