Twilight Dragoons:

British Cavalry in World War III


"I suddenly realised how ridiculous the situation was as I led the troop in the direction of Paderborn, where the perimeter MSTAR post had picked up a marauder patrol attempting to come over the river. I was sat on my horse, Connery, in my mismatched, much patched combats, neck aching from the weight of the NVG's on my head. I carried my normal AK-74, acquired many years back, and the Browning 9mm Hi-Power I'd never yet fired in anger. Attached to my saddle were two 66's and the near 200 year old Heavy Cavalry sword one of my illustrious ancestors had carried at Waterloo.. It was a bizarre juxtaposition of ancient and modern."

Journal of Capt Tim McEwen, 4 Troop, B Squadron, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

The gradual decay of POL supplies forced some units from all armies involved in the Twilight War to convert to movement on horseback, and the British were no exception. However the British had operated horsed units even before the fuel situation had decayed so drastically. Ceremonial Foot and Horse Guards units in the UK had been formed into the 32nd (Guards) Brigade early in 1997 to bolster the internal security situation and free other regular units for service on the Central Front. The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (including soldiers of the Lifeguards and the Blues and Royals), was normally equipped with Land Rovers but also frequently used its immaculately groomed horses for riot control duties.

By the summer of 1997 parts of the Ministry of Defence were very worried about the potential length of the war, and the possibility of nuclear exchanges. One of the options put underway was a feasibility study about the reintroduction of horses in home based units should supply irrevocably break down. Thanks to these early measures after the first round of nuclear strikes plans were already underway for the training and breeding of horses. Included in the wave of Territorial Army units created was a Yeomanry Training Squadron, drawn from the employees of stables throughout the north of England whose job was to select and train cavalry and police horses.

In 1998 the second wave of nuclear strikes hit the population centres of the Midlands of England and Central Scotland. The strikes decapitated the Military Government when York was hit, and the country fell apart except for those areas in the South of England and the North East and Scotland under direct military control. A tide of refugees from the shattered areas threatened to overwhelm those areas left relatively untouched, the military created refugee camps and enforced a rigorous buffer zone across the Vale of York and later in Northumbria from Alnwick. To help police these buffer zones the military commanders at Catterick turned to the Yeomanry Training Squadron.

Mounted Yeomanry units were created, first the Yorkshire Light Horse, then the Northumbrian Yeomanry (Hussars) and finally the Border Yeomanry. These were units consisting of male and female riders trained as mounted infantry, that is they would utilise the mobility of the horse but fight on foot. They swiftly gained a reputation as being more than willing to use violence to prevent the refugees moving into their home areas. The Yeomanry would be reviled by urban left-wing popular opinion for many years after the war for this reason. In fact there would only be around 1500 mounted Yeomanry at the height of the crisis and they were often blamed for the excesses of other units.

During 1999 after the withdrawal from Czechoslovakia it became obvious that the corps recce regiments of the BAOR, who generally had survived much better than other units, were being badly hampered by the lack of fuels and vehicle spare parts. It was decided that their vehicles would go to bolster other units and they would convert to using horses. Whilst some horses were acquired in Germany, most were sent over from the UK from YTS through Bremerhaven. These horses were of excellent quality and British cavalry horses were much coveted by other units, and rumours still abound about some of the barter deals conducted with US units.

The units chosen for conversion were the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. All flamboyant cavalry regiments with long and proud histories, and all still had a substantial proportion of pre-war regulars in their ranks. The conversion was not an easy one, although many pre-war officers had been accomplished horsemen most of the other ranks had barely seen a horse. In addition a heavy program of infantry training, especially rifle marksmanship was instituted for soldiers who had been more used to firing 30mm cannon than 5.56mm assault rifles.

The war role of the horsed units was drawn from the operational experience of the Yeomanry units, but also from the pre-WW1 cavalry formations of the British Expeditionary Force. The cavalry was to provide a wide recce screen to protect elements of the BAOR, and maintain itself out of direct physical contact for as long as required. It was to use HF radio sets to maintain contact with the Corps HQ to which they were attached. As such they would often operate in conjunction with special forces units providing an even wider cordon, on many occasions they would provide a 'Quick Reaction Force' (later often referred to as a Cavalry Reaction Force or CRF) for these special forces teams. In turn the cavalry regiments would be supported by elements of 19th and 24th Infantry Brigades.

Initially operational on the fringes of the BAOR cantonment in the area around Brunswick the cavalry regiments saw frequent clashes with both marauders and civilian defence militias. However a program building up links with remaining civilian populations by helping rebuilding projects and warding off marauders brought an increasingly warm relationship with local civilians. Consequently the supply of intelligence on marauder movements improved remarkably and troops were often stationed forward to provide extra protection for exposed communities. The bonuses for the British of course was that far fewer stragglers were being murdered by civilians and increased crop production.

In 2000 and with the return of the campaign season, 1st British Army was to act as a reserve for German 3rd Army's offensive into Poland. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and Queen's Royal Irish Hussars went with II British Corps to the area of Berlin. The offensive soon collapsed with WP counter attacks cutting off the US XI Corps deep inside Poland. The WP counter-offensive roled forward led by the wide-ranging Soviet 22nd Cavalry Army (which in-spite of its grand title was only around 5000 strong) the RSDG and QRIH went forwards to screen them from the British heavy units.

The conflict was a strange one, with horsemen providing an outer screen, conventional recce vehicles an inner screen and armoured forces at the centre. Thus a cavalry unit that succeeded in its mission to penetrate the outer screen would then come up against armoured vehicles against which they had little defence. Nevertheless the British cavalrymen consistently came out on top of their Soviet opponents, the veteran soldiers were better horseman and after all the practise, better riflemen. The Soviet 89th Cavalry Division in particular always came off worse in its conflicts with the Scots Greys due to the unwillingness of its soldiers to get off their badly trained mounts. As a result they were usually shot to pieces by the dismounted British troopers.

Hand to hand combat was very uncommon, although did occur on occasions. The Soviet cavalrymen would often try to charge their adversaries in an attempt to break them and then mop up at leisure. This tactic apparently worked with some success against Polish guerrillas, but was usually stopped dead by withering British musketry. On two occasions massed charges had reached British cavalry outposts, but with their horses unwilling to charge home and still providing poor firing platforms, a hastily formed 'rally square' was sufficient to force the enemy away. The British rarely charged home, but some commanders favoured the manoeuvre. C Squadron of the QRIH charged elements of the Soviet 127th Cavalry Division at bayonet point in the streets of Kostrzyn in order to clear their lines of retreat for example.

The success of the British cavalry screen enabled the 4th Armoured Division to retreat successfully over the Oder after a delaying action. The cavalry were then tasked with surveillance of those sections of the Oder that II Corps couldn't cover with other means. They had good success against infiltrators and recce troops when used in co-ordination with other OP assets. However when the attack came, elements of the 39th Guards Motor Rifle Division managed to catch several outposts of the Irish Hussars unawares, the horsemen proved no match for BMP-2 cannon fire and were swiftly overwhelmed. In spite of this setback the cavalry continued to provide good flank protection for II Corps, and continued to spar with their old adversaries of the 22nd Cavalry Army, until the final mauling of 8th Guards Tank Army forced the end of the Soviet offensive.

Bloodied, battered but unbeaten the cavalry returned with the rest of the BAOR to its cantonment areas around Brunswick. In their absence the marauder threat had increased and most local communities were pleased to see them once more. The cavalrymen would have much to do in the next few years, escorting American units through the area on to their embarkation points at Bremerhaven and return to the devastated US. Also a group of hard-line German nationalists had grown up in the area of Paderborn which continued to launch attacks on the British controlled zones. The cavalry were often in the front-line of defence against these attacks, as well as leading reprisal raids.

Whilst the BAOR cavalry and Yeomanry were the most famous horsed units many other British units used horses. Many infantry battalions created mounted infantry platoons to increase their anti-marauder capability, and these operated in a similar manner to the cavalry. Also some logistical and other units were re-equipped with horses. The famous photograph of a Royal Artillery air-defence unit using teams of horses to move their Rapier systems along muddy tracks has become inextricably linked in most peoples minds as an image of the last years of the War.

The equipment used by these units during the war was not totally dissimilar from that used by infantry. The usual mismatched combat fatigues were worn, although the trousers were usually reinforced by the wearer. Helmets were carried but infrequently worn, berets being preferred and perhaps the only well maintained piece of clothing worn. Weapons carried was usually an assault rifle (SA 80 lingered long in cavalry units), bayonet or knife and often sidearms were carried (a holdover from the armoured recce days). Heavier weapons were limited to grenade launchers and various LAW and RPG systems. Machineguns were normally light weapons, LSW and captured PKM were common whilst the venerable LMG (the 'Bren Gun') was also popular.

Communication was normally by radio, but frequently bugle calls or whistles were introduced instead, and these were standardised on the 'McCarthy System' in December 2000. Saddles and other tack was normally acquired from a variety of civilian sources and altered to suit the user. Nevertheless it was generally of a better standard than that used by the other nations. Saddle-bags and other items like holsters were generally rigged up by the units themselves from whatever was available.

The regiments retained their basic organisation of four 'sabre' squadrons and a Regimental HQ. Each sabre squadron would have four troops each of around 25 men and horses. Battle casualties would cause the unit to be consolidated into fewer, but more up to strength troops. The RSDG were always the strongest unit, often being fully manned. The QRIH was strong with three full strength squadrons until the Oder battles. The Inniskilling's started out with only 3 squadrons, but eventually operated with only one. The Scots Greys were also noted for integrating volunteers of all nationalities into their ranks, something not undertaken on the same scale by the two Irish regiments.

Like other units the cavalry were rich in slang, especially when describing horse-borne units of enemies and allies. Soviet cavalry were referred to as 'Cossacks' (even when few actually were ethnic Cossacks), German units were 'Uhlans', and Poles 'Lancers'. US Cavalry units equipped with horses were 'John Waynes', whilst other horse equipped infantry and armoured units were named after different Native American tribes. This arose from the US Corps closest to the British forces' desire to obtain their horses, which were much superior to those available locally. After one incident of theft this unit were referred to as 'Commanches', other Corps' mounted units would become 'Apaches', 'Sioux' and so on.

The more rarely encountered US Marines, (mounted units only came across these on the retreat of 2nd Marine Division from Poland in the winter of 2001) were dubbed 'Real John Waynes'. Canadian mounted units also rarely met but were naturally known as 'Mounties', or more obscurely 'Malcoms' (apparently from a pre-war TV advert). These terms gained widespread use within BAOR, to the extent that unit histories often describe enemy units as Cossack Divisions, rather than Cavalry Divisions.

The Inniskillings would return to the UK in 2001 where they would continue to operate in a horsed role until 2006 when finally re-equipped with Land Rovers. The QRIH and RSGD remained in central Germany until 2003, becoming almost a part of the landscape. Both units helped in the raising and training of mounted squadrons of the newly raised and locally recruited German Legion. On their return to the UK both units would continue to be retained in the mounted role, operating in the north of the British Isles. The QRIH gave up its horses in 2008 and returned to the recce role. The RSDG converted to the new, simplified Challenger 3 in 2009, and would see action in the Saudi War as part of 4th Armoured Division.

The Yeomanry Regiments similarly re-equipped with conventional vehicles as they became available, and by 2006 most were de-mobilised from active service. However many units retained mounted units for both practical and ceremonial purposes, this practise spread to Yeomanry units that weren't even equipped with horses during the war.


Copyright D Hebditch, 2000, 2004