How DID Switzerland Manage to Remain Neutral During WWII?

Though the Germans and Italians had a detailed plan to invade Switzerland, the plan was never enacted and Operation Tannenbaum was canceled.

Switzerland, a small and beautiful country situated within the Alps has been in a state of perpetual neutrality since the major European powers decided so during the 1815 Congress of Vienna which concluded the Napoleonic Wars. Switzerland has used its state of neutrality to remain withdrawn from warfare for a long time.

But how did Switzerland manage to remain neutral even with the Second World War erupting around it?

To keep the country safe from the Allies and Axis powers, the Swiss used a strategy called “armed neutrality,” requiring maintaining a sizable army to isolate itself within the country’s frontiers and allowing it to defend against foreign incursion.

Yet the country was not been entirely without military activity during the Second World War. Shortly after the start of the war, the Swiss government mobilized its entire army in just three days. Over 430,000 combat troops and 210,000 in support troops, including 12,000 women, were mobilized.

Swiss border patrol in the Alps during World War II.
Swiss border patrol in the Alps during World War II.

Though the Germans and Italians had a detailed plan to invade Switzerland, the plan was never enacted and Operation Tannenbaum was canceled.

The Swiss transformed its strategy from defending all its borders to concentrating its forces between the Alps, a plan called National Redoubt. The plan worked on the basis that the Swiss army would give up control of the populated central areas and direct its focus to the main transportation links.

Plan of the defense lines of the National Redoubt.Photo: Senna CC BY-SA 3.0
Plan of the defense lines of the National Redoubt.Photo: Senna CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite the high mobilization of its forces, Switzerland served as an espionage camp for both sides. In 1942, the United States even established the Office of Strategic Services in the city of Bern. The Office helped develop tactical plans for Allied invasions of Salerno in Italy and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.

Though the country was in a neutral state and refused to negotiate its neutrality, both the Allies and Axis powers violated Switzerland’s territorial integrity during the war.

Swiss Bf 109 E-3a
Swiss Bf 109 E-3a

For instance, during the German invasion of France, Switzerland’s airspace was violated more than 190 times. Some incidents occurred when the Swiss attempted to shoot down at least a dozen Luftwaffe aircraft between May 10 and June 17, 1940.

Switzerland used a smart strategy where they would force German aircraft to land on Swiss airfields after potential airspace violations. This continued even after Hitler warned them against interfering with his troops.

Camouflaged cannon at the Lucendro dam in the Gotthard region. It has a 105 mm calibre and fires up to range of 17 kilometres (11 mi).Photo: Clément Dominik CC BY-SA 3.0
Camouflaged cannon at the Lucendro dam in the Gotthard region. It has a 105 mm calibre and fires up to range of 17 kilometres (11 mi).Photo: Clément Dominik CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe commander, sent saboteurs to destroy the Swiss airfields, but they were captured before they could cause any damage.

Similar incidents occurred when Allied forces broke the Swiss air perimeter, with a total of 36 American and British airmen killed while flying over Swiss territory.

Camouflaged infantry fortification in Sufers (machine gun bastion left, antitank gun right, housing, and connecting tunnel underground).Photo: Kreteglobi CC BY-SA 4.0
Camouflaged infantry fortification in Sufers (machine gun bastion left, antitank gun right, housing, and connecting tunnel underground).Photo: Kreteglobi CC BY-SA 4.0

On October 1, 1942, the first American bomber was shot down by the Swiss. Only three of the crew survived. Moreover, many Allied troops that were captured by the Swiss were interned, while over a hundred Allied aircraft were held within Switzerland until the end of the war. Only 940 American attempted to escape into France.

In 1944, a United States representative claimed that the airspace breaches were likely due to navigational errors during bombing raids over Berlin.

Letter from OSS director William J. Donovan regarding bombings of Swiss towns.
Letter from OSS director William J. Donovan regarding bombings of Swiss towns.

In addition, the Swiss actively maintained its trade links with Germany to prevent it from invading the small country. On April 1, 1944 this led to an Allied bombing of the town of Schaffhausen, killing 40 people and destroying over 50 buildings, including some factories producing parts to be exported to Germany.

The allies claimed the attack was a mistake, clarifying that they intended to attack the town of Ludwigshafen am Rhein, 176 miles (284 km) away. Nonetheless, the attack prompted the Swiss to switch to a zero tolerance policy for any airspace violations and authorized attacks against American aircraft.

WWII MG Bunker A 5841 St. Margrethen. It stands in the area of the railway bridge between Switzerland and Austria and was part of the border fortifications. Photo: Kecko CC BY 2.0
WWII MG Bunker A 5841 St. Margrethen. It stands in the area of the railway bridge between Switzerland and Austria and was part of the border fortifications. Photo: Kecko CC BY 2.0

Read another story from us: To This Day, The Myth Still Abounds: Why Didn’t The Nazis Invade Switzerland?

Despite both the Axis and Allied powers pressuring Switzerland to not trade with the other side, Switzerland continued trading with Germany to dissuade them from invading. In the meantime, Switzerland grew wealthier, with 1.3 billion francs worth of gold being sold to Switzerland by the German Reichsbank in exchange for Swiss francs.

By mobilizing its army, maintaining a strict neutrality policy, actively defending against foreign trespasses, and trading with Germany, the Swiss were able to escape the devastation that the Second World War brought to much of the European continent.