It was late April, 1945. U.S. troops were sweeping across southern Germany and storming Philippine beaches. Roosevelt had just died. The Soviets had captured Berlin. Allied troops had just liberated Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Japanese were fighting desperately at Okinawa. The end of World War II seemed imminent, yet the world was still in turmoil. Amid this storm of attacks, losses, hope and horror, an odd thing happened. A group of U.S. soldiers from the Third Army, Second Cavalry, discovered the Germans were keeping some 675 prize European horses in a tiny village in Czechoslovakia, where they hoped to create an equine master race. Included in the herd was the entire Lipizzan breeding stock of Vienna's centuries-old Spanish Riding School, one of only a few places in the world where haute �cole, the highest level of classical dressage, was taught.
The Germans were about to surrender. But the American officers, as well as the Lipizzans' German caretakers, many of them cavalrymen, feared that the advancing Soviets would capture and perhaps destroy these beautiful white horses. So U.S. soldiers rescued them and herded them to safety, thus saving a breed and a tradition for generations to come.
It sounds like a fairy tale, but Operation Cowboy truly occurred. The rescue has been glamorized, of course—especially in the Disney film Miracle of the White Stallions—for who can resist a story of greed, heroism and dancing horses? But in all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, this mission has been all but forgotten. Most accounts of the war don't mention Operation Cowboy; one researcher at the U.S. Army's Center for Military History thought it had something to do with The Sound of Music.
Few of the 350 soldiers who took part in Operation Cowboy are alive today. Yet those who know about the mission agree that it was one humane episode in what had been a horrible war and that it preserved an art form. "We thought we had a chance to save a sliver of culture for the rest of the world," says Louis Holz, 71, who was a lieutenant in the Second Cavalry at the time. "We sensed the end [of the war] was in sight, and we were in a frame of mind to give credence to beauty once again."
The Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzan breed had been based in Vienna since 1572, when Archduke Charles II of Austria founded the school to continue the classical dressage tradition developed by the Greek general and historian Xenophon around 400 B.C. By World War II the school was a national treasure and the only place in the world where the elegant white Lipizzan stallions still exhibited haute �cole. This tradition's "airs above the ground," as they are called, look like equine ballet, but some people say that Xenophon developed them as cavalry maneuvers. For instance, a rider might use the levade, in which the horse crouches on its hind legs before standing up, to give the rider's sword greater thrust. And the capriole, in which the horse leaps into the air and kicks out its hind legs, could be used to extricate horse and rider from nasty combat situations.
The school's commandant, Col. Alois Podhajsky, stayed in Vienna until the bombing began to get close in January 1945. Then he moved his performing stallions to St. Martins, Austria. In 1943, however, German soldiers had taken the school's entire herd of breeding stallions and mares, and most of the Lipizzans in Europe, to Hostau, Czechoslovakia. There the Germans hoped to "attain the ultimate horse," says Mary Lightstone of the U.S. Lipizzan Registry. Podhajsky wanted his breeding herd back, for without it the entire Lipizzan breed could be lost.
That U.S. troops discovered the stolen Lipizzans at all was a fluke. The Second Cavalry, which by then rode trucks and tanks, not horses, was holed up in the Bohemian forest. On April 26 the regiment offered to accept the surrender of a German staff intelligence officer who wanted to escape the advancing Soviets. He surrendered, and over breakfast the next morning United States Col. Charles Reed and a German general whose name appears to have been lost began discussing horses. The general, it turned out, was a former cavalryman and horse breeder, and he pulled out photographs of the prize Arabian and Lipizzan horses being held nearby at Hostau. He also told the colonel that 400 Allied prisoners of war were there, plus about 25 Red Army deserters.
The general suggested that the Americans take the horses for safekeeping, for the Red Army "marched on its stomach," as Holz says, and its lack of food might cause it to make the Lipizzans into "horseburgers." Reed agreed. After negotiating through a local forester, U.S. envoy Capt. Thomas Stewart and one of the Hostau veterinarians returned to Hostau to arrange the surrender. "Colonel Hargis, who was helping organize the mission, said to me, 'You don't have to go in if you don't want to,' " Stewart recalls. "I would have preferred something more encouraging. But you know, people ask me all the time why I did it, and after all these years I still don't know."
Hostau's German commandant, Col. Alois Rudofsky, was not as enthusiastic about the mission as the Americans were, for his orders were to stay and fight. "I knew Rudofsky was going to shoot us if he saw us and that I was better off meeting with a different commander, General Schultze," Stewart says. "So I went into hiding until that could be arranged." The final meeting was cordial if somewhat tense. But the men struck a deal, and Stewart went back to the American lines riding one of the captured horses.
On April 28, 350 American cavalrymen moved into Hostau. Although the area was sprinkled with German snipers, the men had only one firefight on the way. When they arrived, they found more than 1,200 horses stabled in the village, including 375 Lipizzans, 100 Arabians, 200 thoroughbreds and 600 Russian horses. The soldiers freed the Allied prisoners and began counting and caring for the captured horses.