Inside Switzerland's Secret Forts
By Eric Margolis Contributing
Foreign Editor

ST. MAURICE, SWITZERLAND -- "I shall show those insolent herdsmen and cheesemakers!" thundered Adolf Hitler in 1940, after Switzerland refused to allow the German Army to pass through its territory to outflank France's Maginot Line forts. Soon after France's defeat, Hitler and Mussolini ordered their general staffs to complete Plan von Menges, the invasion and partition of Switzerland by the combined armies of Germany and Italy.
But the Axis never invaded tiny Switzerland, then a nation of only 5 million. The reason was not, as revisionists claim, because they needed Switzerland for banking. Other neutrals - America, Spain, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal - were also available for finance and trade. Or because the Swiss co-operated with Hitler's Germany, an outrageous myth concocted by American lawyers and politicians seeking to soak the wealthy Swiss.
In 1940, when America was still neutral to Hitler, Swiss fighters shot down 11 intruding Luftwaffe aircraft.
The true reason was Switzerland's fierce national determination to remain free, backed by its top-secret National Redoubt - an immense system of over 100 mighty forts and thousands of casemates and bunkers buried deep in the heart of the Alps.
In July, 1940, as Europe was surrendering or being overrun by invincible German armies, General Henri Guisan convoqued all senior officers of Switzerland's citizen army to Rutli Meadow and issued his famous order: "Fight to your last cartridge, then fight with your bayonets. No surrender. Fight to the death." The world's oldest democracy would stand alone against Hitler and Mussolini. The Germans and Italians decided against attacking Switzerland because of the casualties they would have faced.
Switzerland's 700,000 soldiers were given the grim command to be ready to leave behind their homes, wives and children, then retreat into the mountain fortress system, which had only enough food and shelter for the army.
Each high Alpine valley was to become a little Thermopylae; every Alpine fort another Verdun. Working round the clock, in two years Swiss engineers created over 100 powerful artillery and infantry forts dug into granite mountainsides. Switzerland's secret Alpine Redoubt exceeded in size, strength, firepower - and, of course, effectiveness - France's famed Maginot Line, hitherto believed to be the world's mightiest fortress system.
Drove right by
At the heart of this huge military complex, whose existence is only now coming to light, lay Dailly, the world's largest and most powerful fort. For four decades, I have driven by Dailly without ever suspecting its existence. Now, as a guest of the Swiss General Staff and the elite Festungwachtkorps (Fortress Guard Corps), I was one of the first non-Swiss allowed to inspect the top-secret fortress.
This Swiss Gibraltar lies some 15 kms south of Lake Geneva's eastern end, between Montreux and Martigny, the gateway to the St. Bernard Pass, commanding the Valais, a highly strategic valley formed by the Rhone River, the major land route between Italy and northern Europe. At St. Maurice, the Valais is further constricted by the outthrust of the Dailly massif, a steep, pyramid-shaped mountain spur that juts into the valley, narrowing the defile to under two kilometres in width. Here, in 47 A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius had the first bridge built across the fast-flowing Rhone.
Fortification of Dailly began in 1892. By the early 1940s, Dailly had literally become, as the fort's technical chief, the redoubtable Aspirant Jean-Claude Raboud told me, "a giant Swiss Gruyere cheese," honeycombed by 60 kms of underground galleries (tunnels), with camouflaged gun embrasures, searchlights, troops barracks, magazines, supply depots and headquarters. North and south of Dailly lie numerous other forts: neighbouring Savatan, Scex, Cindey, Petit-Mont, Follateres, and more, a lethal gauntlet of underground strongholds with a staggering 300 kms of tunnels and interlocking fire from artillery, mortars, and machineguns.
From outside, the forts are invisible, save for a few nondescript wooden buildings. The camouflaged embrasures for machine guns and artillery - trompe-l'oeil flaps that look like rock - are indistinguishable from more than a few feet away. They suddenly open, pour a withering fire, then close.
Turrets are disguised as rustic chalets, sheds or boulders. All guns are pre-registered on their targets and can be fired blind, directed only by voice or electronic commands. The valley is crisscrossed by tank barriers, minefields, and obstacles. The main road and its bridges are mined with special demolition charges. Together, the Valais forts represent the pinnacle of 20th-century military architecture and engineering.
Dailly staggers the mind and body. To reach its entrance at 1,400 metres requires negotiating 29 vertiginous switchbacks etched onto the mountain's steep side. At the fort's narrow summit - known as "The Needle" - you look straight down, a terrifying sheer drop 1,800 metres to the valley floor. From this aerie, one sees - and the fort's big guns can reach - all the way north to the end of Lake Geneva, the fabled Chateau of Chillon, and Montreux; and south to Martigny and the St. Bernard pass into Italy.
The fortress was designed to accommodate 1,800 soldiers, with enough munitions, food and water to hold out "buttoned up" for six months. Neighbouring Savatan held 1,600 troops. Hewn into virgin granite, and protected by elaborate air filtration systems, Dailly and many other alpine forts were immune to everything except for direct hits by nuclear weapons.
Upgraded in the '70s
Fearing a Soviet invasion, the Swiss extensively upgraded their forts until the late 1970s. France similarly upgraded and upgunned some of the Maginot forts during the 1960s.
Dailly's fighting power came from a variety of weapons designed for distant and close-in action: machineguns; 75 mm rapid-fire guns; 105 and 120 mm artillery with a range of 17 kms; 81 and 120 mm semi-automatic mortars; 20 mm AA guns; and two turrets with fully automatic 150 mm cannon. These latter are fed by an elaborate production line 50 metres below the surface. Shells and propellant cartridges are loaded onto conveyer belts, mated, fused and then fed up by an ammo hoist system to the automatic cannon, huge, evil machines that can fire a storm of 22 heavy shells per minute to a distance of 25 kilometres.
Watching this production line of death in operation was a remarkable experience. My Swiss escort and friend, Lt. Colonel Marcel Krebbs, rightly described the huge 150 mm guns and their 50-metre high barbettes as "pharonic," worthy of an Egyptian pharaoh. So were the fort's power plants, barracks, and magazines. The Swiss spared no expense on these battleships buried in the Alps.
The Cold War's end led Switzerland to sharply reduce its armed forces and decommission many forts. Large forts are being replaced by smaller artillery works armed with 155 mm long-ranged guns. But much of Dailly and its neighbours are still active, serving as bases for Swiss mountain brigades defending the nation's fortress heartland.
Though I'm a veteran fortress explorer, Dailly left me at times with both vertigo from "The Needle" and claustrophobia after hours of tramping through narrow, dimly lit concreted galleries, or squeezing in to a tiny lift that took us up through the rock inside the 150 mm turret. Just looking down the 560-metre deep shaft of the funicular elevator that supplied the garrison made my head spin. After eight hours at titanic Dailly, one of the true wonders of the world, I was overwhelmed, elated and totally exhausted. And I finally understood why Swiss friends used to tell me, "Switzerland isn't a country; it's a fortress that looks like a country."


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