About World War 2: Operation Tannenbaum—The German Plan to Invade Switzerland
When World War Two broke out, Switzerland maintained its long-standing policy of neutrality (in effect since 1815) and received assurances from Germany that her neutrality would be respected. In fact, Hitler despised the Swiss, considering its ethnic Germans “degenerate” because of their democratic ways and a “wayward branch of the German People.” When France surrendered on June 25, 1940, the Germans started planning Operation Tannenbaum (“Christmas Tree”), the invasion of Switzerland.
The Swiss Mobilize Early
Well before that, however, the Swiss had taken measures to defend themselves. They had witnessed the same assurances given to Poland and, when the Germans launched their Blitzkrieg against the Poles on September 1, 1939, began mobilizing their defenses. By the time the British declared war on Germany two days later on September 3, the three Swiss army corps had been deployed near the country's eastern, northern and western borders, with reserve troops placed in the central and southern regions. In addition, the service eligibility age was increased from 48 to 60 years in order to form a fourth army corps of 100,000 men. At its largest, the Swiss Army and its Landsturm units (militias) would number nearly 500,000 troops.
The National Redoubt Plan
When Switzerland found herself surrounded by Axis-controlled countries, including Vichy France and Italy, their initial plan of defense was overhauled. The regular Army corps were then to hold off any assaults from the north and south as long as they could until being forced back. At that point, they were to implement the National Redoubt Plan and join the rest of the army in the in the Alps, an extremely rugged and mountainous region stretching east to west across the country containing forts and fortresses. This meant that the most populous and industrial areas in the plains of the north of Switzerland would fall, but all the passes and tunnels through the Alps would be denied to the enemy, thereby making the invasion of Switzerland nearly pointless, given the casualties the invader's armies would incur.
Operation Tannenbaum Evolves
Originally, Operation Tannenbaum had called for 21 German divisions for the invasion, but, in successive months, this was reduced to 11, with about 12 Italian divisions invading from the south, involving up to 500,000 Axis troops. It was hoped that an initial feint would draw out the Swiss Army from their National Redoubt so the Germans could then sweep around behind the main body and cut it off from the rear similar to the German invasion of France.
Swiss Terrain, Her Biggest Defense
Hitler Furious, Canaris Persuasive
Although the German Army made ominous advances toward the Swiss border, the order to invade never came. Operation Tannenbaum was kept ready until 1944, when it was finally canceled. It is still unclear, given Hitler's continued furious tirades against the Swiss, the exact reasons why. Undoubtedly, the cost in men and materiel was a major factor. Weighed against the annoying Swiss state of neutrality, the Germans probably decided that half a loaf was better than none-- they could do business with the Swiss even while the Allies did the same. But Hitler had ordered actions before based more on his hatred than logic (for example, his order to General Paulus to fight in Stalingrad to the last man). Was there another factor? It appears that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German Military Intelligence (Abwehr) and a fierce anti-Nazi, embellished Switzerland's capabilities and will to resist. This may have persuaded Hitler to accept the status quo of Switzerland's neutrality. Canaris' various anti-Nazi activities, once discovered, would result in his execution just days before the end of the war.
A Swiss Messerschmitt
Swiss Cheese Airspace
Despite hanging on to her neutrality, Switzerland endured many incursions of her air space by both the Axis and the Allies. Early on, the Swiss air force shot down eleven German planes, while losing two, until the Germans threatened severe repercussions. The Swiss Air Force consisted mainly of about 90 Messerschmitt BF-109 fighters which they had bought from Germany. This only added to Hitler's fury. Deciding not to prod the beast, the Swiss stopped aerial combat, though they still used anti-aircraft guns when combatants overflew their territory. Later, when the Allies launched their bomber offensive, damaged aircraft would seek to land in Switzerland and their crews would be interned (by war's end, about 1,700 American airmen were held by the Swiss). As the bombing became more pronounced, Allied bombers sometimes accidentally strayed into Switzerland and bombed Swiss cities, including the largest city, Zurich. On some occasions the circumstances of the “accidents” were suspect, but, officially, the bombings were all put down to navigation errors. In the shadowy world of diplomacy, a few bombed factories doing business with the Third Reich were the price of neutrality. The last Swiss plane to be lost was shot down by by an American bomber.
German Town Tricked Bombers
After the Swiss complained about Americans accidentally bombing Swiss territory, the US was a lot more careful. The town of Konstanz, Germany, situated next to the Swiss border, took advantage of this and left its city lights on at nights. Bombers then thought it was a Swiss town and Konstanz was never bombed during World War Two.
Can You Spot the Hidden Gun Battery?
Neutral Doesn't Mean Innocent
Playing a neutral nation in the midst of a world war is difficult at best. Belgium was neutral; Denmark was neutral; the Netherlands were neutral. They all fell within days of Germany violating their neutrality. The Swiss, by utilizing an “armed” neutrality, that is, physically preparing to defend itself, probably did stave off a German invasion. There were Nazi sympathizers in Switzerland, including the army, just like there were in Britain and the U.S. Many Swiss companies, in order to do business, dealt with the Axis. Being neutral, these companies had only their consciences to soothe, and many did. It should be noted that some Allied companies had to both soothe their consciences and circumvent the law to do business with the Germans. The Swiss turned back a lot of refugees from their border-- but they also allowed some in. There were plenty of shady Swiss dealings going on during the war, but no nation, Allied, Axis or neutral, came out of World War Two without blood on its hands.
In Switzerland's case, the fact that they remained neutral was not because they declared their neutrality, but because they were prepared to defend themselves against the world's best military machine of the time.
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© 2012 David Hunt