The revealing story of Switzerland’s military operations to defend its airspace from Axis and Allied aircraft during World War Two
Blotted with deathly-black balkenkreuz wing insignia denoting them as war machines of the German Luftwaffe, droves of bulky Bf-110 twin-engined Messerschmitt fighters, far above the tree-topped mountains and valleys of the Jura Canton, droned menacingly in circles. A flock of more nimble craft whizzed in to engage them; Bf-109E Messerschmitts, except these Bf-109s were emblazoned with an insignia seldom depicted in the annals of modern warfare, another cross painted the white of peace yet over the red of warning; these were Swiss fighters defending their homeland. The blaze of tracer round quickly filled the sky as German hardware was pitted against each other.
As is well known, the Swiss stayed out of the Second World War. So, what was its airforce doing getting into dogfights with the Nazis, and even later the Allies? This is the little known story of Switzerland’s fight to defend its territory during ‘The War’.
To Have Peace, One Must Prepare for War
Since the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1815, Switzerland, that diminutive nation bristling with jagged mountain peaks to deter potential enemies, has stood as a salient of peace when war has raged all around. In 1939, hostilities in Europe recommenced as the German Reich set forth once more in its recurrent quest to assert hegemony over its neighbours.
The unbridled military success of the Nazi Third Reich in the early stages of WW2 is well-told of course; nation after nation crumbled under the might of their hammer blows. Hitler and his generals felt that their southern neighbour could maintain their time-honoured neutrality, however, and the Swiss were more than happy to stay out of the epic clash of arms raging around them.
The dynamic between the two states was a wary one. On one hand, there was an ideological incentive to absorb the Swiss into the burgeoning Nazi empire as it included German speaking people who Hitler described as “a misbegotten branch of our Volk.” Yet Switzerland’s position was optimally balanced; it was sufficiently tough to be conquerable only with some difficulty whilst having insufficient natural resources to make it tempting to try. Also, Switzerland was a valuable wartime trading partner of the Third Reich’s, buying up its plundered gold to fuel the Nazi war-engine.
Switzerland perceived its position akin to that of a hedgehog known to a voracious but well-fed wolf. Its strategic aim was straightforward enough; stay off the German military’s radar whilst maintaining cordial enough relations to keep the supply of natural resources flowing for which it was heavily reliant. For its military, this meant ensuring that it wouldn’t be easy prey if ever the wolf came sniffing around. No matter how passive any country’s army may be, its most fundamental mission is to maintain its territorial integrity, and this the Swiss vigorously carried out for the next six years of war.
Along with all the major European powers, Switzerland established its airforce during WW1. As the storm clouds gathered again in the 1930s the Swiss saw it prudent to develop an effective air-defence force of modern combat planes plus anti air flak units. To that end, modern Morane-Saulnier D‐3800 fighters were procured (a French aircraft built under licence in Switzerland). The latest Messerschmitt Bf-109E was also acquired – an embarrassing sale by the fledgling Nazi Germany in view of later events. By early 1940, the Swiss Luftwaffe was almost 200 aircraft strong including 60-odd Bf-109s and over 30 of the less mechanically sound D-3800s. This against the 3000 aircraft of the German Luftwaffe, it would be David vs Goliath.
The trouble between the two states began with the Battle of France from early May, 1940 and reached boiling point before tensions cooled with the onset of the Battle of Britain three months later. With the German Luftwaffe swarming over France, it no doubt felt to them that Europe was its playpen with little concern for what the Helvetic Cantons to their south might think of their military largesse. German incursions began to occur frequently and 197 Luftwaffe sorties violated Swiss airspace subsequently.
Luftwaffe Vs Luftwaffe
Yet Swiss fighter squadrons zealously defended their airspace. Between the 10th of May 1940 and 17th of June the Swiss shot down 11 German aircraft while suffering the loss of three of their own aircraft in several skirmishes. Intercepting foreign aircraft was initially a real struggle due to their rudimentary command and control assets exposed early on when, for instance, a light bomber crossed into the western Jura sector and almost made it 400 miles (640 km) out at the other side at the eastern sector before being shot down, crashing into Austrian territory.
By June the 1st, Belgium had fallen and the British had scurried back across the ‘moat’ of the Channel to the security of ‘fortress Great Britain’. As the Germans manoeuvred to deliver the coup de grace to France, it brought them closer to Switzerland and in an attempt to test the fortitude and capacity of the Helvetic defences Hitler and Goring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, ratcheted up the pressure.
As the tally of German planes shot down over Switzerland grew, an aggravated Goring decided to bait the Swiss into a showdown. On June the 4th, dozens of fighters and bombers were sent to fly just on the French side of the border to flit in and out of Swiss airspace with the aim of drawing Swiss fighters into engaging them over France. This would give Goring a propaganda instrument against the Swiss as they could be smeared as aggressors. Three German squadrons crossed the border looking for trouble yet none was encountered. In the afternoon, however, almost 30 Bf-110s plus a single bomber took up position just north of a border town in the Neuchatel Canton to goad the Swiss into action. Eight Messerschmitts and Moranes accompanied by an observation plane attacked the Germans, destroying two of them for the loss of one in return. Now, Goring had what he wanted. He angrily proclaimed a ‘violation of international law by Swiss fighter planes’ aggressively attacking German aircraft over France.
The Swiss were teetering on the edge of war as the Krauts turned the screws further. On June the 8th, there were no less than 133 violations into Swiss airspace, mainly over the Porrentruy and Schaffhausen territorial salients that jut into France and Germany respectively. Before noon an unarmed Swiss recce plane was caught unawares and its two aircrew were fatally wounded before the plane crash-landed. That afternoon, the Germans charged over the border with three squadrons of 28 to 32 Bf-110s looking for a fight. They employed the ‘vineyard’ tactic whereby each squadron took up a defensive carousel formation but each at altitude intervals of 2000m. The Swiss rose to the challenge. 10-15 Bf-109s led by no less than three squadron leaders were let loose on the trespassers. As they roared in, fierce and frantic fighting erupted. The Germans had prepared their trap well yet their adversaries, well outnumbered but fighting with their backs against the wall, were drilled to fly their more nimble 109s against the larger, lumbering 110s so as not to be overwhelmed by the swarm of Germans. They held their own. By the fight’s end the Swiss had lost a Bf-109 but downed three German fighters, including one caught by Swiss anti-aircraft flak.
The diplomatic situation was now on a knife edge. Swiss diplomats were struggling to mollify the increasingly incandescent Third Reich leadership. It must be remembered how heavily the Swiss depended on their northern neighbour for material imports. By July the 1st, the Swiss were sent a diplomatic note informing them it would be the last one they would receive in protest over their attacks on German aircraft ‘over French airspace’ and in future ‘other means’ would be used to protect themselves.
Indeed, since June the 8th, Hitler was beginning to eye the Swiss more predatorily. Now at the height of his pride and vanity, the humiliation wrought by the swashbuckling Swiss pilots was enough to make the dictator consider it might we worth dealing with the pesky southerners once and for all. He was especially riled that German military hardware was being used to shoot down the Third Reich’s own planes. Hitler ordered his generals to draw up an invasion plan titled Operation Tannenbaum but, of course, this would never be carried out.
As a result of political pressure from within as much as from without, the Swiss military command buckled. General Guisen, the Swiss Commander-in Chief, ordered his squadrons to stand down. Their border patrols were halted and they were ordered to hold fire in all but self-defence. To further appease the Germans, the Swiss returned all interned planes and pilots – a clear violation of the Geneva Convention that stipulated neutral nations must intern military personnel and hardware of either belligerent’s until the war’s end.
But these diplomatic efforts were prudent. By mid July, Britain’s battle for survival began and as fighting intensified over England, Swiss Germanic relations were put on ice. Hitler, now placated, withdrew his Messerschmitts from the border.
As the war raged on, Switzerland showed little bias to either the Axis or Allies whenever their air units violated its borders. British bomber incursions began in 1940, using Swiss airspace as a safe route to reach the Fatherland, and were high level night-time missions that the Swiss lacked the means to intercept. Allied bomber incursions then dwindled for a few years because the Swiss turned out their lights to make navigation through their airspace too difficult, but by 1943, their numbers surged once the RAF was augmented by the mighty USAF with its vast numbers of heavy bombers. Allied incursions occured either deliberately, due to errors of navigation or when stricken aircraft desperate to land chose to be interred by Swiss authorities over being captured as prisoners of war.
By this point, numbers of Swiss anti-air flak units had increased and more combat aircraft had been acquired. But more capable Allied aircraft operating in much larger formations than whatever the Third Reich employed made defending Swiss airspace even more daunting, yet the Swiss continued to guard their airspace, though much more passively given the Allies’ vast numbers and strength. The first Allied aircraft to be shot down were two RAF bombers flying low over Swiss territory in July 1943, caught by Swiss anti-aircraft fire. Later in October, an American bomber was shot down and only three of its crew survived. More than 100 B-17s and B-24s bombers in total were either shot down or, more commonly, forced to land – over a thousand allied aircrew interned for the duration of the war. Another source states six Allied aircraft were shot down by Swiss Air Force fighters and four by anti-aircraft cannons, killing 36 Allied airmen. One notable incident was when American P-51 Mustangs escorting a damaged B-17 bomber crossed into Swiss airspace and were confronted by Swiss Bf-109s. Whether the 109s actually attacked the Americans is not known but the P-51 pilots, perhaps unsure of their nationality, perhaps not, attacked the Swiss aircraft, shooting down one and damaging the other.
Much more gravely for the Swiss, the Allies bombed Switzerland repeatedly. The most serious incident to occur was when 50 B-24 Liberators misidentified Schaffhausen as their German target that was actually 146 miles (235 km) to the north. They dropped sixty tons of bombs on the town. Although an air raid alarm sounded, it had been set off so many times prior without any attack that complacency had set in and the locals failed to take cover. A total of 40 people were killed and about 270 injured. Other cities hit during the war included Geneva, Basel, Zurich and the historic town of Stein am Rhein. Officially speaking, these were all tragic accidents and that Swiss diplomats complained loudly over and received grovelling apologies from the Allied high command in response. Alternative narratives suggest that at least some of these bombings were quite deliberate in order to punish the Swiss for attacking Allied aircraft and to send a warning to halt their economic and industrial co-operation with the Axis powers. It was known, for example, that Switzerland were allowing trains to transport war matériel between Germany and Italy.
Allies bombed Swiss towns on a total of 70 occasions, killing 84 civilians. In the end, the Americans paid the Swiss over $18 million in compensation for these ‘accidents’.
So, the war was not a peaceful period for the Swiss even if they were ‘at peace’. They demonstrated to the world that their placid stance to war was not one borne of meekness. Perhaps one day they will have to show their resolve to protect themselves again.
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