Military-Grade Awesome, Uncategorized

The Labyrinthine History of Secret Swiss Bunkers

Empires rise and fall, alliances swarm and splinter, and for five hundred years, the Swiss have remained armed and neutral, dangerous to any invader. Popular wisdom holds that Switzerland doesn’t have an army or forts, Switzerland is an army, the country itself is a fortress. The Alps in their natural state can be as forbidding as any place on earth, and enormous though invisible military improvements have been built deep in the mountains.

The railroad brought modern fortifications to Switzerland in 1885, when the first positions were built at Gotthard Pass to hammer the roadbed and any army foolish enough to use it. Similar forts were built throughout the central Alps and Saint-Maurice. These would be the genesis of Réduit and the whole national strategy. Though mobilized under their third general in five hundred years, Swiss neutrality was not overtly threatened by the First World War. It wasn’t until the blitzkrieg that the Swiss went plaid in the construction of defensive bunkers.

The legend of the Réduit has passed into myths of fighter jets emerging airborne from the mouths of tunnels with automatic doors. [1] Common estimates suggest 20,000 built-in defensive positions. In reality, many of those are anti-tank spikes. At its peak, Switzerland had merely 400 heavy artillery installations, 600 anti-tank gun installations, 1800 machine gun installations, 2000 command posts or barracks, and 3000 demolition points. In a country 2/3 the size of West Virginia, with plenty of 10-15,000 foot mountains instead of the 3-4,000 foot peaks of the Appalachians.

Tunnel networks were expended at a frenzied rate starting in 1939. The solid rock was dynamited every day at 06:00 and 18:00, simultaneously in all locations to hide the scale of the project. Hydroelectric plants were built entirely inside mountains. [2] Fort de Dailly alone has 60km of tunnels, part of the 300km Fortress Saint-Maurice honeycomb. A garrison 1800 feet below the main positions has its own funicular railway, and could supply 1800 soldiers through a six month siege.

In the event of a German invasion, the Swiss Army would mobilize and withdraw into the central Alps, where they would cut off the rail connections between Germany, Italy, and France by dropping every overpass onto the tracks and pummeling any attempt to clear the debris. Explosives were literally built into the infrastructure, with only detonators missing. Later, a Soviet force could expect even higher coyote levels of being blown up, crushed by a bridge, and then falling off a cliff.

At the end of the Second World War, after armed conflict in Switzerland never escalated beyond occasionally defending their airspace, the strategy of Réduit was as firmly embedded in Swiss psychology as in the bedrock itself. Military posts continued to be improved, gaining air filtration and pressurization to keep a radioactive atmosphere outside. And in population centers, private citizens began adding concrete shelters. Initially, the aim was to prevent the massive civilian casualties seen in firebombed German cities. But by 1963, when construction code made bomb shelters mandatory, the focus was on nuclear war: ‘Neutrality is no defense against radioactivity.’ The requirement for every residence to have a 1-bar shelter and every hospital to have a 3-bar shelter was only eased in 2011. [3] Whether reacting to a direct attack or fallout from elsewhere in the world, Switzerland has enough shelter space for the entire population of 7.6 million, with a safety factor of another million.

Fees from homes with no shelter funded public shelters. The largest was the dual-use Sonnenberg Tunnel, which consisted of two 5100 foot road tunnels connected by a seven story command bunker. Four 350 ton doors were designed to seal in 20,000 people and withstand a 1 megaton explosion half a mile away. Its big test, a five-day trial run known as Operation Ant, revealed many problems. Capacity was based on 1 square meter per person, and it took 14 hours to close the doors, six hours longer than expected. [4] Piping in soothing music, from classical to rock (but not, of course, hard rock) can only do so much, and capacity was revised downward.

With the end of the Cold War, the Army’s chief of staff saw that it was no longer conceivable for the army to withdraw into the mountains and leave the people in the valleys. Many military bunkers were decommissioned, and some were sold. The Swiss Army leases two as ultra-secure, nuclear and EMP-proof data centers. A digital genome time capsule is stored there, and includes a Rosetta stone for pdf, jpeg, java, html, and mov files, stored on almost every computer format from floppy disks to blu-ray. Another was turned into a zero-star hotel, which went bankrupt and was re-sold for €1000 after a €100,000 bidder had no cash or checkbook. [5]

Of course, these are just the things we know about. No matter how many bottomless shafts are declassified, no matter how many rocky outcroppings become overgrown with moss, unwelcome guests will forever have to look over every boulder with suspicion. Maybe the Swiss are laughing all the way to the bank when tourists believe that the pile of rocks pictured above is a fort. In the future, a bucolic hay barn housing a swarm of drones will look and work just like a real one, rather than a shell hiding a howitzer.

The long reach of Swiss pikemen helped end the time of knights in armor. The long reach of Swiss artillery helped keep tanks from rolling through Switzerland for a century. The Swiss have long kept a deadly element of surprise on their side. Paradoxically, surprise may be even more effective when the world expects it.

[1] Based in fact, but exaggerated. Aircraft would materialize from and vanish back into hangers hidden along numerous empty airstrips or straight stretches of road.

[2] Any indoor rockwall or mountain climbing in Dubai’s got nothing on this.

[3] One bar represents the extra pressure from a nuclear explosion that the structure will withstand.
The safe radii are as follows:
Hiroshima:0.8km, One megaton:2.6km, Two megatons:4km, Five megatons:5.5km, Twenty megatons:8km
Even in the event of a direct nuclear attack, stronger shelters would offer quickly diminishing returns.

[4] Reports from when the shelter was decommissioned between 2006 and 2008 proceeded through ‘two days to close’, ‘didn’t shut properly’, and ‘would not shut’, used more and more as a punchline. While each is technically accurate, they each a very different picture that is fair in proportion to the proximity of fallout. As far as soothing music, it’s amazing what makes some people feel safe and comfortable. I sleep like a baby to Rage Against The Machine.

[5] And I love how it’s ‘valued’ at €3.7 million.

Sources, Images, and Further Reading

Video, TV Française

La Place De La Concorde Suisse, John McPhee, Farrar/Straus/Giroux, 1983

Book report on the above, by Geoff Manaugh

Motto Bartola, by Paebi via Wikimedia

Cute Little Barn, by Clément Dominik via Wikimedia

Euschels, by Chlempi via Wikimedia

Ebersberg, by Paebi via Wikimedia

Fort Gotthard, by Paebi via Wikimedia

Photo Collection, by leo fabrizio

Photos, and link to collection, by James Moseley

Photo Gallery, by Peter Gerber

Swiss Weigh Future Role of Bunkers in the Alps, by Christopher Solomon

Suspensions And Explosive Objects, by Hans Rudolf Schneider

Inside Switzerland’s Secret Forts, by Eric Margolis

Swiss Renew Push for Bomb Shelters, by Deborah Ball

Book Review – Designing For Civil Defense, by Fabian Neuhaus

Swiss Ready to Face Armageddon, in Comfort, by the Associated Press

Swiss Still Braced For Nuclear War, by Imogen Foulkes

Swiss Army to Shut Hidden Alpine Forts, by Mitya New

“Digital Genome” To Safeguard Dying Digital Data Formats, from the British Library

Subterranean Hotel Sold For Rock Bottom Price, Lyssandra Sears

  • fodder650

    Not much to add to this really just wanted to see some pictures of the hidden hangers if you have them.

      • fodder650

        Oh cool and it's even an F-5.

      • skitter

        Can't believe I missed that in all of my searches, I would have cited it.

        Edit: And the video under further reading has the most hanger footage that I've found.

        Edit 2: Oh, it was filed under 'stealth week'. That must be why I didn't see it.

  • All the crazy forts, then there is the Army:
    <img src=""width=500&gt;

    Old joke: Nazi German army officer asks a Swiss army officer, "What would you do if we invaded Switzerland with an army 4 times the size of yours?" Swiss officer replies, "We would all fire 4 shots and go back home."

    • skitter

      The last bicycle corps was just disbanded within the past couple of years, as a part of military reductions.

  • Excellent article and an awesome expansion of one I wrote a while back.

    All males between 18 and 30 can (and usually are) conscripted into the military. This usually consists of them getting a gun and a few other supplies and being sent home as part of the militia (what we would call the national guard) with training every few years. They can be called up any time and, in the event of an attempted invasion, will grab their guns and head to the hills to take out the invaders at passes or whatnot. At the end of their service, they can have the full auto feature of their gun disabled and buy it.

    They may very well have the largest army on a per capita…in the world.

  • Deartháir

    This, this is exactly the sort of cool shit I had in mind when I started this site. Thank you, Mr. skitter. Fantastic work.

  • The Professor

    Another great article skitter, very well done.
    One thing you didn't cover however, is where do they keep the chocolate? Inquiring minds need to know.

  • The Professor

    Bah! Chocolate is made from plants. Gimme…

  • CaptianNemo2001

    They maintained neutrality but hired themselves out to whoever paid. At the time (1400- 16/1700's) (I don't have exact dates off the top of my head) the hiring of the Swiss people off as mercenary's was most (well over 60-70%) of the outside income coming into Switzerland. Unfortunately this meant that Swiss would eventually fight Swiss due to people being hired to fight for opposing army's.

    • Slow_Joe_Crow

      Hesse took a similar approach as described in The Hessian Mercenary State… by Charles Ingrao. Essentially soldiers were a primary export and source of foreign exchange. While this sort of thing is frowned on today, it is a common scenario in Sci Fi like Hammers Slammers.