Daily Archives: 13 January, 2011

The Swiss and the Nazis by Stephen P. Halbrook

Take a look at an atlas of Europe during the Second World War, and one anomaly stands out – Switzerland. From the German Anschluss with Austria in 1938 until Hitlers final downfall in 1945, the Swiss stood virtually surrounded. They were, in fact, the only country bordering the Third Reich to escape invasion. How did this happen? Stephen Halbrook has used original Swiss Documents, interviews and a wide breadth of research to attempt to answer why Switzerland escaped the Nazi onslaught.

Politically Switzerland was in a difficult dilemma. Bordering Germany, she could not afford to provoke her more powerful neighbour. Ethnically also, Switzerland is a loose confederation of different roots, and Swiss people speak French, German and Italian – a complex mix indeed in 1940. Economically, the Swiss depended on trade with Germany to survive. Intriguingly, the Oerlikon weapons company managed to trade with both Germany and the Allies at the same time.

In terms of public opinion, it seems that the hearts of most Swiss – politicians, generals and public – were tacitly with the allies. None the less, the Swiss leadership cannily realised that if they showed too much support for the Allies the Wehrmacht would roll across the border like a shot. Yet the Swiss media were allowed considerable latitude in lampooning and satirising the Nazis, something that the Germans frequently complained about, but to no avail. Crucially, the Swiss media also criticised communism as strongly. The constant being being that the Swiss seemed to oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.

Contrary to the popular perception that Switzerland is a peaceful, eternally neutral country, the Swiss have long had a martial heritage. The Swiss confederation of cantons was in fact founded by war, as the Swiss people sought to defend their right to neutrality. Swiss soldiers became highly sought after in the middle ages as mercenaries. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard are a prime example of this.

As war approached in 1939, from a young age virtually every young Swiss man had spent years practicing rifle shooting, and most owned weapons. Most had also spent time serving with the part-time army. Not for nothing was the Wehrmacht wary of the fighting potential of the Swiss – one report feared ‘a sniper behind every tree’. On several occasions Hitler ordered an invasion to be planned, but on each occasion the planning staffs concluded that the invasion would be far too costly for the gains that would be achieved.

Geographically Switzerland was also in a strong position. Much of the country is composed of the Alps, providing an ideal location for a ‘national redoubt’, where the German tanks, aircraft and paratroops would have been next to useless. A German marching song of the time referred to Switzerland as a’porcupine’. A more accurate description might have been that of a hedgehog.

Compare the Swiss experience with that of another country that was initially neutral. Holland stood in the way of the German invasion of France and Belgium, and also prevented control of the North Sea coast. The border with Germany was flat and wide open, and the Dutch armed forces were minimal, poorly equipped and lacked a martial culture such as in Switzerland.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and found it very interesting. Perhaps I might have liked to have read a little about the allied escape lines that ran through the country, with Prisoners feeling captivity to Switzerland and then being fed on home.

The Swiss and the Nazis is published by Casemate

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Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

A new HMS Protector to replace HMS Endurance

HMS PROTECTOR at anchor

The previous HMS Protector (Image via Wikipedia)

The Ministry of Defence have announced that a commercial ice-breaker will be chartered to replace the current HMS Endurance. It is expected that if the charter proves to be succesful she will be purchased and fully commissioned into the Royal Navy. This is no doubt welcome news, particularly given the antics coming out of Buenos Aires recently.

There has been no comfirmation over which ship has been selected. Rumours suggest that a Norwegian vessel working in North America is a favourite, although the MOD has refused to confirm this, stating that the tendering process has not yet been completed. A similar process was followed for the two previous HMS Endurances, which were previously MV Anita Dan and MV Polar Circle respectively.

The MOD have also announced that the new ship will be called HMS Protector. The last HMS Protector was another South Atlantic Patrol Ship, launched in 1936 and decomissioned in 1968. The last two ice patrol ships have been called HMS Endurance, so the naming is a break with recent tradition. And a very eventful tradition at that, with previous HMS Endurance being in the thick of the 1982 Falklands War, and the last Endurance being adopted by the City of Portsmouth and a very visible sign of the UK’s presence in the South Atlantic.

Warship names have always been an emotive issue. There will no doubt be protests that the world will end if the new ship is not called Endurance. Similar calls have been made that one of the new aircraft carriers should be called Ark Royal. Cities have been very precious about having warships named after them – particularly with the decomissioning of the Type 42 ‘City’ Class. One city- Sheffield – even refused to adopt a Type 45 Destroyer as it was called HMS Diamond and not Sheffield. One of the Type 22 Broadsword Frigates was called HMS London after the Lord Mayor of London requested it. How lovely – what if I fancy there being an HMS Daly? Will the Lordships oblige me? Shall we have Warship Factor, a phone-in competition to decide the names of the next class of Type 26 Frigates?

By choosing a new name, but one that has historical connections, the Navy is being very smart. The Royal Navy has a long and rich history, with literally hundreds of proud names to choose from – why use the same names over and over again? It is important to remember that the service is not just about ships but also about men. It really is a case of the King is dead, long live the King.

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Filed under defence, Falklands War, Navy, Uncategorized