A Top-Secret Mission to Save the Most Beautiful Animals in the World in WW2
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna originated when Vienna’s Habsburg Emperor Maximilian imported these horses from Spain in 1562. These truly magnificent stallions were always bred to be physically capable of performing haute ecole dressage and the incredibly demanding “Airs above the ground”, moves which come naturally to a stallion in battle and fighting other stallions for mares.
It is incredible to think that all this tradition could have been lost in 1945.
What is truly a remarkable story is that the Viennese riding school and the ancestors of today’s horses owe their survival to the intervention of American General George S. Patton during World War II.
Austria was annexed to Germany by Hitler during the Anschluss in 1938.
But by 1945 as Hitler was losing and the Allies were attacking, bombs rained down on Vienna in Spring at the end of World War II and the magnificent baroque riding hall with its crystal chandeliers narrowly missed ending up a pile of rubble. The white stallions, hunkered down through heavy air raids, were at serious risk as the Allied front advanced on the city.
School director Colonel Alois Podhajsky took action to save the School’s treasures: he secreted away the chandeliers, packed the portrait of Charles VI and most importantly, saved his precious stallions whom he sent to the town of St. Martin, 200 miles outside Vienna.
By late April 1945 St Martin in upland Austria was under American control and the Viennese school of Spanish Stallion Lippizaners was captured by the advancing American forces under General Patton.
Being horse lovers, General Patton and Colonel Reed requested a demonstration of the Lippizaner Riding School from the Grand Rider and School Director; Colonel Podhajsky. Podhajsky, the son of a cavalry officer, had won a bronze in dressage in the 1936 Olympics and had devoted his life to his beautiful Viennese horses.
The Americans watched with awe the precise, ballet-like manoeuvres the white stallions were famous for: a demonstration of controlled power and ritualized elegance, set to music, that was beautiful to watch and incredibly difficult to execute.
After the breathtaking demonstration, General Patton confided to Podhajsky that he was putting the Spanish Riding School under the special protection of the U.S. Army.
Podhajsky had asked him minutes before to help save another stud of Lippizaners that were among hundreds the Germans had stolen from among the finest breeding stock in Europe and sent to a large stud farm in the Czech town of Hostau, where they were under the care of Czech and Polish POWs who had surrendered to the Germans.
What Podhajsky didn’t know, however, was that something far more dangerous and extravagant was already well under way: a top-secret mission involving not only Podhajsky’s Lippizaner horses, but hundreds more horses, as well as hundreds of Allied POW’s.
It had began 11 days earlier—with a defecting German general. The general, a celebrated spy known only as Walter H wanted to save as many horses and men as he could from destruction. He too had approached Patton with a plan to get the German army in Hostau to surrender peacefully and release its stash of prisoners and fine horses.
The big problem was that according to the Yalta Conference Czechoslovakia fell within the Soviet Allied zone of occupation and Patton, General Walter H and Podhajsky knew that the Russians being only 60 miles from reaching Hostau, would merely chop the horses up for meat once they arrived there.
The Americans were only 35 miles from Hostau.
Patton’s swift response was:
“Get them. Make it fast!”
The German staff Vet at Hostau had already been approached undercover to help negotiate a surrender of the German battalion currently in Hostau to the Americans before the Russians could arrive.
Patton chose a 30 year old U.S. soldier, (a former senator and horseman from Tennessee) called Stewart who was despatched with the German Vet with a letter from Patton for the Wehrmacht German Army in Hostau
The two men left on foot and walked together in the darkness for about a half-mile before coming upon the motorcycle that had been secreted in some bushes. They drove it several miles to the barn of a friendly Czech forester, where they exchanged the motorcycle for a pair of horses the veterinarian had hidden there to take them on the rest of the journey.
Although riding through the dark countryside in the sole company of an enemy officer seems an intimidating experience, Stewart revelled in it. An experienced rider, he delighted in his horse, a Lipizzaner stallion said to have been the favorite mount of Peter II, King of Yugoslavia. Stewart recalled in a recent interview….
“there was I with an enemy soldier on a famous Lippizaner stallion, riding through enemy territory on a secret mission, the forest so thick you felt like you were riding through two walls of darkness and it was the most unforgettable experience of my life,”
When Stewart encountered a roadblock about three feet wide and high built of logs and branches, a steep cliff on one side, a ravine on the other, he gathered his horse and took off for the obstacle. Too late, he heard the German vet call out, “He doesn’t jump!” No matter; the horse took off, light as a feather.
“It was the highlight of the trip for me.”
When Stewart and the German Vet arrived in Hostau and finally handed the letter to the German General requesting his surrender, Stewart heard the General say in the background, “Adolf ist kaputt.“
The general finally turned to Captain Stewart and asked, in English, “How many panzers can you bring?”
Stewart understood that the German general didn’t want to surrender to a lone American captain and so he assured him the 2nd Cavalry would return with a sizeable number of tanks and other vehicles.
“He looked at me for what seemed like a long time,” Stewart recalled, “and then he took out this pad and scribbled something.” It was a note of safe passage for Stewart.
“There will be no difficulties when your people come in,” the German general told him.
By daybreak the next day, April 28, a rapidly formed American task force of approximately 70 men from the 42nd Reconnaissance Squadron’s A Troop—along with two light tanks and two assault guns—was on its way. As promised, the task force encountered no resistance on the way to the stud farm, and the surrender was peaceful.
As soon as the facility was secured, the American troops hurried off to look at the source of all the commotion: the captured horses. It was truly a treasure trove of horseflesh. Among them were about 100 of the best Arabs in Europe, top Thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and some 250 Lipizzaners from breeding farms across Europe—primarily the Yugoslavian royal stud and the Piber stud in Austria, which supplied the horses for the Spanish Riding School.
And then the following day the Americans in Hosnau were attacked by a different German force who was unaware a deal had been done to surrender.
This is where one of those many extraordinary ironies of war occurred.
Americans, with the surrendered Germans, the Austrian horsemen, some Russian Cossacks and Polish ex-prisoners saved the farm from their German attackers! And they won.
Germans fighting Germans to protect the most precious horses in the world.
Although the horses were now in American hands, they were still in Czechoslovakia and Patton and Reed knew something had to be done to get them out of the path of the Red Army—and soon.
And so Operation Cowboy began.
At dawn on May 12, the remarkable procession began. About 350 of the finest bred horses in the world were herded along the roads in small groups, with American vehicles positioned before and after them and with a band of Polish, Czech, and Cossack horsemen as outriders, along with a smattering of Americans—making the name of the mission, Operation Cowboy, especially apt.
The evacuation was an organizational masterpiece; the Americans had closed off all major intersections and the group covered the roughly 130 miles to Mannsbach safely. The fastest groups made the journey in two days; the slower groups, those that included mares and foals, arrived a day later. Podhajsky easily identified the Lipizzaners belonging to the Austrian herd and Reed assured him they would be sent to St. Martin in Austria.
A little over a week later, just before midnight on or about May 25, some 60 trucks pulled into view in St Martin.
The journey this time had been too great a distance to make on foot, so Reed had amassed as many captured German vehicles as possible and had them outfitted to carry the horses. Sadly two mares were injured in the chaos of unloading at the airfield and had to be put down.
A total of 244 Lipizzaners were successfully returned to Austria.
But the rescue came at a cost—and a simple fondness for horses can’t explain the many instances of risk, bravery, and personal sacrifice that arose during its execution. For that, it was Colonel Reed, fittingly, who provided the answer:
“We were so tired of death and destruction,” he said, “we wanted to do something beautiful.”
George S. Patton spent a lifetime with horses.
He was a participant at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, placing sixth out of 23 in the equestrian phase.
As a major in the cavalry in 1921, he wrote that a cavalry leader “must have a passion—not simply a liking—for horses.” And when he sought to assess his condition after the automobile accident that ultimately took his life in December 1945, Patton chose one question to ask his doctor: “What chance have I to ride a horse again?”