The Holocaust Historiography Project

Wartime bombings of neutral Switzerland

Joachim Hoffmann (bio)

For some time now it has become common to beat up on prototypically democratic Switzerland in a sometimes unfriendly and occasionally almost hateful way. Apparently this is being done for political motives.

To this end, certain regrettable events during the Second World War are strongly emphasized, without in all fairness mentioning the difficult circumstances under which the Swiss Confederation had to maintain its neutrality and sovereignty toward not only the Axis powers, and especially Germany, but also toward the western Allies.

Above all the United States, which is in the forefront of the accusatory critics, should permit itself to be reminded of the great extent to which, for years, it violated Swiss neutrality. From 1943 onwards American war planes flew at will over the neutral country, sometimes in flight formations, in attacks on targets in the German Reich.

Time and again they also carried out offensive operations against Swiss territory. Thus, on April 1, 1944, Schaffhausen was the victim of an intense American air attack, with considerable human losses and heavy destruction of property. Passenger and freight rail cars, viaducts and train stations were also repeatedly bombed or fired upon, such as in Chiasso and Basel, resulting in numerous fatalities and extensive material damage. On February 22, 1945, alone 18 Swiss lost their lives, and 50 were wounded, some severely, in American bombing attacks and air raids on the northern part of the country.

In the aftermath of the American air attacks on Basel and Zürich on March 5, 1945, which once again caused considerable human losses and material damage, the government in Washington was notified in a strongly worded protest of the routine flouting of Swiss neutrality, and of the steadily increasing number of border violations, and that such bombings were intolerable. The situation had become so tense that Washington directed the supreme commander of the United States Army Air Force in Europe, General Spaatz, and his chief of staff, to go to Bern [the Swiss capital] in person to apologize and promise reform.

Among the various US airplanes that came down on Swiss territory were no fewer than 160 large four-motor B-17 “flying fortress” bombers and B-24 “Liberators,” either because the crews wanted to avoid being taken prisoner in Germany, or were deserters who simply wanted to get out of military service, or because they were forced to land or were shot down by Swiss flyers or air defense forces.

War planes of other countries also repeatedly carried out offensive operations against Switzerland, including, on a large scale, by the British Royal Air Force, and also, not so seriously but still considerable, by the German Luftwaffe, and even on occasion by French planes.

However, none of the nations at war so massively and continuously challenged Swiss neutrality, and caused such great loss of life and destruction of property, as the bombers and fighter planes of the United States air force.

Author bio

Joachim Hoffmann, Dr. phil., served as a historian with the Military History Research Center of the German armed forces, 1960-1995, and is author of the recently published study, Stalins Vernichtungskrieg. This item appeared as a reader’s letter in the September 1997 issue of the Swiss magazine Schweizer Soldat.