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The Day the U.S. Bombed Switzerland

A Case of Bombs Gone Awry? 

When I was born in 1959 in the small Swiss city of Schaffhausen, I didn’t realize that my hometown had the dubious distinction of being one of about a dozen Swiss cities that only about fifteen years earlier had been involuntarily involved in World War II despite Switzerland’s proclaimed neutrality and non-involvement in the U.S. bombed Switzerlandwar. On April 1, 1944, Schaffhausen was bombed by at least two dozen U.S. B-24 Liberators, an attack that killed 40 Swiss civilians and injured many more. It was not the only air raid that “mistakenly” deposited Allied bombs on Swiss soil, but it was the deadliest. Of course, I learned about the attack in history class, and it always seemed to make marginal sense to me, given the fact that the canton of Schaffhausen was one of only two areas of Switzerland that are situated north of the Rhine. It seemed plausible to me that maybe those American pilots dropping the bombs on Schaffhausen had dozed off schaffhausenmapduring geography class and just heard the part about the Rhine being the border between Switzerland and Germany, with all things Swiss sitting south of the river. But as I was talking to my aging mother recently, she was able to recall that day in vivid detail and to put a human component on it that I had not found in any of my history books. In 1944, my mother was a fifteen-year-old teenager growing up on a farm just about five miles south of the city of Schaffhausen. April 1 was a Saturday—market day—and it was my mother’s job to take produce from the family’s farm to the market in Schaffhausen. Fortunately for her, the bombers didn’t appear over the skies of the neutral city until she was on her way home already. She had seen American bombers on their way to German targets many times before and had seen the aftermath of bombs that had accidentally been released over Swiss soil, so it wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time during the war, that my mother found herself huddling in a field, hoping that none of the deadly cargo would come down on her. But on this day, it became very clear very quickly that this was no accidental drop, but a targeted attack.  The official story after the raid was that the group of B-24s that rained destruction on Schaffhausen had departed England in the morning on a mission to drop their payload on the chemical factories of the German city of Ludwigshafen. Bad weather and instrument malfunctions conspired to carry the planes off course by a stunning 180 miles! Yet somehow those same planes were able to find their way back to their English base without much trouble. It seems that when the pilots realized that they had missed their original target, they decided to just drop their lethal payload on some–any–other German city, rather than hauling it back to England. Unfortunately, the city they chose was not German.

Of course, the Swiss had their suspicions about the official U.S. explanation, particularly since Allied bombers “mistakenly” attacked Swiss targets a total of at least 15 times between 1940 and 1945, but none of the attacks were as devastating as the April 1 bombing of Schaffhausen. The United States issued a formal apology and offered one million dollars in reparations to the city of Schaffhausen, but that did not placate the Swiss government since attacks and incursions into Swiss airspace had been occurring on a regular basis. At first, Switzerland attempted to resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, but the results were unsatisfactory.  

As the expanding Allied air forces came closer to the Axis homeland and blind bombing through clouds became a frequent practice, the Swiss established increasingly stringent protective procedures. Allied war departments were informed that single aircraft violating Swiss territory would be approached by Swiss aviators and ordered to land by means of green flares and the lowering of landing gear if speed permitted. Foreign military aircraft in formations of two or more would, however, be attacked by Swiss squadrons without warning. Such an attack actually occurred early in March 1944 when Swiss fighters shot down one U .S. bomber and forced another to land at Dübendorf.(http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj00/sum00/helmreich.html)

Maybe the raid on Schaffhausen really was an accident, and maybe it was the Allieds’ way of trying to exert pressure on Switzerland to completely sever its economic ties with Germany or to punish the Swiss for shooting down a U.S. bomber. We will probably never know the whole story, and for most people this incident is no more than a footnote in a dusty old history book, but at 84 years of age and in a losing battle against Alzheimer’s, my mother still vividly remembers this date—April  1, 1944—and the terror it brought to the Swiss countryside where she grew up.

Restaurant Thiergarten after repairs made through American reparation payments.

Restaurant Thiergarten after repairs made with American reparation payments.

 

Restaurant Thiergarten after the raid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following is an account from one of the participants of the raid: http://www.b24.net/missions/MM040144.htm

A video clip from a 1944 weekly news review played at Swiss movie theaters (in German).

The city of Schaffhausen’s photo archive of the bombing, with eye witness reports.

The city of Schaffhausen offers guided historical tours that illustrate the event and its consequences for the city.

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6 Responses to The Day the U.S. Bombed Switzerland

  1. Some years ago I visited the RAF-Museum near Cambridge/UK together with my son. We stood in front of American Bombers of the WWII, when a group of elder men came in. We were talking to some of them, and they said, that they have been Bomber Pilots in the last war. They asked us, where we com from and we told them, that we are Swiss. Then they said, that they were the bomber group which bombed Schaffhausen 1944.
    I asked them the question, which every Swiss would ask, if he could: And they they told me, that they were not allowed to talk about, when I can understand, what they mean…

    So I think, it was a decision to bomb Switzerland, which was taken from higher soldiers (or politicians) than the pilots of the bomber group…

    • ddyve says:

      Yes, I think you are absolutely correct, and we may never know the whole truth. Thanks for sharing.

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