For Gen. George S. Patton, it started early, with a call just after 4 a.m. from Gen. Omar Bradley, who said, “Ike just called me, George. The Germans have surrendered.” This was mixed news to Patton, who was convinced the war was ending too soon, leaving the Russians as a future threat and, in any case, leaving Patton, a man who lived to fight, without a war. “Peace is going to be hell on me,” he had complained to his wife, Beatrice, four days earlier.
The commander of Patton’s 2nd Cavalry Group, Col. Charles Hancock Reed, was with his unit in western Czechoslovakia, where they were forming a defensive line southwest of the large city of Pilsen. The 2nd Cavalry had been spearheading the Third Army’s advance, the deepest American penetration of the war. But as of 8 that morning, they and the rest of Patton’s Third Army had been ordered to “cease fire and stand fast.”
None of this was on the mind of Col. Alois Podhajsky as he prepared for what he regarded as the most important day of his life. Podhajsky, a tall, aristocratic Austrian of extraordinary single-mindedness, was looking for a way to guarantee the safety of the riding school and horses he supervised as the Third Reich collapsed around him. And on that sunny Monday morning, as a preoccupied General Patton strode into his exhibition arena, he thought he’d found it.
Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps had captured the renowned Spanish Riding School of Vienna several days earlier at its temporary quarters in St. Martin im Innkreis, a small town in Upper Austria, and Walker, a protégé of Patton’s, requested a performance of its white Lipizzaner stallions especially for him. As Patton watched, the horses and riders went through the precise, balletlike maneuvers they were famous for: a demonstration of controlled power and ritualized elegance, set to music, that was beautiful to watch and incredibly difficult to execute.
When it was over, Podhajsky halted his horse before Patton and removed his hat in a traditional salute. “In a little Austrian village in a decisive hour two men faced each other,” he wrote in his memoir, My Dancing White Horses, the basis for the 1963 Disney film Miracle of the White Stallions, “the one as triumphant conqueror in a war waged with such bitterness, the other as a member of a defeated nation.” He asked Patton for protection for the centuries-old school during the uncertain postwar period and for help in retrieving its breeding herd from Czechoslovakia, where the Germans had sent the horses to a Wehrmacht-controlled stud farm.
Patton, an expert horseman himself, described the exhibition in his diary that day, calling it “extremely interesting and magnificently performed.” Ever the soldier, he added, “It struck me as rather strange that, in the midst of a world at war, some twenty young and middle-aged men in great physical condition…had spent their entire time teaching a group of horses to wiggle their butts and raise their feet in consonance with certain signals from the heels and reins.” More telling for Podhajsky, though, was what Patton noted next: “On the other hand, it is probably wrong to permit any highly developed art, no matter how fatuous, to perish from the earth—and which arts are fatuous depends on the point of view. To me the high-schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music.”
Standing to address the man on horseback before him, Patton replied that he was putting the Spanish Riding School under the special protection of the U.S. Army; he later told Podhajsky he would do what he could about the horses in Czechoslovakia.
“This official declaration was far more than I had dreamed,” Podhajsky exulted. What he didn’t know, however, was that something far more dangerous and extravagant was already well under way: a top-secret mission involving not only Podhajsky’s horses, but hundreds more, as well as hundreds of Allied POWs, which would twine together Patton, Reed, and Podhajsky and leave Patton forever associated with the dancing white horses. It began 11 days earlier—with some captured secret documents.
The contents of any intelligence officer’s papers are an obvious source of intrigue, especially when that officer is a general. But those that belonged to the commander of the German intelligence unit that surrendered to the 2nd Cavalry Group at a hunting lodge near the Czech border on April 26, 1945, were unexpectedly interesting. They included photos of horses—beautiful horses: Arabs, Thoroughbreds, and Lipizzaners.
The general, a celebrated spy known only as Walter H., invited Colonel Reed to join him for breakfast while they waited for trucks to arrive to haul off the captured documents. They looked at the photos together, and the general told Reed that the horses were among hundreds the Germans had collected from among the finest breeding stock in Europe and sent to a large stud farm in the nearby Czech town of Hostau, where they were under the care of Czech and Polish POWs who had surrendered to the Germans.
The problem was that the ruthless and ravenous Red Army was approaching; both men…