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Although Switzerland was not actively involved in WWII, it suffered a total of seventy bombings by Allied airplanes between 1940 and 1945.
Starting in January of 1943, exactly eighty years ago, USAAF, bombers, stationed in Britain, began day-time attacks on German industry, ports and cities. Inevitably, they occasionally went off course, either because of radar misfunction or poor weather condition, and hit Swiss targets instead. In addition to bombing raids, air attacks by individual fighter planes strafed Swiss targets and in one incident, American Mustangs, escorting a damaged B-17 bomber into Swiss air space, shot down a Swiss Messerschmitt, killing the pilot and damaging another plane, mistaking them for German planes. They must also have mistaken the Swiss flag – a white cross in a red field – prominently painted on the aircraft, for a German swastika!
The worst incident occurred on April 1, 1944 in a day-light bombing of the border town of Schaffhausen. Fifty B-24H Liberators dropped 60 tons of bombs. The attack that lasted just 40 seconds, but it killed 60 people, wounded hundreds and destroyed much of the town’s historic center as well as several factories, leaving hundreds homeless and without jobs. Radar misfunction had led the bombers almost 150 miles from the intended target of Ludwigshafen in Germany.
In March of 1945, six USAAF bombers dropped 240 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs on Zurich in a day-time attack., killing five people and inflicting major damage. The formation’s lead pilot and its senior navigator were court martialed, though not convicted. The presiding officer was none other than the actor James Stewart, who at the time was a full colonel in the Eighth Air Force and an experienced bomber pilot.
The Swiss air force had orders not to defend its airspace, after incidents in June of 1940, when the German air force, supporting their invasion of France, had repeatedly violated Swiss airspace. Swiss pilots shot down eleven German planes, angering Hermann Göring, head of the German air force. To punish the Swiss, he sent a contingent of German bombers and fighters with the intention of luring Swiss fighters into combat over French airspace, thus violating their neutrality and giving Germany a reason to attack the country. In the resulting dog fight back and forth across the border, several German planes were damaged and two were forced to land in France. Hectic diplomatic action resulted in a Swiss commitment to no longer attack German planes overflying Switzerland, return downed planes and repatriate their pilots.
In consequence of this decision, both axis and allied aircraft also freely crossed Swiss airspace in the early years of the war, with over six thousand such incidents noted. Not all of these intrusions were harmless. In 1940 alone, there were several bombings by Royal air force planes, including attacks on Geneva, Basel and Zürich. While the more benevolent explanation for these incidents was pilot error, some historians theorized that they were intentional and meant as a warning against Swiss trade with Germany.
But with the USAAF’s involvement, intrusions and their often-fatal consequences became so frequent, that the Swiss started defending their airspace with fighter and anti-aircraft cannons. again. In all, 10 allied aircraft were downed, two British ones in July 1943 and eight US bombers, starting in October 1943, killing 36 airmen. However, the majority of downed bombers were planes that had been damaged during raids on Germany and escaped into Swiss airspace to seek asylum. Forty-one planes were destroyed completely upon landing, thirty-nine were too badly damaged to be repairable and eighty-six were repaired and eventually returned. Varying accounts number their crews between 1,500 and 1,700. They were interned for the duration of the war, according to international law, and housed in empty hotels and guest houses in three mountain resorts.
My own life was directly affected, and in one instance threatened, by these events. In every house, a part of the basement had to be fitted out as an air-raid shelter, to which people were instructed to decamp as soon as the warning sirens, sounded. The cellar of our house was complete with bunk beds made from wooden planks and emergency rations, though I fear that a hit would have entombed rather than saved us.
Luckily no bombs ever came closer to our town than Schaffhausen – a distance of only about ten miles – though after emerging from the air-raid shelter, we often found the outside strewn with glistening strands of aluminum called “chaff” that had been dropped by the bombers to overwhelm radar and anti-aircraft missiles.
Because most overflights occurred during the day, the seemingly incessant alarms – seven thousand in all – disrupted everyone’s day. When the sirens sounded during our school day, we were promptly herded into the basement, where the only furnishings were wooden benches. It often took an hour or more, before the all-clear let us return to the classroom.
I owe my facility with mental math to these frequent disruptions. Since we weren’t allowed to waste time gathering any supplies, our teacher filled the time by firing strings of math problems at us in rapid succession. In themselves these drills wouldn’t have been too bad, had he not turned them into a competition. Everyone had to stand up. The first person to solve the problem, got to sit down, until the poor performance of the last pupils standing drew everyone’s scorn. I was a good student and knew my math facts inside and out. But the anxiety associated with this competitive exercise paralyzed me to the point that I was lucky to beat out a fellow pupil with distinct learning disabilities.
This experience convinced me that I was a math dunce. But when I became a teacher myself, practicing mental math with my students, I found to my immense surprise and relief that my early training, stressful as it had been, had equipped me with the ability to manipulate even large numbers at speed in my head.
In the fall of 1944, on the advice of our pediatrician, I was sent to a children’s home in a small village in the mountains near St. Moritz, in hopes that my intractable asthma would profit from a lengthy stay at high altitude. The next summer, my parents rented the top floor of a house there for a few weeks so that I could spend at least some time with family.
One afternoon at dusk, we were sitting at the table having tea, when the ever-louder droning of an aircraft flying low over the valley sent us to the window. We instinctively ducked our heads as the plane thundered overhead, barely clearing the roof of our house before it crashed into the woods beyond. Rushing outside, we saw that the pilot had been able to bail out a mile or so outside the village.
The roped-off crash site, minutes from our house, was a main attraction for weeks, until the damaged plane was removed, leaving dozens of splintered trees and burned stumps behind. But this close brush with death that in one fell swoop could have eliminated our whole family, left me with nightmares, even as new vegetation healed the scar in the woods and the war drew to an end.
Copyright 2023 Sabine Oishi.
Originally from Switzerland, Sabine Oishi is the co-author (with Jeanne Simons) of Behind the Mirror: The Story of a Pioneer in Autism Treatment and Her Work with Children on the Spectrum (John Hopkins, 1921). Dr. Oishi is a retired child psychologist, living in Baltimore.