- 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
- 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
- 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,
- 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."