The bombings suffered by Switzerland in World War II despite its neutrality

What trait did countries like Spain, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Ireland or Switzerland have in common during World War II? The fact of being neutral in the conflict, regardless of their political sympathies for one side or the other.

However, declared neutrality is not always enough to stay safe when strategic needs are imposed and some of those mentioned experienced it on their own soil, being invaded by Germany: Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway… Even Switzerland, generally considered the paradigm of that category, had to experience war episodes within its borders, both air and land.

Switzerland had adopted a position of official neutrality in 1815, although it had already been heading in that direction since the 17th century. Until this century, the thirteen cantons that had managed to separate from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499 and formed the Eidgenossenschaft o Old Confederacy were independent of each other; but its military strength, once a reference for European armies, had declined with the rise of the great national states of the continent.

In 1798 the Helvetic Confederation resulting from the Peace of Westphalia a century and a half before was occupied by the French revolutionary army, which imposed an artificial Helvetic Republic; so unpopular that there was a strong resistance movement throughout the region that would force Napoleon to grant extensive autonomy.

After the definitive fall of the Emperor in 1815, the Congress of Vienna restored to the Swiss their independence and some seized territories (the cantons of Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva) while all the powers recognized their desire to be considered neutral, as they had expressed. two years earlier in the aftermath of the French defeat at Leipzig. The origin of Swiss neutrality has already been dealt with specifically in an article.

Throughout the 19th century -and despite some ups and downs-, Switzerland began to emerge in the eyes of the world as a neutral country by autonomy, thus being accepted by all its neighbors to the point that various leading international organizations such as the Red Cross (1854), the International Telegraphic Union (1868) or the Universal Postal Union (1874). Geneva was also chosen for the conference from which the agreement for assistance to war wounded emerged.

In this way the 20th century arrived and with it the two great wars that marked it in its first half. True to its status, Switzerland remained neutral in the First World War, although not only did this not imply demilitarization, but its national army had to be deployed on the borders to guarantee that condition: a quarter of a million men were mobilized, a number that left progressively reducing over the following years as respect for the territorial integrity of the country was verified.

Swiss soldiers at a border post during World War I/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

This was not an obstacle to a temporary increase caused by a critical moment at the end of 1916, when rumors spread that France was preparing to attack Germany via Switzerland, something that ultimately did not happen. In any case, it is estimated that there were close to a thousand actions that, in one way or another, crossed the Swiss borders, especially in mountain passes and areas where the boundaries between various belligerents converged.

When peace arrived, Switzerland became a refuge for political exiles to the same extent that illustrious artists promoted some avant-garde movements from there and the most important cities were the scene of international espionage. Then political extremism began to worsen on the continent and the winds of war blew again. These were confirmed in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland and the consequent response from France and Britain.

Switzerland once again mobilized its people, gathering half a million soldiers and militiamen to secure its borders, fearing the possibility of being occupied by the Wehrmacht as well. In fact, the Germans had a plan in that sense, the Operation Tannenbaumbut it was never carried out because it was considered unnecessary (Switzerland was not a danger), apart from the fact that a good part of the Swiss were Germanophiles.

Switzerland, surrounded by the Axis powers/Image: ArmadniGeneral on Wikimedia Commons

However, as in the previous war, there were several incidents and clashes involving border violations. We must take into account the geostrategic location of the country at that time: a small island in the middle of the Alps surrounded by territory of the Axis powers (Austria, Italy, occupied France, Germany itself) to whose airspace no one was willing to enter. resign; a navigation error could always be adduced and, in any case, Swiss aviation was not exactly his strong point.

Thus, the Swiss airspace was desecrated again and again by the air forces of both sides. First, the Luftwaffe planes flew over Switzerland during the invasion of France, registering nearly two hundred cases of which eleven ended in demolition by the local Air Force; The irony was that Messerschmidt Bf-109s purchased from Germany, which filed a formal protest, were used for this.

Given Hitler’s threats, the Swiss changed tactics and forced intruding pilots to land at their airfields. Therefore, its soil was often used for forced or emergency landings, but not only by German aviators: hundreds of allied crews ended the war trapped between those mountains, something always preferable to being interned in a Teutonic concentration camp.

However, not all incidents were so clean. In 1940 the RAF attacked Geneva, Renens, Basel and Zurich before realizing their mistake. In the fall of 1943 it was the Americans who made a mistake and dropped their bombs on the town of Samedan, as would happen the following year in other places like Koblenz, Cornol, Niederweningen and Thayngen. There would also be actions in 1945 in Chiasso, Stein am Rhein, Taegerwilen, Vals, Rafz and Brusio, the latter on April 16, 1945, putting an end to those incidents that, luckily, caused no casualties.

Now, with this continuous repetition of mistakes, it was a matter of time before tragedy struck. He did it on April 1, 1944, when an American squadron bombed the city of Schaffhaussen in confusion, causing the death of forty people and destroying its manufacturing fabric; In March of the following year, the victims were Basel, where incendiary bombs fell, and Zurich, where five citizens died after being confused with Freiburg (a court martial presided over by the famous actor James Stewart, who was a captain, prosecuted and finally acquitted responsible crew).

In the US, some of its military thought that the Swiss deserved the bombings for sympathizing with the Nazis, although the government chose to apologize and compensate Switzerland with a flood of millions of dollars that it paid from 1944 to 1949. The Alpine country admitted the explanations but, at the same time, it was willing not to consent to any more, warning that in the future it would intervene against any plane that invaded its airspace without permission and would detain its crew.


Sources

The Swiss and the Nazis. How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Stephen Halbrook)/Target Switzerland. Swiss Armed Neutrality In World War II (Stephen Halbrook)/Britain, Switzerland, and the Second World War (Neville Wylie)/The Challenge of Neutrality. Diplomacy and the Defense of Switzerland (Georges Andre Chevallaz)/Between the Alps and a Hard Place. Switzerland in World War II and the Rewriting of History (Angelo M. Codevilla)/Wikipedia