Operation Cowboy: The Rescue of the Lipizzaner Horses
It’s always a thrill for me to be able to share something new and surprising with you here at the Campfire Chronicle. Every Monday we sit down and have a chat, and to me, it feels very much like visiting with friends who share my love of horses and The West. So, since you’re all friends, I don’t have to pretend to have it “all together” every time we meet, right? I can fess up when a story’s plot line ends up surprising me a little. So, here I am—fessing up! I had an idea for a story that has not at all turned out the way I had envisioned.
Since we talked about Winston Churchill and the war horses of WWI last week, this seemed like a good time to dive into a story about the amazing Lipizzaner horses that were rescued during WWII. When I started doing the research, the story began rewriting itself. The human hero of my story was going to be none other than our revered U.S. General George S. Patton. As it turns out, Patton did indeed play a role in the rescue, but it was not the same role we saw in the Disney film, Miracle of the White Stallions. He was a part of an ensemble cast and not the leading man! Read on. . .
Backstory: A Master Race of Horses?
Why were the Lipizzaner horses rescued during WWII? The answer is simple. Hitler had taken over all equine breeding farms in the Nazi territories and had relocated the horses to the Nazi military stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia. It seems that the Nazis hadn’t only been interested in creating a master race of humans; they were also hoping to create a master race of horses.
The famed Spanish Riding School had been located in Vienna, Austria since 1572, teaching haute école, the most advanced classical dressage movements, to the elegant Lipizzaner horses. The Nazis had taken control of the Spanish Riding School’s entire breeding stock after the Anschluss. But, unknown to the Nazis was that just before they took over, the director of the Spanish Riding School, Alois Podhajsky, escaped with several of the top stallions and mares. He hid them them in a secret location, at a private estate some 200 miles away from the Nazi territory, for the duration of the war. Remember Podhajsky, as we’ll be hearing more from him later in the story! I can only imagine the anguish Podhajsky must have felt as he left hundreds of Lipizzaners behind him, to an unknown fate . . . and knowing that in his hands remained what would likely be the last few horses of this remarkable breed.
Setting: The Year Was 1945
There was no shortage of news in the spring of 1945. By the end of April, WWII was winding down. Here are just a few of the news headlines from that month:
• The U.S. troops invaded Okinawa.
• President Roosevelt died.
• President Truman took office.
• The Allies liberated Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps.
• Berlin was captured by the Soviets.
• American troops were sweeping across Germany.
• Mussolini was executed.
• Adolph Hitler, Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels all committed suicide.
Of course, not all of the news made the headlines. It was during April of 1945 that a group of U.S. soldiers from the Third Army, Second Cavalry, received word that the Germans were keeping around 675 European horses in the village of Hostau, Czechoslovakia. Say what?
The Plot Thickens: Operation Cowboy
The American soldiers had discovered the horses quite by accident. At the end of the war, the troops had accepted the surrender of a German general who had been hiding in the Bohemian Forest. The following morning, U.S. Colonel Charles Reed and the German general sat down to breakfast. It was then that the horse loving German shared his concern for the horses, which included the prized Lipizzaners, as well as several Arabians and Thoroughbreds. It was this German general, whose name has since been lost, who suggested that the Americans take the horses for safekeeping.
U.S. envoy Captain Thomas Stewart arranged for the surrender of the German troops in Hostau with high level commanders in Munich, but it was a dangerous situation. The German commandant in Hostau had earlier orders to stay and fight, keeping the city of Hostau and the horses contained within the city limits, as the last German outpost. It took some wrangiling to get the message across to the powers that be, but Captain Stewart succeeded, a deal was soon struck, and “Operation Cowboy” was underway.
But instead of the expected 675 horses, the troops discovered more than 1,200 horses in Hostau, including 375 Lipizzaners, 100 Arabians, 200 thoroughbreds and 600 Russian horses. But without questioning, all 1,200 were saved and taken into U.S. custody, and placed in a safe holding area on Allied soil.
Many sources talk about Gen. Patton ordering the evacuation of the horses. But in reality, he didn’t even know about it until after it had occurred! Yeah, that part shocked me, too. But, don’t worry. Patton is about to enter the story, in a cameo role!
A Cameo Role: General George S. Patton
On May 7, Nazi Germany officially surrendered. That was the day that the director of the Spanish Riding School, Alois Podhajsky, came out of hiding and put on the celebratory, and well-publicized, Lipizzaner performance for the U.S. troops. Some sources say that this was a calculated plan to meet Gen. Patton. Other sources say that Patton just happened to be present. Whichever way it happened, Patton was present and Podhajsky made the most of it.
Podhajsky’s goal in the performance was to persuade Patton to rescue the horses from Hostau and to take charge of them until after the war was over on all fronts, and the recovery was well on its way. At the time of this historic performance Podhajsky had no idea that the Hostau Lipizzaner breeding stock had already been rescued by the American troops, under the direction of Colonel Reed.
After hearing Podhajsky’s request, Patton sent an aide to investigate the possibility of rescuing the horses. It was then that he discovered that Colonel Reed had ordered the Operation Cowboy mission and that the mission had been completed. Surprise!
In his autobiography, War As I Knew It, Gen. Patton actually wrote, “It struck me as rather strange, that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts and raise their feet… Much as I like horses, this seemed to me wasted energy.”
In all fairness to Gen. Patton, he had been otherwise occupied during the war. And he did also write, “It is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth. To me, the high schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music.”
The Happy Ending
On May 12, U.S. soldiers began the final evacuation of the horses. A plane was sent to reunite Podhajsky with his beloved Lipizzaner breeding stock, and he brought them back home. Podhajsky gifted the U.S. Army Remount Division with approximately 200 horses, worth around $1 million. Among the horses were three treasured Lipizzaner stallions and six Lipizzaner mares. When the Remount was disbanded by the Department of Agriculture, the horses went to private American owners.
One of those owners was Tempel Smith, of Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. These original stallions and mares from Operation Cowboy formed the Tempel Farms Lipizzaner breeding and training program which carefully follows the model of the Spanish Riding School. For over 50 years Tempel Farms has been producing and training Lipizzaners, and in the tradition of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, they offer public performances weekly.
And, that, my friends, is how the famed Lipizzaner horses were saved from almost certain death. No, it isn’t the story I was anticipating, and it wasn’t the story Disney told us in their film, but it’s still a good one!
Watch a little video about the Spanish Riding School, and watch the beautiful Lipizzaners perform!
Happy Trails, y’all!