Saving the “German warhorse with a twist”
The date was April 27, 1945, just 11 days before the announcement of German surrender in Europe. Even so, the troops were far from idle. One of the last operations of World War II began that day. It was a vital rescue mission and a special covert operation approved by General George Patton. The survivors ? Horses. They weren’t just any others, but as American author Elizabeth Letts called them, a breed of “The Perfect Horse”.
We know that Hitler had this crazy concept of creating what he called an “Aryan master race”, a racist ideology of biological superiority that culminated in an attempt to wipe out all European Jews in what we now call the holocaust. Six million people were victims. His whole “master race” ideology didn’t just apply to humans. Perhaps when he said that it was “the sacred mission of the German people…to collect and preserve the most precious racial elements…and to raise them to the dominant position”, he also meant the best breed of dogs, perhaps cats, birds, and horses.
With this, he entrusted the breeding of the most superior horses to the hands of Gustav Rau. The latter was endowed with a stud farm in the city of Hostau, in Czechoslovakia occupied by the Nazis. The village was known for raising cavalry horses. There Rau collected all the best horses Europe had to offer, mainly from Lipizzans to Arabians. According to Letts, his idea was to “develop a German breed of military horse that is as clearly associated with Germany as the thoroughbred was with England”.
With the way events were unfolding, it was clear that the tide of war was turning against the Nazis. Rodolphe Lessing, a veterinarian, appointed by Rau to look after the horses at Hostau, worried not for himself but for the horses that risked being turned into stew by the advancing Russian forces. Desperate, he turned to the help of American troops to save these horses.
“Get them fast”
On April 27, 1945, a German intelligence officer visited the US 2nd Cavalry Group and brought many photos of the top horses. Colonel Charles Hancock “Hank” Reed received these photos. He also happened to be a horseman from Virginia, so he knew how precious and impressive those horses in the photos were. Reed recalled,
We mutually agreed that these beautiful animals should not fall into the hands of the Communists and that the prisoners should be rescued.
The spy, known only as Walter H., looked at the photos with him. Immediately, he contacted General Patton to tell him of the situation. Patton, also a horse enthusiast, replied, “Get ’em. Be quick !
This triggered a rescue mission for the horses. Reed assigned one of his officers to team up with Lessing and get the equines before the Russians arrived. The two traveled for miles and into the darkness of the dense forest so that the animals could be placed under American wings. As Lessing said:
“It is our duty to do everything to save them. It is not important for us to win the war here in Hostau on April 27 or 28. We should have done it four years ago. It’s too late now.”
At the farm, another person in charge of looking after the horses, Colonel Rudofsky, received a message from Reed that help was on the way. But, unbeknownst to Reed, the barn has already been captured by other German troops who have been ordered to fight to the end.
On April 28, the 2nd Cavalry headed for Hostau, with tanks and assault guns. They met little resistance and the Germans at the base surrendered peacefully the next day, allowing the Americans to secure the area.
#PlatinumJubilee: Austrian Lipizzaners greeting the Royal Family during a visit to Piber Stud in 1969. @hofreitschule presented to Her Majesty the Queen a photo of this event, which I presented to A. Harrison CMG CVO, His Majesty the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, at the Austrian Embassy. pic.twitter.com/9DhVLkjGTU
— Michael Zimmermann (@MZimmermannAT) May 31, 2022
Two days later, however, another group of German forces appeared, ready to fight to the bitter end. A five-hour battle ensued and two American soldiers died. Ultimately, a total of 244 thoroughbred horses were rescued and returned to Austria to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where most of these horses were stolen. Arabs and other races, on the other hand, were sent to the United States.