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Halbrook, Stephen P. Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998

ISBN 1-885119-53-4
320 pages

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 arms.

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 Switzerland.

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 Axis territory.

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.

Reviewed 11 November 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone


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