In the last days of World War II, a secret operation was approved by General George Patton to rescue 500 of Europe’s finest thoroughbred horses. It has been described as “War Horse with a twist.”
The story of the operation that ensured the bloodlines of many Lipizzaner horses would continue is the subject of “The Perfect Horse,” by an American author, Elizabeth Letts.
“General Patton effectively gave these soldiers permission to rescue these horses but, if it went wrong, they were dumb cavalrymen on their own,” said Letts.
“They were crazy. Who would do this? It didn’t make that much of sense. It’s like ‘War Horse’ with a twist.
“They just wanted to get these horses; that’s how important they were to them. They valued horses pound for pound like fine art and risked men’s lives for this.”
Gustav Rau was Hitler’s chief of breeding. He was given stables in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, to collect the finest horses in Europe, from Lipizzaners to Arabs. The goal was to create the perfect war horse.
His inspiration came from the 1912 Olympics where he saw some of the best military horses in the world lined up next to each other. That gave him the idea to “develop a German breed of military horse that was as clearly associated with Germany as the thoroughbred was with England,” according to Letts.
Hostau happened to be in the path of Patton’s Third Army in the west and the Red Army in the east. The German forces were preparing to battle to the end despite the inevitable outcome.
All the main actors in this piece of history have passed away. Their stories, though, have been handed down to their families.
Ulrich “Ric” Rudofsky remembers visiting the stables that his uncle Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Rudofsky managed, back when he was ten years old.
“One of the expressions as I remember, was that he had to do something about the horses before the Russians ate them,” Rudofsky remembers about his uncle. His uncle received an award in 1985 for his efforts to save the horses in 1945.
“He was never a member of the Nazi party, a prisoner of war or anything like that. At the end of all, he just took off his uniform and went with the horses. He was a real lover of horses. He was a hero to me; he was my idol.”
The Germans officially surrendered on May 7, 1945. Earlier, a German intelligence officer had warned Rudofsky that the war was effectively over. Eleven days before the German surrender, that officer surrendered to the US 2nd Cavalry Group and turned over numerous photos of thoroughbred horses.
The leader of the cavalry group, Colonel Charles Hancock “Hank” Reed informed Patton who said, “Get them. Make it fast!”
The lead vet at the stables, Captain Rudolf Lessing, was called upon to help develop a plan to save the horses.
Lessing said to his officers, “It is our duty to do everything we can to save them. It is unimportant for us to win the war here at Hostau on April 27 or 28. We should have done this four years ago. It’s too late now.”
In the meantime, another German general arrived in Hostau. This general was determined to fight, threatening the surrender that Rudofsky had promised the Allies.
In spite of the late theatrics, a peaceful surrender was arranged the next day. Lieutenant William Donald “Quin” Quinlivan was the first of 70 troops to reach Hostau.
His daughter, Maureen Quinlivan Nolan, heard her father’s stories growing up. “He happened to be at the right place at the right time and was delegated to be the man on the scene with the troops.”
“A part of his concern was that the Russians would get the horses and not see their value for animal husbandry.”
Once they secured the base, the Americans thought that the mission was complete. On April 30, however, a small German force determined to fight to the death, engaged the American troops in a five-hour battle.
Nolan said “They had to encounter a firefight with some SS troops who were going to go down fighting. There were some pictures of some shelled or mortared vehicles, so it was reasonably serious.”
Two Americans lost their lives in what would be the group’s final encounter in WWII.
Shortly after the Germans surrendered, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, who rode at the 1936 Olympics and was head of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, was reunited with his horses.
A total of 244 of those horses were driven to Austria. Arabs and other thoroughbreds made their way to the US.