How Lipizzaners horses were saved from Nazis and Russians

Aggressively waving his arms, the battle-hardened Russian officer stood high in the turret of his tank. 

‘Get out of the way of the Red Army!’ he demanded, gunning his engines to show he meant business and would not be delayed.

But the armed column of American soldiers he was attempting to shove aside stood their ground. They weren’t going anywhere.

Barrels of big guns swivelled to face each other. Safety catches were clicked off on carbines and machine guns. One sudden, wrong move and all hell would let loose.

Just three days earlier, World War II in Europe had ended with Germany’s formal surrender in May 1945. 

But here on a remote pine-forest road in Czechoslovakia, once part of the dead Adolf Hitler’s Nazi empire, a confrontation was shaping up between the victors — now deadly rivals — that could well signal the start of World War III.

At issue was territory. Under the agreement made at Yalta between Stalin and the Western Allies, post-war Czechoslovakia would come under the sway of the Soviet Union.

Yet, there was something else at stake, too. The forces of gung-ho U.S. General George Patton had dared to push 50 miles across the border to grab a particular prize they were determined to hold on to at all cost . . . horses!

Magnificent: A white Lipizzaner white stallion is pictured in action 

Not that these were just any horses. They were the finest in the world — the sole breeding stable of magnificent white Lipizzaner stallions that for nearly four centuries had been put through their elegant, high-strutting, low-bowing paces at the world-renowned Spanish Riding School in the ornate Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna.

They were a living treasure from Europe’s past, bred for beauty and schooled religiously in traditional balletic manoeuvres in the dressage ring, under the guidance of their riders in tailcoats and distinctive bicorne hats.

How would these regal remnants of a bygone baroque culture fare in the harsh world of Soviet Communism? 

If they fell into the hands of the victorious Russian soldiers now rampaging through Eastern Europe, there was every chance they would be butchered for their meat and their remarkable pedigree lost for ever.

For the sake of history — and for their undoubted propaganda value, too, in the new confrontation that was shaping up with Moscow — ‘Old Blood and Guts’ Patton, not normally given to sentimentality, had resolved to rescue them. 

How he and his men pulled off this astonishing equine great escape is dramatically reconstructed in Ghost Riders, a new book by British military historian Mark Felton.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the Nazis had seized custody of the Spanish Riding School in the capital Vienna and proudly claimed it and its unsurpassed white stallions as symbols of Teutonic greatness.

However, in 1942, while the stallions remained in Vienna, the brood mares were transferred to the ownership of the German Army and shipped hundreds of miles away to a secret 1,500-acre stud at the little town of Hostau in Czechoslovakia.

There, one of Hitler’s eugenicists, Gustav Rau, was assembling 600 of the best horses from all over Europe to breed what he promised his Fuhrer would be a new super-horse fitting for the so-called Aryan master race.

They included championship racehorses from France and thoroughbred Arabs, but the purest of all, the Lipizzaners — small in stature but renowned for their calm temperament — were to be the base of the new bloodline.

There were 250 at Hostau. The existence of this vast breeding ranch — along with 150 Allied prisoners-of-war held there to care for the horses — was unknown until the spring of 1945 when a German officer went out of his way to surrender to a U.S. Army unit advancing through southern Germany and nearing the border with Czechoslovakia.

Colonel Hank Reed is pictured second right at the Hostau Stud in Czechoslovakia 

Colonel Hank Reed is pictured second right at the Hostau Stud in Czechoslovakia 

He came with a desperate request. ‘You must save these horses,’ he told his captors. What concerned him was that the Soviet army was just 40 miles east of Hostau and closing fast.

‘The Bolshevik swine care nothing for horses,’ he declared. ‘When they arrive they will slaughter them on the spot and fry them up as steaks to feed their hungry troops.’

Just a few months earlier, the Red Army had done just that when it overran Budapest, where the Royal Hungarian Riding School, which also had Lipizzaners, was based. 

Eighteen stallions were shot out of hand for rations and the remaining four harnessed to haul ammunition wagons.

Their grooms and riders were slaughtered in cold blood.

Such a barbaric fate must not befall the horses at Hostau, he pleaded, or their POW handlers. His plea fell on sympathetic ears.

One of the first Allied officers he spoke to was American cavalryman, Colonel Hank Reed, an Olympic standard horseman who knew all about Lipizzaners. He instantly grasped the historical significance of the information.

But what could he do? A rescue would involve an incursion into territory promised by international agreement to the Soviets. 

Living treasures dubbed ‘the white gold of Vienna’

The Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School are living treasures dubbed ‘the white gold of Vienna’.

Strong and compact, they have a wide, deep chest and muscular shoulders that enable them to perform the difficult and unnatural moves of Haute Ecole, the highest form of classical dressage that survives in the world.

Years of intensive training of both rider and mount is necessary to reach a standard deemed good enough for public performance. 

At the age of four, the stallions learn how to walk and trot correctly. 

Then they are placed with experienced riders and taught how to ride in turns and circles in all gaits, to bend correctly in the neck and body, shorten and lengthen gait and perform lateral movements at the trot.

After several more years of training, they are gradually pushed by their riders to perfection in straightness and suppleness for the pirouettes and other manoeuvres that are the speciality of the Spanish Riding School.

It would be an almighty risk. What if, in those volatile, powder-keg times, he and his men ended up in a shooting match with the Russians, one that could easily escalate?

Was it worth it for a stable of horses, however rare and grand?

He put his dilemma to the cigar-chomping Patton who, ever eager to get one over on the ‘Commies’ he hated as much as the Nazis, gave his unofficial (and deniable, if things went wrong) blessing. 

A message from his headquarters told Reed: ‘Go get them. Make it fast.’

Reed was delighted to take the gamble, not just because of his admiration for horses but because, as he put it, ‘after years of fighting, we were so tired of death and destruction; we wanted to do something beautiful’.

He sent one of his best men, Captain Tom Stewart, ahead to negotiate the surrender of the stud and the military detachment defending it. That was easier said than done.

The German veterinary officer in charge (Rau had long since departed) was desperate to protect his precious pedigree horses but, reluctant to risk his own skin by making a deal with his country’s enemies without permission from on high.

Stewart eventually persuaded him to co-operate, freeing Colonel Reed to send a task force of 350 men with small tanks and assault guns into Czechoslovakia.

They shrugged off resistance from small bands of German forces still at large in the region and in no time at all had taken the agreed surrender of Hostau.

To jubilant scenes, the Allied POWs were freed and the German garrison locked up.

Stewart inspected the vast stable blocks, all kept in immaculate order, and gazed out in wonder at the tranquil scene of 600 horses — including more than 200 Lipizzaners — grazing in the paddocks and fields beyond. 

All of them were well fed and groomed. In the chaos of war-torn Europe, it was a miracle that this oasis of calm had survived intact.

Reed arrived, officially claimed the horses as U.S. Army property and began to organise their evacuation en masse back into Allied-held German territory.

It was going to be no easy matter, not quickly accomplished. Many of the mares were in an advanced stage of pregnancy and in no condition to be herded away on foot.

They needed to have their foals first. And even then a large fleet of trucks would be needed to transport them safely, which was not easy or quick to assemble.  

All the time the Red Army was nearing, then, out of nowhere, there was an older enemy to be dealt with.

A Waffen SS unit was at large, and determined to fight to the last. It threw a ring round Hostau and had to be destroyed in a fierce battle that left scores of German dead and wounded.

Now all Reed’s troops could do was maintain their hold on the stud until the herd was ready to be moved — while being anxiously aware of how precarious their situation was.

Could the horses get away to freedom and a valued life in the West before the Soviets arrived to seize them? The logistics were a nightmare. 

It was going to be a tall order marshalling hundreds of highly strung thoroughbred horses through many miles of hostile country in order to get them out of danger.

The area was awash with refugees desperately trying to make it to the West, along with armed bands of partisans and renegade German soldiers who refused to surrender. 

The route through the forest to the border was difficult and probably mined.

And, to add to the problems, the stallions and the mares would have to be kept well apart on the drive or there would be mayhem.

Reed needed dozens of riders on horseback to keep the horses in check. A troop of 26 Cossacks —who had fought on the German side in the war — had been at the stud when the Americans captured it. 

On their short-legged ponies, these rugged fighters from the Steppes of Russia would be the outriders in what was now dubbed for good reason Operation Cowboy.

Finally Reed was ready for the off . . . just as that contingent of the Red Army arrived on the outskirts of Hostau and that officer in the lead tank, revving his engines, demanded to be let through.

A heated argument took place.

‘You have no jurisdiction here,’ Reed told the Soviet general who came forward to confront him. ‘You are behind American lines.’

It was an out-and-out bluff. He knew he’d over-stepped the boundaries agreed at Yalta. ‘No,’ the Russian general replied. ‘You Amerikantsy are behind our lines.’

There was a nervous twitching of trigger fingers, Reed fully aware that he was outnumbered and outgunned by the Russians if it came to a fight. 

Yet he also knew that, if he let the Red Army advance, he would lose his chance of getting the Lipizzaners and the other horses out.

He tried one last desperate bluff. ‘If you go forward,’ he warned, ‘remember that our guns are loaded.’

It was the Russian who blinked. He ordered his tanks to turn off their engines while he sought orders from the army high command.

Reed acted fast. Leaving a barrier of armoured vehicles in front of the Russians, he raced back to the stud and gave the order to set Operation Cowboy in motion.

At dawn the next day, in scenes reminiscent of a Wild West cattle drive, Stewart called: ‘Let’s move out!’ from his Jeep at the head of the convoy, his arm pointing forward.

Thirty ex-German Army flat-bed trucks lurched forward, carrying foals, their mothers and pregnant mares, protected by Jeeps and armoured cars on either flank. 

Then came the other horses, split into three sections, moving along at 20-minute intervals to prevent bunching and snarl-ups.

The Cossacks on their sturdy steppe ponies took up their places as outriders, along with a handful of U.S. soldiers mounted on sleek thoroughbreds.

Horse-drawn wagons followed with supplies and anything from the stud that was not nailed down. 

The Germans who had occupied it came, too, many with their families, seeking refuge in the West rather than fall into Soviet hands.

It was far from a clean exit.

Amid the mass of over-excited, biting, kicking horses, several riders were unseated, until finally order was restored and the column proceeded at walking pace. 

The road was hard for pedigree animals used to soft grass. German vets from the stud dashed from animal to animal, checking for lameness and injuries.

Progress was slow, but at least there was no sign of those Soviet tanks tracking them. 

Relieved, they stopped overnight at a place already chosen for water and shelter, and fields for the horses to frolic and graze.

Then it was off again at dawn, trekking through forests and along ravines, getting closer with every hoof step to the border and safety, until there was just one last bridge over a river to cross.

But it was barricaded and manned, they could see, by a group of armed men — Czech Communist partisans, whose allegiance was to the Soviet Union.

‘You can’t take these horses out of Czechoslovakia,’ their leader bellowed, levelling his machine gun.

‘Lt Bill Quinlivan from Illinois galloped to the front of the column, unclipping his pistol holster as he went. ‘Open the goddamn barrier, right now,’ he growled.

The partisan leader refused.

From his saddle, Quinlivan motioned to an American armoured car, which came rumbling through the trees and swung the muzzle of its gun directly towards the Czechs.

He held up a finger and began slowly to count to three. On ‘two’, the partisan leader’s nerve broke. He and his men stood aside.

The column moved ahead, thousands of hooves clattering over the stone bridge, until they across and safe on U.S.-held territory at last.

Operation Cowboy was over. The precious Lipizzaner mares were safe, the bloodline secured.

In time, the mares would be reunited on German soil with the Lipizzaner stallions, who had remained in Austria throughout the war, protected by the director of the Spanish Riding School, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, as best he could. 

There was talk of taking the Lipizzaners to America, but General Patton vetoed this. They should be returned to Austria, he ordered, and they were.

For the next ten years, they could not take their place at their traditional home. Austria and Vienna (like Germany and Berlin) were divided into zones of occupation and the Hofburg Imperial Palace was cut off in the Soviet sector.

Not until the Soviets relinquished their occupation of Austria in 1955 were the stallions able at last to return to their historic stomping ground, to perform their exquisite pirouettes and other graceful dancing moves in the baroque surroundings of the Spanish Riding School once again.