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When US and German Soldiers Fought Together to Save the World's Most Beautiful Horses in the Last Days of World War II
By Mark Felton
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As the Red Army closes in on the Third Reich, a German colonel sends an American intelligence officer an unusual report about a POW camp soon to be overrun by the Soviets. Locked up, the report says, are over a thousand horses, including the entire herd of white Lipizzaner’s from Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, as well as Europe’s finest Arabian stallions — stolen to create an equine “master race.” The horses are worth millions and, if the starving Red Army reaches the stables first, they will kill the horses for rations. The Americans, under the command of General George Patton, whose love of horses was legendary, decide to help the Germans save the majestic creatures.
So begins “Operation Cowboy,” as GIs join forces with surrendered German soldiers and liberated prisoners of war to save the world’s finest horses from fanatical SS soldiers and the ruthless Red Army in an extraordinary battle during the last few days of the war in Europe. This is an epic untold story from the waning days of World War II.
Drawing from newly unearthed archival material, family archives held by descendants of the participants, and interviews with many of the participants published throughout the years, Ghost Riders is the definitive account of this truly unprecedented and moving story of kindness and compassion at the close of humanity’s darkest hour.
A NOTE ON THE TEXT
Most of the dialogue sequences in this book come from the veterans themselves, from written sources, diaries or spoken interviews. I have at times changed the tense to make it more immediate. Occasionally, where only basic descriptions of what happened exist, I have recreated small sections of dialogue, attempting to remain true to the characters and their manners of speech.
September 10, 1944. The banshee wails of air raid sirens were the first intimation that trouble was coming, their mournful rising and falling sending people scattering to public shelters, subway stations and basements. At the Spanish Riding School, the world’s most famous horse training academy inside Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, the well-practiced operation of moving the priceless white stallions under cover swung smoothly into action.
The director of the school, the tall, aristocratic-looking 46-year-old Alois Podhajsky burst from his office and immediately began organizing the grooms and riders, who were unlocking stalls and leading out the horses towards a shelter beneath another part of the school. Podhajsky had been born in Mostar,* then part of the Hapsburg Empire, and had risen to the rank of colonel in the Austrian Army. Soon after the Nazi takeover of Austria Podhajsky had been appointed director of the Spanish Riding School and become a colonel in the German Army. He was widely known and admired in the worldwide dressage community and had won a bronze medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Now, the institution that he had devoted his life to, and which had endured for nearly 400 years in the heart of Vienna, was in danger of being snuffed out in an afternoon.
Colonel Podhajsky was surprised, and saddened, to see that his stallions were becoming used to the raids—each time the sirens began their awful lament, the horses would move to the doors of their stalls and stand there patiently waiting to be let out, their large and expressive dark eyes peering through their stall bars.1 The American bomber streams were targeting Vienna more and more frequently as the strategic bombing campaign across Europe aimed to pulverize the Nazi military-industrial complex. The bombing was inaccurate, with ordnance often landing in the city’s historic heart, with its palaces, museums, cathedral and zoo all coming under attack.
The Lipizzaner stallions’ hooves clattered on the flagstones as they were led from their ornate stables, equipped with marble drinking troughs and smart black stall doors, into a concrete shelter that had been specially designed for these circumstances, their compact, muscular bodies moving without panic, tails held high and heads inquisitive and alert.
Soon, two new and disturbing sounds could be heard, as the sirens wailed mournfully on. The first was the firing of anti-aircraft guns across the city, the sky above filling with dirty brown and black puffs as the shells exploded among the high-flying bomber streams. Then a thumping sound grew progressively louder, much louder than the roaring of the guns: bombs were being released from the bellies of the 344 American B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators that filled the sky.
Podhajsky and the others stared up at the gray concrete roof of their shelter and then down at their equine charges, whose small ears rotated in alarm at the violent sounds, their nostrils flaring as they shuffled their feet, snorted and stamped. The detonations were getting closer, the ground reverberating as the large bombs impacted on their targets. The horses did not panic, thrash about or try to stampede. Podhajsky was pained to see that these fine beasts, representing five centuries of careful breeding and training, cowered just like the humans as the explosions grew louder and louder, lowering their heads to the ground in fear and confusion. On and on came the detonations, the sonic waves making the ground shake and little pieces of debris fall from the ceiling, almost invisible against the Lipizzaners’ gray-white hair. The humans held the horses’ heads and bowed down like their charges, some praying, others cursing as the American bombers passed over the Hofburg Palace. Bombs started to land all around the Spanish Riding School, detonating with huge concussive blasts in the Michaelerplatz and Stallburggasse,2 shrapnel lacerating the white Baroque façades of the tall buildings, stripping off roof tiles or caving in houses and shops with direct hits.
Inside the white Winter Riding School arena, constructed on the orders of Emperor Charles VI in 1729, the windows that backed the three levels of public seating areas vibrated madly at each detonation before suddenly imploding, shattered glass raining down like ice on to the sanded riding area. The huge and priceless crystal chandeliers that had hung from the 59-foot-tall ceiling were spared, having been packed up on Podhajsky’s orders. Above the royal box the huge portrait of the emperor, to which generations of riders had raised their birch-branch riding crops in salute, was also gone, leaving just a discolored patch of paintwork where it had hung. Where once Strauss had wafted from speakers, and white and gray stallions had performed with bicorn-hatted riders astride them, now the drone of aircraft engines, the wail of sirens and the thump of further detonations intruded on this unique survival of a bygone age.
When Colonel Podhajsky emerged from the air raid shelter he stood and stared at the broken glass that littered the arena. He shook his head but knew that they had been lucky. It had been the closest raid yet, but the Spanish Riding School had been spared heavy damage. The stallions, as traumatized as the grooms, were led back to their stalls while firemen tackled blazes in nearby streets and medics rushed the wounded to hospital. Podhajsky knew that this could not go on. It was his responsibility to preserve the world’s oldest riding school for Austria. But how?
Colonel Podhajsky had watched as the Nazi state had progressively interfered with the Spanish Riding School. The brood mares that provided the stallions for the school had already been taken from their special stud farm at Piber Castle in Upper Austria and transferred to German Army control. In 1942, these irreplaceable animals that carried, and with each foaling renewed, the bloodlines of the Lipizzaner had been sent to Hostau in Czechoslovakia, beyond Podhajsky’s influence. That left the stallions. But the Nazis, who had taken over Austria in 1938, had so far refused all his entreaties to have the precious animals evacuated to the country before the school was seriously hit. To the local Nazi leaders, evacuation of the Spanish Riding School, one of the preeminent symbols of Austria, would be defeatism.3 The citizens of Vienna had crowded the Winter Riding School for performances or to watch the morning exercises until May. It had provided them with some relief and diversion from the stresses of total war. But Alois Podhajsky would not stop until he had made the Nazis see sense. There was nothing that he could do about the grand buildings and stables, but it was the Lipizzaner stallions that were the heart of the school, its raison d’être. The school was alive and without the stallions the buildings were but museums to a finer and more refined age. The school had to be moved, the horses’ intensive training continued elsewhere and the legacy of half a millennium given a chance to live.
Podhajsky’s temporary solution to the danger of aerial bombing had been to house the sixty-five stallions in wooden stables at Lainzer Tiergarten, a 6,000-acre wooded wildlife preserve and former Imperial hunting ground in the southwest corner of Vienna. In this way there was no disturbance to their intricate training program. It wasn’t ideal, but the business of training the horses for the arena had to continue. Then the bombing intensified, and even the Lainzer was no longer safe, near misses landing close to the stables.
Colonel Podhajsky had continued to press the authorities for the orderly transfer of the stallions to the countryside. But he also began to make secret preparations to ensure that if the worst happened, the school could leave under its own power. Podhajsky was forced to take some of the stallions and put them in harness like common drays to pull wagons loaded with treasures and equipment. “They forgot the delicate dancing steps of the piaffe, the lively leaps of the capriole and the courbette, and the statuesque immobility of the levade,”4 wrote Podhajsky with sorrow. But he was determined that when the time arrived and the authorities finally caved in to his demands, the Spanish Riding School would not be helpless.
In December 1944, Podhajsky was thrown a lifeline. The castle of Anton, Count von Arco auf Valley, outside Linz in Upper Austria had been mooted as a possible refuge for the stallions and riders from Vienna. The count was a notorious fellow, having assassinated Kurt Eisner, the first premier of Bavaria in February 1919. Pardoned in 1927 and released from prison, the count was currently residing in a concentration camp, having been taken into “protective custody” by the Gestapo after remarking that he would be happy to assassinate again, which the Nazis interpreted as a threat to Hitler.5
His elegant wife, Countess Gabriele, showed Podhajsky over the castle, which was crammed to capacity with refugees from the east. Podhajsky was pleased to see that the stabling was more than adequate.
Though a home had been found for the stallions, the authorities were still loath to permit their evacuation, even as the Red Army bore down upon Vienna from the east. “The Spanish Riding School was a symbol for Vienna,” wrote a frustrated Podhajsky, “and it was feared that its departure would bring home to the already uneasy population the hopelessness of the situation.”6 But Podhajsky managed, through a series of clever ruses, to move out forty-five of the stallions by February 1945, leaving just fifteen in Vienna.7 And then, following a massive air raid, the high command finally caved in and issued the necessary evacuation orders authorizing the transfer of the Spanish Riding School to Arco Castle.
Though the army had given the order, the ultimate responsibility lay with the top Nazi in Vienna. Without his consent, the horses, staff and remaining treasures were going nowhere. Podhajsky would have to plead his case one more time.
Thirty-eight-year-old Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach was on the face of it an unlikely Nazi. His father, though a member of a noble German family, had been born an American citizen, the son of a major in the Union Army who had been part of the honor guard at President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. The major had married a member of the powerful Norris family of Philadelphia. Von Schirach’s mother was also American, and from another wealthy Philadelphia family, the Tillons. The Gauleiter of Vienna was therefore descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence, but had married the daughter of Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer, and had served as Hitler Youth leader before going to the front in France to fight as a junior army officer, where he was decorated for gallantry. Hitler had appointed von Schirach Gauleiter of Vienna in 1940 and he had faithfully carried out the Führer’s anti-Semitic policies, deporting 65,000 Viennese Jews to camps in the east, actions that he summed up as a “contribution to European culture.”8
Alois Podhajsky met von Schirach face to face on March 5, 1945 at his villa at Pötzleinsdorf. The director of the Spanish Riding School was ushered into von Schirach’s huge and ornate office. The most powerful man in Austria was seated behind a large antique desk and rose to greet the colonel, who saluted him formally. Von Schirach was of average height, with dark hair parted and slicked back from his face. Podhajsky was surprised to note that von Schirach was wearing an army uniform instead of the usual ornate brown and gold uniform of a high Party leader, seemingly to indicate his affinity with the troops and the precarious military position of Vienna as the Soviets closed on the city.
“Is everything under control with the Lipizzaners?” asked von Schirach, seating himself once again behind his desk after standing to greet Podhajsky.
“Herr Gauleiter, the situation demands the immediate evacuation of the horses,” said Podhajsky without preamble. “The constant air attacks and the nearness of the front have rendered the School’s position untenable.”
Von Schirach said nothing for some time; the only sounds in the room the loud ticking of a large carriage clock atop the fireplace’s mantel and the crackling of logs burning steadily beneath. The Gauleiter sighed.
“I must not lose my nerve and must consider what an adverse effect the removal of the Spanish Riding School must have on the people of Vienna,” said von Schirach, almost to himself. “They would take it as an indication of the hopeless position of the city and be still more despondent.” Von Schirach paused, inviting no reply from Podhajsky, who stood before the desk, his face a mask of frustration.
“But it is not just for these reasons, Colonel, for already in a day or two military measures can be brought in that will bring definite relief, so I ought not to upset even more the very sorely tried citizens.”9 Podhajsky had no idea to what “military measures” von Schirach referred, but he doubted whether the Gauleiter really believed such measures would make much difference at this stage of the war. Podhajsky pointed out to von Schirach that the Gauleiter himself had written to the army high command before the New Year complaining that it was madness to keep the horses at the Hofburg, and suggesting that they should remain at the Lainzer. Because of the constant air raids, even the Lainzer had become untenable. Therefore, the horses and staff must leave Vienna. Podhajsky could not understand, given von Schirach’s evident interest in the Spanish Riding School, why he wanted to continue to expose the horses to air raids.10 Another deathly silence fell between the two men. Von Schirach stood and walked over to one of the long windows that looked out on pleasant formal gardens that were white with snow, his hands clasped behind his back. Then he turned and looked sharply at Podhajsky.
“Looked at like that, you are right, but all the same it is not easy for me to agree to the evacuation, for I have always considered the Spanish Riding School to be Vienna, and with the departure of the Lipizzaners a piece of Vienna goes from us.” Podhajsky could see the conflict written across von Schirach’s face, but he could also see that the Gauleiter had come to a decision.
“But I love them too much to leave them in danger any longer. So go to Upper Austria!”11 Podhajsky was ecstatic—they would leave the following day. But though Podhajsky believed that he had saved the stallions, of the mares he had heard nothing for some time. As he hastened from von Schirach’s office back to the Hofburg, Podhajsky wondered again what had happened to the hundreds of brood mares that the army had transferred to Czechoslovakia, and which Podhajsky had spent years trying to protect. For if the Spanish Riding School were truly to survive the war, both of its parts must be saved and eventually reunited. As Podhajsky looked out of the window of his car as he was driven through the snow back towards Vienna, the warm glow of his victory over von Schirach had already cooled and the horrible feeling that events were beyond his control had begun to reassert itself as a heavy, panicky sensation that unsettled his stomach and made his head ache.
* Today in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“If it should be necessary for us to fight the Russians, the sooner we do it, the better.”
General George S. Patton
Oppenheim, Germany, March 24, 1945. General George Patton, a riding crop grasped in one gloved hand, strode purposefully across a pontoon bridge spanning a wide river, a retinue of staff officers jogging to keep up with the US Third Army commander. Military traffic passed slowly over the bridge, causing it to creak and groan under the weight of Sherman tanks, half-tracks, trucks and jeeps. Everything was headed in one direction—east.
Both banks of the river were deeply scarred from heavy shellfire and fighting, houses reduced to burnt-out smoking shells or collapsed into piles of rubble and timber. The GIs passing over the bridge on foot, their weapons slung over their shoulders, were surprised and excited to see “Old Blood and Guts” Patton in the flesh, helmet festooned with three stars, pearl-handled revolver at his waist and tan riding breeches tucked into high brown boots.
Halfway across, Patton suddenly stopped and went to the rail. He looked down at the fast-flowing brown water before unbuttoning his fly and urinating into the river.1 His shocked staff paused and then followed his lead. Grinning fiercely, Patton buttoned up and continued to the far bank, where he stooped and grabbed up two handfuls of mud. He announced in a loud voice: “Thus William the Conqueror!”2—a reference to the Duke of Normandy’s famous declaration to his followers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when he snatched up two handfuls of earth and shouted, “See, I have taken England with both hands!”
It was an important moment not just for Patton but for the entire Allied cause. Later in the afternoon Patton sent a message to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It consisted of one line: “Today, I pissed in the Rhine!”3
The Allies’ most aggressive commander and one of its best armies were into Germany, and there was little to stop them. In less than a month the Third Army cut a glorious swathe through central Germany. They took over 400,000 prisoners and seemed poised to charge on to Berlin. But then General Eisenhower ordered Patton to turn south. “Old Blood and Guts” was beside himself—what the hell was south that mattered more than the lair of the Nazi beast, Berlin? Eisenhower told him that the Nazis planned to make a final stand amid the lofty crags of the Alps. Allied forces would head south into Bavaria, Austria and the Czech borderlands to prevent this nightmare scenario from becoming a reality. The “Alpine Redoubt” must be destroyed.
Patton, promoted to a four-star general, protested but was powerless to change Eisenhower’s mind. Berlin would be left to the Soviet Union. Patton was appalled—he hated communism with a passion, and he felt personally robbed of a great victory. But he followed his orders. The mighty Third Army turned 90 degrees and headed south. Its 2nd Cavalry Group threw out its reconnaissance squadrons to protect Patton’s flank as he advanced, dipping into western Czechoslovakia to secure small towns and villages. The Germans continued to resist fiercely in some places, but were also casting nervous looks over their shoulders at the Eastern Front, which by now stood just outside the Czech capital Prague and the Danube River. The distance between the American and Soviet lines was narrowing with each passing day. If the German armies protecting northeast Czechoslovakia collapsed, the Soviets would have Prague as well as Berlin, and all of the country up to the American lines. General Patton didn’t much like this scenario for he secretly harbored another ambition—to piss in the River Danube as well as in the Rhine.
“Give me ten years and you won’t recognize Germany,” Adolf Hitler had declared shortly after he became chancellor in January 1933. This prophecy had come to fruition as far as 27-year-old Captain Ferdinand P. Sperl was concerned as he sat in the front passenger seat of a US Army jeep in Nuremberg.
The medieval city of Nuremberg, once one of the most famous historic centers in Europe, was now a smoking ruin, its once beautiful half-timbered Hansel and Gretel heart, the Old Town, reduced to piles of rubble, burnt wooden beams and the ghostly shells of buildings. As the spiritual home of Nazism, Nuremberg, infamous for its prewar torchlit rallies, had received special attention from British and American bombers and had been blown to pieces—all except the great Nazi Party rally grounds, which ironically survived perfectly intact. The city immortalized on celluloid in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will was now just a brown smudge on the map of Germany, 95 percent of its historic quarter gone, a story that had been repeated the length and breadth of the “Thousand Year Reich.”
Any further progress by Sperl’s jeep was impossible—the road ahead was covered with several feet of rubble and charred wood.
“We’ll never get through this lot,” said Sperl to his driver. “Let’s find another route.” The private driving the jeep executed a rough three-point turn in the street, tires crunching over broken glass, the following jeeps and trucks doing likewise, as the little convoy slowly worked its way north through Nuremberg, headed for the American front lines on the Czechoslovak frontier.
Although Captain Sperl wore the olive-drab uniform of the US Army, he wasn’t an American by birth but a “Ritchie Boy.” The US Army realized that it needed language specialists for service overseas, and who better than natives of the countries that the US Army would fight through? To this end, over 15,000 young men either volunteered or were drafted into the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and received intelligence and interrogation training at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Among them were over 2,000 German and Austrian Jews who had fled the Nazis.
Sperl was a typical Ritchie Boy. Born into a family of hoteliers in Berne, Switzerland in 1918, he had come to America in 1939 as an exchange student at Cornell University.4 He’d joined the army in 1941 and his language skills had led to his selection for intelligence work. Sperl had received further specialist training in England from the British Army’s Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC), the intelligence outfit concerned with gathering information from captured enemy personnel. Sperl had landed in Normandy in the summer of 1944 with Interrogation Prisoners of War (IPW) 10, the US Army’s version of the British unit. Each US division’s G-2 intelligence section included a Military Intelligence Interpreter Team, an IPW team and an Aerial Photo Intelligence Team.5
IPW 10 was on a special mission that had been sanctioned directly by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower. They had orders to move up to the Czech border where the 2nd Cavalry Group had established its headquarters. For several weeks now IPW 10 had been trailing American combat formations as they advanced steadily across southern Germany. Captain Sperl and his men, who were all German-speakers, were on the lookout for prisoners-of-war who might be candidates for detailed interrogation, but primarily they were interested in finding high-ranking Nazis in disguise. Reports had been circulating for some time that many senior Nazi officials and SS officers were passing themselves off as ordinary German soldiers in an effort to escape the Allied net that was rapidly closing around the remaining German-held areas. Particular targets were the SS who had commanded and operated the concentration camps, Abwehr and SD intelligence agents, Gestapo officers, SS field police, Nazi Party officials and German military field intelligence units, not to mention the big “personalities”—the men closest to Hitler. Secret documents and files were sought that might prove of use to the Allies after the war.
Whenever Sperl and his unit came upon an American outfit that had taken prisoners they would question any who looked like good prospects or who behaved suspiciously. Any prisoners that they were especially interested in were sent back to the Seventh Army Interrogation Center established in Augsburg in Bavaria for detailed and often aggressive questioning. It was a nightmare job considering the number of prisoners the Allies were taking—in the Third Army’s sector alone upwards of a thousand German servicemen a day were putting up their hands, providing many opportunities for the more unsavory Nazi leaders, functionaries and scientists to escape the Third Reich’s rapidly sinking ship.
Captain Sperl and his unit had headed northeast towards Nuremberg, stopping for gas at a GI depot along the way where they had learned some momentous news. The American and Soviet armies had met somewhere along the Elbe River, meaning that Germany was now cut in two. More scuttlebutt told that communist partisans near Lake Como had shot Benito Mussolini, the strutting Italian dictator, along with his mistress, and that the Red Army was on the outskirts of Berlin.6 To Sperl and his men, this news meant that the war couldn’t last but a few more weeks at the most.
What they saw of Nuremberg confirmed in their minds that Germany had truly lost the war. And it was not just Nuremberg. Practically every city and large town that Sperl’s unit had passed through had been heavily damaged by aerial attack, and almost every major bridge was down, either destroyed by Allied aircraft to stop the Germans escaping or demolished by the Germans to prevent the Allies from advancing. The roads between the devastated towns were filled with desperate refugees all trudging forlornly in one direction—west. Their only concern was to place as much distance between themselves and the brutal Red Army that was steamrollering in from the east and leaving a trail of human misery in its wake. But still the war went on. Sperl pointed his jeep in the direction of Czechoslovakia and started forward. Last reports were that the forward elements of 2nd Cavalry Group had been embroiled in a stiff fight for some town by the name of Asch.
A little American M-24 Chaffee tank crawled slowly down a narrow medieval street in the small town of Asch, just across the Czech border from American-occupied Bavaria. The tank’s tracks crunched over shards of broken glass from windows blown out by artillery fire, with the dismounted soldiers of a platoon of Troop C, 42nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Group hugging the house fronts behind. Wooden shutters had been torn off many of the windows and lay in the streets, or hung at crazy angles on the faces of the stone and wood buildings. Black smoke billowed here and there from doorways and windows while some roofs showed the evidence of artillery strikes, with tiles missing and the gnarled stumps of broken wooden roof beams visible. No civilians were to be seen on the streets—they huddled in terror in their basements as the roar of the armored vehicles made the houses vibrate. Here and there Nazi propaganda posters remained pasted to walls, exhorting the populace to heroic resistance against the hated invader.
- "A swashbuckling, bullets-flying retelling worthy of any lover of military history."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Da Capo Press