On Armed Forces Day (21 May), I drove to Switzerland and visited the Swiss Military Museum at Full-Reuenthal
It was a remarkable experience that exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.
I find Switzerland fascinating.
They are a fiercely independent people and
guard their freedom jealously. Their military is based on a small standing Army
and a large citizen militia, with universal conscription and reserve service. Each
Swiss Reservist keeps his military service rifle at home, along with ammunition
and the rest of his equipment, with which he is expected to practice to
maintain proficiency. Organized shooting
is a national pastime on a far larger scale per capita than in the United
States (and you thought *we* were a “gun culture”!)
Our nation’s founders held Switzerland in high
regard, looking to its history and institutions as inspiration for our own
Conversely, the Swiss
Constitution of 1848 was influenced by ours.
More details here:
Although Americans seem to be more familiar with
Germany (perhaps because so many of our ancestors came from there, and because of
generations who have served there during and after WWII), the United States actually
has much more in common with Switzerland.
I had visited Switzerland once before, in April 2010.
At that time I wanted very much to visit two sites that are central to Swiss
history: The Bundesbrief Museum and the Rütli meadow.
The modern Swiss Confederation dates their history
to 1291, when the Federal Charter (Bundesbrief) was signed and sealed. The original
is preserved in a museum in the town of Schwyz.
This document is viewed by the Swiss in much the same way that we view
our own Declaration of Independence. I
got to visit the Bundesbrief Museum and to see this original
document from 1291 on display. No photos were allowed, but it can be viewed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Charter_of_1291
The other historic site was the Rütli meadow. This is the site where the
leaders of the Waldstätten (now Cantons) of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden
the shore of Lake Lucerne to take an oath of mutual defense against external
aggression (the “Rütlischwur”). The
meadow occupies a similar place in Swiss history as our Lexington and Concord –
it is hallowed ground, the site of key events in the story of the Swiss national
origin. The exact historical date has been a matter of some debate over the years, but 1291 has come to be accepted, and the Swiss celebrate both the charter and the oath on 1 August, their national holiday.
This oath is also part of the story of William Tell, although his role
has been romanticized in much the same way that Paul Revere has become symbolic
of the events of April 18th- 19th, 1775. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCtlischwur
In 1991, for the 700th anniversary of the
Bundesbrief, authorities dedicated the “Swiss Way”, a commemorative hiking path
around Lake Lucerne, with monuments along the way commemorating each Canton’s
entrance into the Swiss Confederation. I
couldn’t help but compare it to the “Battle Road” between Boston, Lexington,
Not coincidentally, my visit to Rütli in April 2010 coincided
with the Second Amendment March on Washington, which I could not attend. Instead, I participated by hiking a portion of
the Swiss Way around Lake Lucerne to the Rütli meadow. I wore the Second Amendment March t-shirt and
presented a commemorative coin to the curators of the museum at the site.
|The Rütli meadow, viewed from across Lake Lucerne|
|One of the markers on the "Swiss Way"|
|The Rütli meadow|
I am a student of military history, and love to visit museums and battlefields.
Although Switzerland has remained neutral and has not been actively involved as a nation in an armed conflict for generations, maintaining that neutrality has required a substantial investment in military preparedness.
The most severe test of this neutrality came during WWII, when Switzerland was threatened with invasion by Nazi Germany and incorporation into the Third Reich.
How they prepared to resist such an invasion, ultimately deterring
it, is the subject of two different books by author Stephen Halbrook.
His books “Target Switzerland” and “The Swiss and the Nazis” detail Swiss national preparations during this period, and are very interesting reading.
The Rütli meadow is important in modern Swiss
history as well, in a way very closely related to my more recent visit. In 1940, under the shadow of a threatened invasion by Nazi Germany, General Henri Guisan gathered the senior commanders of
the Swiss Army in the Rütli meadow and outlined his plan for total resistance. This was a defining moment in the history of
Swiss armed neutrality and national identity.
Imagine a modern American leader gathering his commanders at Lexington
or Concord for a similar purpose!
This was the context for my visit to the Swiss Military
Museum – a desire for a more complete understanding of Swiss military history,
particularly their preparations for resisting a Nazi invasion.
As I said earlier, I was not
The museum is located in Full-Reuenthal, just
across the Rhine river from Germany.
is about a two hour drive south from Stuttgart, and I couldn’t have had a more
beautiful day for the drive.
Germany is beautiful, and as I approached the Swiss border, I could see how the
terrain (and of course the Rhine river) form a natural frontier boundary
between the countries.
The museum consists of two separate facilities.
The main museum in the town of Full is
located in what looks like an old industrial installation on flat terrain at
the level of the river.
installation is up the mountain in the village of Reuenthal, and is inside an
old border fortification.
I visited the
main museum first.
The building is an unlikely-looking facility for a
It looks for all the world like
an abandoned factory of some kind, which it probably is.
Inside, however, the layout is innovative and unusual,
very effectively using the available space.
Platforms on several levels are joined by various stairways and
walkways, with thematically-organized collections of military artifacts on each,
as well as a variety of vehicles (including aircraft suspended from the
ceiling). I will include just a few
photos of things I found particularly interesting, although they in no way
capture the extent of the collection).
|German V-1 "Buzz Bomb" from WWII. |
|A display of Swiss military bicycles - these two are modern. |
|Older Swiss military bicycles. |
|From the other side. I like the way the rifle is mounted. |
|They used a tactical medium girder bridge as a walkway.|
I have built this bridge in the field.
|There was an entire room dedicated to models of military |
vehicles. Most were displayed in cases with labels, but
this enormous diorama of an American military
formation during WWII was quite impressive!
Outside of the main museum, in a neighboring
building, is a very impressive collection of military vehicles from several
nations and eras.
Again, I could not
even begin to capture the entire collection, but a few photos will give a representative
|I saw this and thought "M38A1", but was surprised to read that |
it is actually a commercial CJ-5 that the Swiss Army bought
and put into service.
|An overview of the vehicle display. Visible at right center is a |
US M3 Stuart (I sure wish the one at Camp Perry was this well
maintained). At left center are two Soviet T-34's. The one with
the turret markings took part in the invasion of Germany in 1945.
One thing that repeatedly impressed me about this
museum was the quality of the signage on the exhibits.
It was very thorough, and generally gave not
only the history of the type of vehicle, weapon, or other artifact, but also
often gave the history of the specific example on display, such as where it was
used and how it came into the museum’s possession.
It may seem trite, but I couldn’t help
thinking that such thoroughness and precision are very much in keeping with the
Another thing that impressed me was the quality of
the vehicles, weapons, and artifacts themselves.
Nearly everything was in excellent
Many museums will display
vehicles that are in various states of decay, with rust, worn tires and tracks,
missing components, etc.
But in the
large exhibit hall that displayed the vehicles, it smelled mainly of fresh
The vehicles are almost all in running
condition, are exceptionally well-preserved, and usually included not only the
vehicles themselves, but also many artifacts (such as weapons and personal
equipment) stored in them so as to demonstrate how they would have looked when
in active service.
I do not remember
ever seeing another museum with quite this level of attention to detail.
After I had toured the museum, I visited the
museum gift shop and rummaged through a variety of surplus military uniforms
and equipment, as well as books and manuals.
I added two books to my library. One is called “Schweizer, Das Musst Du
Wissen” (“Swiss [citizen], This You Must Know”), a quite interesting
citizen’s handbook. It is a pretty
comprehensive overview of Swiss history as well as civic, political, geographic,
and economic information about the country.
It made me wonder if something similar might be in order for Americans.
The other book is called “Bürger und Soldat”
(“Citizen and Soldier”).
the Swiss Officer’s Association in 1944, it is a collection of essays by Swiss
officers on various aspects of being a citizen-soldier and the attendant
responsibilities. Each is written in the language of its author (German,
French, or Italian), so I won’t be able to read them all.
But it seemed a good addition to my collection
of books on the subject, and should provide some interesting perspective.
After finishing with the museum, I drove up the
mountain to visit the fortification.
expected a tour something like my tours of Fort Douaumont at Verdun or Fort Schoenenbourg
on the Maginot line.
While there were definite
similarities, this was, in my view, more interesting and well-presented than
either of the others had been.
First a bit more history:
In the 1930’s, Switzerland began constructing
extensive border fortifications along its frontier with Germany.
This particular fort was built to watch over
and protect a section of the Rhine river that included a dam and hydroelectric
plant, as well as a flat area with an island in the river that could have
served as an invasion route if the dam were to be blown up and the water level
in the river lowered.
The fort consists
of a large complex of very thick underground concrete bunkers, with emplacements
for artillery pieces overlooking the river valley below as well as machinegun
emplacements designed for close-in defense against an attack on the fort
|The entrance to the fort.|
|A plan and aerial view of the fort. (Note - |
the plan and photo are 180 degrees reversed
from each other). On the plan, the entrance
is at upper left. The two outer circles are
observation and machinegun positions.
The two inner circles are the cannon positions.
The various support facilities are on the right.
|Terrain model showing the location of the fort (red arrow)|
and the portion of the Rhine it covered (left side and beyond)
was manned by volunteers from a historical preservation society.
While not a guided tour per se, they posted
themselves at a few strategic spots in the fort and explain its workings.
They all wore quasi-military clothing, and
are (or were) undoubtedly reservists in the Swiss Army.
They treated me with great courtesy as an
American officer, and called me “their honored guest”.
First I climbed up into an artillery observation
post, from which an observer would have pinpointed enemy movements and called
their locations to the gun positions.
was a really cool setup.
telescope was on a swiveling mount, and was connected to a mechanism
that traversed over an engraved graphic representation of the terrain in the valley.
Various pre-plotted firing coordinates were
already marked on this metal “map”.
were elevation and traversing controls, with a moving clear plastic square marked out
in a grid.
By simply looking at the
desired target through the telescope, the coordinate location was automatically
pinpointed on the map, and the coordinates easily read out.
|Steps leading up to the first machinegun post, and a |
view of the tunnel leading to the rest of the fort.
|The artillery observation post. Unfortunately, the glare |
from the light makes it hard to see the graphic
Then I climbed up into one of the machinegun posts
that could set up a crossfire in front of the fort to fight off an infantry
It was equipped with a mounted
water-cooled MG, set up in a similar manner with pre-plotted target points and
a traversing/elevation mechanism so as to be able to place fire on a designated
point communicated by an observer, or to fire based on observation through a
scope on the machinegun itself.
MG’s set up for field use, this one was hooked up to an integrated plumbing
system with a continuous condensation/reclamation mechanism.
Theoretically such a gun could fire almost non-stop
until it ran out of ammunition (of which they had Plenty!).
|Two of the volunteer guides demonstrating the machinegun.|
The blue pipe brings in fresh air.
Finally, I climbed into one of the two artillery
bunkers. This was equipped with a 75mm cannon
with a range of about 10-12 KM. These
cannon were the main reason for the fort’s existence. The fire-control mechanism was the same as
the machineguns, albeit with different pre-planned targets. The guides let me
sit down at the controls, and called out coordinates for me to direct
fire. I adjusted the traverse and
elevation to their specifications, and they then had me look down the open bore
of the gun. It was pointed directly at a
farmhouse across the valley on the other side of the river. Pretty neat stuff. I was confused at first because they
described the cannon as "halbautomatisch” (semiautomatic), but I saw no
magazine. It turns out that in this
context, they meant that it ejects the shell casing automatically upon firing,
and that when the new shell is inserted into the breech, it locks
automatically. The shell still has to be
picked up and inserted by hand, however.
They told me that a crew of five men operating the cannon at maximum
efficiency could get off 20 rounds per minute.
|75mm cannon with aiming mechanism.|
After this, I walked down the tunnels expecting to
see the predictable sort of exhibits – soldier’s quarters, workshops, medical
facilities, radio room, kitchens, that sort of thing.
They were there, as expected, and were very
well-presented and interesting.
I ever in for a surprise!
I had thought
that the museum was housed primarily down below, and that the fort would simply
be the fort.
But many of the rooms, as
well as one of the main tunnels, were set up as museum exhibits in their own
There were room after room of
exhibits, with a breathtaking array of weapons and equipment.
For me, as a military firearms enthusiast, it
was really almost overwhelming. I wished that I had had an entire second day to
visit. (I had originally planned to stay overnight, but changed my mind and
came on a day trip – if I had it to do over again I’d definitely make this a
The rooms were thematically organized, more or
less corresponding to the various major participants in WWII:
|Japanese and German Armies|
|A one-shot flamethrower. Never heard of this before!|
|American and French Armies|
One of the most interesting rooms displayed a variety
of documents and artifacts from Swiss Nazis.
There was apparently a fairly strong Nazi movement in Switzerland both before and
during WWII, which I had never heard about.
I stayed in this room for
quite awhile, reading some of the documents they had on display. T
here were a variety of movements
that had a more-or-less common threat of Nationalism, Socialism, German
identity, and “Erneuerung” (renewal).
movements were eventually all brought under the aegis of the Nazis and assumed
Nazi structure and regalia.
They even had
Not a side of Swiss
history that I had ever seen or read about.
I was impressed that they gave it such a comprehensive exhibit.
|A Germanic Unity flag from before WWII, along with a |
Swiss Nazi flag and uniform.
|Nazi propaganda and documents.|
This hallway had a quite impressive display of
weapons, including a really exceptional display of pistols.
I stood and studied many of them for quite
They actually had more
varieties of the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” than the Mauser museum in Oberndorf!
They also had a couple of very interesting P.38’s,
one of which was an original “HP” Heeres Pistole (“Army Pistol”), which is what
Walther called the pistol before it was officially adopted by the German Army in
1938 and given the P.38 (“Pistole 38”) designation.
I had never seen one of these before, except
|A row of Swiss K31's. I have some friends who shoot these.|
|Quite a collection of Mausers.|
|An interesting comparison of the Mauser C96 and an |
Artillery Luger with snail drum magazine. I could
have purchased one of these Lugers at Fort Bragg for
$3500,but passed on it. It later sold for $12,000. Doh!
|The pistol on the bottom left is a Walther HP ( Heeres Pistol), |
precursor to the P.38
At one point in the afternoon I stopped in the
canteen and had a bowl of Gulaschsuppe and some bread (delicious), along with a beer.
While eating there, I noticed that they had
some interesting souvenirs for sale.
entire museum is supported by volunteers and private donations, plus what they
can earn from the gift shops. Apparently the military surplus they sell is all
canteen, they sold bottles of wine “Festungswein” or “Fortress Wine”) that is
made locally by one of their volunteers from his own home-grown grapes.
They sell these bottles either
or in a package of two, housed in an old Swiss
Army mess kit.
I was tempted, but did
not buy one of these.
The other possibility, however, was a Swiss Army
Feldflasche (Field Flask), complete with fitted aluminum cup. This is sold full of “Festungsschnapps”, also
made locally by a volunteer from home-grown grapes and plums. I found this irresistible, and so acquired
another souvenir of my visit. The volunteer
in the canteen was very generous with free samples of schnapps as he retrieved, cleaned, and filled
my flask, so I walked out with a bit of a buzz in addition to my new
|My Feldflasche, filled with Festungsschnapps.|
By this time, the day was nearly over.
The museum was only open from 1000-1700, and
fort from 1300-1700.
I wasn’t really finished,
and could have spent more time in the various rooms examining the exhibits in
detail, but there just wasn’t time.
I bid my guides farewell and found my way out.
The drive home was just as beautiful as the drive
I should probably have made it a
bit longer trip and spent some time enjoying that part of Germany and/or
Switzerland, but there’s only so much you can do.
Perhaps another time.
Meanwhile I have fond memories and some nice
keepsakes, including fresh reading material for my ongoing exploration of what it means
to be a citizen-soldier defending a free nation.
Rossini (William Tell)