East Prussian Horses

For my birthday last year, Liam got me a book, ‘The Flight Across the Ice – The Escape of the East Prussian Horses’ by Patricia Clough – a “little-known story of the Second World War – the bid to save the famous Trakehner horses”; just finished it and found it most interesting.

For someone who loves history, I’m embarrassed to find that my knowledge of East Prussia is sorely lacking.

Though, to be honest, there isn’t much out there … I guess it’s still a sensitive subject; for some, the memories of WW2 haven’t faded.

The book tells the story of the Trakehners and their owners in the winter of 1944 when the Red Army were massing on the border of East Prussia, ready to invade Germany and exact revenge for the horrors inflicted on the Russian people, by order of Hitler.

Two and a half million inhabitants were desperate to flee, but the Nazis said no: they must stay and fight to the last man. Trapped with their breeders and owners were some of the finest horses in the world, the Trakehners, bred carefully and lovingly over two centuries as mounts for Prussia’s formidable cavalry … Only when the tanks roared in and cannon smoke filled the sky were they able to leave, in large herds or harnessed to the wagons of their owners, fleeing desperately through the snow, the chaos and terror of war …

Horse breeding and rearing was the major industry of East Prussia with state and private studs dotting the countryside. Here, horses were not a status symbol but an essential part of daily life. Almost everyone rode or drove horses as few people owned cars. Even the farmers owned Trakehners, harnessing their mares to ploughs to work the land. And once a year, they would take their mares to be covered by a stallion and then sell the foal to supplement their income.

The oldest and most prestigious state stud farm in Germany, Trakehnen, frighteningly close to the border with Russia, was huge, probably the largest in Europe. It and its 16 outlying farms covered over 37 800 acres, and was home to about 1200 horses and the 3000 or so people who cared for them. Imagine the planning, time and effort needed to move all of them to safety. For months, Ernst Ehlert, Trakehnen’s director, and other stud farm owners pleaded to be allowed to move their horses, but each time the answer was no.

In the early hours of 16 October 1944, “a great roar rose in the east, a roar that swelled to deafening thunder. It was the opening barrage of the Red Army’s artillery … Shells fell all around, sending up clouds of dirt and debris. Horses panicked … the stud was thrown into chaos. Everyone in Trakehnen was waiting anxiously for the order to evacuate; none came. That night, Ehlert had all the horses from the various outlying farms and paddocks gathered together in large herds in preparation for the trek. It was not easy to move the horses around in the darkness, nervous as they were after the explosions and noise. Particularly terrified were the 20 small foals among them.  At 5am … 17 October, the phone rang … Trakehnen was to be completely cleared of people, horses, farm and domestic animals – and of its furniture, equipment and other contents. And, after having been forbidden for months to make any preparations, they were told that it must all happen within three hours.” – !!!

With all able-bodied men away fighting, Ehlert had to make do with what he had. Dividing horses into 10 herds of about 80 horses each, he assigned 3 men to each herd, one old groom and two young stable boys – one to lead, one to ride alongside and one to bring up the rear. He gave his men strict instructions to travel at a brisk trot without stopping until they reached their destination, Georgenburg, another state stud farm about 34 miles away.

As soon as they joined the main roads, however, “they met an endless flood of people fleeing their homes … mostly women, children and old people … soldiers retreating from the front, people on foot carrying heavy bundles … hay wagons … horses, sheep and cows.” Roadblocks, bombed bridges, detours and other obstacles lengthened their journey but they managed to reach Georgenburg that same evening, having only lost one horse. But this was only the first, and, as it turned out, easiest trial. And all the breeders, state and private, faced similar situations, including having to decide which horses to take with them and which to leave behind.

By January 1945, the Red Army had managed to surround the enemy and the breeders’ route to the west and safety was almost cut off. It was decided to brave the Frische Haff, a lagoon on the Baltic coast that was separated from the sea by a long, narrow strip of land called the Frische Nehrung; in winter, it froze over. By crossing the frozen lagoon, they could trek westwards and reach Danzig and the west. 

Martin Heling, the director of Georgensburg and his family travelled in an open hunting trap pulled by two black Trakehner stallions. It was 20degrees below zero with snow lashing their faces. Having coaxed the horses over the ice, they and other refugees found themselves being constantly forced off the road by military vehicles into the deep snow on either side of the road. After 12 arduous hours, they ran into a deep snowdrift and the trap got stuck. “The stallions, up to their bellies in snow and exhausted after the hard 46mile journey, were unable to pull it out. There was nothing left but to unharness the horses … and search for shelter … Heling spent the rest of the night in a freezing cold barn with his pistol drawn, protecting his two black Trakehner stallions from marauding soldiers.

Despite this, the ones who crossed early were lucky. A few days later a thaw set in and the ice began to melt, but about half a dozen routes across the Haff had been tested and marked. When a blizzard set in, reducing visibility, they simply “followed the line of corpses, humans and horses and wrecked vehicles, across the frozen waste … Some drivers had brought metal spikes with them that could be attached to the horses’ hooves to give them a better grip. But other horses, with their iron shoes, were constantly slipping, crashing onto the ice, picking themselves up again and falling again. Often horses and people were wading knee deep in icy water, unable to see where next to put their feet. The ice was cracking up and holes were everywhere … All the time they were flanked by … terrified refugees … with tiny children … inadequately clothed and shod for the bitter cold and snow.  After three days on the ice … they were dismayed to find that there was no food available anywhere for man or beast. The ravenous horses took to eating the thatch from the roofs of houses as they passed.

West Prussia – German land, including Berlin, to the west of the Polish Corridor – was long considered safe land by the East Prussians. But they had reckoned without Stalin’s determination to grab as much of Germany as possible and to reach Berlin before his western allies. The East Prussians who managed to reach the west found their journey to be far from over.

"The first trek in October had been relatively easy.  This time, it was a struggle for survival. They spent nights camping hidden in the frozen woods; in the morning the horses would be covered with hoar frost. By day Soviet planes roared low overhead, firing at the treks. And when they stumbled on American units advancing from the west they were scarcely safer … Finally they reached the Elbe … sure that once across, they would have little to fear. But they were too late; the border between the Soviet and western zones had already been drawn and sealed off. They were forbidden to cross.

In the areas occupied by the Americans, the horses appeared to remain safe with their owners. They were, however, loaned to farms and estates to work to earn their keep for the arrival of more and more people and their horses inevitably put a strain on the communities. But when those areas were handed over to the Russians, many of the horses were taken away or simply disappeared.

And yet some were helped by the allies – a senior British officer, Major Koenigstein, a horseman himself, arranged for numerous Trakehners to be brought to Mecklenburg. And when Mecklenburg was handed over to the Russians, he found temporary accommodation for the horses and their owners in Schleswig-Holstein. The British commanding officer in the area, Brigadier Bolton, another horseman, did his best to get permission to send the Trakehners to the west but was told that the horses were German state property and had to remain as reparations for the Russians. However, he managed to extract one concession from his superiors – the Ratzeburg district, bordering on Schleswig-Holstein, was to remain British, so a number of horses would remain under British control. Two sires and 27 brood mares went with the British troops to the Ratzeburg area, each horse with a note written on the back of its pedigree, stating “that the horse existed for the purpose of preserving the blood of the Trakehner Stud and must not be removed from its guardian”.

The Trakehners had journeyed over 600 miles, some over 900 miles, “pulling loads of up to 4000lbs through bitter cold, snow and ice, through the fires, the bombardments and the shooting. They had rarely had enough food or rest. Many had been pregnant and had lost their foals. It had probably been the greatest test of endurance ever demanded of horses and the Trakehners had shown, as never before or since, what their breeding was worth.

But it was only a small minority … that finally pulled in to the British and American zones of defeated Germany. Out of 56 000 registered Trakehners in East Prussia in 1944, less than 1000 reached the west. The rest had been killed, stolen, seized as reparations, lost, left behind or simply stayed with their owners in Russian-occupied territory … It was pitifully few, but … there were still enough to save the breed from extinction. In normal times, that is. But the times were anything but normal.

In a land already devastated by war, with millions of refugees … and food and housing desperately scarce, the East Prussians and their horses were extremely unwelcome. Local inhabitants, struggling with their own losses and suffering, did not want to know about, or simply did not believe, the far more terrible experiences of the East Prussians … many believed their problems were their own fault.

Local state studs, breeders … preferred their own heavier local breeds, such as the Hanoverians … there was a distinct resistance to the idea of buying, breeding or using Trakehners, or even helping them survive. 

In those dark days a saviour appeared … a jovial, generous Swede called Dr Arvid Aaby-Ericsson. He had long been a Trakehner fan and after the end of the war … sent oats and blankets for the horses … clothes and shoes for the penniless breeders and their families. He used his influence to have a number of Trakehner sires bought for the Swedish stud at Flyinge.”

Under the leadership of Martin Heling and others, Trakehner numbers slowly recovered. Much later they learned that the horses from Trakehnen that had been seized by the Red Army had survived. In 1945, about 1145 Trakehners had been shipped to the Soviet state stud farm in Kirov, for many years the only Trakehner stud in the Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, reading this heart-breaking story had me in tears more than once. But I did find it fascinating, learning, among other things, how the breed developed. The original horse of that area, the ‘Schweike’, was tough, strong and undemanding, rarely fell ill and was very cheap to keep. In the 18th century, King Friedrich Wilhelm I wanted a steady supply of riding and carriage horses. lso his huge army needed good horses, which were imported from abroad, which was costly and of those that did arrive, few survived. 

But it was only under Friedrich Wilhelm II were proper steps taken to breed a suitable horse locally. There was heavy investment in English horses for their height and large frames, and also in Arabs. So English and Arab blood, mixed with strong points of the’ Schweike’ were the building blocks of the breed, producing horses of remarkable strength and stamina. The temperatures in East Prussia ranged from about 30degrees centigrade in summer to -30 in winter, but Trakehners could live outside if necessary and never needed blankets.

In 1903, the Prussian government’s Master of Horse … went to England and bought the English thoroughbred, Perfectionist, the son of Persimmon, the stallion owned by King Edward VII, which in 1896 had won the Derby and the St Leger. Persimmon was the son of the legendary St Simon, a stallion so fast that he won all the races he ever entered without even extending himself … Perfectionist, who was dark brown, only stood for three years in Trakehnen before he had to be destroyed after breaking his pelvis in a tragic fall in his loose box.


Of the 131 foals that Perfectionist sired, his greatest son was Tempelhüter, also dark brown. In 1944, before the Russian invasion, the brightest star at Trakehnen was the dark brown Pythagoras, grandson of Tempelhüter and great-grandson of Perfectionist. 


Sadly, Pythagoras disappeared during the war and it was never known what became of him. But his son, Totilas, survived and became one of the most important sires in the rebuilding of the breed at Rantzau.


And guess who’s a direct descendent of Totilas? The amazingly gorgeous Moorlands Totilas!! That was a jaw-dropping moment for me when realisation hit! I shall be looking at that horse in a whole new light now.

Moorlands Totilas