Neutering the Neutral

On March 4, 1945, six B-24H American bombers on their way to bomb Aschaffenburg again in the “clean up” missions at war’s end, somehow ended up bombing the city of Zurich, Switzerland “by mistake,” 15 miles within the territory of the neutral power with which the United States was supposedly trying to maintain good relations. They dropped 12 tons of incendiary bombs and 12.5 tons of heavy explosives. Most exploded in an open field, but 5 Swiss civilians were killed, 22 left homeless, and several houses were destroyed.

Previously, on April 1, 1944 the northern Swiss city of Schaffhausen was seriously damaged when 50 U.S. bombers killed and wounded 100 people and ravaged homes, factories, city buildings and railway yards of the city of 22,000 inhabitants. There were 428 left homeless and 67 buildings damaged. At the Museum of Natural History and at the Allerheiligen Museum, valuable treasures were destroyed. Nine works of Tobias Stimmer and the collection of Swiss painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were all burned.

Americans placated the Swiss with one million dollars in relief funds, followed by another 3 million. There were numerous other attacks throughout the war, including one which killed seven people and injured 16 at Taegerwilen and Stein-am-Rhein; eight died at Rafz, as did a child at Vals in two of 13 separate attacks. On Christmas Day, 1944, planes from the 1st Tactical Air Force bombed Thayngen.

Several planes attacked a railway station at Noirmont, despite the presence of Swiss flags painted on village roofs. Basel was bombed as well, damaging the freight station and injuring people. The British were also responsible for minor attacks on Geneva, Basel, and Zurich, all explained as “mistakes.” However, at the time, the Swiss accused the Allies of attacking their railway, and claimed that the bombings were not accidental but intentional, even going so far as to proclaim the bombing of Schaffhausen a war crime. It was a fact that Aschaffenburg, Germany was the primary target in the Basel bombing and Freiburg, Germany was the target in the Zurich bombing, and the cities bore not much similarity at all. In fact, Freiburg is more than 200 miles away from Zurich, and Ludwigshafen, the purported intended target for Schaffhausen, was about 145 miles north.

Further, they observed that the Allies wanted to stop German shipments to Italy over the Swiss rail system and the Swiss repeatedly rejected these demands. The 1944 bombing of Schaffhausen included destruction of the rail line and rail station (Schaffhausen, coincidentally, also lost a major watch-making and precision instruments factory that some feared was supplying precision equipment to Germany). Basel’s and Noirmont’s damage was also to the railway, and in Zurich the main destruction was to the neighborhood and homes around the Zurich rail center.

Those responsible for the Schaffhausen bombing received no reprimand, and the Swiss insisted on disciplinary action for those responsible for the Basel and Zurich bombings. The Zurich pilots were court marshaled by a reluctant US military but, amid Swiss objections, it took place in a military court instead of a civilian court (it is interesting to note that the presiding officer at the trial was future actor Jimmy Stewart), and all were later acquitted.