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Home|Euro 2008|Travel|Guide|Culture|Swiss Armed Forces

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Swiss Culture: Swiss Armed Forces

Robert Easton

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All Swiss males are obliged to do military service, although about one third manage to 'dodge the draft', by being, or claiming to be physically or mentally unfit, or conscientious objectors. Most do an initial stint of about 4 months, after which they are transferred to the Reserves.

Each Reservist is required to keep their own rifle, military uniform, and 50 rounds of ammunition in a tin at home. It is strictly forbidden to use the bullets for any purpose other than self-defence.

The size of the regular army is now only about 220,000 men, but using its system of reserves, Switzerland would be able to mobilise an army of more than one million in about 12 hours.

In a 1989 referendum 36% of the Swiss population voted to get rid of the army completely. This triggered reforms allowing some recruits to do all of their obligatory military service in one go, which takes almost a year.

The reforms also reduced the size of the army from almost half a million, and drastically cut the amount of money the government is allowed to spend on the military. By 2001 the proportion of people wanting to get rid of the army completely had fallen to 22%.

The Swiss Air Force consists of 33 F-18 Hornets. Each Hornet costs around US$40 million, and can fly at over 1,000mph. It is equipped with one M61 Vulcan Gatling Gun and can carry a range of different weapons including Sidewinders, Harpoons, cluster bombs and nuclear bombs.

There were originally 34, but one crashed, and it is unlikely to be replaced because of the military spending cuts imposed by referendum.

In spite of having no coastline there is still a 'Swiss Navy' - in fact two. Switzerland has a merchant navy, the second largest in the world among landlocked countries. In 1952 it had an impressive 36 vessels, but this number has dwindled.

The river-port of Basel provides access to the sea along the Rhine. The other 'Swiss Navy' consists of boats patrolling Switzerland's border lakes, there were 18 vessels in 1994.

Switzerland was neutral in both World Wars. In 1912 Switzerland carried out military manoeuvres which convinced the visiting German Kaiser Wilhelm II of the their strength, thus helping them avoid invasion in World War I.

At the outbreak of World War II Switzerland mobilised the army, and had a force of 500,000 ready in 3 days. Hitler began drawing up plans to invade Switzerland on the day France surrendered. The invasion was to be called Operation Tannenbaum, but it never took place. Nobody really knows why.

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In spite of neutrality, Switzerland could not avoid some involvement in World War II. On April 1 1944 American planes mistook the Swiss town of Schaffhausen for a nearby German town, and destroyed 50 buildings. Both sides repeatedly violated Swiss airspace, and several German planes were shot down by the Swiss Airforce.

Stories abound about caverns and hideouts developed in case of invasion or nuclear war. Some claim (perhaps fancifully) that Switzerland has a bed for every Swiss citizen, hospitals, and even airbases (though not the actual runways) buried in the mountains.

Others allege that Switzerland's many tunnels and bridges are primed with explosives, to be blown up when invading armies try to cross. Unfortunately, one would probably have to become a member of the Swiss cabinet to confirm the veracity of these tales.

The Swiss Guards are mercenary soldiers. The best known are the Papal Swiss Guard, the sovereign army of the Vatican. They are all unmarried Swiss Catholics and are required to have completed basic training in the Swiss Army before they can apply.

They receive extensive training in the use of pistols and submachine-guns, as well as the more traditional halberd and sword. Their history dates back to 1505, and their most significant engagement came during the sack of Rome by the forces of Charles V in 1527.

At the time there were a total of 189 Swiss Guards. Pope Clement VII was helped to escape through the Passetto di Borgo with an escort of 40 guards. The remaining guards remained to fight on the steps of St Peter's Basilica in order to buy him time. Of the guards who stayed to fight, all but two were killed.

Basle Berne Geneva Innsbruck Klagenfurt Salzburg Vienna Zurich

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