“We wanted to do something beautiful” - How the US cavalry saved some of world’s most treasured horses in wartime Czechoslovakia

Miracle of the White Stallions, source: Archive Post Bellum

In the closing days of World War Two a US Army unit took it upon itself to drive into a Czech village and rescue some of the most valuable horses in the world. The story has since inspired a Hollywood movie is annually a commemorated by locals and Americans in the town where the action took place.

Miracle of the White Stallions,  source: Archive Post Bellum

An unusual request

Charles Hancock Reed,  source: Archive Post Bellum

Operation Cowboy took place in the final daysof World War Two. It was a story of humanity in one of the most gruesome conflicts in human history, in which a cavalry unit of General Patton’s 3rd US Army chose to conduct a rescue mission of several hundred purebred horses of the famed Spanish Riding School of Vienna, who were feared to be in danger of ending up on the plates of Red Army soldiers.

Colonel Charles Hancock Reed, the commander of the 2nd Cavalry Group which carried out the mission, put it this way: “We were so tired of death and destruction; we wanted to do something beautiful.”

The story begins on the German-Czechoslovak border, in April 1945, just a few days before Adolf Hitler shot himself. The 2nd Cavalry Group was preparing to advance towards the Sudeten town of Weißensulz (modern day Bělá nad Radbuzou) to attempt a rescue of 400 allied prisoners of war who were being held there.

However, just before the operation was launched Colonel Reed was approached by two German officers. Rudolf Lessing and Wolfgang Kroll were veterinarians who had come to plead with the American’s that they accept their surrender and rescue the horses in the care of their unit.

Military stud-farm in Hostouň,  photo: US Army,  Public Domain

These were not just any horses, but the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, one of the oldest breeds in Europe. They informed the American Colonel that they were being kept in the nearby village Hostouň, the last in a series of locations since they had been moved out of Vienna, so as not to fall prey to allied bombers. The horses were now being held as part of the reserve for the German forces in West Bohemia.

Latter accounts state that the Germans feared the horses would end up shot or put into harnesses if captured by the Red Army, as it had previously been done with the Royal Hungarian Lipizzaner collection. In another incident, the Soviets had eaten the horses captured in the stables of Graditz near Torgau on the Elbe River.

“Operation Cowboy”,  photo: Archive Post Bellum

The German’s were in luck. Colonel Reed’s 2nd Cavalry may have been using tanks, a consequence of the modern developments in military combat, but he was an officer of the old school. Graduating from West Point when cavalry was still seen as an important branch of the armed forces, Reed was an able horseman and had been selected for the army’s Advanced Equitation Course during his early years. The command was issued to save the horses under the name “Operation Cowboy” and the company sized 42nd squadron was put in charge of the mission.

Contrary to a continuing myth, historian Jindřich Marek from the Military History Institute in Prague recently wrote that the decision to save the horses was Reed’s own call, not an order issued by his general George S. Patton. Patton was himself a top horseman, having represented the United States in this discipline at the Olympic Games. However, he seems to have only become aware of the action in May 1945, after it had already been carried out.

Cowboys to the rescue

Photo: Archive Post Bellum

The first American units to reach Hostouň were a platoon of 28 men and a platoon of five M 24 Chaffee light tanks under the command of first lieutenant William Quinnlivan. They arrived in Hostouň at ten o'clock in the morning on April 28. Meanwhile, the rest of the 42nd advanced to save the prisoners. According to American sources, the German unit there surrendered without a fight and the horses were put under the care of the Americans.

It was a valuable prize indeed, worth some USD 3 million dollars. Aside from 250 Lippizaners, the stables also included a horse that had previously belonged to the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop as well as the horse of the King of Yugoslavia, Petar, which one of the US officers got to ride.

While the capture of Hostouň may have been relatively simple, there were several clashes with German troops in the surrounding villages during which two soldiers of the 42nd would lose their lives and several would be injured.

Richard Praus,  photo: Archive Post Bellum

As this was taking place, the Americans in Hostouň were figuring out a way of getting the horses out of the village. They made ramps and led the horses onto trucks, including captured German vehicles. The horses were then transferred to various locations. Some were moved to Bavaria, 215 were returned to Austria, others were kept by the Americans themselves, although some of these were later returned to various countries including Czechoslovakia.

The story would live on in America, depicted in the 1963 Disney film Miracle of the White Stallions. In Communist Czechoslovakia it was largely forgotten.

Rediscovery and commemoration

That would change in 2006 when history enthusiast Richard Praus from the Buddies society in the nearby town of Písek was asked by the Mayors of Hostouň a Bělá nad Radbuzou to write a memorial plaque for the planned first commemoration of Operation Cowboy.

Praus told news site Aktuálně.cz that he faced a dificult task, because he had been given a very short deadline. Nevertheless, he managed to find the living relatives of the two fallen soldiers of the 42nd, who were then invited and took part in the commemoration.

“Operation Cowboy”,  photo: US Army,  Public Domain

He was helped in this task by Rudolf Bayer from the Plzeň based Military Car Club, which takes care of historic military vehicles many of which are displayed during the annual liberation celebrations in Plzeň.

Speaking to Radio Prague, Mr Bayer said that Operation Cowboy continues to be celebrated annually in the village and is regularly attended by servicemen from the 42nd Cavalry Regiment which had liberated Hostouň 75 years earlier.

“They are proud of that history, it is seen as an important act which the unit achieved in the past and is regularly commemorated. However, none of them expected this would happen. And this initiative happened very much thanks to the fact that the right people met at the right time. The cavalry regiment regularly visits nowadays. Even when they were posted in Iraq or Afghanistan someone is regularly sent from the unit to raise the flag at the commemoration every year since 2006. It has a tradition and it works.”

Commemorative plaque in Hostouň,  photo: Archive of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment

One of those who has since attended the commemoration is the regiment’s 4th Squadron commander, Jonathan Due, whose grandfather was one of the men who took part in Cowboy. He shared his grandfather’s memories to the people of Hostouň in 2015.

“I will never forget how he described your town. In simple terms he remarked that his experiences here, in liberating Hostouň, at the time lined with sharing townspeople, allied prisoners of war, and of course the horses, was the most humane and happy act he witnessed and participated in throughout the entire war.”

Some of the descendants of the rescued Lipizzaners continue to be part of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna where they demonstrate the most complex moves in classical dressage.