Bombings of Switzerland in World War II

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Letter from OSS director William J. Donovan regarding bombings of Swiss towns.

Bombings of Switzerland in World War II consisted of initially sporadic bombing events that became more frequent during the later stage of World War II.[1]

Switzerland was a neutral country during World War II, but adjacent to and at times almost completely surrounded by Axis 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.[1] In addition to bombing raids, air attacks by individual fighter planes strafed Swiss targets toward the end of the war.

Allied use of Swiss air space[edit]

During World War II, Swiss air space was violated by both sides. The Swiss Air Force was not in a position in terms of size of force or modern equipment to defend Swiss air space effectively. Thus, during the war, over 7,000 siren alarms were initiated in Switzerland.[2] Some Allied bombers took advantage of this situation by using Swiss air space 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.[3]

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 the 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.[4]



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 north of Schaffhausen), and dropped bombs that led to 40 fatalities, numerous injuries, and property damage. 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 the German city. By October 1944, 4 million dollars had been paid in restitution.

Stein am Rhein[edit]

On 22 February 1945, thirteen USAAF air attacks took place with Stein am Rhein receiving the most damage. Other places included Taegerwilen, Rafz, and Vals. Overall these attacks led to 21 fatalities.

Zurich and Basel[edit]

On 4 March 1945, six USAAF B-24H bombers hit Zurich with 12.5 tons of high explosives and 12 tons of incendiaries resulting in five fatalities. The intended target had been Aschaffenburg near Frankfurt am Main (290 km north). The six bombers had gone off course and 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.[1]

Other attacks[edit]

During 1940, minor attacks on Geneva, Renens, Basel, and Zurich were conducted by the Royal Air Force.[1]

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.

Court-martial proceedings[edit]

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.[5] 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.[5]


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 $194 million[6] 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.[1]

See also[edit]

Literature (selected works)[edit]

  • 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.
  • Rob Morris: Prisoner of the Swiss: A World War II Airman's Story. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014, ISBN 978-1500683542.
  • Rob Morris: Untold Valor. Xlibris Corporation, 2005, ISBN 978-1413472776.
  • 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:[7] An Airman's Story. Sky & Sage Books, Green Valley 1995. ISBN 978-1887776011.
  • Jürg Hofer: Die Strafanstalt Wauwilermoos LU. Sauerländer 1978, ISBN 978-3794118441.


  1. ^ a b c d e Helmreich JE. "Diplomacy of Apology". Retrieved 2007-05-05. 
  2. ^ Swiss History, World War II (German)
  3. ^ Tanner, Stephen. Refuge from the Reich: American Airmen and Switzerland During World War II. 
  4. ^ H.R. Kurz: "Die Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg" (1959)
  5. ^ a b Helmreich JE (2000). "The Bombing of Zurich". Aerospace Power Journal. 
  6. ^ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved October 21, 2016. 
  7. ^ "Gedenkstein für Internierten-Straflager" (in German). Schweiz aktuell. 2015-10-23. Retrieved 2015-10-23. 

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