NYPOST.“Get them. Make it fast.”
In the chaotic last days of the Second World War, Gen. George Patton’s terse command set off a remarkable secret mission to save a group of priceless stallions and brood mares kidnapped on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
The directive might have appeared foolhardy and risky to an outsider but not to the small group of American and German soldiers who put their hostilities aside, desperate to save the world’s most valuable equine prisoners of war, which were being held deep inside enemy lines in occupied Czechoslovakia.
Minutes after Patton’s order, Hank Reed, a Virginia horseman who was the commanding officer of the Second Cavalry in Europe, dispatched one of his soldiers, an accomplished rider from Tennessee, to team up with a Nazi veterinarian. Under cover of darkness, they trekked miles through dense forests and battle-scarred villages to capture the horses and place them under American protection — before the arrival of advancing Russian troops.
The valuable Lipizzaner horses — snow-white and blue-black, many of them Olympic dressage champions — had been stolen from the countries that the Nazis occupied during the war. In addition to gold, jewelry and artwork, the Nazis seized the valuable horses from Poland, Yugoslavia, Italy and Austria.
The Nazis’ goal, according to author Elizabeth Letts in her new book “The Perfect Horse” (Ballantine), was to breed the Lipizzaner with German horses in order to create an equine specimen that was worthy of the German master race.
Horses were central to the Nazi propaganda effort, and Hitler was often shown as “the man who put Germany back in the saddle,” according to Letts. In fact, as soon as he ordered the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and unleashed the grisly chain of events that plunged the world into war, Hitler had important plans for the country’s horses. As Letts writes, “In the blueprint forged for its occupation, a plan was put into place for the ‘rebuilding of Poland’s horse-breeding industry’ for the ‘interest of the German nation.’ ”
“It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness.”To accomplish his master plan, Hitler put Gustav Rau, a German horse expert and the country’s chief equerry in charge of all horse breeding in the Third Reich. His task was to create the perfect horse by “utilizing the still poorly understood principles of genetic inheritance.”
In one of their first acts in the countries they occupied, German soldiers took over important horse stud farms and riding schools, such as the famed Janow Podlaski Stud Farm in Poland, near the border with Russia, and the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which had the world’s most impressive collection of Lipizzaners.
“It was a quirk of Nazi philosophy, so inhumane to humans, that animals were treated with the utmost care and kindness,” writes Letts. “In a cruel and ironic twist of fate, the German invaders, whose express aim was to relocate, enslave, massacre and eventually annihilate Poland’s human inhabitants, prized the well-bred Polish horses.”
Indeed, as cattle cars crossed Europe stuffed with human cargo destined for the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the horses taken prisoner by the Nazis were afforded more luxurious train cars in order to transport them to bucolic horse farms, far away from the noise of warplanes and exploding bombs. One of the most important farms was located in the rolling hills of Hostau in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
At Hostau, Rau appointed Rudolf Lessing. A reluctant Nazi, he will go down in history as the passionate veterinarian who risked being tried for treason in the Third Reich when he appealed directly to American troops to save the animals from the invading Russians.
When it became clear that the Germans would lose the war, Lessing and a small group of Nazi officers, who were all horse lovers, feared that the regal stallions, which had been bred for Europe’s royal families, would be enlisted by desperate Russian soldiers into battle, or worse, slaughtered to feed starving troops. In one instance, the fabled thoroughbred racehorse Alchimist was shot to death by marauding Russian soldiers in the spring of 1945 when the stallion refused to load onto their truck.
At the end of April 1945, two days before Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, Lessing set off from an American army encampment in Bavaria with an unlikely comrade in American Capt. Tom Stewart to secure the horses hidden at Hostau and place them under American protection.
Reed, Stewart’s commanding officer, was also an accomplished rider and horse fanatic who had personally prevailed upon Patton to save the horses. The famous leader of the Third Army in France who guided US forces to victory in the Battle of the Bulge, Patton himself was a horse lover who had competed in the 1912 Olympic pentathlon. He was also an avid polo player. Still, if the risky mission to liberate the Hostau stables went awry, Patton made it clear that he would never take public responsibility for giving the order. Patton told Reed that “if Reed acted on this decision to risk the lives of men to rescue horses, he was on his own,” writes Letts.
When Lessing arrived at the Hostau stud farm, he hid Stewart in his apartment and went to negotiate first with the director of the farm and then with the reluctant German general in charge of the region. Lessing and Stewart’s mission was to convince the Germans that they needed to surrender the horse farm to the Americans immediately.
“The Americans wish to assist you in evacuating the horses safely back across the border to Bavaria,” read Stewart’s official letter to the German commanders at Hostau.
Somehow Stewart’s letter and Lessing’s passionate plea on behalf of the horses he had tended for years, worked on the German commanders, who also realized that they were facing defeat on all fronts. A makeshift white flag was fashioned out of an old bed sheet and hoisted up Hostau farm’s flagpole. Hours later, American troops officially took over the farm and began the preparations to transport the horses over a war-torn continent, flooded with desperate refugees, to safety.
As Letts notes, saving the Lipizzaner stock was a gutsy move, with no legal or historic precedent. “All over Europe, there were men whose express job was to protect cultural artifacts and recover stolen art,” write Letts. “But the horses, equally beloved, equally treasured, infinitely precious because they were living things, did not have the same official protection afforded to museum pieces.”
For their own safety, US military personnel decided that most of the horses needed to be shipped to the United States. Food was in short supply in the immediate postwar period, and those who had brought the horses to safety were worried about their ability to survive on a war-ravaged continent.
In the fall of 1945, American troops loaded 151 of the world’s most beautiful horses onto the Stephen F. Austin, docked at the German port of Bremerhaven.
All of the horses, including the most prized Polish Lipizzaner, Witez, survived and even thrived. The ship had left Bremerhaven with 151 stallions, mares and foals and arrived in Newport News, Va., with 152 horses nearly a month later. The horses went to the military’s Pomona Remount Depot in California. Later, the most prized steeds were sold to breeders.
Witez, the regal stallion with the shiny black coat, was sold at auction in 1949 to a breeder for $8,100. He would go on to sire 133 foals in the US. In January 1965, Witez celebrated his 27th birthday with carrot cake at the California ranch where he had lived for more than 16 years. A few months later, the grand horse known as “the chieftain” died peacefully, asleep in his pasture.