Storming the Eagle's Nest

Ring, who gave us, is back with an equally fascinating account of how the Alps fared during the last war. And most intriguing is the role of mountain-locked Switzerland.
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Storming the Eagle's Nest, by Jim Ring, is published by Faber and Faber.

Did you know that on April 25, 1945, 359 Lancaster bombers blitzed Hitler's lair high above Berchtesgaden? Nor did I until I read Jim Ring's latest book. Hitler wasn't at home, but he killed himself five days later anyway, in his BerlinFührerbunker.

Ring, who gave us How the English Made the Alps, is back with an equally fascinating account of how the Alps fared during the last war. And most intriguing is the role of mountain-locked Switzerland. Caught in the isolated epicentre of the conflict, this "pimple on the face of Europe" was trying desperately -- and not always successfully -- to remain neutral. (Davos, for example had become the centre of the Swiss Nazi Party, and Switzerland got mixed up in some substantial money laundering involving large quantities of Nazi gold.)

Switzerland was in a state of almost perpetual fear of invasion -- both in the early years, and again later when German armies retreating from France and Italy were tempted to take short cuts through Switzerland to the Fatherland. An invasion was even considered by the Allies, worried that Germany might get there first.

"As the largest language group in Switzerland was German," says Ring, "the Swiss could hardly avoid the rise of Hitler and its implications."

The alpinist Arnold Lunn said: "Second only to the supreme horror of Hitler's evil face gloating over conquered London from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, was the possibility that the swastika might fly from the roofs of Berne." For Hitler, Switzerland's very existence was an affront, describing the Swiss as "mortal enemies of the new Germany." Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, even published a map of the Reich with Switzerland within its borders.

"It seemed that the country faced attack from all sides," says Ring -- and faced being "gobbled up by the Axis." Indeed, at two o'clock one May morning in 1940:

... the Swiss army contingent at Zermatt was turned out and ordered to patrol the passes from the Weisshorn to the Dent d'Herens, the great peaks that marked the frontier, beyond which lay Italy... In those grim mid-May days of 1940, Switzerland held its breath.

The Alpine republic was a kingpin, a hub around which all Europe revolved. Critically, she cut off the Northern European countries from the Mediterranean.

She divided France from Austria... and Germany from her axis partner, Italy... Switzerland's transalpine railway tunnels... were the arteries of central Europe.

If they were mined, says Ring, "Switzerland was not a conduit but a full stop." The Swiss Federal Council declared it was "Switzerland's secular mission... to guard the passage of the Alps in the interests of all."

A young French mountain soldier recalled a war of nerves as he patrolled at 7,500 feet: "Beyond my Tommy gun, a desert of ice, where, in the deceptive light of the moon, each crevasse looked like a man advancing towards me...The slightest touch of my finger on the trigger would have started a roar of gun-fire in every direction."

Even though Switzerland remained neutral to the end, when "the war that in some sense had never begun was over," Ring says it was a melting pot of information for both sides, and had been transformed "into the centerpiece of Britain's intelligence effort against Nazi Germany." It was "awash" he says, "with spies, saboteurs, turncoats, chancers, agents, and every sort of agent provocateur. It was once said that the whole of Switzerland was one clandestine conversation."

But Britain's special relationship with Switzerland held fast. "If it had not been for the Battle of Britain in 1940," it was said, "there would have been no Switzerland." It was all summed up neatly by Lunn, who said: "Against the ebbing twilight I saw my beloved mountains, Wetterhorn, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau... untainted by the cruel and evil things which we had been fighting, and still bearing witness to the eternal loveliness which man cannot mar, and which time cannot diminish." The shadow of the swastika had been lifted from the Alps.

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