Tuesday, November 15, 2011

General George Patton and Operation Cowboy

General George S. Patton had horses in and out of his life, literally. 

After graduation from West Point in 1909, his second assignment was with the 15th Calvary at Fort Meyer in Virginia. He raced horses there, competed in steeplechases and played polo. 

He participated in the first-ever modern pentathlon at the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm, finishing fifth overall.  In the equestrian cross-country phase he was one of several riders turning in a perfect performance.  He also made the team for the 1916 summer Olympics scheduled for Berlin, but the Games were canceled due to the War.

Before the outbreak of World War II, he rejoined the calvary and owned a dozen horses.  He played on the Army polo team and was an avid foxhunter. 

Patton's love for equines ended up serving all of us well.  On May 7, 1945, the day before Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended, General Patton and Robert Patterson, the Undersecretary of War drove to Schloss Arco in Austria to the Spanish Riding School. 

In March 1945, the Lipizzaners had been secretly evacuated from Vienna by the Riding School's Director, Col. Alois Podhajsky.  He was afraid that the stallions would be killed by air raids or captured by the Russians.  Podhajsky had enlisted the help of Walton Walker who had invited General Patton to see the famous horses.

At the end of the performance, Podhajsky rode a Lipizzaner stallion named Neapolitano over to Patton and saluted him.  Patton rose from his seat.  The horses became the wards of the U.S. Army from that point forward until they could be returned to their home in Vienna.  The stallions were safe.  What about the mares? 

What Podhajsky did not know was that Patton had already become involved with the famous Lipizzaner stallions.  Two years earlier in 1943, the Lipizzaners' breeding mares which were bred to supply the Spanish Riding School's stallions, were taken by the German High Command from their pastures in Austria.  Without these mares, the Riding School faced extinction (it had been in place for over 200 years).

Nine days earlier Patton had given his approval to one of his commanders to execute an operation to rescue from the German Army more than 1000 horses that included these famous mares.  Colonel Reed was able to find out that the horses had been moved to Hostau, Czechoslavakia.  Several hundreed Allied POWs were also there.  It was agreed that these horses should not fall into the hands of the approaching Russians who would have killed and eaten them. 

To make a long story much shorter, General Reed, a horse lover and Calvary officer acted very quickly and made arrangements with Patton to approve a military operation to rescue the horses and the prisoners. 

At dawn on May 12th, about 350 horses were herded in small groups with American vehicles positioned before and after them with a band of Polish, Czech, and Cossack horsemen as outriders along with some Americans.  They called it Operation Cowboy.  The operation was masterful.  The Americans had closed off all major intersections and they covered about 130 miles to Mannsbach safely.  The fastest group made the trek in two days. The slower groups, mostly mares and foals, took an extra day.  A total of 244 Lipizzaners had been returned to Austria and only two did not make it.  This story is much more complex and reads more like a spy novel than the truth, but we'll keep it short for now. 

Charles Reed was a superb horseman and was an instructor at the Calvary School and a member of the 1930-31 U.S. Army horse show team.  After retiring from the Army he purchased one of the offspring of one of the horses he helped rescue and rode her every day for nearly 30 years.

When Patton was badly injured in a car accident later in 1945, which would take his life, he posed one question to his doctor:  "What chance have I to ride a horse again?"

Patton's favorite horse was "Big Red". Big Red was the "riderless horse" in General Patton's funeral procession later that same year.  Patton is buried near Luxembourg.


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