While doing research on the history of horse roundups in America, I came across an amazing event which took place during the last days of World War II. It involved the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions which were directly in the path of the advancing Russian Army. They would have slaughtered the last remaining survivors of that historic breed had they not been rescued. The Red Army was on a collision course with the remaining brigades of the SS, an elite and fanatical Nazi unit in Czechoslovakia.
After the Allies landed at Normandy on June 4, 1944, General Patton and his Third Army began a rapid advance toward Paris. By May 7, 1945, the Americans were near the eastern German border. The 2nd Cavalry had been spearheading the Third Army’s advance and this was the deepest penetration of the war into enemy territory of any Allied force. But at 8 that morning, they and the rest of Patton’s Army had been ordered to “cease fire and stand fast.”
A German prisoner of war who had been captured by General Patton’s troops had told Col. Charles Reed of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry about the horses and their location. He told Reed that those caring for the horses were worried that the hungry and tired Soviet troops would kill them for food.
Reed telegraphed his boss, Patton, who had competed in an equestrian event in the 1912 Olympics, asking permission to save the stallions. Patton was a horse enthusiast and expert horseman himself. His immediate response was “Get them. Make it fast!”
Patton had told those responsible for the care of the Lipizzaner Stallions that he would do what he could regarding the horses in Czechoslovakia. Some captured secret documents would later reveal that something far more dangerous and extravagant was already well under way. A top-secret mission involving not only the Lipizzaner stallions, but hundreds more horses, as well as hundreds of Allied POWs. This planned act would historically link Patton with the dancing white horses.
The contents of any intelligence officer’s papers are an obvious source of intrigue, especially when that officer is a general. Those documents that belonged to the commander of the German intelligence unit that surrendered to the 2nd Cavalry Group near the Czech border on April 26, 1945, were unexpectedly interesting. They included photos of horses — beautiful horses: Arabs, Thoroughbreds, and Lipizzaners.
The German General, a celebrated spy known only as Walter H., as they ate breakfast together, told Reed that the horses were among hundreds the Germans had collected from among the finest breeding stock in Europe. They were sent to a large stud farm in the Czech town of Hostau. They were all under the care of Czech and Polish POWs who had surrendered to the Germans.
The problem was that the ruthless and ravenous Red Army troops were about sixty miles east of Hostau and the Americans were about thirty-five miles to the west. At daybreak on April 28th, battle-weary American GIs standing shoulder-to-shoulder with German troops fought a common enemy — the Waffen-SS. The Waffen-SS was the military branch of the SS and was involved in countless atrocities.
They advanced to Hostau where one of the strangest incidents of World War II conflict happened. It occurred along the German-Czech border about twenty miles into Czechoslovakia. According to Reed, the capture of Hostau on that day “resembled a fiesta.” He wrote in his report on the operation that
“. . . 300 Lipizzaner horses rescued along with more than 100 of the best Arabian horses in Europe, about 200 thoroughbred racehorses, and 600 Cossack breeding horses.”
There were several hundred Czech and Polish POWs who groomed the horses which needed to be rescued and protected from the Germans and Russians. Also, there were about 300 Americans and as many British POWs who had been encountered with their German guards in the vicinity. Steps were quickly taken to free and safeguard every one of them.
Once the Americans had captured Hostau and the over 1,200 horses, they suddenly realized that their most serious problem was still ahead of them. They discovered that there were not enough U.S. troops to ride and drive these horses some thirty-five miles back to the U.S. lines. It was then that a group of White Russian Cossacks fleeing with their horses from the Soviets offered to help. They left their horses behind, which were later killed and eaten by the Red Army.
“Operation Cowboy” as it was called, began as horses and liberated POW’s started their remarkable journey west from Hostau and into Germany. U.S. troops, along with a motley collection of liberated Allied POWs, Cossacks (White Russians), and a platoon of turn-coat German soldiers raced the clock to drive a herd of priceless horses to safety.
The action at Hostau stands as one of only two documented occasions when U.S. and German forces fought together against a common enemy during WWII. The other would take place days later at Austria’s Schloss Itter castle.
Despite the prevailing chaos of the time, the evacuation was successful. It was performed on a military shoestring. Many of the horses were pregnant, while others had just given birth. Also, the men in Patton’s Command were worn out after nearly ten months of bloody slaughter. None wanted to be the last GI killed in Europe.
They made their escape without a moment to spare. Soviet tanks arrived on the eastern edge of Hostau just as the Lipizzaners and cowboys moved out of town on the west side.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 23, 2022