Switzerland WWII – Military Deterrence

WWII Swiss M°18/40 Rifleman.


Physical map of Switzerland.

Prior to 1940 the Swiss military publicly relied on its well-advertised capacity to muster in arms over 10 percent of the population in well-prepared border positions, to defend its internationally guaranteed neutrality against all comers. But in reality, since the rise of nation-states the military safety of tiny Switzerland has depended on the willingness of a neighboring power to rush its army into Switzerland to help block another neighboring power from using Switzerland for its own ends. Thus in World War I the Swiss held off the Germans by the prospect that they would call in the French, and held off the French by the prospect that they would call in the Germans. When World War II began, the Swiss feared Germany exclusively. But they hoped that France, and even Italy, would know enough and be potent enough to help safeguard their own Swiss flanks. When France fell and Italy joined Germany, Switzerland was quite unexpectedly thrown back on its own military resources.

At most these military resources could make Germany’s price of conquest too heavy to pay. And that depended on the extent to which Switzerland could maximize the value of its three military assets: Alpine terrain, the Gotthard and Simplon tunnels, and the Swiss soldier’s historic bloody-mindedness. But exploiting Alpine terrain to the maximum essentially meant sacrificing half the country and more than two-thirds of the population. Holding hostage the tunnels and the country’s infrastructure meant destroying the Swiss people’s livelihood. Making the most of the Swiss soldier’s penchant to fight to the death meant firing up the population’s martial spirit, which many influential Swiss believed was already provoking Germany.

On various occasions Germany’s Wehrmacht estimated that defeating the Swiss army would take three to six days—about as long as it had taken to defeat the Belgian army—and require nine to twelve divisions, including four armored. The reason for this confidence was that the Swiss army had not changed since World War I. A modern force could easily negate its trenches and machine guns spread out along the northern plateau. But the German High Command added one qualification: The Swiss army must not be allowed to retreat in good order southward into the Alps. Once ensconced in the mountain valleys, the Swiss would be nearly impossible to dig out.

For its part, the Swiss army reached the same conclusions, which led it to withdraw the bulk of its forces from the northern plateau into the southern Alpine valleys. While the military logic of this national redoubt was self-evident, its political logic was much less so. After all, redeploying meant abandoning at least two-thirds of the population, including the families of the soldiers, to Nazi occupation. On the other hand, if the army remained deployed on the plateau it would be defeated anyway, and the whole country occupied. But while no Swiss wanted to leave the country’s major cities open to occupation, no German wanted to see the Swiss army holed up in the Alps, cutting off the vital Simplon and Gotthard tunnels to the Mediterranean and threatening guerrilla warfare. Thus the Swiss adopted a military strategy that threatened to accept grievous losses in order to deter the enemy. But of course most deterrence strategies aim to avoid being put to the ultimate test. Military deterrence is usually a shield for and an adjunct to other policies that mean to avoid war. This was the case in Switzerland.


The illusion that the Great War had ended wars faded more quickly in Switzerland than elsewhere. As we will see, Adolf Hitler was much less a mystery to the Swiss, especially to the German-speaking majority, than to other nations. Nor was the idea of rearmament as shocking to the Swiss as to other Europeans and to Americans. In addition, while other countries were cursed with bad leadership during the 1930s, the Swiss drew some unusually good cards, including Rudolf Minger, who became head of the Federal Military Department in 1930. In the first two years after Hitler came to power, Minger raised the defense budget from about 95 million francs to about 130 million. In 1935 he went beyond the budget process, directly to the public, proposing an issue of defense bonds worth 235 million francs and campaigning for direct purchase by the public. The Swiss people responded by buying 335 million francs’ worth of the bonds. By 1939 another 171 million was added. By referendum, the Swiss agreed to lengthen military retraining and to extend the age of military obligation for the lower ranks to sixty. So, on the eve of World War II, a nation of 4.2 million people stood ready to field an army of 440,000 men backed by a corps of 150,000 armed volunteers over sixty or under eighteen years of age, and another 600,000 civilian auxiliaries.

By the outbreak of war, new weapons were beginning to come into service. But, like most other armies that had not guessed the character of modern, mechanized warfare, the Swiss had not bought wisely. The Swiss, like most everyone else, envisaged a replay of World War I.

The combined air corps and anti-aircraft corps had bought fifty excellent German ME 109 air superiority fighters. But because the General Staff was blind to the use of aircraft to support ground operations, Switzerland had bought no bombers and no ground attack aircraft, like the Stuka. As for anti-aircraft artillery, the Swiss had four Vickers and four Schneider 75 mm guns, plus thirty-four modern Oerlikon 20 mm weapons. The mission of the combined air and anti-aircraft forces was to protect Swiss airspace and Swiss airfields, but if the ME 109s had tried to fight for air superiority, they would have been swept from the skies by sheer numbers. More likely, they would have been destroyed before ever leaving their undefended airfields. Forty-two AA guns were obviously insufficient for defending airfields or anything else.

Moreover, the ground forces were not equipped for modern warfare. Each battalion had only one infantry cannon that could be used against tanks, plus just two grenade launchers. Obviously, the idea of armored warfare had not crossed Swiss planners’ minds. The war for which they had planned would have consisted of shooting oncoming infantry from border trenches. To that end there were sixteen thousand machine guns, four hundred French 75-mm field guns, entirely horse-drawn, and only fifteen 120-mm guns. In addition, there were various small caliber mountain guns. The only motorization for the infantry came from commandeered civilian vehicles (a maximum of 15,000 taken away from the civilian economy) plus 50,000 horses taken away from agriculture. Pictures from that time show rows of machine guns hitched to a variety of taxicabs and family sedans, smartly lined up. The Swiss cavalry rode horses.

The strength of the army lay in its 440,000 men, organized in six infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, and a half-dozen brigades, and in the good, deep fortifications and trenches the Swiss had built along the borders. About one-fifth of the army would occupy these positions, while the rest would wait close behind the German and French borders ready to rush to wherever the attacker might be. The earthworks would absorb the enemy’s artillery fire, the defenders’ machine guns would take their toll, and the main army field divisions’ counterattacks, including those by the horse cavalry, would keep the enemy out of the country—until help could arrive.

The first news of the German campaign in Poland showed all this to be a pipe dream. The German armored spearheads had sliced through the kind of army that Switzerland had. The intellectual process by which the Swiss adapted to their new circumstances is of more than historical interest.

On August 30, 1939, the Swiss parliament activated the wartime post of “general” and entrusted it to Henri Guisan. The new general instantly complained that there was no plan for operations. But no strictly operational plan could fit the Swiss army for the circumstances in which events were plunging it. Guisan’s first response was to pull the army back from the strictly artificial border fortifications to ones resting on terrain features.

Contrary to the belief of those who do not look at maps, Switzerland has only its back to the Alps. The roof of Europe shields Switzerland only from the south and the east—that is, from Italy and substantially from Austria as well. From the west—that is, from France—Switzerland is moderately accessible through the Rhône valley and across the hills of the Jura. But the north and northeast of Switzerland, bordering on Germany, are open, rolling plateaus crossed by gentle rivers and lakes. Three-fourths of the Swiss people are located in these accessible regions, as well as the preponderance of their industry and agriculture. This non-Alpine Swiss terrain is better for defensive tactics than northern France—but it is also pretty good tank country. By contrast, the steep valleys of the Alps are natural fortresses. Of course, only one-fourth of the Swiss people live there. In sum, Switzerland’s terrain can be useful for defense, but only to the extent that the defenders can exploit it under any given technological conditions and against a given kind of opponent.

A glance at the map of Switzerland shows that a nearly straight line of rivers and lakes roughly parallels the northern border, from the Rhine at Sargans in the east, following the Wallensee, Linth, Zurich Lake, and Limmat almost to the Gempen plateau above the Rhine near Basel in the northwest. Guisan ordered most of the army to pull back behind these waters and dig in, while keeping the border troops in place. But this new plan left some 20 percent of the country open to occupation, including Basel and Schaffhausen, and put the biggest city, Zurich, right on the front line. It also meant that the costly border positions would henceforth be useful only to slow the enemy a bit.

The general’s arrangements for help from France would turn out worse. Conventional wisdom had it that the only strategic choice facing Swiss military commanders was whether to deploy the preponderance of forces in the north (against Germany) or in the west (against France). Like most of his countrymen, Guisan never had any doubt that the threat came from Germany. But the country’s formal neutrality, as well as the presence of high-ranking officers who would have been happier if the threat had come from the other direction, obliged Guisan to act formally as if he were dispassionate about his basic strategic choice. Hence he had to plan with the French in secrecy. Guisan was personally acquainted with top French officers such as Gamelin, Georges, and De Lattre, with whom he had toured the Maginot Line. As go-betweens he used Major Samuel Gonard, who had studied at the Ecole de Guerre in Paris and who traveled there often as a civilian lawyer, as well as Major Samuel Barbey, a novelist who also had good connections in the French army.

The result was an informal but nevertheless written agreement by which the French army would provide artillery fire support to the northwest end of the Swiss army position on the Gempen plateau, and move its own troops there directly to back up the Swiss. The Swiss actually improved roads leading onto the plateau and built revetments for heavy artillery for the French army’s eventual use, effectively linking the Maginot Line to the Swiss fortifications. In addition, elements of the French 7th (later the 45th) Army corps would cross the border near Geneva and move northeast. For the sake of symmetry in case of discovery, Guisan began secret exploratory talks with Germany through Major Hans Berly, who had good contacts in the Wehrmacht. But these never resulted in concrete plans.

Joint planning with France turned out to be a source of trouble rather than help because France itself fell quickly to the German onslaught, and the records of the Swiss negotiations fell into German hands—among a carload of government documents abandoned by the French and recovered by the Germans at Charité Sur Loire on June 16, 1940. The Swiss worried that Germany would use their breach as a legal reason for disregarding their neutrality. But they need not have worried. If Germany had wanted to invade, a jury-rigged pretext such as the staged border incident with Poland in August 1939 would have been enough. More worrisome was Switzerland’s basic military predicament.

By April 1940 the fall of Norway and Denmark showed that German armies could move just as efficiently across water and against Western armies as they had against Poland. No sooner had Germany’s attack on France begun on May 10, 1940, than the mismatch between the German and Swiss armies became glaring. In Belgium, en route to France, the Germans opened the way for their mobile forces with parachute troops and saboteurs. German paratroopers could drop onto Swiss fortresses bereft of air cover or air defense as easily as they had on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, mistakenly assumed impregnable. Coordinated ground attacks would then overwhelm them. Could the Germans punch through the new Swiss army position on the Sargans-based line? Without antitank weapons, Swiss infantry positions couldn’t prevent breaches. And if Swiss troops behaved like other armies, they would panic once the formidable German columns came near. In fact, as France was falling, tens of thousands of Swiss civilians piled mattresses atop their cars and headed for the mountains, pro-Nazi groups were strutting, and no prominent politician could be found to rally the country. In sum, no army can fight without means or hope.

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