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This Day in History: Operation Cowboy

On this day in 1945, a coalition of American and German soldiers work to save the famous white Lipizzaner horses from an advancing Russian army.

World War II was not yet over, but the mission united the two sides, if only for the moment.

“The 2nd U.S. Cavalry put a hold on the war for two days,” one American soldier later said, “while we extracted a sliver of culture for the rest of the world.”

None of it would have happened but for Luftwaffe Colonel Walter Holters. The desperate German officer came to 2nd Cavalry headquarters in southeastern Germany, near Czechoslovakia. He waved a white flag, but his was no ordinary surrender: Instead, Holters demanded to speak to the American officer in charge.

That man was Colonel Charles “Hank” Reed, and he was stunned by Holters’s story: The Germans were holding hundreds of purebred horses at a stud in Hostau, just inside Czech territory. Among these horses were all the brood mares for the prized Lipizzaner show horses.

These horses were normally housed at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, but the German high command had different plans: It intended to use the Lipizzaner mares as the base for a new warhorse. They were breeding (essentially) an Aryan horse.

But now the Germans were going down in defeat, and the Russian army was advancing. The Red Army had already shot Lipizzaners at the Royal Hungarian Riding School. They’d turned those priceless horses into steak. Holters feared his horses could be next. Would Reed help?

The two worked out a deal: Holters would surrender information he possessed, and Reed would try to get the horses out. Importantly, Allied POWs were also at the stud, so both could be rescued simultaneously.

The plan received an unofficial blessing from General George Patton: “Get them. Make it fast.”

“Fast” would prove difficult. Others at the stud didn’t realize that Holters had gone for help. Emissaries went back and forth, but, in the end, a plan was made. Americans would fight their way into Czechoslovakia. The Germans at the stud would surrender as soon as Americans arrived.

Unfortunately, no one could control the more political arm of the German army, the Waffen-SS. In other words, no guarantees could be made about the trip to the stud. Americans would have to get there on their own.

The operation began on April 28 with an artillery barrage that blasted a hole in the German forward defenses. Just over 300 men went in with light tanks and armored cars. They fought their way through, village by village, until they came to the stud farm. There, those German officers surrendered, just as promised.

They did it in style, marching down the street, holding a white bed sheet between them.

But the hard part was yet to come. “They were eighteen miles behind German lines,” historian Mark Felton describes, “a tiny American island in a sea of German troops, connected to the Allied lines by a single long and thin umbilical road that for long stretches was barely protected.”

Complicating matters still more, it was foaling season. Transports had to be contrived for pregnant mares and foals. Worse, the Waffen-SS attacked and had to be fought off.

Indeed, logistical challenges kept delaying efforts to leave—at least until a Russian advance guard showed up on May 14. The window to escape was closing. The time to leave was NOW.

Horses, vehicles, and cavalry all left together. The convoy stretched for miles, and it took two days to make the trip—but they finally crossed into Germany.

Not only Lipizzaners, but also POWs and local refugees, had been saved.

“We were so tired of death and destruction,” Reed concluded, “we wanted to do something beautiful.”

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