THE RESCUE OF THE LIPIZZANER HORSES
A personal account written by Colonel Charles Hancock Reed
The rescue of the breeding herd of the Piber Austrian Lipizzaner horses, which supplied the stallions for use in the Spanische Reitschule, took place on the 28th of April 1945 at Hostau, Czechoslovakia. It was accomplished by a small force formed for the mission from Task Force Reed – which was composed of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Group, 2nd and 42nd Squadrons; an artillery battalion; engineer battalion and an anti-aircraft unit.
It must be admitted that a great element of chance gave the opportunity for this happy event. On the 25th of April, Captain Ferdinand P. Sperl, I.P.W. Team No. 10 attached to the Group received information of a large German intelligence unit bivouacked in and around a hunting lodge on the Czechoslovakian border – it lacked transportation to proceed further on its flight from Berlin to the proposed Bavarian bastion.
After some dangerous negotiations with the commander of the unit, Captain Sperl, on the 26th of April, led an attack on the unit, which after the arranged formal exchange of harmless gun fire, surrendered most promptly. The commander of the intelligence unit, a fine appearing German General, proved most hospitable, and finding that on this early advance I had missed my breakfast, invited me to join him and his staff for theirs.
We found that we had mutual horse interests and he showed me quite beautiful pictures of the Lipizzaners and Arabs, which he had recently taken at Hostau. He also stated that several hundred Allied prisoners of war were held there. We mutually agreed that these fine animals should not fall into the communists hands, and the prisoners should be rescued.
A German bicyclist was sent to Hostau to arrange for a German officer to come through our lines that night to arrange terms. A radio message was sent through XII Corps to 3rd Army Headquarters requesting permission for the operation. Shortly, a laconic message was relayed from General Patton – “Get them. Make it fast! You will have a new mission.”
About 8:00 P.M. – Captain Lessing, Staff Veterinarian at Hostau, arrived at one of our border outposts riding one Lipizzaner stallion and leading a second. He was brought to 2nd Cavalry Headquarters – dinner had been delayed pending his arrival – after cocktails and dinner, agreement was reached that, provided we furnished an officer to show good faith to ride back with him, he, Captain Lessing, would be able to arrange for the surrender of Hostau (officers and men there were mostly ex-horsemen). He stated however, that between us and Hostau were stationed elements of an SS Division who would fight. That bothered us very little as we planned a quiet day or so – then a great attack to over-run them.
Captain Thomas M. Stewart of Tennessee, a fine horseman and son of the then Senator from Tennessee, volunteered and rode back with Captain Lessing. On the night of the 27th of April, he was returned to our lines by Lessing in a motorcycle side car – after some rather harrowing experiences behind the German line – for which he was decorated. He reported that all was arranged in Hostau – except for one Czech Lt. Colonel in the German army who opposed this – but had no support from the German officers.
A small task force for the operation had already been formed from the 42nd Squadron – A Troop – elements of Troop C – a platoon of tanks from F Troop and a platoon of Troop E assault guns. All under the command of Major Robert P. Andrews, with Captain Stewart as his assistant. At daylight all elements in the front line opened a fire fight – the Task Force broke through, and after some fighting at Bela Nad Radbuzou and a delay caused by an unmapped town showing up in their line of march, the town of Hostau was reached – no problem there – appeared as a fiesta rather than a battle. Townspeople and Allied prisoners of war lined the streets – the German soldiers presented arms – German flag went down – ours went up – and after placing outposts, the officers, intelligence personnel, and as many soldiers as could be spared, went to look at the wonderful array of captured horses.
Allied prisoners of war released totaled about 400 Americans, British, French and Polish. Regulations required the immediate return of all of these to their own nations – the Poles could not go at that time – but we immediately started the evacuation of the others. Here we ran into an unexpected problem. Many of the prisoners has been at Hostau several years – had achieved a kind of “trustee” status and were well fed and cared for. Many had married or taken up living with Czech or German girls – some even had children – these men refused to be evacuated except with their families – a problem not easily solved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Horses captured consisted of about 300 Lipizzaners, the Piber breeding herd plus the Royal Lipizzaner stud from Yugoslavia – well mixed together. Over one-hundred of the best Arabs in Europe, about two-hundred thoroughbred and trotting bred race horses collected from all of Europe – finally about 600 Cossack breeding horses – Don and Urals.
Enemy captured consisted of about one battalion of Germans, about the same of Czech volunteers in the German army and a Sotnia of White Russian Cossacks who, opposing communism, had joined the German army in its invasion of Russia, bringing with them the Cossack horses mentioned above. The Cossacks were commanded by an ex-Cossack prince and colonel who was a most pleasant and helpful person during the time we had the animals under our care.
The following morning – 29th of April – part of the force under Major Andrews rejoined the 2nd Cavalry Group preparatory to assuming a new mission of advancing towards Pilsen via the Eisenstein Pass. Troop A – under Captain Carter Catlett, with one platoon of tanks, were left to control Hostau – under the command of Captain Stewart. He immediately organized a defense force with the American troops as a base – but included the German troops – who seemed anxious to maintain the horse farm, plus the Cossacks and some of the released Polish prisoners whom he armed with captured weapons.
This was done as we feared a counter-attack by the SS troops defeated at the border – it was an excellent plan as, late on the 30th of April, they attempted an attack on Hostau – our multi-national force defeated them with heavy losses – as the attacking Germans had no tanks and ours proved most effective weapons.
The 2nd Armored Cavalry Group, with additional attachments, proceeded on its new mission – leaving Captain Stewart and his command to control Hostau. By May 7th, date of the complete surrender of Germany, the Task Force was on the general line about 10 miles southeast of Pilsen – Horsice – Zinkovy – Nepomuk in Czechoslovakia, facing the Russians and preventing their penetration into American held territory. Headquarters were established at the Skoda Schloss at Zinkovy. It was here about May 9th that I received a message from 3rd Army that General Patton had been in contact with Colonel Alois Podhajsky, head of the Spanische Reitschule. That the colonel with the trained Lipizzaner stallions was at St. Martin in Austria. That he would be flown up to my headquarters as soon as practical – to check the breeding herd and arrange for its repatriation to Austria in the vicinity of St. Martin.
Here it is best to clarify a certain misunderstanding of the sequence of events surrounding the rescue of the Piber breeding herd. The actual rescue took place on the 28th of April – nine days before Colonel Podhajsky’s meeting with General Patton and pleading for their rescue.
When General Patton answered Podhajsky’s request, either through language difficulties or a misunderstanding on the part of the officer who transmitted the message to Podhajsky, he understood that General Patton was sending the 2nd Cavalry Group to rescue these breeding horses. Actually General Patton knew by the 29th or 30th of April that the herd was in our possession at Hostau. He probably sent this information with the word that Podhajsky would be sent up to check them. This error in sequence was perpetuated by the Walt Disney movie, whose script writer interviewed me in Virginia and seemed attached to the idea of the rescue taking place after Patton saw the school horses perform at St. Martin. It made better “show business”.
On or about the 14th of May, Podhajsky arrived at Zinkovy by American plane, where he spent the night and was entertained at dinner by our staff. Most cordial relations were established that evening and basic plans were laid for the return of the breeding herd to him in the vicinity of St. Martin as soon as practical.
A day or so after the German surrender it became evident to me that the Czech and Russian communists were showing a great interest in the captured horses – in fact, they made several stealthy visits to Hostau, apparently to connive with the Czech born lieutenant colonel, who was second in command when we arrived. This information was transmitted to General Patton’s headquarters, with recommendations that the entire herd of horses be transferred to a safer base in Bavaria at a large installation at Schwarzenburg, where the communists would not be tempted to claim the animals. None of the herds or individual animals came from Czechoslovakia, but had been transported there from other German controlled countries because of the fine grazing and other facilities. The Army promptly authorized the operation and issued orders giving the horse movement priority on all needed roads during the time necessary.
The movement was started at dawn on the 12th of May, and the entire plan was completed by late that night. Since few trucks were available most of the animals were driven in small herds – each preceded and followed by an American vehicle – outriders and guides for each herd were provided from German personnel and the Russian Cossacks assisted by a few volunteer cavalrymen from the Americans – very young colts were with their dams and mares heavy in foal were moved in trucks – personnel – German and Polish – and Russian – women and children with scanty possessions and as much food for men and horses as possible were moved on some trucks and in horse drawn wagons and carriages, pulled by animals broken to harness.
The day after Podhajsky’s arrival at Zinkovy he and I drove together to Schwarzenburg where he closely checked and identified the animals belonging to the Piber herd. His intimate knowledge and quick recognition of them was most helpful and he seemed quite pleased with their condition. He evidenced no interest in the Yugoslavian Lipizzaners, as he did not wish their blood crossed with the Austrian strain.
Since the distance to St. Martin was so great the move had to be made by available trucks – refitted to carry horses. These were not ideal and unfortunately, a few horses were injured in transport and two mares suffered broken legs requiring their destruction. The movement was made in two convoys the 18th and the 25th of May and was fairly well carried out considering the lack of transportation and personnel difficulties – a total of 215 animals were returned to Austrian control. The remaining horses were later transferred to the large and most suitable German horse breeding establishment of a remount depot in Hessia – this included the Arabians, racing horses, the Yugoslav Lipizzaners and a portion of the Cossack horses. Since all were war booty of the American Army, the best of these and other captured animals were later shipped to the United States for use by the United States remount service.
The 2nd Armored Cavalry Group performed admirably many more difficult and dangerous operations in the European campaigns. However, all of our members – recall with special pride their contribution to Austrian culture and happiness – “The Rescue of the Lipizzaners at Hostau”.
Written by Colonel Charles Hancock Reed (Ret.)
November 4, 1970
(Excerpt from obituary supplied by Jane Reed.)
Colonel Reed, a career soldier, was born in Richmond, VA and was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia before going to West Point, where he graduated in 1922.
In civilian life he served as president of Williams & Reed of Richmond, a wholesale dry goods distributor. He was president of the Virginia State Fair for 20 years and a director of the Bank of Virginia.
Colonel Charles H. Reed died following a stroke. He was 79 years old.