Switzerland was a neutral country during World War II, but adjacent to and at times almost completely surrounded by Axis, or Axis-occupied, countries. On several occasions, Allied bombing raids hit targets in Switzerland resulting in fatalities and property damage. Such events led to diplomatic exchanges. While Allied forces explained the causes of violations as navigation errors, equipment failure, weather conditions, and pilots' errors, in Switzerland fear was expressed that some neutrality violations were intended to exert pressure on the country to end its economic cooperation with Nazi Germany. In addition to bombing raids, air attacks by individual fighter planes strafed Swiss targets toward the end of the war. The Swiss military, in turn, attacked Allied aircraft overflying Switzerland with fighters and anti-aircraft cannons.
Allied use of Swiss air space
During World War II, Swiss airspace was violated by both sides. During the Battle of France, the Swiss Air Force shot down eleven German planes violating Swiss airspace for the loss of three planes in return. This resulted in a German threat of sanctions and retaliation, and the Swiss government decided to order an end to interceptions of foreign aircraft in Swiss airspace.
With Allied and Axis aircraft freely overflying Switzerland, over 7,000 siren alarms were initiated in Switzerland during the war. Some Allied bombers took advantage of this situation by using Swiss airspace as a safer route than enemy air space on their bombing runs to and from targets in Germany, but more often, bombers in distress preferred to descend to neutral Switzerland for asylum rather than in German territory. As a result, Switzerland ultimately interned 1,700 American airmen.
From 1941 to 1942, Allied bombers very rarely flew over Switzerland, because the Swiss authorities, under German pressure, prescribed black-outs in order to complicate navigation for the U.S. and British air crews. As neutral Swiss territory was safe for Allied bombers, Germany also pressured the Swiss into forcing the Allied air crews to land in Switzerland, instead of letting them continue bombing runs.
In 1943, the Swiss military began attacking Allied aircraft breaching Swiss airspace. Six Allied aircraft were shot down by Swiss Air Force fighters and four by anti-aircraft cannons, killing 36 Allied airmen. The first Allied aircraft to be shot down over were two British bombers flying low over Swiss territory on the night of 12–13 July 1943, which were shot down by Swiss anti-aircraft fire over Valais. The first American bomber shot down over Switzerland was downed near Bad Ragaz on 1 October 1943, and only three of its crew survived.
On 5 September 1944, American P-51 Mustangs escorting a damaged B-17 bomber crossed into Swiss airspace and were confronted by Swiss Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Not realizing they were over Switzerland, the P-51s attacked the Swiss Messerschmitts, shooting down one and killing its pilot, and damaging another one.
American and British planes bombed Switzerland about seventy times during World War II, killing 84 people. Although these bombings were attributed to error, some historians have suspected that the Allies wanted to send a warning to Switzerland for having cooperated with Germany.
The daylight bombing of Schaffhausen on 1 April 1944 by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was the most serious of all incidents. Approximately 50 B-24 Liberators of a larger force misidentified Schaffhausen as their target Ludwigshafen am Rhein near Mannheim (about 235 km (146 mi) north of Schaffhausen), and dropped sixty tons of bombs on the town. Although an air raid alarm sounded in Schaffhausen, air raid sirens had been set off so many times without any attack that the locals felt safe, and many failed to take cover. A total of 40 people were killed and about 270 injured, and large parts of the town were destroyed. At the insistence of the Swiss government for an explanation, Allied investigations into the incident found that bad weather broke up the American formation over France, and that high winds that nearly doubled the ground speed of the bombers confused the navigators. (Two other widely scattered cities in Germany and France were also mistakenly bombed during the same mission.) As Schaffhausen is situated on the right bank (north side) of the Rhine river, it was apparently assumed to be Ludwigshafen am Rhein. By October 1944, US$4,000,000 had been paid in restitution.
On 22 February 1945, thirteen USAAF air attacks on Switzerland took place with Stein am Rhein receiving the most damage. Other places included Taegerwilen, Rafz, and Vals. Overall, 21 people were killed in these attacks.
On 4 March 1945, six USAAF B-24H bombers hit Zürich with 12.5 tons of high explosives and 12 tons of incendiaries, killing five people. The intended target had been Aschaffenburg near Frankfurt am Main (290 km (180 mi) north). The six bombers had gone off course, and their crews believed they were bombing Freiburg im Breisgau. At virtually the same time, other bombers dropped 12.5 tons of high explosives and five tons of incendiaries on Basel.
On 1 October 1943, bombs were released by the USAAF over Samedan leading to property damage. 1944 saw attacks that included Koblenz, Cornol, Niederweningen, and Thayngen. Attacks in 1945 included Chiasso twice. Basel was bombed on 4 March 1945. The last air attack occurred in Brusio on 16 April 1945.
Regarding the Zurich bombing, a court-martial proceeding took place in England on 1 June 1945. Col. James M. Stewart, the famous actor and wartime B-24 pilot, was the presiding officer of the trial. Accused were the lead pilot Lieutenant William R. Sincock and one of his navigators, Lieutenant Theodore Q. Balides, for violating the 96th Article of War, Sincock specifically for having "wrongfully and negligently caused bombs to be dropped in friendly territory". Weather conditions and equipment failure were found to be at fault; the defendants were found not guilty of criminal culpability. Prosecutors for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East once discussed this case as further precedent to prosecute Japanese pilots involved in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. However, they quickly dropped the idea after realizing there was no international law that protected neutral areas and nationals specifically from attack by aircraft.
In addition to the US$4 million paid by October 1944, the United States government agreed to pay 62,176,433.06 Swiss francs (then equivalent to $14.4 million, or $205 million at current prices) to the Swiss government as full and final payment for damage to persons and property during World War II on 21 October 1949.
Literature (selected works)
- Cathryn J. Prince: Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland. Kindle Edition. Naval Institute Press/Amazon Media EU S.à r.l., 2015, ASIN B00ZSDPIHE.
- Stephen Tanner: Refuge from the Reich: American Airmen and Switzerland During World War II. Da Capo Press, illustrated edition, 2001, ISBN 978-1885119704.
- Daniel L. Culler: Black Hole of Wauwilermoos: An Airman's Story. Sky & Sage Books, Green Valley 1995. ISBN 978-1887776011.
- Jürg Hofer: Die Strafanstalt Wauwilermoos LU. Sauerländer 1978, ISBN 978-3794118441.