Monday, May 23, 2016

The Swiss Military Museum

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 Republic.  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 document 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:

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 gathered on 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.
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, and Concord.
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 disappointed!

The museum is located in Full-Reuenthal, just across the Rhine river from Germany.  It is about a two hour drive south from Stuttgart, and I couldn’t have had a more beautiful day for the drive.  Southern 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.  The second 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 museum.  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 sample.

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 Swiss character.

Another thing that impressed me was the quality of the vehicles, weapons, and artifacts themselves.  Nearly everything was in excellent condition.  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 paint.  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”).   Published by 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.  I 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 itself.
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)

The museum 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.  This was a really cool setup.  The observation 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”.  There 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
plotting mechanism.

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 attack.  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.  Unlike water-cooled 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!).    Very cool.

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.  Pretty impressive.

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.  But was 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 right.  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 two-day trip).
The rooms were thematically organized, more or less corresponding to the various major participants in WWII:

Swiss Army

British Army

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. There were a variety of movements that had a more-or-less common threat of Nationalism, Socialism, German identity, and “Erneuerung” (renewal).  These movements were eventually all brought under the aegis of the Nazis and assumed Nazi structure and regalia.  They even had Hitler Youth.  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.

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 some time.  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 in books.

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.  The 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 donated.  In the 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  individually  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 Feldflasche.  :)

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.   So I bid my guides farewell and found my way out.

The drive home was just as beautiful as the drive down.  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.

Mood: Exhilarated
Music:  Rossini (William Tell)


At 19:46, Blogger Spoiled in Paradise said...

That's fascinating! I had never thought much about German-Swiss relations during the Nazi era, innocently assuming that the Swiss did little to protect themselves and the Germans simply left them alone because of Switzerland's long history of neutrality. Now I understand the reality was far more complicated.

I'm glad you had such a great time!


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