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TRAVEL by Eric Mackenzie Lamb


For most people, it’s common knowledge that Switzerland was not involved in World War II, a factor which largely spared the country and its population from the brutal consequences of the Nazi invasion in the rest of Europe. And why Switzerland, spared from the horrors endured by its neighbors, had a head start to eventually become one of the world’s most prosperous countries.
But the fact is that things could have turned out very differently, had it not been for the wisdom and forethought of a small group of Swiss military leaders. They had long known that Switzerland’s army would be too ill-equipped to defend the country in the event of an invasion by its fascist neighbors. The catastrophic defeat of the French army in June,1940, was vivid proof of that. Switzerland now found itself geographically trapped between the Axis powers of the German Reich and fascist Italy. A national redoubt plan had to be put in place as soon as possible.
Of particular concern were the well-known ambitions of Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, to invade southern Switzerland, especially as the Axis powers had a strong interest in controlling the Alpine passes to supply their wartime economies. It would have been relatively simple for the Italian army to transport its heavy artillery to the Swiss border, and from there to control the southern access points to the Gotthard Pass.
Benito Mussolini. Courtesy of historic WWII archives.
For the Swiss, occupying their most strategically important Alpine crosses seemed to be the only way to offer a sufficient deterrent to an attack by Mussolini’s forces. As a result, the Army command decided to concentrate most of its troops on the routes over the Alps and to fortify its crossings, an effort which began in the summer of 1941.
The end result, which took four years to complete, was one of the world’s most amazing underground fortresses, commonly known as the Sasso da Pigna fort. Its entrance appeared almost insignificant, at first glance something which resembled a garage door built into a cliff face.
Image by the Author.
But inside, connected by a network of tunnels which stretches for almost two miles, the fortress was highly self-sufficient. It had enough supplies of water, food, munitions, and fuel to survive being cut off from the outside world for months. The garrison consisted of gunners, infantry, soldiers to guard the installations, communications personnel, as well as back room and medical staff. Altogether, there was accommodation for about 420 men. The infirmary, with its own small operating theatre and laboratory, was equipped to handle almost ninety sick or wounded soldiers.
Even after the end of the Second World War, the Fortress remained active, largely as a precaution due to the Cold War tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. It remained in a state of combat readiness, almost unchanged, until 1998. It wasn’t until 2001 that the veil of secrecy which had shrouded Sasso da Pigna was finally lifted and the fortress became a monument of national importance. And, for the first time, open to visitors from the outside world.
When I first visited the the fort a few weeks ago as part of a guided walking tour, it soon became apparent how incredibly complex-not to mention challenging- it must have been to construct it in the first place.
A dummy representing the hundreds of workers who drilled the fortress’ tunnels. Image by the Author.
One of the bunker cannons. Each gun had been programmed to fire to a certain height and distance before its projectile exploded.
Ship’s generators were used to provide electricity throughout the complex. Image by the Author.
One of the underground sleeping areas for the garrison’s soldiers. Each unit was sealed off to protect its occupants from poisonous gases fired by a potential enemy. Image by the Author.
Indeed, a truly amazing glimpse back into a turbulent history.
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