Saving the Lipizzaner Horses – Operation Cowboy:

On April 26, 1945, Colonel Charles Reed was in Western Czechoslovakia at the point of General George S. Patton’s advance into Central Europe. Under his command was the 2nd Cavalry Group, who early that morning had captured a German Intelligence unit after a brief firefight. Through an interpreter, the General in charge of the Intelligence unit learned that Reed had missed breakfast and invited the American Colonel to eat with him and his staff.



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Pre-WWII photo of Colonel Charles Reed

After the normal formalities, the breakfast conversation turned to the topic of horses, a subject near to the heart of the American cavalry officer and coincidentally, the German General.  Much to the amazement of Col. Reed, the General informed him that 35 miles away in the town of Hostau, lay a most unusual prize, the breeding stock of a legendary animal, the Lipizzaner Horse.

The Lipizzaner breed was created in 1572 when Austrian Archduke Charles II founded the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, desiring a purebred horse for use by military and the upper class. By the 20th century, the school had become the center for classical equine dressage movements of Haute école.

In 1942, the Germans had moved the Lipizzaner breeding stock to a stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, hoping to create a super horse fit for their Nazi masters. They left behind a small group of performing stallions for Colonel Alois Podhanjsky commandant of the Spanish Riding School.  By 1945, with Allied bombs landing closer and closer to the school, Col. Podhajsky, relocated his stallions from Vienna to St. Martin, Austria.

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Colonel Reed during WWII

Over breakfast, Colonel Reed was shown photographs of the horses in Hostau and learned there were hundreds of Arabian and Lipizzaner horses there along with 400 allied prisoners of war. After sending a courier to the stud farm, German Army veterinarian, Captain Rudolf Lessing came to US lines to meet with the American about surrendering the horses. Dinner had been delayed pending Lessing’s arrival and after dinner and cocktails, Lessing offered to take an American officer back to Hostau to discuss surrender terms. A message was sent to Patton’s 3rd Army Headquarters requesting permission. Patton sent a quick reply: “Get them. Make it fast! You will have a new mission.”

Captain Thomas Stewart, the son of a US Senator, was chosen to go with Lessing to negotiate the surrender of the town and the horses to the Americans. Colonel Hargis, an officer who helped organize the mission told him that he did not have to go if he did not want too, implying there was a good chance he might not come back. Years later Stewart remembered “I would have preferred something more encouraging.”



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Officers of the 2nd Cavalry Group

That night, Stewart and Lessing traveled by motorcycle to German lines, stopping at a Czech farmhouse where they got horses to take them the rest of the way to the stud farm. When Stewart and Lessing arrived at the farm, they encountered another German veterinarian named Wolfgang Kroll. Kroll told them the commander of the stud farm, a Czech in the German Army named Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Rudofsky, had changed his mind about discussing surrender terms and claimed he would shoot the American emissary and the Germans with him as spies. Stewart went into hiding while Lessing went to talk with the General in command of Hostau named Schulze. Eventually there was a tense meeting with General Schulze with Rudofsky present. After the meeting, General Schulze and the German staff realized it would be preferable to surrender to the Americans and save the horses rather than fight the Soviet Red Army, who it was feared would confiscate the horses or worse yet, slaughter them as food for their soldiers.

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Horses being evacuated during Operation Cowboy

Schulze asked Captain Stewart how many tanks he could bring into town since the German General did not want to surrender his force to a lone American Captain. Schulze wrote an order and gave it to Stewart telling him the Americans would face no resistance when they entered the city.

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Colonel Charles Reed being decorated for Operation Cowboy

When Captain Stewart arrived back in American lines, he informed Colonel Reed that they could begin their plan to take the horses, Allied POWs and the town. The plan was duly named: Operation Cowboy.

On April 28, 350 American soldiers from the 42nd Cavalry Squadron made up of A Troop, part of C Troop along with tanks from F Troop and assault guns from E Troop made their way to the stud farm. They found over 1,200 horses including 375 Lipizzaner, 100 Arabian, 200 thoroughbred and 600 Russian horses along with 400 British, American, Polish and French POWs.

The Americans had a new problem when they encountered the POWs as many of them had been living on the farm for years and held a privileged status. Some had even taken Czech and German wives and had children. They told the Americans they would not leave the farm without their families. A German Battalion was also captured along with Czechs serving in German Army and some Russian Cossacks who had joined the Nazis to fight communism.

Adding to American worries, the Germans informed them that a group of fanatical SS men were stationed nearby and were planning an attack to reclaim Hostau.

Captain Stewart was ordered to defend the Hostau farm with Troop A. His cavalrymen were soon joined by German soldiers, Cossacks and Poles. The SS attacked on the night of April 30th and were driven back after suffering heavy losses.



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General Patton and American officers and troops of the 328th Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, watch a performance of the Lipizzaner stallions

On May 7th, 1945, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, of the Spanish Riding School, put on a special performance for General George S. Patton. A few days earlier, Colonel Podhajsky and his prized stallions had been captured at St. Martin im Innkreis by General Walton Walker’s XX Corps. Walker asked Podhajsky to put on a special Lipizzaner show for Patton. When the show was finished, Podhajsky stopped his horse in front of Patton and requested that his horses and the rest of the breeding stock be rescued and put under protection of the US Army to which Patton agreed.

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General George S. Patton and Colonel Alois Podhajsky

On May 12, 1945, after Czech and Russian communists began showing increasing interest in the prized horses, Col. Reed recommended they be carefully guided away from the farm. A long procession of horses, American soldiers, Germans, Cossacks, POWs and their families made their way, mostly on foot, to Bavaria. Three horses did not like the journey and returned to the stables, but they were forced to make the trek again and all the horses were safely evacuated.

In 1963, Disney made a movie called The Miracle of the White Stallions based on the memoirs of Colonel Alois Podhajsky. Today, the Lipizzaner breed is alive and well and the Spanish Riding School maintains its traditions of horse showmanship thanks to the success of Operation Cowboy.

When asked why he would risk the lives of his men and take time away from fighting the war to save a bunch of horses, Colonel Reed replied: “We were so tired of death and destruction; we wanted to do something beautiful.”

Photos via 2nd Cavalry Regiment Reed Museum



For More About Operation Cowboy See:

Miracle of the White Stallions


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