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My question is not about an alternative scenario, nor about the reasons that caused Switzerland to not get invaded (as could be seen here: Why was Switzerland not attacked during the two World Wars?). I am asking about if the Swiss military of WW2 is clearly overrated.

Many people claim that the country was (and still is) impossible to invade due to the mountains and the guns owned by Swiss citizens. But there are many examples of similar situations that happened in history, as exposed in the question below, that show very clearly that those reasons are not sufficient to exclude an invasion and occupation.


  • Often, people make the claim that, given the mountainous terrain of Switzerland, an invasion would have been close to impossible. However, the Germans successfully invaded Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece, all of which also have mountainous terrain. Also, Switzerland is much closer to Germany than Greece and Norway, so bringing new troops and supply would have been quicker and easier.

  • For the same reason, it is generally said that in case of invasion, the Swiss army would have retreated into the mountain strongholds, leaving much of the population and economical/ industrial centers to the invader. This is the so called "National Redoubt" strategy. However, why would the German and Italian armies need to attack those strongholds in the mountains? Why could they not simply occupy the Swiss plateau, then wait and let the Swiss soldiers starve to death in their mountain fortresses? Feeding 800,000+ soldiers in the Alps for months if not years isn't realistic. Plus, their ammunition stocks would be limited, while the Axis could bring as much supplies as they want to.

  • Then, there is the argument that, given the vast majority of Swiss men who own guns at home, even in case of German victory, there would be guerrilla warfare. However, if I am correct, the German army knew quite well how to deal efficiently with rebels in its occupied territories. They could simply retaliate on the village or region, thus causing the rebels to think twice before deciding to do something. And anyway, wouldn't this guerrilla warfare calm down after a few years, when people become accustomed to German and Italian rules?

  • In case of invasion, the Axis would benefit from the surprise effect, given that they would be the one attacking:

    1. First, that means that at least the border cities of Geneva and Basel would have fallen quickly.
    2. Then, that also means that the Swiss army would not be able to destroy all the roads, railways and other means of communications before retreating from regions close to the borders. Thus, the German army would potentially advance relatively quickly in the first few hours.
    3. That also means that parachutists could be dropped behind Swiss lines to secure important positions. Like strategic areas in the Jura mountains to prevent the Swiss from using them as a defensive line. Given the close proximity to the border with occupied France, wouldn't the German army then be able to quickly secure the Jura Mountains, thus having free room for an invasion of the plateau?
    4. Fourth, and most importantly, the Blitzkrieg tactic could still be used in the plateau. That means that, especially in the first hours of the invasion, the German Luftwaffe could simply bomb each and every Swiss military position on the Plateau, which would then allow for its conquest. And then, as said, one could just wait for the Swiss army to starve in their mountains and finally surrender (or die).

There are probably more reasons, but those are the main ones that I found. Was Switzerland much easier to conquer than imagined?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 20 at 10:28
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    I don't have a good source for this right now, but I think I read somewhere that Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, and General Walter Schellenberg exaggerated the Swiss defense capabilities in order to prevent operation Tannenbaum. – Mastrem Aug 20 at 10:53
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    Not so much "impossible" as "they made it not worth it". I cover this in my answer to How was Switzerland able to stay neutral during WWI and WWII?. "By not being a threat, and having no strategic benefit to either side worth fighting a professional army on excellent defensive terrain." – Schwern Aug 21 at 18:52

17 Answers 17

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Ok, since I think I finally got your real question (as I see it):

I'm simply asking if the defense of Switzerland during WW2 was overrated. Many people claim that the country was impossible to occupy, I just want to know if this is not clearly exaggerated.

The emphasis is what I interpret as your "real" question (since there is a lot of confusion here) and will answer it.

First of all, you probably have the wrong impression (partly). Switzerland never tried and was never seen as impossible to invade, even their well-planned defense wasn't impenetrable, and everyone knew that.

The only point was to make a possible invasion (and occupation) so lossy that it would never be worth it.

You got it right that the invasion would be over very quick, however, you go wrong with this one:

Feeding 800 000+ soldiers in the Alps for months if not years isn't realistic.

Because they were well prepared to hold out in their bunkers (and go raiding from there) for an extended amount of time.

And then we come to your "real" question (IMHO), which is not the invasion, but the occupation.

And that is where another of your questions comes in:

why would the German and Italian armies need to attack those strongholds in the mountains?

Because the Swiss planned to constantly attack out from these forts, waging a heavy and costly guerilla warfare from against the occupying troops.

This means Germany would have had two options: A) attack the forts, which would be time, supply and manpower-costly to no end. B) endure the terrorism

And B) would be costly. The French resistance could be dealt with (somewhat) because they were few, mostly untrained civilians with (mostly) scavenged equipment. And they did their part already. Now imagine that, but with 80k well trained, drilled, coordinated and fully equipped soldiers. Yeah, Germany would have pretty much a third front right in their backyard for years, which would have been unacceptable.

TLDR: Switzerland would have been hard (but possible) to invade, but almost impossible to occupy.

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    Good answer. Yeah, I agree, my question wasn't really that clear. I'm also asking someone else, but do you think I should ask a new question "How Hard Would it Have Been for the Axis to Invade and conquer Switzerland During World War II" ? The answers would be more precise. – Ryukyu Aug 20 at 8:32
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    Probably, but I doubt you'd get that much more info, because the information on the topic just isn't there and the main point all depends on the hypothetical retreated swiss army actually terrorizing to the last man, which is debateable – Hobbamok Aug 20 at 8:33
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    This is not true though. Switzerland did not have "80,000 well trained and fully equipped soldiers". They had civilians with light rifles. They had virtually no heavy weaponry, machine guns, artillery, and certainly no air support or anti-aircraft capabilities. The fact that Swiss civilians were equipped with rifles and did target practise does NOT make them soldiers. At least the French resistance had some veterans from WWI; the Swiss did not even have civilians who'd seen battle. – Graham Aug 20 at 11:04
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    @Graham The National Redoubt was full of artillery, flak cannons, and machine guns. The Swiss Air Force had over 100 bf109s and a similar number of other planes by the end of 1940. – user5493187 Aug 20 at 13:45
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    @Graham no they were not simple civilians, but trained servicemen, after the initial training, had to serve yearly between three to four weeks as refresher courses. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_Switzerland – Mark Johnson Aug 20 at 15:42
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No country is impossible to invade. Andorra could invade the USA.

The question you should have asked was "Was Switzerland Impossible to Conquer during World War II?".

The answer is no country is impossible to conquer. But there is great variation in the probability that a specific country will actually conquer another specific country if it tries to do so during a specific moment in time.

So the question you really should have asked was "How Hard Would it Have Been for the Axis to Invade and conquer Switzerland During World War II?"

Even though the Axis countries invaded a lot of countries during World War II, there were a number of other countries they didn't invade. Obviously the Axis leaders didn't consider the desirability of invading those countries worth the trouble at the moment.

Considering that the Axis invaded the mighty USSR and declared war on the mighty USA, I expect that if the Axis won World War II, had millions of soldiers available, and was sufficiently motivated to invade Switzerland, they would have conquered Switzerland despite the problems and difficulties.

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    Finally the makings of a good answer. Volumes 2 and 3 of Jack Gill's Thunder on the Danube 1809 goes into great detail on the difficulties that the Bavarians and French had in suppressing Tyrolean guerrillas and partisans through the spring and summer of 1809, even in the absence of any regular Austrian forces. The German General Staff would have been well aware of this campaign. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 19 at 21:02
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    Switzerland is small and landlocked. It is hard to imagine it holding out against a large industrial military state that surrounded it on all sides if that state thought it was worth the cost. But note that "conquer" and "suppress all guerrillas" aren't the same thing. – Gort the Robot Aug 19 at 21:49
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    Good answer, but I think you need to expand it. Outside comic books (and movies derived from them) no one goes conquering just for fun.The question is always "Is the effort to conquer X worth the benefits?" How much would Nazi Germany lose if Switzerland was an unconquered enclave? It would have been a client state no matter what. (And sometimes client states are the most efficient way to run an empire. – Mark Olson Aug 20 at 10:35
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    Did you deliberately choose Andorra as a country whose military budget wouldn't stretch to a single one-way air fare to the US? – Peter Taylor Aug 20 at 10:38
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    This answer seems to address a different and much broader question (is it possible for any country to be "impossible" to invade) but doesn't really have much content that is specifically relevant to Switzerland. – dwizum Aug 20 at 17:15
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What factors were Hitler's / Germany's motivations for WW2? Revanchism, stealing raw materials, and racial hatreds.

The Swiss are largely German-speaking / Germanic, so there's no "racial superiority" factor to promote invasion and de facto depopulation/extermination and colonization.

They don't have a excessive amount of arable land for "true German" settlers.

Given their neutrality, they were no threat to Germany, and were probably convenient as a neutral middleman.

They weren't an easy target (either culturally or geographically) like Denmark or the Low Countries.

An invasion would have been fiercely opposed, and a distraction from Barbarossa.

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    Those are the reasons about why they did not find it worth to attack. I'm asking about if the swiss military strategy during WW2 was overrated, and if the country is really that impossible to occupy. – Ryukyu Aug 19 at 17:09
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    @ryukyu as far as I remember, the Swiss army assumed they would lose the lowlands, but retain the highlands. After that: wait and see how things envolved. They did not believe they wwould protect everyting, nor loose everything. – Mark Johnson Aug 19 at 18:55
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    The Swiss are largely German-speaking / Germanic, so there's no "racial superiority" factor to promote invasion and de facto depopulation/extermination and colonization. The same could be said of Austria and Luxemburg and The Netherlands, Flanders, Denmark, Norway... yet all of those germanic lands were invaded by Germans at some point. – Bregalad Aug 19 at 19:00
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    @Bregalad - Isn't that what the next 4 paragraphs address? – T.E.D. Aug 19 at 19:19
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    @Bregalad Switzerland has a long and successful history of not being part of any of the relevant empires. There was no easy ideological justification for annexing Switzerland. Also, the Swiss territory is inconveniently mountainous and thus had no strategic relevance for invading France, different to the Low Countries. Norway was vulnerable to Allied invasions, which would have denied critical resources to Nazi Germany. As for Denmark, it would have been disadvantageous to not occupy it since it was both the gate to Scandinavia and into the Baltic sea. – MauganRa Aug 20 at 10:07
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The Germans were certain they could. For instance, their 1940 plans for Operation Tannenbaum estimated that a force of 300,000 to 500,000 men would have been sufficient.

Swiss military leadership also thought that an invasion would have been successful: Their revised military plan for the event of an invasion, the Réduit national, called for a delaying action at the border to allow the majority of the army to withdraw into mountain fortresses, effectively ceding control of all major population and industrial centers to the enemy.

In summary, neither side doubted that a German invasion would be successful if a sufficient proportion of Germany's military might were allocated to that task. It's just that Hitler had different priorities at the time. In Hitler's own words:

Die Schweiz, das kleine Stachelschwein, nehmen wir im Rückzug ein

In English:

Switzerland, the small porcupine, we'll conquer on the way back.

(Granted, the quote is from an earlier time in the war, but it is such an apt summary of Germany's leadership's dismissive attitude towards the Swiss military, that I thought it relevant anyway)

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There were many practical reasons why Switzerland was not occupied

  • of which none of the first answer of @AmorphouBob apply

Some of these reasons are:

  • militarily Switzerland was considered a 'thorny' problem, as expressed in the question and the Swiss strategy
  • there was no strategic advantage (Switzerland was surrounded by the Axis powers)
  • an economic disadvantage as a source of foreign currency and products
  • an disadvantage of the loss of information from Allied areas (weekly air fights from Britain, with newspapers etc.) (source not yet found)

Further details about Switzerland in World War II, dealing with the first 3 points in more detail.


Please forget everything you learned about Germany during WW2 from TV series like Hogan's Heroes, where the people are portrayed as bumbling idiots.

They were everything but.

They knew exactly what they were doing and almost succeeded

  • taking over a greater part of Europe
  • mass murder of millions of deemed 'undesirables'
  • destruction of whole countries
  • corruption of generations of people
  • and a list that is almost endless

There is no need, at every opportunity, for others to invent, at every opportunity available, something new based on that persons imagination and (it would seem) their need to add, over 70 years after the horror ended, a new scene to a Hollywood film or television series.

  • the verified, factual facts are more than sufficient to portrait what horrors humans are capable of

Answer:

Switzerland was not occupied because it was not in the interest of Germany to do so, during that period of time, for the above given reasons.

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    Yeah, I agree with your answer about why Switzerland was not invaded. However, my question is about how "invincible" the swiss military at the time really was. Many people claim that, given the mountains, and the fact that most swiss carry guns at home, that would make an invasion impossible. But, for the reasons exposed in the question, I have more and more doubts about it. – Ryukyu Aug 19 at 19:11
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    @ryukyu as answered as comment in the other answer: they, internaly, did not think themselves as 'invincible', but had a pragmatic accessment of what could be achived. Loss of lowlands, retainment of heighlands. German assessments were taking the highlads would be difficult and costly. Unrestricted Transit to Italy would be the only the only positive aspect of an occupation. Without the highlands that would not be possible. Final judgment: leave things as they are. In the end the Swiss statagie worked. – Mark Johnson Aug 19 at 19:25
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    The best answer so far - but recall that mountains are very poor tank country, and the lesson of the Tyrolean rebellion against the Bavarians in 1809 is that suppressing rebels in the Alps is a long and difficult process. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 19 at 20:22
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    @ryukyu I have added a source from where I read about the Swiss strategy – Mark Johnson Aug 20 at 1:24
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    Too little actual useful answer (even the listed reasons are dubious - foreign currency wasn't a problem in any other country they occupied, and what does British newspapers to do with it?), and most of the answer is just off-topic rambling. – vsz Aug 20 at 6:03
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This is an hypothetical question. I'll try to answer based only on the military concept.

You have already answered your own question, in part 4. You don't need to conquer the whole country; only the main cities and the fields are desirable. Forget about the mountains; you don't need them. Once in a while they'll have to attack some places to prevent guerrilla activities, but no more than that.

That is what happened in Yugoslavia and in the early stages of the invasion of Russia. The attack was so fast that the country did not have time to defend, so some people with military preparation defended themselves as guerrillas. Woods, swamps, deserts, jungles, and mountains were not occupied, so guerrillas went there.

Remember that from military point of view, you only need to destroy the enemy capability to resist and fulfill your political objectives. You don't need to occupy the whole territory; there is no need for that.

Think of the war in North Africa. The war only happened near the coast and in some oasis, not in the whole Sahara, and there isn't any need to fight there.

Think in the war in the Pacific. Several islands where ignored, while only the important ones were invaded.

Finally, think in the territories occupied by Germany and Japan at the end of the war. The allies did not need to occupy them before the end of the war. They only arrived there after winning the war.

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    @Ryukyu Indeed, you are right. I mean is "hypothetical" under the rules of this site. Because it did not happened, formally this is not part of history. But the question is valid anyway. – Santiago Aug 19 at 19:41
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    This is a terrible answer - every factual claim it makes is incorrect. Tito's partisans effectively ousted the German army from Yugoslavia before the Soviets arrived. Civilian guns were banned in the Soviet Union, so no partisan activity was possible until those were supplied. The Gazala line in May 1942 stretched nearly 80 miles into the Sahara, and Rommel won by extending his forces further into the desert than Wavell, isolating and cutting British supply. If the Japanese had maintained a functional navy instead of losing at Midway, MacArthur's island hopping would have been much harder. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 19 at 20:32
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    I can't parse the final paragraph. At the end of the war, Germany and Japan surrendered and no longer occupied any territories. – gerrit Aug 20 at 7:31
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    @Ryukyu what you could edit to make it more clear was: What do YOU see as "successfully invaded" ? Because the World isnt a strategy Game where you win as soon as the capital is taken. Especially Switzerland was 100% prepared (and planned) to loose its cities and wage a guerilla war from the Alpine bunkers. Aka. on paper they would've been "captured" while in fact they would never really loose until the Germans retreated due to the costs – Hobbamok Aug 20 at 8:15
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    @PieterGeerkens Partisan activity in Soviet Union started because people had to take refugee from mass assasinations performed by Germany. 80 miles in a desert of 1000 miles is nothing. While the comment about japanese navy is correct. But the point in the answer is different, is about the need of occupy the whole territory, instead of just defeat the enemy's army or occupy the useful territory. Any of those alternatives are valid. – Santiago Aug 20 at 13:33
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Shields up!!!

It was advantageous for the Germans not to conquer Switzerland, and this would be a major factor in deciding the merit of doing so. A few only examples:

Switzerland provided the Nazis access to bank accounts and "safe" deposits of Jews and others. Exactly how these were divied up is unknown to me, but one can safely assume that the Nazis did not get 100% of the take. Without Swiss cooperation you would be far more liable to get a situation such as with the French art treasures which were very largely spirited away by the French (with assistance by the German assigned to "protect them for the Germans).

The Swiss were the international 'good-guys' [tm] who controlled the distribution of Red Cross parcels. They colluded with the Japanese to divert a substantial proportion of the funds intended for Red Cross Food Parcels intended for Allied prisoners of War in Japanese hands, and divided the spoils between them. While that is Japan and not Germany, I'd be surprised if the idea came to them that late in the piece.

I believe these answers are based on factual accounts of Swiss actions.
By all means disabuse me of this impression if appropriate.


4

Impossibility of an invasion

My answer is based on wikipedia article Operation Tannenbaum, which is about German plans for war against Switzerland during WW2:

Germany started planning the invasion of Switzerland on 25 June 1940, the day that France surrendered. At this point, the German army in France consisted of three groups with two million soldiers in 102 divisions.

[..]

The German plan continued to undergo revision until October, when the 12th Army submitted its fourth draft, now called Operation Tannenbaum. The original plan had called for 21 German divisions, but that figure was downsized to 11 by the OKH. Halder himself had studied the border areas, and concluded that the "Jura frontier offers no favorable base for an attack. Switzerland rises, in successive waves of forest-covered terrain across the axis of an attack. The crossing points on the river Doubs and the border are few; the Swiss frontier position is strong." He decided on an infantry feint in the Jura in order to draw out the Swiss Army and then cut it off in the rear, as had been done in France. With the 11 German divisions and roughly 15 more Italian divisions prepared to enter from the south, the Axis plans were to invade Switzerland with somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men.

This means that Germany considered a force of 11 of its own and 15 Italian divisions enough to invade and conquer Switzerland. This number represents only a small part of its forces at the time. There is no doubt that an invasion would have been possible and ultimately succeeded.

If Germany didn't invade Switzerland, it wasn't because of an unsurmountable Swiss military strength but because of a cost-benefit analysis.

Costs and benefits of an invasion

In the case of an invasion the lowlands in northern Switzerland would have been taken quickly. However, the bulk of the Swiss forces would have continued to resist for months in the mountains (National Reduit) and even after defeating all regular forces guerilla attacks would have continued. The war-torn (and at that time much poorer) country wouldn't have provided many resources but instead required a substantial and permanent military presence. Furthermore, a long-lasting and bloody war against Switzerland - and in particular its German(-speaking) population - would have been highly unpopular in Germany and among the soldiers as there were no historical grievances to exploit.

On the other hand, Germany could benefit in some ways from a neutral, pliable Switzerland. The Swiss industry was heavily reliant on Germany for coal (Germany provided 41 per cent of Swiss energy needs according to Was Switzerland neutral or a Nazi ally in World War Two?). In exchange Germany acquired many products from Switzerland, including arms, and benefited from Swiss banking and railroad connections to Italy (which would have been destroyed in case of an invasion).

2

There was a documentary last year if I remember well on French/German tv Arte which covered the subject, and its point of view was that despite what Swiss people like to think, they were not the hedgehog in German feet, but more likely the bankers of the third reich, so it had nothing to do with military.

It was explained that in this time, no country in the world wanted to be paid in mark for trade, and Germany desperately needed some raw materials for its war effort. There were two examples I can remember of materials they needed: rubber for tank caterpillar, and tungsten for tank armouring, coming essentially from a mine in Portugal for the last one.

And in all these situations, or when trade couldn't happen directly between Germany and Portugal for example, it was Switzerland who played the role of intermediate: Germans payed Swiss with the gold they stole from occupied countries (including jews), and Swiss payed Portugueses either in Franc or with gold. So they could not afford to loose their only way to trade abroad and left them alone.

In this French article covering the Portuguese issue, it is mentioned an amount of 40 tons of gold coming directly from Germany and another 120 tons having transited from Switzerland.

In this other French article, it is written than 80 percent of German gold used abroad by the Reichsbank during world war II transited through Switzerland.

The documentary demonstrated that despite the Allies unofficial warning made to Switzerland in 1944, trade still occurred however, at a lower rate. If I remember well, they talked about a last deal which was paid by gold molten from teeth taken in the camps...

A deal was signed in Washington in May 1946, unfreezing Swiss assets blocked by USA and withdrawing from blacklist name of Swiss companies who traded with Axis during the war, in exchange of 250M CHF.

The last part of the doc was explaining how hard it was in Switzerland nowadays to face this part of their History, especially because they built and where grown with a more glorious legend of the small hedgehog resisting victoriously to the German ogre.

I'll try to find the name of the doc tonight, it was a good watch.

Edit: I think it was this one, in French

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Question: I'm simply asking if the defense of Switzerland during WW2 was overrated. Many people claim that the country was impossible to occupy, I just want to know if this is not clearly exaggerated.

It is a myth that Switzerland is impossible to invade or occupy. Hitler in 1940 described Switzerland as a "pimple on the face of Europe", as he developed his plans to invade. Operation Tannenbaum.

Why he never invaded is reflects timing and reward more than an aversion to doing battle with the Swiss army or terrain.

Yes, Switzerland improved their defenses on the outset of WW2. Yes the mountains and terrain of Switzerland would make the invasion harder. But does anyone believe Switzerland's alps and army were a greater deterrent than Russia's vast distances, cold winter both of which defeated Napoleon? Or France's well equipped and significantly larger army? Or Britain with her Navy, RAF and Channel. Or the United States with an entire Ocean and vast population. Germany was at war with all these more existential threats than the Swiss.

Hitler's aversion to invading Switzerland came down to timing and reward. He was waiting for the time, and he really already had most of the reward a conquest of the Swiss would grant him.

Timing
Hitler was busy with the allies. If and when Hitler was free with them; popular wisdom is he would have invaded Switzerland. He already had his plans drawn up. The only thing which saved the Swizz was he likely hadn't gotten around to them yet.

Reward
Basically there was precious little reward to invading Switzerland for Germany in WWII. Germany was Switzerland's main trading partner before and during the war. On Switzerland's side Switzerland is and was an industrial country with very little raw materials to fuel it's industry. During WWII much of that fuel in the form of coal and raw materials came from Germany which surrounded Switzerland.

The Economics of Neutrality: Spain, Sweden and Switzerland in the Second World War (2011) - page 294
Between 1939 and 1945 Germany exported 10,267,000 tons of coal to Switzerland. In 1943 these imports supplied 41% of Swiss energy requirements. In the same period Switzerland sold electric power to Germany equivalent to 6,077,000 tons of coal.

.
Germany enjoyed the benefits of Switzerland's industrial output for important war materials such as ball-bearings. Germany also enjoyed the ability to transport goods through Switzerland on her railways to Germany's primary ally in Italy. Germany also enjoyed a brisk business with Switzerland's banks where they squirrelled away their loot and booty from across Europe. So overall their was very little to entice Germany to invade, they already realized the benefits of good trade, travel and cooperative relationship with Switzerland. Truth be told these things, didn't stop Hitler from invading Austria. Which brings us back to timing.

NY Times: The (Not So) Neutrals of World War 2
''The romantic idea of the Swiss citizen army standing between it and disaster in the war was always nonsense,'' said Arno J. Mayer, a professor of history at Princeton University. ''Given the fact it borders Germany, it was natural for it to lean more toward the Axis powers. It is the new spirit of our times that has led to the current scrutiny.''

2

Here's the answer to a silghtly different, but highly relevant question:

Why didn't Germany attack Switzerland?

There's a multitude of reasons, in no particular order (all links in German):

  • Luck (source 1)
  • Military deterrent (source 1)
  • Lack of a good logistic opportunity for the Axis (source 1)
  • Willing partner in trade (source 1)
  • North south transportation, through the Gotthard tunnel, and the expected collapse of said tunnel in case of invasion (source 2)
  • Germany's long term strategy of generating support among "Aryan" countries and "Aryan" occupied territories (source 3)
  • Expectation of eventual peaceful annexation (source 3)

Any one of these reasons, with the exception of the first one, is not a sufficient explanation on its own. Taking the Swiss Plateau, installing a German friendly government (or rather, keeping the half that was German friendly already), and hoping that the army in the mountains eventually surrenders would have been a simple and viable strategy that the Germans were well aware of.

1

The Reich annexed or invaded various other Germanic territories, such as Austria (before the war even began), as well as Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherland, and Luxembourg (after it started). More to the point, the Low Countries, as Switzerland, also adopted, initially, a position of neutrality, so your question is certainly reasonable. I believe one of the reasons behind this inaction to be Switzerland's geographical, historical, cultural, national, and strategic ties to one of Germany's most trusted allies during the Second World War, namely Fascist Italy. (Indeed, Hitler's own Beer Hall Putsch was modeled on Mussolini's March on Rome). Of course, Austria also bordered on Italy, but, unlike Switzerland, it was not home, historically, to any significant Italian population. All other lands, however, were either mostly Germanic, or housed French and Slavic populations, whose (main) fatherland Hitler planned on attacking anyway. It is indeed rather striking that Germany's incursion into Italian territory (in the Alps and Adriatic) begins only after Italy's signing of the September 1943 Armistice with the Allied Forces. (Just my two cents).

1

Not impossible, but costly and difficult, to the point of being a net-negative.

I've been to Switzerland and more in other parts of the Alps (Austria and Germany). I'm also interested in history and military strategy. Based on what I've read over the years:

Invading Switzerland is a hard problem due to geography. There is a limited number of roads open all year, and of course the Swiss known them very well. There are hidden bunkers and guns everywhere, just look at these hidden bunkers for examples. When literally everything can be an anti-tank gun waiting for you to come into range, you can either accept terrible casualties or make your invasion a crawl.

Holding any conquered territory suffers from similar problems. Most villages and towns are at the bottom of valleys (where rivers and arable land are, you know?) and a few snipers in the mountains can make your life hell while your chance to get them is effectively zero.

Unlike Greece or Yugoslavia, most of the country is that kind of territory.

As for starvation - mountains are more complicated than that. There are so many Alms (mountain pastures) in the Alps that you can easily feed a widely distributed guerilla force from those alone. When you look at a mountain from below, it might seem that it goes up, gets rocky, and then there's the top. But in reality, there are vast areas of land up there, hidden from down by the mountain face. I've been climbing and skiing in the Alps and there are so many places I've been to that were completely invisible from below. You can put entire villages up there and from the valley you would never guess they even exist.

So you would have to run continuous patrols in a difficult terrain that your enemy knows like the back of his hand. If you want to know how that typically turns out, remember the Vietnam war.

And all of that for a small country with almost no strategic value and few ressources.

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    Glad you enjoyed your visits to our mountains - but the major swiss population and industrial centers are not located there, neither then nor now. Germany would not have needed to cross any mountains to take the vast majority of the Swiss population and industrial capacity. – meriton - on strike Aug 20 at 12:24
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    Zürich, Bern, Genf? None of them are far enough from the next mountain range that I'd feel safe as a military commander. Not in the age of artillery. – Tom Aug 20 at 12:49
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    Your notion that artillery could have suppressed the german advance (that's what you are suggesting, right?) doesn't seem consistent with swiss military policy at the time. Can you give any sources that document the existence of such artillery stations and how the swiss were intending to use them? – meriton - on strike Aug 20 at 13:19
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    Not to halt the advance, but to support guerilla actions and force the constant presence of a large occupation force. The whole point of the Swiss military strategy, as I understand it, is to give up the land, but make it too costly for any invader to keep it. – Tom Aug 20 at 13:22
  • @meriton: But major population centers are not Switzerland, which is what the question asks about. Claiming that taking them means the country is conquered would be like an invader taking the Boston/Washington and San Francisco/San Diego metro area, and then claiming that they'd conquered the US. – jamesqf Aug 21 at 3:13
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Probably not impossible, as any country can invade another, but if you mean conquer it'd be quite hard, as the Alps would hinder German movement, and there wasn't any real motivation to invade Switzerland, as Switzerland is a mainly German country that focused on neutrality and didn't have any good resources the German war machine needed like oil. The only way I can see an invasion happening is if Germany decided to go thru the Maginot line with Switzerland instead of Belgium, which would strategically be a bad idea as Belgium's terrain is much more flat than the Alps.

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No, Switzerland was not self sufficient food wise. While the mountainous terrain is an advantage militarily, it is a big problem when you can't trade with your neighbors.

occupying the country would be relatively easy for the same reasons, hunger humbles even the most determined.

I would bet a three month blockade, and air campaign (on critical infrastructure) and the swiss would surrender.

  • 2
    While Switzerland was indeed not self sufficient when WWII began, they radically transformed their agricultural sector as part of the Anbauschlacht. By the end of the war, the agricultural area in Switzerland had doubled, bringing the country close to self sufficiency. And of course the Swiss held a strategic food reserve, so a 3 month blockade would have been far too short to cause hunger. – meriton - on strike Aug 21 at 10:50
  • @meriton, during WWII as much as half of Switzerland's energy in the form of coal came from Germany. As the allies bombed the German Industrial base especially ball-bearings at huge cost of air crews and planes; Switzerland's industrial base was augmenting Germany's manufacturing capacity. Swisserland was neutral in WWII in name only. I'll give you probable out of necessity. – JMS Aug 21 at 16:03
  • @JMS As soon as the war began, Switzerland started massively electrifying its train network that was still not already electrified to stop importinc coal. Electricity is produced with dams in the alps and made Switzerland energy-autartic. By 1941 this was mostly done. Since then, Switzerland is one of the only country in the world (with Austria maybe) where 99% of the rail network is electrified. – Bregalad Aug 22 at 6:55
  • @Bregalad Between 1939 and 1945 Germany exported 10,267,000 tons of coal to Switzerland. In 1943 these imports supplied 41% of Swiss energy requirements. In the same period Switzerland sold electric power to Germany equivalent to 6,077,000 tons of coal. The Economics of Neutrality: Spain, Sweden and Switzerland in the Second World War -2011 Page 294 – JMS Aug 22 at 14:24
  • @Bregalad that is why i included an air campaign to knock out any critical infrastructure. – Famous Jameis Sep 23 at 19:10
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Totally new to this site, and not an historian. But... no other answer is considering weapons. AFAIK Switzerland doesn't/didn't make its own weapons. Once the war is started, anything spent or destroyed by the enemy won't be replaced. Switzerland is neutral, so it has no allies to provide them with weapons/ammunition, and even if they are/were rich enough to purchase abroad, there are procurement delays, and the enemy can intercept the delivery. So if the guerilla could last, the military would lose a war of attrition (however expensive it would be for the enemy, given the tactical difficulties).

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    That's ridiculous; Switzerland was actually exporting weapons and ammunition during WWII (not much, granted, but it does show they had a surplus). – meriton - on strike Aug 21 at 10:38
  • The Axis would be able to block any imports to Switzerland, which would make arms production very difficult. Also, the Swiss arms factories were in the Mittelland (like in Oerlikon) and would be vulnerable to both invasion and bombing. – user2384824 Aug 21 at 12:31
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    -1: Not only Switzerland manufactured it's weapons (and exported them) back then, but it still does now. This answer is counter-factual. – Bregalad Aug 21 at 13:42
  • @Bregalad They do planes (beyond trainers), tanks, heavy guns, bombs? Where do they get the steel? or iron ore and coal? – xenoid Aug 21 at 19:54
  • @meriton From the very doc you cite: * The product range was extremely narrow: automatic 20 mm cannon and its components against earth targets, for air defense and the arming of aircraft and warships, 20 mm ammunition, clock igniters and parts thereof of the German type S / 30 for 8.8 cm Ammunition and larger, Dixi GPA detonators, in military optics in advance coincidence telemeter 80 cm and 150 cm.* 20mm cannon? Do you realize how small that is? It would barely scratch a tank. – xenoid Aug 21 at 19:56
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Welcome to History.stackexchange

Your question is interesting, and a lot of points were highlighted by other contributors. I would like to add some points:

We are in a World War, not only in the fight of Axis/Germany versus Switzerland. One of the contributor spoke in the conditions of an uchrony where the Axis is victorious. What could be interesting is to consider the different periods when Axis could have invaded Switzerland.

Hindisght: I am not considering here the causes: why would Axis invade Switzerland, but only how it could do it without leaving to the Allies all the other fronts.

1939: Germany is the only fighter of the Axis: it could not invade Switzerland at the same time as Poland, without creating a frank reaction from the French and English armies. So if any reason leads Germany to threaten Switzerland, Germany would wait 1940.

1940: The best year considering the strategy: While attacking Belgium, Germany could also creates a new front on the right flank of the Allies. It would be somehow a way to secure the southern flank of the Sedan Breakthrough. Italy could help, and after the Anchluss, the Axis have three directions from which to attack Switzerland: North, East and South. However, as others said, the mountains are a great obstacle: the French defended with a great efficiency the Alpes, so the Swiss Army could have done the same. At the end, it is probable that the bulk of the Wehrmacht would have concentrated against France, winning the war and reaching Geneva from the West before the center of Swiss is reached from the East/North/South. This would be the perfect conditions for the Swiss Army to become an important Resistance movement.

1941: The perfect year on a tactical point of view: attack from all sides, with the same fights as against Yougoslavia or in Greece, with panzerdivisions having a good dotation in infantry and artilery, and a massive support from the Luftwaffe. Siwtzerland stood no chance but could resist for a long time.

1942, 1943: those years are the same: not that much troops available, with all the fronts, but for example, the troops used against the Yougoslavian Resistance movements could be directed against Switzerland. The RAF would be too far to support Swiss aviation, however a lot of bombers and fighters would be distracted from the major fights on the East Front and in Africa.

1944: The advance in Italy would lead Switzerland to be an opportunity for the Allies: so maybe the Axis will not take the risk to have a front in the back of Kesselring's troops in Italy.

1945: No way! The Allies are at the gates, not any troops are available to defend Switzerland.

protected by Pieter Geerkens Aug 21 at 19:52

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