The Swiss Army – Ready To Blow Their Country To Smithereens

We have been learning a bit more about the Swiss Army.  It’s more than just fancy knives.  We saw the Toblerone Line, Fortress Fürigen, and learned why Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland.  After World War II, the Swiss didn’t let up.  They continued with their network of secret fortresses and bunkers built into the mountains.

At one point, Switzerland had 15,000 hidden fortresses protecting roads, railways, and mountain passes.  We see evidence of them hidden everywhere.  On hikes, we regularly see doors in the sides of mountains, fake stonework, etc. in the middle of nowhere.  Knowing that they likely concealing something for the military, we stay well away.

Did you spot the camouflaged door?

Most forts were shut after the end of the Cold War.  This was the result of a change in strategy, not a lack of belief in the importance their objective (to remain independent and neutral).  Switzerland decided that if it was invaded, it would probably be for use as a supply line as it has virtually no natural resources.  It’s a sound premise, that’s how Hitler and Mussolini used it during WWII.

To counter this, The Swiss military has wired the country’s extensive infrastructure of roads and bridges to blow.  In fact, they have over 3000 points of demolition!  Its mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters, or blow up too.   In the side of mountains, airstrips are built in with camouflaged doors.  They let everyone know about their plan in the event of a foreign invasion.  It’s a pretty cost-effective deterrence strategy.

Although Swiss armed forces have a purely defensive role, military service is still compulsory (Women can volunteer for most units).  Heck, with a plan like that you need more than just a couple of people around who have practiced how to blow their country up.

O-Kayersberg

Kayersburg has experienced countless conflicts.  Kayersberg (in Alsace, France near Colmar) was badly damaged during the second world war.  Wandering through the streets today, you’d never suspect the previous damage and turmoil.  Like Eguisheim, it is one of the prettiest towns in France (Les Plus Beau Villages de la France).

Located on the famous wine route, this beautifully preserved village is packed with history and traditions.  Kaysersberg‘s half-timbered buildings, rivers (the Sambach and the Bogenbach) and wonderful flowers make it one of the prettiest towns in France.  It’s location in a valley surrounded by vineyards doesn’t hurt either.

We strolled through the streets.  After eating our 600th pretzel of the trip, he checked out the church Saint-Croix ( and the neighboring Chapelle Saint-Michel).  I walked around the exterior, admiring the architecture.  I saw a sign that said “Ossuarie” (ossuary in English, a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains) and was intrigued.   Although it was locked, you could clearly see inside.  For us, it was a foreign, unfamiliar sight.  Bones were piled meters high all around the  building.

The quote translates from German to “that’s it because the master is enslaving by his 1463.” The rest has been lost.

The ossuary was built in 1514.   The bones are from the old cemetery which was moved outside the town walls in 1511.  The full German inscription on the ossuary has been lost.   It is believed to say someone about the master resting next to the servant.

We climbed up to ruins of a medieval castle.  Our eyes were immediately drawn down to the town and the tower of its 12th century church.  The surrounding countryside and vineyards were stunning.

Like the rest of Alsace, Kayersberg has a Christmas Market.  Theirs is reputed to be one of the most traditional and authentically Alsatian.  In a setting like this, would you expect anything less?

Why Didn’t Hitler Invade Switzerland?

A comment on yesterday’s post got me thinking about this.  Hitler even had plans (Operation Tannenbaum) to invade Switzerland sitting in his desk drawer.   Why didn’t Hitler invade Switzerland?  Books could be written about this.  Heck, there probably already have been.  I did a bit of research and tried to grossly oversimplify things to post a bit about it here.

Switzerland impressively mobilized its army reserves and civilians.  They were well prepared, increasing food production, developing communication networks, etc.  More or less, they did everything they could to avoid an invasion.  In addition to the devastation wrought by war, the Swiss (who’d had a functioning democracy for over 500 years) were terrified of losing their independence.

The Swiss population was overwhelmingly opposed to Nazism.   They were, however, in a difficult position.  Switzerland is a country with no natural resources; it was surrounded by fascist powers, the Axis countries.

Switzerland tried to avoid antagonizing Germany by making it difficult for the Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland.  In 1938, they imposed a special visa requirement for “German non-Aryans” and expanding the visa requirement to all foreign nationals (including Jews fleeing from other countries) the next year.  They closed their border crossings and criminally prosecuted those who sheltered Jews hiding from Nazis.

With Hitler’s rise, the Swiss feared a German invasion and tweaked the National Redoubt (the Swiss national defense plan).  They installed defenses (like the Toblerone line) that were intended to slow down an invasion enough to allow it the military and government enough time to withdraw into the easier-to-defend alpine areas.  Switzerland built oodles of forts (most camouflaged like Fürigen)in the center of the country (we’re hoping to visit more of them).

Essentially, Switzerland was prepared to cede some terrain to Germany in hopes of retaining more easily defendable areas.  Sorry Geneva, you would have been left to the Nazis.   You might have still been able to take part in guerrilla campaign.  Hitler would have had to devote significant forces to conquering and holding the area (and experience huge losses).   Switzerland hoped to deter an invasion by demonstrating that an invasion would have a high cost.

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?  Germany was able to use Switzerland’s train lines to Italy during WWII. We’ve all heard about the sealed rail cars that passed unchecked through Switzerland from Italy to Germany.  The Swiss rigged every bridge through the mountains with a incendiary devices, destroying the valued Swiss supply lines.  Switzerland also made economic concessions to Germany.  They hoped Germany would do a cost benefit analysis and decide that it wasn’t worth it.

Switzerland conducted a delicate and escalating dance with Nazi Germany.  For example, Germany continually violated Swiss airspace.  Germany threatened the Swiss after they shot down 11 Luftwaffe planes (that were flying over Switzerland).  The Swiss army ordered this stop, they forced the planes to land at Swiss airfields instead.  Hitler (unsuccessfully) sent saboteurs to destroy the pesky airfields.  Relations on a personal level (with bankers) were a little less tense.

In the end, Switzerland may have just gotten lucky that Hitler got busy fighting a war on two fronts (eastern and western fronts).

Fun In The Alpine Fortress Of Fürigen

Last weekend, we went to Lucerne and visited the fortress of Fürigen.  We had been looking forward to visiting some of Switzerland’s formerly hidden fortresses that have been turned into museums.  Since we were near Lucerne, we finally got the chance.

Can you spot the entrance in this photo?

Festung Fürigen Museum zur Wehrgeschichte (aka Fort Fürigen) is  part of Swiss National Redoubt  defense plan (Schweizer Alpenfestung or Réduit Suisse) to respond to foreign invasion.  Developed in by neutral Switzerland the 1880’s, Germany’s invasion of its neighbors necessitated updates (Germany even developed an invasion plan for Switzerland).   Fort Fürigen was part of a series of fortifications around Lake Lucerne that were rushed to completion in 1941-2 to protect nearby roads and rail lines.

The entrance is intentionally well-camouflaged.  We had to double back and ask for directions to find it.  The nondescript entrance leads to a  200-meter (656 feet) tunnel system leads into the mountain.

A private telephone line connected the lake’s fortresses but they also used the radio to communicate with each other.

Entering the fort, you pass the radio station (located near the entrance to assure clear reception) and several sets of machine gun defenses.

The view down the corridor from the gunner’s nest.

Once past the heavy fortifications you see the workings of the fort.  They have the guns, a filter for radioactive material, air shafts, devices to monitor the air for poison gas, storage depot and more on display.

You can actually play around with this gun. He maneuvered it into a decent spot and dutifully posed for a photo when he wanted to play. Hence the hurry up and take the picture smile.

A close up of the gun’s targeting system

The largest problem with these gas masks was the limited range of motion allowed by their connection to the ceiling’s purified air hookup.

This infrared light replaced the old spotlight when the fort was retooled during the Cold War

While the infirmary resembled any 1940’s hospital movie set, the bunk house and dining area looked remarkably like many Swiss ski lodges.

Since they were storing munitions in the bunker, smoking was forbidden…in some areas.  It must have been like prison, where the talk of banning cigarettes leads to mutiny and so it was only limited in essential areas.  After all, the living quarters were gas-proof.

The Swiss had good reason to build defensive outposts like this one.  Hitler’s plans to invade Switzerland were uncovered post-World War II.  The Soviet Union’s also recommended invading the country.

One fortress down, only about 14,999 to go.

No smoking! If you went down the hall and through a door to the residential area, there are ashtrays hanging on walls. Go figure.

 

The Toblerone Line, One Sweet Barrier

During  World War II, Switzerland was surrounded by Axis powers (Germany, Austria, Italy and occupied France).  Switzerland worked to avoid an invasion.  Some of their means of doing so, like allowing use of their railroad system connecting Italy to Germany, were controversial.  Others, like the Toblerone Line, were less so. This post isn’t about bribing the enemy with Toblerone Swiss chocolate, (no matter how tasty).  The Toblerone line is 10 km (6 mile) series of fortifications that runs across the canton (like a state, but smaller) of VaudSwitzerland from Lac Leman to the top of the Jura mountains (between Bassins and Prangins).  The Swiss Army constructed it in the 1930’s to protect against invasion. The official name for these defences was the Promenthouse Line.  However, it resembles to Toblerone’s pyramidal chocolate pieces linked together at the base that it became known as the Toblerone Line. Having taken in civilian refugees and witnessed previous confrontations between France and Germany, Switzerland was justifiably concerned about the rise of the Third Reich and possible invasion during World War II.   The Swiss military began preparations and built a series of defenses.  They were concerned about an invasion, an occupation, being divided up after the war, and the general devastation of war.  They had good reason to be concerned.  Hitler actually drew up plans for invading Switzerland.

They are HUGE!

This defensive concrete line made of dragon’s teeth.  Weighing 16-tons each, they are enormous pyramid-shaped blocks of concrete.  They were driven into the ground and covered with earth.  These barriers were meant to stop tank invasions. These sorts of installations are known as tank traps because they present significant difficulties for tanks.  Tanks can overcome these barriers with  ammunition that reduces them to rubble.  As a result, they are more of an obstacle than an impregnable barrier. Although similar defensive installations could be found throughout Switzerland, for obvious reasons they are more common in near Switzerland’s borders.  The preservation of the Toblerone Line makes it one of the best-known installations.   Private individuals began working to preserve it.  They wanted to ensure future generations would know about Switzerland’s wartime defenses.  They got sponsors and worked with the defense department.  In 2006, it became part of Switzerland’s system of trails that crisscross the country.

We’re Surrounded!

map

We are surrounded by France, literally. The yellow spot at the bottom of the lake is the city of Geneva. The dark green area surrounding it is the Canton of Geneva (like a state). As you can see, it is wrapped in shamrock green. That shamrock green is France!

To us, that means it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to spend money in a cheaper currency, the Euro. In other eras, it’s meant something quite different.

We met our nice neighbor who has lived in our building since 1938.  When France was occupied by Nazi Germany during WWII, Geneva was virtually surrounded by it. Germany had drawn up plans to invade Switzerland, but never acted upon them. The RAF even bombed Geneva once on accident!

 

Museum Day With Mom

My mom came for a visit.  She is a huge fan of Monet and the Foundation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny has a huge Monet show.   All of the waterlilies posters in college turned me off of Monet, but I wanted to make my mom happy and drove us there.  I was really glad I went.  They had tons of paintings.   A lot of them were on loan from private Swiss collectors and are not usually publicly viewed.   Posters just don’t capture his talent with a brush.   His paintings are at a wholly differently level when you see the brushstrokes on the canvas.  Wow!  I wish I could have taken pictures for you.

The museum also had a small, but nice, permanent collection of artworks.*  I was really surprised and impressed by its car museum.  Being from the Detroit area, I have seen my fair share of car shows, museums and exhibits.  I was impressed because I have never seen so many pre-WWI vehicles all in one place (and all in immaculate condition).   I’m not a car person, but I found myself oohing and aahing over them.

The best part of the museum was its sculpture garden.  I love a sculpture garden so I might be a bit biased.**  For me, it is refreshing to be able to be outside while enjoying and interacting with art.   Plus, their sculpture garden incorporated Roman ruins.

Next, we headed over to the St. Bernard Museum.  Being dog people, we had to.  The real highlight of the museum is the dogs.***  You get to see them do all their adorable doggie things (including “hiking footballs”).  We were able to pet them and it made my day.   

When we finally dragged ourselves away from the furballs to check out the rest of the museum, we were pleasantly surprised.  We learned a lot (as a former professor, my mom loves learning) about the history of the region.  I was slightly more lowbrow, oohing and aahing over pictures of dogs, watching a movie on dog search/rescue in the Alps and checking out the St. Bernard movie posters.  Yes, they had posters from Beethoven, Beethoven’s 2nd and Beethoven’s 3rd.  They even had Stephen King’s Cujo.

On the way back to the car, we passed a Roman road (The Poenine Way) to that led to Rome.  I’m not sure if all roads really still do lead to Rome, but this one definitely did.  Sorry,  I couldn’t help myself.

*The have an exhibit with Roman artifacts (Martigny was a Roman town) and other temporary exhibits.

**It combines my love of art with my love of gardening.  A perfect combo.

***Wanting to see more dogs, we left the museum and went to Foundation Barry to try to see their dogs.  They didn’t open for the season until the following week.  If you are wanting to see the dogs and want a cheaper option, they are less than half the price.