The date was April 27, 1945, just 11 days before the Germans’ surrender in Europe would be announced. Even so, the troops were far from being idle. One of the last operations of World War II commenced that day. It was a vital rescue mission and a special covert operation approved by General George Patton. The rescuees? Horses. They were not just any other ones, but as American author Elizabeth Letts called was, a breed of “The Perfect Horse.”
We know Hitler had this crazy concept of creating what he called an “Aryan master race,” a racist ideology of biological superiority that resulted in an attempt to annihilate all the European Jews in what we now know as the holocaust. Six million people fell victim. His whole “master race” ideology did not only apply to humans. Perhaps when he said that it was “the sacred mission of the German people…to assemble and preserve the most valuable racial elements…and raise them to the dominant position,” he also meant the best breed of dogs, maybe cats, birds, and horses.
With that, he entrusted the breeding of the most superior horses to the hands of Gustav Rau. The latter was provided with a stud farm in the town of Hostau, Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The village had been known for breeding cavalry horses. There, Rau gathered all the finest horses Europe could offer— mostly Lipizzaners to Arabs. According to Letts, his idea was to “develop a German breed of military horse that was as clearly associated with Germany as the thoroughbred was with England.”
With how the events were unfolding, it was clear that the tide of war was turning against the Nazis. Rudolf Lessing, a veterinarian, appointed by Rau to look after the horses at Hostau, was worried not for himself but for the horses that were at risk of being turned into a stew by the advancing Russian forces. Desperate, he turned for help from the American troops to save these horses.
“Get Them Fast”
On April 27, 1945, a German intelligence officer surrendered to the US 2nd Cavalry Group and brought numerous photos of the finest horses. Colonel Charles Hancock “Hank” Reed received these photos. He also happened to be a horseman from Virginia, so he knew how valuable and impressive these horses in the pictures were. Reed recalled,
We mutually agreed that these fine animals should not fall into Communist hands and the prisoners should be rescued.
The spy, known only as Walter H., looked at the photos with him. Immediately, he contacted General Patton to let him know of the situation. Patton, also a horse enthusiast, responded with, “Get them. Make it fast!
That set in motion 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 trekked for miles and into the darkness of the dense forest so the animals could be placed under the American wings. As Lessing said:
“It is our duty to do everything we can to save them. It is unimportant for us to win the war here at Hostau on April 27 or 28. We should have done this four years ago. It’s too late now.”
On the farm, another person assigned to look after the horses, Colonel Rudofsky, received a message from Reed that help was on the way. But, unbeknown to Reed, the barn was already captured by other German troops who were ordered to fight until the end.
On April 28, the 2nd Cavalry went their way to Hostau, complete with tanks and assault guns. They were only met with little resistance, and the Germans in the base peacefully surrendered the following day, allowing the Americans to secure the area.
#PlatinumJubilee: Austrian Lipizzaners saluting the Royal Family during a visit to Piber stud farm in 1969. @hofreitschule presented HM the Queen with a picture of this event, which I handed over to A. Harrison CMG CVO, HM 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 until the end. A five-hour battle ensued, and two US soldiers died. In the end, a total of 244 thoroughbred horses were rescued and sent back to Austria to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, where most of these horses were stolen. The Arabs and other breeds, on the other hand, were sent to the US.