A gutsy mission to save the Lipizzaners

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During World War II, the Nazis regime of Germany was notorious for stealing the national treasures of countries they captured. The SS troops of Adolf Hitler’s administration hauled an array of tapestries, antiques, porcelain figurines, paintings, furniture, official documents and gold to secret places in Germany. Occasionally, live treasures were absconded — such as the famous Lipizzaner horses.

The Lipizzaners were the jewels of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria. From their white coats to their aristocratic heads with deep brown eyes, these horses were unlike any others in the world.

Lipizzaners

The Spanish Riding School was the world’s oldest academy of classical riding and was one of Austria’s most beloved institutions. Students neither entered their horses in competitions nor vied for any medals. They pursued perfection as an end unto itself. During the war, the German government protected this historic institution.

As the war drew to a close, the “kings And queens” of the horse kingdom were caught between two terrible fates. The defeated Germans, who were running for safety, would turn the horses loose or leave them unattended, while the advancing Russian Army would kill them for food.

Patton

Gen. George S. Patton, the Allies’ most aggressive commander and leader of the U.S. 3rd Army, by early April of 1945, had cut a glorious swath through central France and into Germany. In 295 days, his army was pushing toward Berlin like an oncoming tsunami. On April 12, the Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Patton to turn south; the Russians were to capture Berlin, according to the agreement reached at Yalta. Patton was angry and appalled that he was robbed of a great victory.

Following orders, the 3rd Army turned 90 degrees and headed south. The 2nd Cavalry Group, commanded by Col. Hank Reed, acted as reconnaissance squadrons to protect Patton’s flanks and advanced toward western Czechoslovakia.

In the early afternoon of April 26 , a German staff car, with a white flag flying in the breeze, was flagged down. The officer, Luftwaffe Col. Walter Holters, wanted to surrender some German POW and some army documents and save the Lipizzaner at Hostau.

Save the horses

While Reed knew the value of the horses in question and was a member of the real “horse cavalry” of the 1930s, he did not have permission to take his troops across the border into Czechoslovakia. The horses were tantalizingly close, but they were out of reach. As Reed thought through his options, he realized just one man who might be crazy enough to agree to a scheme to save the horses — his old “polo buddy” — Patton.

Patton’s terse reply was “get them; make it fast.” It was not an official order from Patton but an “off the record” instruction. Reed had some latitude to plan the rescue but trucks, equipment, fuel, feed, handlers, military support and other supplies needed to be found quickly.

The Russians were only miles from the horses and moving west. A jeep containing an American lieutenant and three mechanics pulled up outside a German artillery base just a few miles from the village of Hostau and the Lipizzaner horses. They were in Czechoslovakia, and the sentries had departed, leaving a number of abandoned German trucks. Once examined and fueled, they would be part of the parade that would move the “Pride of Austria” some 40 miles into Germany.

On May 15, the parade was ready to roll, leaving nothing behind for the Russians. The military police jeep led the parade. Behind came trucks containing the very young horses with their mothers and mares heavy in foal. Armored cars provided flank protection from partisans, displaced refugees, concentration camp guards, and SS troops trying to avoid capture. Military police were positioned at each crossroad.

Other groups of horses would be on foot with riders, leaders and guides recruited from the Cossacks, German prisoners of war, refugees and local citizens.

The procession consisted of four distinct groups. First was the 30 trucks, then three horse herds at intervals of 30 to 45 minutes. The movement of so many people, animals, vehicles and possessions was impressive and organized.

Confrontation

At the Czechoslovakia border and the Furth im Wald River, the advanced unit of the convoy halted at a red and white painted barrier that was down, firmly blocking the road. Three guards, dressed in an odd assortment of clothing, with red Communist armbands, carrying German rifles and a Soviet machine gun, demanded the horses remain in Czechoslovakia.

The American troopers had no time for nonsense and ordered up support. Within minutes an M-8 armored car came rumbling through the trees. With the vehicle stopped and the 37mm gun depressed at the three guards, the situation started to change. When the gun loader rammed the highly explosive shell into the breech, the gate opened and the convoy continued.

The armored car remained in place until the last group of horses was safely across the river into Germany. The sergeant in charge of the armored vehicle, who had a Patton attitude about Russians, gave the three guards a “thank you for your generosity smile” and a “one finger hand salute” and moved through the old pre-war check point.

About 30 yards past the tollhouse, he stopped, turned the 37mm weapon around and blew the roof off the building. Then drove into Germany.

Mission accomplished

On the afternoon of May 16, 1945, some 300 exhausted, footsore and hungry Lipizzaners arrived in the village of Kotzting, Germany.

Reed, in his after action report, explained what his unit had accomplished in the course of two weeks. The Americans had captured the stud farm intact at Hostau, along with the mares from Piber Castle. The animals lived in territory that belonged to the Russians — agreed to at the Yalta Conference.

Fearing that the U.S. troops would soon pull back, and the Russians would destroy the horses, they made the difficult decision to move them to Kotzting. Following the war, the horses were considered lawful war prizes, thus becoming official property of the U.S. government.

During the summer of 1945, a selection of 231 horses was made for shipment to America. The rest stayed in Germany until 1955 and then returned to Vienna following the Soviet withdrawal. The Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzaners were back home thanks to the 3rd Army, 2nd Cavalry and “operation cowboy.”

That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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