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Halbrook, Stephen P. Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World
War II. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998
Preface; Prologue; maps; photos; Epilogue; Chapter Notes; Bibliography; Index.
Stephen Halbrook's new book sets out to explore "...Switzerland's political
and military efforts to defend her independence during the period 1939-45."
To set the stage for that period, in his Prologue Halbrook traces the history of Switzerland from the
ancient Helvetii tribe through the "Companions of the Oath" of 1291 to
armed readiness during World War I.
That "armed readiness" -- Switzerland's willingness to remain prepared,
whatever the cost, to defend itself from any threat to its independence,
neutrality, and way of life -- is at the heart of the book. Halbrook discusses
repeatedly and at great length the valor of Switzerland's citizen-soldiers,
their high state of training, and their readiness at a moment's notice to
grab their weapons -- stored at home in kitchens and bedrooms -- and
mobilize in defense of their farms and families. While certainly central to
the story of Switzerland in the Second World War, this emphasis at times
makes Target Switzerland read like a sales brochure for the
Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
From 1933 onward, with the assumption of power in Germany by Adolf Hitler,
the Swiss found themselves subjected to propaganda, international
journalistic revelations of "Nazi plans for invasion", and other assorted
war scares. Halbrook quotes newspaper headlines and press reports to
demonstrate how such alarms served only to drive the Swiss to greater
resolve -- and military appropriations -- to defend their cantons. In
addition to increased defense spending, the duration of military training
for recruits was lengthened, new fortifications were constructed, and
nationwide air raid drills were instituted.
In 1936, Wilhelm Gustloff, head of the Nazi Party in Switzerland, was
murdered. (Gustloff's name was given to a German liner, later sunk in the Baltic Sea in 1945 by a Soviet submarine with the loss of as many as 7000 passengers.) Berlin denounced
Switzerland as "incapable of maintaining political order within her
boundaries." Relations between the two states continued to deteriorate.
Colonel Henri Guisan enters Halbrook's book in 1938 as a Swiss corps
commander and one of the very few full-time professional soldiers in the
country. His foresight and staunch belief in Swiss armed neutrality -- with
the emphasis on "armed" -- make him the central character of the book and,
in many ways, the savior of his country.
In March 1939 reserves were called up to guard the German border. Extra
military training was mandated and Swiss citizens were instructed to
stockpile food. On the eve of war, Switzerland's armed forces could
mobilize 10% of the population, a figure that would rise during the war. At
the end of August, with units undergoing annual training, the government
ordered another 100,000 troops mobilized. On the 30th, Colonel Guisan was
appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Swiss Army and promoted to the wartime
rank of general.
On 1 September 1939, as German armies blitzed into Poland, Switzerland
declared full mobilization and its entire force of 435,000 citizen-soldiers
reported for duty. On the 22nd, still mobilized and alert, Swiss
anti-aircraft guns fired on German and French aircraft which strayed
across the border. On 4 October, General Guisan issued orders that all
soldiers were required to "continue resistance up to the last cartridge,
even if they find themselves completely alone." Halbrook also quotes the
government's no-surrender order:
If by radio, leaflets or other media any information is
transmitted doubting the will of the Federal Council or of the Army High
Command to resist an attack, this information must be regarded as lies of
enemy propaganda. Our country will resist aggression with all means in its
power to the bitter end.
Guisan was also authorized to call men and units to service without first
receiving government approval. By the end of 1939, 600,000 men were under
On 10 May 1940 Germany invaded France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The
Luftwaffe overflew Switzerland, drew AA fire, and bombed a Swiss rail line.
A Swiss Me 109, one of 50 purchased from Germany before the war, shot down
a Luftwaffe He 111. Swiss defenses, which had been relaxed slightly over
the winter, immediately returned to full mobilization. More than 700,000
soldiers, 20% of the population, prepared to defend the nation.
General Guisan issued another order, published in the press.
Everywhere, where the order is to hold, it is the duty of
conscience of each fighter, even if he depends on himself alone, to fight
at his assigned position. The riflemen, if overtaken or surrounded, fight
in their position until no more ammunition exists. The cold steel is
next.... The machine-gunners, the cannoneers of heavy weapons, the
artillerymen, if in the bunker or on the field, do not abandon or destroy
their weapons, or allow the enemy to seize them. Then the crews fight
further like riflemen. As long as a man has another cartridge or hand
weapon to use, he does not yield.
Invasion was once more believed to be imminent, but combat was restricted
to aerial dogfights over Swiss territory with intruding Luftwaffe aircraft.
By the end of the campaign in France, eleven Luftwaffe planes had been
downed at the cost of three Swiss machines. According to Halbrook, Berlin
demanded return of the Messerschmitts purchased by Switzerland before the
war. British bombing, notoriously inaccurate at this stage of the campaign,
killed five and injured fifty on 12 June.
On 25 July 1940, General Guisan gathered 600 of his highest ranking
officers at Rutli Meadow -- by legend, site of the birth of the Swiss
Confederation -- on the shores of Lake Lucerne. There he impressed upon the
leaders of his army that they must gird themselves for a long period of
struggle and uncertainty, that they must expect to fight to the bitter end
to preserve their way of life, and they must imbue their fighting men with
the same spirit. Switzerland would never surrender. This dramatic occasion
is generally cited as the emotional turning point of the war for
After the fall of France, the Wehrmacht drew up a series of contingency
plans for invading Switzerland. General Guisan, now that his forces could
be attacked from any and all directions, revised his defensive plans. In
the event of invasion, his army would fight a delaying action with light
forces along the border while his main body withdrew into a well-prepared
and well-stocked redoubt in the Alps from which it could deny Axis use of
the vital St Gotthard and Simplon rail tunnels and resist for an extended
period of time. Such a scheme would have abandoned much territory and population, but would have made a German invasion relatively
expensive; in any event, Hitler had other plans in the East for his armies.
In November 1940 Bomber Command formations violated Swiss airspace and drew
AA fire en route to targets in Italy. In February 1941 the RAF accidentally
bombed Basel and Zurich, killing fifteen people.
At the end of 1942, unoccupied Vichy France was seized by German divisions
and Switzerland's last route for direct contact with the outside world was
lost. For the next two years, the neutral state was entirely surrounded by
As Allied strategic bombing of Germany intensified, more and more American
bombers strayed over Switzerland. On 18 March 1944, sixteen crash-landed.
On 1 April, 39 civilians were killed when a raid mistakenly hit
Schaffhausen. On the 13th, thirteen US bombers overflew Switzerland; twelve
were forced to land by Swiss fighters while the other, refusing to obey,
was shot down. On 22 February 1945, American bombers accidentally hit
Switzerland yet again and killed sixteen people. More deaths and damage
resulted from raids on 4 and 11 March at Basel and Zurich. During the war,
166 American aircraft crashed or landed in Switzerland and 1700 American
flyers were interned there.
On 25 August 1944, spearheads of American forces advancing from their
landing beaches in the south of France reached the Swiss border near Geneva
to re-establish a non-Axis frontier. Afterwards, more than 9000 Allied
troops who had escaped into Switzerland during the course of the war --
most from Axis POW camps -- were released since they were classified as
refugees. Interned Allied airmen were finally released in February 1945.
With a line of communication to the Allies reopened, Switzerland began to
reduce commerce with Germany and allow additional refugees into the
country, but continued to permit non-military freight shipments by rail
from Germany through its tunnels into northern Italy.
This soon became a moot point. In April the French First Army crossed the Rhine in Germany and began clearing the northern border of Switzerland. In the first days of May, Allied spearheads in Italy crossed the Po River and reached the southern Swiss border. The war was over, and Switzerland's independence and neutrality -- backed by armed readiness -- had survived.
His book is a military history, so Halbrook understandably devotes little
attention to issues such as Axis rail traffic through Switzerland;
espionage and intelligence operations on Swiss soil; economics and
commerce; refugees; and Swiss wartime banking practices (which have
received considerable scrutiny in other recent works).
On the other hand, for a military history, there is a bare minimum of
order-of-battle information (Halbrook mentions three corps with nine
divisions and some independent mountain brigades, but identifies a single division); nothing but the most vague generalities on unit dispositions; no
tables of organization and equipment; nothing on tactical doctrine save
a repeated emphasis on Swiss prowess at sharpshooting; and no hard
data on numbers, locations, or specifications of fortifications.
Target Switzerland thus proves to be limited both in breadth and
depth, making it unfortunately a rather superficial overview. Although
offered as "...Switzerland's political and military efforts to defend her
independence", it usually sounds as if Halbrook is writing about armed
forces for the general public, and in that sense his book can be very
frustrating for anyone seeking a serious work of military history.
Still, there's not much out there in English on Swiss military
forces and planning during World War II, so Halbrook's book should be of
some interest to anyone studying Switzerland during the war years.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Sarpedon.
Thanks to Sarpedon for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 11 November 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone