anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 2 - Confederatio Helvetica

A small land-locked country with a land area of only 15,950 square miles, Switzerland has no outlet to the sea, practically no raw materials, and one quarter of its terrain is uncultivatible. It is extremely mountainous with elevations ranging from 633 feet above sea level on the shores of Lake Maggiore to 15,203 feet at the summit of the Dufourspitze of the Monte Rosa group on the border between Switzerland and Italy. The alpine scenery is magnificent, and the Swiss have long capitalised on this aspect of their Federation to build up tourism as the number one industry.

At the outbreak of World War II, there was a Swiss population of approximately 4.2 million people, divided unevenly over 22 cantons, the regional areas which together make up the Federated State, whose political institutions rest on the fundamental sovereignty of its population.

There are four official languages: German, French, and Italian, and a national language, Romanisch, which is spoken in the Grisons area, the centre of which is the famous skiing area of St. Moritz. Romanisch is a direct derivative of the language spoken by the Helvetians, a Celtic tribe conquered by the Romans in 58 BC. It was the Romans who first built a military road over the San Bernard Pass and connected Switzerland with Italy.

The Swiss have jealously guarded their independence and neutrality and as well as using their mountain passes to protect their borders, have built up a transport network to maintain their status as a strategic communications and financial hub of Europe.

They are fiercely independent, and even today, whilst their country contained the headquarters of the International Red Cross as well as the headquarters of the League of Nations, do not themselves have membership of the United Nations whose seat in now physically located in New York.

The political structure of the Swiss Federation is run by two Houses - The Federal Council which constitutes the central executive power, is comprised of 7 members who are elected at a joint meeting of the two Houses of Parliament. Each year one of them is chosen as President, and the Presidency is rotated between French, German, and Italian speaking individual citizens. The Federal Assembly or Parliament, consists of two Houses, the National Council, whose members are deputies, one for each 22,000 electors, and the Council of States, which consists of two deputies from each canton.

The political system is not unlike that of the proposed Republic of Australia, where the President would be appointed by bi-partisan vote of Parliament rather than by direct vote of the population as a whole. In Switzerland, however most laws are enacted by public referendum at either Federation or Cantonal level.

It is not generally known that while the Swiss Parliament drafts laws governing its people as is done in other democratic countries, a petition of 100,000 citizens has the right to submit to Parliament a so called "initiative" asking for new laws to be discussed and adopted or for existing laws to be amended or abolished. The Swiss term this "Direct Democracy" and truly qualifies their country to the world's truest democracy. Yet despite its long democratic record, it was not until after World War II that the women of Switzerland received the right to vote, and, not until 1971, to be elected to Parliament.

Switzerland has always jealously guarded its neutrality and has not fought a war for over 400 years. Military service was compulsory up to the age of 50 or 55 at the time of WW11. Each male citizen over 16 years of age, keeps his service uniform and arms and ammunition at home, and the entire armed forces of Switzerland can be mobilised within 24 hours.

The Swiss Army awards no medals, and shows no insignia of rank in action.
They have no commanding General, except in time of external wars. On August 30, 1939, when another World War seemed inevitable, the two Houses of the Swiss Parliament elected Henri Guisan as the General commanding Swiss forces. Guisan was 65, a professional officer, and much revered by the Swiss population. He was anti-Nazi, but the then President of Switzerland was Marcel Pilet-Golaz, who had the support of the Swiss pro-Nazi members of Parliament.

One the same night that Guisan was appointed General, the Foreign Ministers of some forty nations were reminded that in the event of war, Switzerland was determined to remain strictly neutral. At 11.00 am on September 3, 1939 the British ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of German troops from Poland, expired and WW II commenced. Having officially declared their intention of remaining neutral, they had mobilised their frontier troops, some 80,000 specially selected part-time soldiers close to their own homes.The Swiss were ready to defend their neutrality.

In WWII, its 4.2 million fiercely independent people were to be called upon to accommodate, clothe, feed and medically aid nearly 1,000,000 uninvited guests - refugees from war-devastated areas, political refugees such as Jews and Gypsies, deserters from other nations armies, escapees from neighbouring countries, particularly France and Italy, those seeking medical attention not available in their own countries and military casualties including shot-down airmen.

To give some perspective to the enormity of the task of playing host to the human flotsam of war, in the night of June 19/20, 1940, the 45th French Army Corps commanded by General Daille crossed the Alsatian border into Switzerland bringing 28,000 men (12,000 French, 16,000 Poles), 7,800 horses and 1,600 motor vehicles adding to the 12,000 interned personnel already held in Switzerland, in the first year of war. They were followed the very next day by a further 3,000 men together with all their equipment.

Although by an agreement drawn up by the Swiss, the Germans and Marshall Petain of France, some 30,000 internees were returned to France via the border crossing at Geneva, the Swiss authorities were still organising themselves for a greater influx of unwanted guests.

This came when Marshall Badoglio of Italy signed an armistice with the Allied armies advancing northwards from Southern Italy, while the Germans decided to continue their resistance. The Swiss estimated that 40,000 of the 85,000 Allied POW in Italy and the hundreds of thousands of Italian troops no longer willing to fight on, would try to enter their country. In  overhauling the barrack accommodation and the medical and sanitary facilities, they divided their country into sectors where Italians, British, German and Americans could be housed and separated as groups. East Switzerland was allotted to the Allied evades. It was known as Secteur Sitter or Sitten, and included  8 Hotels taken over in Adelboden for British and American "evades" and "internees".

Italians were accommodated in Murren and Chexbres, Yugoslavians in small pensions in Methue, whilst Germans and Austrians were accommodated in the ski resorts of Davos.

By mid September I943, the steady flow of those seeking the sanctuary of Switzerland averaged 1,000 daily and by the end of 1943, 39,712 people had sought asylum there.

From a total of 104,886 military personnel, the breakdown according to nationality was:

French          32,621  Repatriated  01.7.44 - 31.12.44    440 
Italian          29,213
Polish           14,972                                                 495
Russian         415
German         7,532
British           5,139                                                4,642
Jugoslavian    2,921
American       1,742                                                     91
Greek            846
Belgian         783
Czeck            516                                                      313
Finnish          105
Miscellaneous 81                                                         17
Nett Influx July 1, 1944  -  December 31, 1944:  98,082

(Statistics taken from A5 "Schlussbericht")

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