Switzerland in World War II: Is it still “neutrality” if you have to fight for it?

During the Second World War, Switzerland’s neutrality gave it a unique position as a peaceful haven from the catastrophic chaos that engulfed Europe. It survived as a proudly independent democracy despite having both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy surrounding its borders. In the popular imagination Switzerland has become the go-to safe destination for plucky heroes to escape to. Perhaps most famously Steve McQueen attempted to jump over a wire fence on a motorbike in the classic film The Great Escape in order to escape the Nazis. However the tranquil allure of an Alpine retreat is largely a fiction and Switzerland’s own military history and experiences during the conflict were both heroic and tragic.

Switzerland’s neutrality was by no means guaranteed. Hitler openly despised the Swiss for their democracy and felt they had betrayed their German connections. He drew up plans for the invasion of the country in what was known as “Operation Tannenbaum” and mockingly referred to Switzerland as, “a pimple on the face of Europe.”

Luckily for the Swiss the operation was never carried out but they anticipated the dark mood that was descending over the continent.

A Messerschmitt 109 in Swiss Air Force colours
A Messerschmitt 109 in Swiss Air Force colours

On 28 August 1939 the Swiss defence forces were mobilised. This was a full three days before Hitler invaded Poland. The mobilisation was highly efficient but it disguised deficiencies in Switzerland’s fighting capabilities, particularly in its air power. The Swiss Air Force had 86 fighter planes and 121 reconnaissance and ground support aircraft. That sounds quite substantial however only three of the 21 air force squadrons were considered fit for active service and five did not even have any aircraft. However the Swiss had been canny enough to buy Messerschmitt 109 fighters from the Germans before war broke out and manufactured their own Morane fighters.

After the first mobilisation in 1939, Switzerland followed the “Phoney War” that eerily saw little fighting in Europe. However a second mobilisation was issued after Germany launched its offensive against the Western Allies on 10 May 1940. From this time the violations of Swiss airspace multiplied. In June, before the aerial Battle of Britain commenced a miniature “Battle of Switzerland” was being fought in the Alpine skies.

German planes en route to France violated Swiss airspace resulting in several air battles. 11 German planes were shot down in aerial combat with the loss of only three Swiss aircraft and crews. These actions angered Hermann Goering who protested that most of the German planes had been in French airspace and had entered Switzerland by mistake. Germany demanded an apology and rather ironically declared the dogfights to be an act of aggression, threatening the Swiss with sanctions and retaliations if similar incidents occurred.

The Swiss government reacted by ordering their planes to stop engaging foreign aircraft and on 1 July 1940 the Federal Council apologised for “possible” border violations by Swiss pilots without actually admitting that any had occurred. The Germans were eventually placated and the Swiss did not engage any foreign aircraft until October 1943 when the strategic bombing of Bavaria and Austria by the Allies forced Switzerland into visibly reasserting its neutrality.

Schaffhausen was accidentally bombed by the USAAF in April 1944
Schaffhausen was accidentally bombed by the USAAF in April 1944

There were pressing reasons for this. Switzerland had increasing become the unintended victim of Allied bombing raids. There had been attacks as early as 1940 when the RAF accidentally bombed Basel and Zurich, inflicting minor damage. However the Swiss suffered the most at the hands of the US Air Force. The Americans first bombed Switzerland when the USAAF attacked Samedan on 1 October 1943. This was followed by the worst attack on Swiss soil when the Americans bombed Schaffhausen near the German border on 1 April 1944, killing more than 100 people and damaging a large part of the city. The Swiss Foreign Minister Marcel Pilet-Golaz concluded that the incident was, “apparently a deliberate attack.”

The Americans apologised but statements from USAAF commanders who blamed the weather and minimised the size and accuracy of the attack undermined their sincerity. An in-depth investigation eventually showed that the winds from France had doubled the ground speed of the US bombers, causing them to mistake Schaffhausen for the real target at Ludwigshafen am Rhein.

Unfortunately the American bombing of Switzerland increased for almost a year after Schaffhausen. In 1944 there additional attacks on Koblenz, Cornol, Niederweningen and Thayngen. In September of that year the last Swiss pilot died in combat when he was shot down by a US P-51 Mustang while escorting a crippled B-17 Flying Fortress to Dübendorf Airfield. The nadir came on 22 February 1945 when President Roosevelt’s special assistant Lauchlin Currie went to lay a wreath on the graves of those killed in the Schaffhausen bombing.

On that day there were 13 separate attacks on Swiss territory by the USAAF with locations including Stein am Rhein, Taegerwilen, Rafz and Vals. 29 tonnes of high explosives and 17 tonnes of incendiaries were dropped on Basel and Zurich. The resulting explosions and fire caused 21 fatalities, greatly angering the Swiss and seriously embarrassing the Americans.

Bomb damage in Stein am Rhein
Bomb damage in Stein am Rhein

The fallout of this diplomatic crisis was that the Swiss Air Force began to regularly intercept and sometimes attack small groups of Allied aircraft. Pilots who were flying damaged planes or were seeking asylum resented these actions. Misdirected attacks on Switzerland were often the result of bad weather, faulty equipment or incompetence. They were never officially sanctioned, although this was no comfort to the Swiss. However it is possible that the Allies wanted to punish Switzerland for their economic and industrial cooperation with Germany. The most obvious sore point was that the Swiss allowed trains through its territory that carried material between Germany and Italy, an action that was easily seen from Allied aeroplanes.

The accidental bombings only came to an end when the US Chief of Staff George Marshall met the Swiss in Geneva in March 1945 and agreed to fully pay them for the damage caused. By 1949 the USA had paid Switzerland 62 million Swiss francs in reparations. This was after the neutral country had had their airspace violated 6,501 times by aircraft on both sides.

However Switzerland was not a complete innocent in its wartime conduct. As well as the infamous “Nazi Gold” scandal, the Swiss handling of military prisoners was discreditable. Straflager Wauwilermoos was a notorious military prison located near Lucerne, which held internees from both sides of the war. It was surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed soldiers and guard dogs.

The interior of the notorious Wauwilermoos internment camp
The interior of the notorious Wauwilermoos internment camp

The commandant was a pro-Nazi sympathiser called Captain André Béguin. He was in command despite having been expelled from the Swiss Army in 1937 for fraud and assaulting policemen. He was known to wear a Nazi uniform and signed his correspondences with “Heil Hitler”. He was hardly the right man to run a neutral internment camp and it showed. The barracks were cold sheds and prisoners slept on wooden boards covered with straw. The latrines were slit trenches, the food was atrocious and there were vermin everywhere.

Béguin publicly berated Americans, held them in solitary confinement and denied them Red Cross parcels. Prisoners would emerge from Wauwilermoos malnourished and ill. Many Swiss citizens reported that conditions in the camp were paradoxically in violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention. Despite protests from Allied countries and Swiss army officers and journalists Béguin was not removed until 1945. Prisoners would emerge from Wauwilermoos malnourished and ill.

In 1946 Béguin was court-martialled, stripped of his civil rights and imprisoned for dishonouring the Swiss Army but the damage was done. Like most European countries during the war Switzerland, despite its neutrality, suffered and lost some of its humanity along the way.

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