When US and German Soldiers Fought Together to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Horses in the Last Days of World War II
Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2018, 304 pages
Book Review published on: September 6, 2019
The well-known rescue of the Lipizzaner horses at the end of World War II ranks as one of the most intriguing and compassionate acts of humanity amidst a terribly brutal conflict that stretched to all corners of the globe. Being told in many forms for many different audiences, this story never gets old. Take Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts, which appeals to horse lovers, or Disney’s big screen film The Miracle of the White Stallions, a big family hit. These stories hold a common thread of illustrating the beauty of this priceless collection of horses and their deliverance from anticipated annihilation at the hands of advancing Soviet forces in the final days of the war. Mark Felton’s Ghost Riders, on the other hand, tells the story of their saviors and just how significant of a military operation, under the most uncommon conditions, they pulled off in the face of great odds. Felton, through extensive and meticulous research, gives a fascinating account of how American and German soldiers, from privates to generals, joined ranks to protect and provide safe passage for the Lipizzaner stallions and hundreds of other fine horses.
By late April 1945, the war’s end was near and everyone knew it. The Third Army’s unrelenting attack reached the border of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, a very hungry Soviet army drew closer by the day. Fifty miles separated the Allied forces as the Germans put up a poriferous defense with two decimated panzer divisions, a hodgepodge of Volkssturm detachments, and a few Waffen-SS battalions determined to fight to the last man. Frontlines disintegrated into pockets of resistance. Add in the bands of marauding Czechs and recently released Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) roaming the countryside, seeking retribution on their harsh occupiers and local citizens who had thrown in with the Nazis, and determining friend and foe became almost undistinguishable. To make matters worse, food, like good order and discipline that characterized this sleepy alpine corner of Hitler’s empire, had vanished.
Stuck right in the middle of all this lay the finest collection of horses plundered by the Nazis from all of Europe and Asia to create a master equestrian race. Over a thousand horses in all, including the entire Austrian Lipizzaner herd, were moved into the countryside of Czechoslovakia when the ancient Spanish Riding School, home to the Lipizzaners, became unsafe as the Allies stepped up bombing attacks on Vienna in late 1944. Now facing new dangers, the herds’ caretakers were moved to treasonous acts against Hitler. Fears of further confiscation by the Soviets and worse, such as reports of the Bolsheviks slaughtering horses to feed its starving army, set into motion a bizarre chain of events beginning on 25 April, twelve days before the war ended, to save one the world’s oldest equestrian bloodlines from annihilation.
On 26 April 1945, German Luftwaffe officer Lt. Col. Walter H., waving a white flag from the window of his black Mercedes staff car, demanded to speak to the American commanding officer for he possessed information of a POW camp and a set of photographs with an astounding story to go with them. The latter earned him an audience with Col. Hank Reid, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Group, known as “Patton’s Ghosts,” Patton’s eyes and ears since Normandy. Reid, an old school cavalry officer and accomplished horseman, knew fine horses when he saw it. Once he heard the German colonel’s story of the Lipizzaners, he was moved to action to save these beautiful animals from falling into the hands of the Soviets and becoming “horse burgers.”
The story continues on to tell how the American-led task force consisting of allied POWs, German troops, and a Cossack cavalry unit (in pay of the German army) protected the horses from the likes of Waffen-SS troops and pulled them back to American lines from under the Soviets’ noses. Interestingly, the rescue operation extended past the end of the war, culminating with a close encounter between a Soviet column of tanks and the 2nd Cavalry Group. How, one may ask, could something so simple as moving healthy and fast horses create so much drama? Just ride the horses out; after all, it is the cavalry. The answer is that it was foaling season, and the entire Lipizzaner herd, over two hundred mares with foals or heavily pregnant, could not be ridden out. Instead a cobbled up fleet of army trucks required conversion into cattle cars with fabricated high board sides and wooden loading ramps, which was no small task in a war deprived area, especially when trying to find saw cut lumber. This almost undid the entire effort, but in the end, the 2nd Cavalry came to the rescue of what was dubbed “Operation Cowboy,” driving, riding, and herding over 760 horses along with a caravan of refugees, POWs, and local citizens who were also escaping impending Soviet occupation.
Felton, a master of weaving a plethora of historical research and analysis into an entertaining story, narrates Ghost Riders as if the audience is sitting around a campfire hearing his tale. What really resonates with this story is the disciplined decision-making of the Americans and the Germans, each side going up the chain of command to the three-star general/army commander level to authorize the rescue operation. This also serves as an excellent example and illustration of consolidating gains: enemies joining together to shape an outcome beyond the fighting. Gen. George Patton, who by formal order placed the “Spanish Riding School under official protection of the American Army,” later reflected, “It is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth.” Perhaps 2nd Lt. Louis T. Holz, said it best: “The U.S. 2nd Cavalry put the war on hold … while we extracted a sliver of culture for the rest of the world.”
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, DDE, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas