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Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland

Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland

by Cathryn J. Prince

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Now available in paperback, Shot from the Sky uncovers one of the great, dark secrets of World War II: neutral Switzerland shot and forced down U.S. aircraft entering Swiss airspace and imprisoned the survivors in internment camps, detaining more than a thousand American flyers between 1943 and the war’s end. While conditions at the camps were


Now available in paperback, Shot from the Sky uncovers one of the great, dark secrets of World War II: neutral Switzerland shot and forced down U.S. aircraft entering Swiss airspace and imprisoned the survivors in internment camps, detaining more than a thousand American flyers between 1943 and the war’s end. While conditions at the camps were adequate and humane for internees who obeyed their captors’ orders, the experience was far different for those who attempted to escape. They were held in special penitentiary camps in conditions as bad as those in some prisoner-of-war camps in Nazi Germany. Ironically, the Geneva Accords at the time did not apply to prisoners held in neutral countries, so better treatment could not be demanded. When the war ended in Europe, sixty-one Americans lay buried in a small village cemetery near Bern.

Cathryn J. Prince, brings to light details of this little-known episode as she describes the events and examines the Swiss justification for their policy. She demonstrates that while the Swiss claimed they satisfied international law, they applied the law in a grossly unfair manner. No German airmen were interned, and the Nazi aircraft were allowed to refuel at Swiss airfields. The author draws on first-person accounts and unpublished sources, including interviews with eyewitnesses and surviving American prisoners, and documents held by the Swiss government and the U.S. Air Force.

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"Ms. Prince's study ... is proof that atrocities will happen whenever one individual is given unchecked power over another." —Wall Street Journal

“This book eloquently addresses a little known aspect of WW II.”—Choice

Product Details

Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Copyright © 2003 Cathryn J. Prince
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557504334

Chapter One


The Swiss, remaining neutral, during the great revolutions in the states all around them, grew rich on the misfortunes of others, and founded a bank upon human disasters.

Chateaubriand, French author and diplomat

Belligerents are forbidden to move across the territory of a neutral Power troops or convoys, either of munitions of war or supplies.

Article 2, Hague Convention 1907

Tiny Switzerland lies locked inside Western Europe, surrounded by Austria, France, Germany, and Italy. Throughout the centuries its mountain passes have presented an attractive path for advancing armies and foreign kings who often tried-and failed-to bring the small country under their domination. World War II would be no different. This time, however, Nazi Germany would succeed, effectively counting Switzerland as part of its empire. Germany had no need to physically occupy Switzerland, for that nation's leaders guaranteed that the Reich was favored in all ways over the Allies. To understand how this situation came to pass one must examine the changing nature of Swiss armed neutrality.

One night in 1291, free peasants from the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden gathered on the Rütli Meadow on the shore of Lake of Lucerne. With the moonlight as their beacon, they pledged to unshackle their lands from Habsburg servitude and rise together against any future threat to their sovereignty. Out of this oath Switzerland was born.

Freedom did not come easily. Time and again soldiers would swoop into Switzerland trying to wrest control for one foreign monarch or another. One of the first challenges to the infant alliance came in 1315 when about twenty thousand Austrian knights sent by the house of Habsburg clashed with about fourteen hundred peasants from the three founding cantons in the Battle of Morgarten. Equipped only with halberds and pikes, the vastly outnumbered peasant warriors emerged victorious, more determined than ever to defend their independence. Only in 1515, when the Swiss were soundly defeated at Marignano, Italy, did the country change its strategy. Forced by the defeat to realize that it lacked the requisite unity to pursue either a uniform foreign policy or a clear-cut military strategy, the state turned inward, aspiring instead to neutrality. This new tactic spared Switzerland from most of the European conflicts that swirled about it.

The idea of pursuing neutrality as an official policy seems to have first germinated in 1481 at the Diet of Stans. The Swiss monk Niklaus von der Flüe advised the Swiss Confederation to stay nonaligned, arguing that denying others a casus belli might deter foreign aggression and ensure unity in that country of many tongues. While foreign armies were barred from marching through Switzerland as early as 1638, official international recognition took a bit longer. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years' War, first recognized Swiss independence and separation from the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1674 the Swiss Diet declared the absolute neutrality of Switzerland as a political principle. Though Switzerland remained uninvolved in combat for nearly a century, its mountain passes continued to tempt armies marching across the Continent. In May 1797, Napoleon invaded. The French essentially subjugated the Swiss, taking some cantons without firing a shot. After Austria and Britain made peace with France in 1802, Napoleon withdrew his forces; however, Switzerland remained under Napoleonic control.

Finally, in 1815, after the emperor's defeat at Waterloo, the Congress of Vienna organized a committee dedicated to consider the matter of Switzerland. It was in Vienna that a Swiss diplomat named Pictet de Rochemont advocated the theory that Switzerland pursued neutrality not for its own sake, but for the sake of others. The presence of a neutral state in the heart of Europe, he insisted, would serve the interests of all nations on the Continent. The cantons of Geneva, Valais, and Neuchâtel were thus added to the Swiss Confederation with the guarantee that Switzerland would remain neutral. Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia jointly declared the "formal and authentic acknowledgment of the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland." Thus the Treaty of Vienna enshrined Swiss neutrality. Consequently, Switzerland, which had removed itself from the possibility of actual combat, put itself in position to become a fount of information, a broker of prisoner exchanges, and a palace of spies during the two great conflicts that would sweep across Europe nearly one hundred years later.

But this time, having learned an important lesson during the Napoleonic Wars, Switzerland would not rely on other countries to respect its neutrality. On 20 August 1817, the country organized a standing army requiring universal male service and establishing uniform standards. The model remains in effect today. Unlike most other European nations, the Swiss Army requires its soldiers, men aged eighteen to forty-eight, to be on call for short stretches each year rather than serving one short stint at age eighteen. The soldiers are actually liable for call-up in a national emergency until they are sixty years old. The few exemptions to this rule are usually reserved for the physically disabled, with those men, until recently, being required to pay a special tax.

Until the latter part of the 1800s the cantons had little to do with each other save for mutual defense pacts. It was not until 1848, following a civil war, that the cantons renewed their alliance and modern Switzerland emerged. In its modern form, Switzerland's neutrality, really a pragmatic creation, has never been passive or weak; by necessity it has always been supported by force of arms. This stratagem was codified into law in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1907, at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, delegates from several countries gathered at The Hague for a peace conference whose participants signed the "Convention Respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in War on Land." Perhaps the most fundamental tenet of the 1907 Hague Convention is the maxim that neutral territory is inviolable: "The fact of a neutral Power repelling, even by force, attacks on its neutrality cannot be considered as a hostile act."

In international law neutrality means a country will refrain from participating in a war between other states and will observe strict impartiality in its relations with the warring nations. Yet, as it pertains to Switzerland, this concept of neutrality showed a remarkable unevenness in practice during World War II. Although obliged by international law to intern combatants of all belligerents, Switzerland routinely freed Germans, even going so far as allowing German officers to take leave in Davos.

Most Swiss were terrified by the Nazis and saw Germany as a threat to their nation's security. As the seeds of National Socialism began to bloom in the early 1930s, newspapers in Basel, Zürich, and Bern openly denounced the Führer. However, given the proximity of their country to Germany and their kinship with the German-speaking world, it can hardly be a surprise to learn that some prominent Swiss citizens greeted the rise of Hitler with open joy and longed to be taken into the fold of the Third Reich.

The degree to which Switzerland aligned itself with Germany was determined by its government. The focal point of the Swiss government is the Federal Council, a seven-person executive. A joint session of Parliament elects the members to represent the seven departments of state: Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice and Police, Military, Finance, Agriculture and Industry, and Posts and Railways. The Council is led by a president, with the title rotating among the seven members. No constitutional powers are bestowed on the president. The president holds no veto power, no qualifications to conduct diplomacy, and no authority to choose fellow councillors. The president is president in name only.

In theory, the Council should have communally decided Switzerland's response to the rise of the Third Reich. But one man, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, had an inordinate part in determining Swiss foreign policy. Pilet-Golaz, who was president of the Federal Council for nearly the duration of the war, would emerge as a Swiss Neville Chamberlain, pushing and prodding the government and industry toward appeasement.

During the Second World War the Swiss split their sympathies between the belligerents in much the same way that they had during the First World War: the German-speaking cantons felt a strong kinship for Germany both intellectually and economically, while the French- and Italian-speaking cantons looked toward France and Italy. Germany had long dominated Europe's intellectual arena, and German-speaking Swiss in particular had long admired a German presence in aspects of life ranging from painting to politics. Unsurprisingly, the German-speaking people of Switzerland consolidated their hold on the country's affairs during World War I. The German-speaking majority in Parliament ensured the appointment of Gen. Ulrich Wille as commander of the armed forces. (In Switzerland, a general is elected only during wartime.) General Wille, who was from the German part of Switzerland, had a reputation for supporting Prussian militarism, and under his leadership the army performed intelligence operations for the Germans. While they stopped short of condoning the utter violation of Belgian neutrality during World War I, most German Swiss cantons continued to believe in German ideals, a faith that helps explain Switzerland's conduct a few decades later.

The willingness of the Swiss government to work for the Germans during World War II also stemmed from powers the executive branch had usurped during World War I-powers jealously guarded even after hostilities ceased. In 1914, Parliament surrendered much of its authority to the executive branch, to an extent unusual even under wartime conditions. The growing lack of openness in the political system this engendered laid the ground for fascism, but it took the Nazis' rise to power in 1933 to give it full bloom. It was then that various "fronts" began to spread and gain in importance. These fronts appealed to rightwing conservatives and lower-middle-class elements that wanted to remodel the state and society in the fashion of their neighbor. Hans Frick, for example, of the National Front, insisted that "the exhausted forms of parliamentary democracy must be replaced.... Everywhere parliamentary government is in a degenerate state and must ... disappear. That farce of so-called popular elections must be stopped." And Robert Tobler exulted in the rise of the Third Reich: "Germany! The national uprising thrills everyone who desires to see a renewal of his people. It gives joy to everyone who is capable of recognizing in it a product of his own native soil. It excites the young Swiss observers" (Basler Nachrichten, 1 June 1933).

Certainly few other small countries have seen such a disproportionate concentration of far-right organizations as Switzerland saw during the Nazi era. German nationalism had taken root in Switzerland in the 1920s, and by 1939 there were forty thousand known Nazi sympathizers in a population of 4.2 million Swiss. In Basel alone there were four thousand registered Nazi Party members. Well into the war, on 4 October 1942, some fifteen thousand German Nazis living in Switzerland held a rally in Zürich's Oerlikon Stadium.

Germans living in Switzerland and local sympathizers alike actively promoted Nazism. Whereas none of the native Swiss organizations won a politically significant following, they did represent an appreciable threat. The groups published books, magazines, and newspaper articles and tried to seduce the Swiss leadership into adhering to Nazi principles. "A comprehensive policy that understands the signs of the times will ensure Switzerland becoming a living channel by which the two Axis powers to the north and south are connected.... The geographic circumstances designate our country as the natural link between north and south. Would it not be a sign of global vision to realize the possibilities open to us, and to take our future into our own hands?" asked Rolf Henne in the 16 October 1937 issue of Die Front.

Of the many groups to surface, the Schweizerischre Vaterlandischer Verband, or SVV, had the distinction of being the earliest. Founded by Dr. Eugen Bircher in 1918, the SVV worked to curtail Jewish emigration to Switzerland during the 1930s and 1940s. Its members included the highest-ranking army officers, politicians, bankers, and industrialists of Switzerland. Among his dinner companions Bircher often enjoyed the company of other senior government members or sympathizers including Marcel Pilet-Golaz, president of Switzerland in 1940; Giuseppe Motta, a former president; Eduard von Steiger, a friend of Himmler who headed the Justice and Police Department and served as president in 1945; Minister of the Interior Philipp Etter; Gen. Henri Guisan, commander of the Swiss Army; Col. Karl Kobelt, the head of the Ministry of Military Affairs; Walther Stampfli, who coordinated the whole of Swiss industrial production to accommodate Nazi Germany's needs when he was minister of economic affairs; and Dr. Ernst Weber, president of the Swiss National Bank.

The Bund Der Schweizer in Grossdeutschland (League of the Swiss in Greater Germany), or BSG, likewise dedicated itself to collaborating with Nazi Germany. Of all these organizations, however, the best organized and strongest was the National Front, a party that closely followed its Nazi German cousin in costume, terminology, and behavior, and had about twenty-five thousand members at its peak. The existence of these groups allowed Swiss children to join in many of the same activities found in Germany, from Hitler Youth for boys to a Bund deutscher Mädel for girls.


Excerpted from SHOT FROM THE SKY by CATHRYN J. PRINCE Copyright © 2003 by Cathryn J. Prince
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Cathyrn J. Prince is the author of several non-fiction books including Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, for which she won the 2013 Military Writers Society of America’s Founders Award.

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