Saving the Lipizzaners: American Cowboys Ride to the Rescue

by LTC Renita Foster
View these photos

Republished from ARMOR, May-June 1998 edition

“We were so tired of death and destruction; we wanted to do something beautiful.” -COL Charles Hancock Reed, commander of 2nd Cavalry Group (Mechanized) in 1945, explaining his decision to save the Lipizzaner horses.

World War II, the world’s worst armed conflict, was in its final weeks, and the men of 2nd Cavalry Group (Mech) were feeling a great surge of pride and triumph. As Soldiers immersed in the drama and tragedy of a global cataclysm involving 56 nations and lasting six years, they had not only helped end it, but had highly distinguished themselves in doing so.

They were the men who spent more days in combat; captured more ground and more prisoners of war; and survived with the lowest ratio of American casualties than any unit in Europe of equal size. But 2nd Cavalry had one delicate, complicated mission left – one that would lead them on an extraordinary adventure and save an enchanted culture more than 400 years old.

It was around mid-April 1945, when 2nd Cavalry was ordered to the German/Czechoslovakian border to accept surrender from a specialized German intelligence staff known as the Gruppe Gehlen.

The American location, however, violated the occupation boundaries designated by the Yalta Agreement, mandating that the mission be kept under a “top secret” classification.

When CPT Ferdinand Sperl, an interrogator, began questioning German officers, he made a startling discovery. In an attaché briefcase belonging to a Luftwaffe colonel were several pictures of horses. Knowing that his boss was a passionate horse-lover, Sperl immediately notified COL Charles Hancock Reed. An accomplished horseman who had just three years earlier exchanged his beloved horses for armored scout cars, Reed was fascinated with the photographs. He instantly recognized them as the world-famous Lipizzaner performing stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, an institution dating back to 1572. These horses were known for their proud bearing, elegant gait, superior intelligence and strength – animals that delighted audiences the world over with their magnificent performances.

Reed also knew the Lipizzaner was one of the purest breeds of horses in the world. Over breakfast with the Luftwaffe colonel, Reed learned that the performing stallions were still in Vienna, but that the rest of the Lipizzaner breeding mares were transferred to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, a town just 35 miles down the road. The mares were now on the wrong side of the Yalta Agreement boundary line, and Russians units were approaching the area. Reed realized that without the safe return of the Lipizzaner mares, the riding school in Vienna would not survive.

“This was not, as mythology has it, a direct order from the Third Army commander, GEN George Patton, but a field commander’s decision to grab something directly in front of his nose,” explained Louis Holz, chairman of the board of 2nd Cavalry Association.

As a young second lieutenant who participated in the rescue more than 50 years ago, Holz is clear on the fact that it was Reed who made the decision and ultimately devised a successful plan for the Lipizzaner liberation. “Patton didn’t become involved in the issue until May 7, when COL Alois Podhajsky, commandant of the Spanish Riding School, requested and was granted protection by Third Army,” Holz said. “When Patton asked an aide to look into the status of the Lipizzaner mares, he found out 2nd Cavalry had already taken care of it.”

It was the close proximity of Russian soldiers that made time a vital factor in planning what became appropriately known as Operation Cowboy. Reed knew that using American firepower to accomplish the delicate rescue could destroy the very prizes he wanted to save. Instead, he chose CPT Thomas Stewart to negotiate surrender from the Hostau German commandant, LTC Hubert Rudofsky.

Crossing the German front lines at dark by motorcycle, Stewart approached the compound and asked to speak to the commanding officer. Rudofsky, however, determined to obey his orders until the end, refused. Stewart was taken prisoner. “We were anxious and worried, of course,” Holz said, “while waiting for word when Stewart didn’t return right away. But what Tom and the rest of us didn’t know was that Rudofsky’s staff, knowing the difference between surrendering to the Russians as opposed to the Americans, began a mini-mutiny and finally persuaded Rudofsky to accept the American terms.”

Two days later, Reed received the answer to his proposition in the only way worthy of a cavalry unit. Riding side-by- side on white Lipizzaners, in full uniform, through the fighting lines, came Stewart and CPT Rudolph Lessing, a German veterinarian, no longer enemies but comrades bonded by admiration and love for a centuries-old-tradition.

“It was an unbelievable sight, this American and German Soldier, astride white horses and passing through our lines. The sentry on duty was so shocked he quickly roused the sergeant of the guards,” Holz said. “You don’t see this scene in the movie made by Walt Disney (“Miracle of the White Stallions,” 1961), depicting the Lipizzaner rescue. I think Disney missed it!”

The next morning Alpha Troop, 42nd Cavalry Squadron, led by CPT Carter Catlett, arrived at Hostau. German soldiers stood at “present arms” and held rifles lining both sides of a long driveway leading into the camp’s gate. As Catlett led his soldiers in, they were saluted by the enemy and then greeted by Rudofsky without incident. Operation Cowboy was underway.

Transported first were newborn foals and horses that could not make the journey on foot and had to be loaded in trucks.

True to a cavalry unit, there were plenty of real-life cowboys to shepherd the rest of the horses westward to Bavaria. And though the horses numbered in the hundreds, all were accounted for. “Even three horses who got a little finicky and broke away and returned to the stables at Hostau,” Holz said. “They had to make a second trip.”

A few months later, the entire Spanish Riding School was reunited in Wels, Austria.

Despite the fact that Holz was involved in a daring wartime rescue to save such a sacred tradition, he didn’t realize its significance: “I remember walking around and looking at the horses, but until the explanations were made and I saw COL Reed’s excitement, I really didn’t appreciate the prizes we’d acquired,” he said. “Now, as the years have gone by and all the accolades are still descending upon us half a century later, I think it’s one of our proudest moments. This is truly unique. There’s been no parallel before or since. The U.S. Army literally put the war on hold for two days to save a sliver of culture for the world.”

Holz attributes the success of the Lipizzaner rescue to Reed due to his genuine love for horses, expert planning and ability to weigh the consequences. “I strongly feel this is a case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. If there had never been a Charles Reed, I don’t believe those horses would have survived,” Holz said. “Undoubtedly, he understood how much the outcome of this operation would affect the rest of the world.”

The same sentiment is shared by Dr. Lessing, the German veterinarian who assisted the rescue and developed a lifelong friendship with the Lipizzaner rescue veterans. “If it had not been for COL Reed, with his knowledge, compassion and understanding, the Lipizzaner horses would have been horseburgers for the Russian soldiers,” Lessing said at a 2nd Cavalry Association reunion some years later.

The kind of admiration Holz and his fellow veterans feel for the late Reed, both as a commander in war as well as the Lipizzaner savior, has increased with time and is easily detected when Holz speaks of serving in Europe under him. “Every unit has its heroes. He’s ours. We call COL Reed ‘Frank Buck’ because he brought us back alive,” Holz said.

“He has his own corner at our regimental museum in Fort Polk, LA, where his uniforms and medals are displayed, and all the highlights of the unit, including the Lipizzaner rescue, can be seen,” Holz said. “We do understand the unit didn’t fight a war to save horses. It was simply the icing on the cake. And I’m mighty glad we had that icing!”

Renita Foster is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve assigned to Fort Monmouth, NJ. She currently works as a public affairs officer and feature writer for the Communications and Electronics Command. Her other assignments include the Far East Network, 1st Armored Division and AFN Nurnberg.

(Editor’s note: Sports Illustrated published a decent story in 1995 on Operation Cowboy at COL Reed’s personal account is posted here:

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