Secret military fortresses hidden in the Swiss Alps

ULike most train journeys in Switzerland, there is no picture-postcard view of the snow-capped Alps on the del Sasso metro. Cold, humid air flows through the underground funicular as it ascends in near darkness, deep into the Gotthard Mountains in the southernmost canton of Ticino. Disembarking at the top, instead of a vast bucolic landscape, passengers arrive at a military command center.

Declassified only in 2001, Sasso da Pigna was part of a chain of secret fortresses built in the Swiss Alps during World War II. After the fall of France to the Axis in 1940, Switzerland lost a powerful ally and Army General Henri Guisan knew it was futile to continue defending the country’s borders against indomitable Germany. Instead, the Swiss National Redoute was born. Military strategy moved troops away from the front lines, concentrating the workforce in impenetrable mountain bunkers.

Fortresses like Sasso da Pigna, built in 1941-1945, and two other key citadels at Saint-Maurice and Sargans served as strongholds in a network that stretched across the Alps. They housed troops and artillery, while others served as hangars for fighter planes. Of particular importance was the location of Sasso da Pigna at the Gotthard Pass. The pass marks the main route through the mountains from north to south and has served as a major trade route through the Alps since the Middle Ages, modernized at the end of the 19th century with the creation of the St. Gothard.

When the fortress was finally decommissioned, its transformation began into Sasso San Gottardo, a museum that pays homage to the region’s historic past. “This is where Switzerland started, at the foot of this pass,” says Sepp Huber, a former mountain infantry commander who now leads tours through the historic fortress. Visitors enter through an imposing gate carved into the rock face, large enough to allow the passage of tanks. Above, the red, blue and yellow flags of Switzerland and the cantons of Ticino and Uri, whose border is 800 meters north of the fortress, flap and sparkle in the icy wind of the Alps.

Inside the tunnels of the historic fortress, Sasso da Pigna

Courtesy of Sasso San Gottardo

The garrison-turned-museum digs three-kilometer tunnels into the mountain, and on the first floor visitors are greeted with contemporary exhibits on the region’s natural history and culture. In a dark gallery, quartz crystals the size of small trees – for which the region is world famous – sparkle under a spotlight. Past exhibitions have been devoted to themes such as the region’s renewable energy projects, and next year the museum will launch a program focused on Goethe’s work. The 18th-century German poet was enchanted by the St. Gotthard Pass, making three pilgrimages there and writing extensively about this part of the Alps.

Beyond these rooms, a del Sasso metro ride takes museum enthusiasts to the historic heart of the military operation. The Spartan barracks house wooden bunk beds dressed in stiff khaki-colored sheets. The walls of a command center are adorned with strategy maps fixed by radio transmitters on shelves, and an artillery room leads to a newly constructed terrace, from which one has a view of winding roads bordering Green mountains veined with snow.

Today, the Sasso San Gottardo is open to the public during its short season from May to October, when the pass is not blocked by scintillating ice and numbing winds. But during World War II and until the end of the Cold War, the fortresses of the National Redoubt were shrouded in mystery.

“I often looked out the windows of a train and saw a steel door on the side of a cliff, and I thought to myself that there might be planes behind that,” says Clive Church, a Swiss history expert and professor emeritus at the University of Kent. The civilians knew about the redoubt, but no one knew exactly what was inside, nor did Germany or Italy, which was part of the strategy to deter their encroachment. “The fortress housed only 400 men, but the Swiss would say 4,000 to the Germans,” Huber explains.

Historic army barracks in Sasso da Pigna

Courtesy of Sasso San Gottardo

“The Swiss knew that German and Italian spies were focused on fortress construction sites in the central Alps, so they provided exaggerated information to channels they thought could inform Germany,” adds the director. from the Damian Zingg Museum. This strategy was part of the country’s long-standing policy of armed neutrality, which dates back to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The European powers collectively decided that maintaining the country’s neutrality would help the entire region to remain stable, creating a buffer between France and Austria. “The redoubt was there if they were attacked, but it was also there as a deterrent,” says Church. “The more you created this myth of an impenetrable fortress that would have to be fought bit by bit on a very steep slope, the less it was something the Nazis thought they could do,” Church adds.

The creation of the redoubt was also a way for the Swiss to reassure the other powers that they were not secretly assisting the Axis. “For most Swiss [the redoubt] is a symbol; it’s not just the concrete bunkers and guns, ”Church says. “It’s part of their resistance to Nazism. The Swiss haven’t seen a fight since the early 1500s, but Switzerland’s neutrality during the war is controversial. We now know that the redoubt was only part of the defense strategy, and that Switzerland continued to trade with Germany and give them access to the Gotthard railway.

“Switzerland needed raw materials and construction materials from Germany [to construct the fortresses], which it received in exchange for its arms exports and deliveries, ”explains Jakob Tanner, professor emeritus of Swiss history at the University of Zurich. According to most Swiss historians, these economic relations were intended, like the redoubt, to deter Germany from attacking, proving that too much was at stake to invade the country.

Airolo, Passstrae

The Swiss national redoubt spanned the Alps, hidden in the rock face.

André Meier

Although the methods of warfare used in the redoubt became increasingly obsolete after the war, their symbolic character kept the fortresses in operation. “Neutrality also had a domestic, internal function,” explains Tanner. “While the army left the redoubt immediately after the end of the war, the population remained in mental redoubt, which led to a boom in ‘spiritual national defense’ and anti-communism,” says Tanner. . For this purpose, fortresses were used during the Cold War, although information on exactly how and why they were used remains limited. In the 1990s, political stability in Western Europe and the high maintenance costs associated with keeping fortresses in working order caused most of them to be decommissioned and sold to private buyers.

Like the Sasso da Pigna, the fortress of Saint-Maurice has also been transformed into a museum. And less than a kilometer from Sasso da Pigna, at the top of the Gotthard Pass, is an artillery bunker, San Carlo, which has been turned into Hotel La Claustra. Opened in 2004, the cavernous refuge is the work of Swiss architect Jean Odermatt and offers 17 rustic rooms surrounded by a lake and kilometers of hiking trails.

In 11 former bunkers in Stansstad, the Gotthard-Pilze company grows organic mushrooms, and in the Giswil region, a military fortress called Pfedli is owned by Swiss cheese maker Seiler Kaserei AG. Formerly used to store ammunition, spare parts for fighter jets, as well as guided missiles, the company now matures more than 90,000 wheels of raclette cheese in the two 100-meter-long tunnels of the bunker, where the humidity levels and a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit make an ideal environment for the aging process.

As the fortresses of the National Redoubt experience their reincarnations as museums and food production facilities, the threat of the Axis powers seems an almost unimaginable chapter in Switzerland’s past. But it was very real to the thousands of Swiss men and women who served in WWII who filled the dark, underworld with dread with their resounding footsteps.

Beneath Switzerland’s emerald hills and the choir of cowbells, beneath fairytale chalets and the peaks of icing sugar mountains, there is a more gritty story worth remembering. Long shrouded in secrecy, the stories of the redoubt have worked to strengthen the mythical place of the mountain in Swiss consciousness. “The mountains are the homeland of Switzerland, they still offer protection to the country,” explains Tanner.

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