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John Waelti: The importance of Switzerland's Gotthard Pass
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Many points on the globe are interesting, but some especially so for their historic and strategic importance. Switzerland's Gotthard Pass is one such point.

The Alpine Range forms the spine of Europe, geographically dividing northern from southern Europe. The Gotthard Pass, elevation 6,909 feet, became a major crossing point between northern and southern Europe.

The pass is located slightly over a mile south of the border between Canton Ticino and Canton Uri. The region is the meeting point of Switzerland's four linguistic and cultural regions and source of watersheds for drainage basins reaching the North, the Mediterranean, and Adriatic Seas.

The pass, named for Roman Catholic Saint Gotthard, long known, was seldom used until the 13th century. The difficulty lay in the torturous Schoellenen Gorge of the Reuss River north of the pass, reputed to be impassable. It was eventually traversed when the first "Devil's Bridge" was built early in the 13th Century.

With trade opened up between northern and southern Europe, the pass soon developed into one of the most important Alpine crossings, bringing some affluence to the poverty-stricken region, and with it, strategic importance of the valleys approaching the pass.

The first significantly improved road over the pass was opened in 1830, ushering in the stagecoach era. In 1882, the 15-kilometer railway tunnel was constructed, then the world's longest. With its strategic location, it is easy to grasp the military significance of the pass.

Swiss military defense strategy, known formally as "The Swiss National Redoubt," was a strategy developed back in the 1880s. It encompassed a set of fortifications on a general east-west line through the Alps featuring major fortresses at St. Maurice, Sargans, and, of course, the Gotthard Pass. These fortresses, hidden deep within the mountains, primarily defended the crossings between Germany and Italy - planned as an impregnable complex that would deny aggressors passage through the Alps.

Following WWI, there was little interest in further strengthening these fortresses. During the 1930s, France built the Maginot Line, stretching from Switzerland to Belgium. During 1935-1937, the Alpine fortresses were somewhat enhanced.

As war in Europe broke out, some feared that Switzerland would side with Germany. But the German-speaking cantons showed little interest in siding with Germany. The appointment of French-Swiss General Henri Guisan as Commander of the Swiss Army further alleviated such concerns.

Gen. Guisan's strategy recognized Switzerland's limited resources of man and material relative to what potential aggressors could throw at the tiny country. His plan was based on the previously established "Redoubt Strategy" centered on the Alpine fortresses. He proposed a delaying strategy to keep invading forces out of the open country in the central plateau as long as possible, allowing the Army an orderly retreat to the Alps.

This strategy was controversial in that while it would preserve part of the Swiss territory, it effectively ceded the populated lowlands and cities to the enemy. A counter proposal was drafted by generals of the German-speaking cantons. This alternative plan was rejected by Guasan's chief of staff. The "Redoubt Strategy," embracing the Maurice-Sagans-Gotthard fortresses would prevail.

The wisdom of the "Redoubt Strategy" was affirmed with the rapid collapse of France in 1940, the occupation of the Balkan countries, and the ease with which Germany rolled over its victims. It would be a fallback to the Alps in the event of an Axis attack.

Until May 1941, only about two-thirds of the Swiss Army had been mobilized. Following collapse of the Balkan courtiers, the entire Swiss Army was mobilized and the Alpine fortresses were strengthened at breakneck pace.

Being totally surrounded by Axis territory, it was clear that the "Redoubt Strategy" was the only sound course. It was basically presenting the Third Reich with an unfavorable "benefit-cost" situation. Though rolling over Switzerland's valleys and central plateau, the enemy would be denied the benefit of the valuable Alpine crossings. All crucial bridges and tunnels would be denied the enemy. What heavy artillery, zeroed in on likely approaches, couldn't cover, aggressors would face sharp-shooting Swiss infantrymen enjoying, in infantry parlance, "good fields of fire."

An historic and highly-symbolic meeting of the Swiss Army staff and officer corps occurred on July 25, 1940 at the Ruetli Meadow, location of the birth of Switzerland in 1291 (see Times column, Oct. 16). Every officer swore to defend the high Alps, including the transalpine road and rail links.

In fact, following the collapse of France, Hitler had plans to invade Switzerland, code named "Operation Tannenbaum," using up to 21 German divisions, and 15 Italian divisions attacking from the south. However, failure to attain air superiority over Britain and the Channel, and Hitler's fateful decision to invade the Soviet Union changed the situation. With the exception of occasional violations of air space and errant bombing by belligerents, Switzerland was spared during WWII.

During the Cold War, Switzerland was again surrounded by alliances, but NATO was not seen as a threat.

So of what relevance are these mountain fortifications today? In Switzerland, nothing is wasted - even obsolete military fortifications. They are now converted to - what else? - tourist attractions. Previously top-secret bunkers are being turned into theme parks.

Our tour group debarked from the bus and entered the tunnel complex at the Gotthard Pass. We were treated to hot chocolate to ward off the chill we would encounter roaming through the underground fortifications. We were escorted through the tunnel complex and were able to view the various displays. We visited underground barracks, saw films, and climbed stairs to observe strategically placed artillery pieces and machine gun emplacements.

We spent several hours roaming through this Swiss-engineering marvel, but could have spent days.

An article in the "Swiss Review" observes, "The significance of the Redoubt is a point of contention among historians. Nevertheless, the legend of the impregnable Alpine fortresses is deeply ingrained in the Swiss collective consciousness."

Next week: On to Ticino.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.