Everyday life at the border was exhausting and dangerous, but sometimes humorous.
Everyday life at the border was exhausting and dangerous, but sometimes humorous. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Everyday life at the border

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Switzerland immediately set about securing its borders. Including the line along the Rhine. Diaries give an insight into the everyday life of the soldiers on the border.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

Between September 1939 and June 1941, Switzerland anticipated an attack by the Wehrmacht. There were a number of plans. The most famous of these was called ‘Operation Tannenbaum’ and envisaged an advance from France, Germany and Italy. During that two-year period, Switzerland took strong measures to make sure its borders were safe. The course of the Rhine, which has formed a natural border with the country’s northern neighbour since ancient times, was at the centre of these efforts. As early as the 4rd century AD, the Romans built orderly lines of watchtowers at regular intervals to oppose the Germanic peoples, who were seeking to expand. In 1794 French troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine. In 1914 Germany overran the Rhine and France. After World War I, France therefore began construction of the Maginot Line. In parallel, Germany dug out a ‘Westwall’ of its own – the Siegfried Line. The only gap in the two structures was the Swiss border. So when World War II broke out, a frantic hustle and bustle began on the Swiss side of the border. Around 450,000 soldiers were called up to fight in a possible war. 80,000 men were mobilised to guard the border.
General mobilisation in Lausanne, 1939.
General mobilisation in Lausanne, 1939. Swiss National Museum / ASL

A glance into the diary

A look at the diary of Border Fusilier Battalion 269 (Grenzfüsilierbataillon), which secured the section near Weiach (Canton of Zurich), shows what life at the border was like during those pivotal years. The army command required every unit commander to keep an official diary. At the very least, the programme of work for the day had to be recorded in that journal. It looked something like this: 08.00 Start of mobilisation work 09.00 Roll call 09.30-10.30 Equipment inspection by HH. platoon leader 10.30-11.45 Distribution of corps material + ammunition (60 rounds per man) 11.45-13.30 Lunch 13.30-14.30 Distribution and adjusting of gas masks 15.15-15.30 Reading out of the war article and swearing-in of troops by the Regimental Commander 16.00 March to Weiach 19.00 Evening meal 20.30-24.00 Departure of the trains to the border section assigned to Company I/269 in the area Eglisau excl. (eastern boundary of Hardwald incl. Haus Wäckerling) to Kaiserstuhl eastern post. Digging work until 04.30 But some commanders also wrote more, and reading between the lines you can get a sense of what the men experienced at the border back then.
The Rhine has been a natural border for centuries.
The Rhine has been a natural border for centuries. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

Unruly food and snappish guests

To use up food scraps and leftovers, in September 1939 the first company of Battalion 269 bought a pig for 107 francs and 20 centimes. But on the same evening, ‘Jda’ escaped from her stall and took off into the forest, where she was recaptured only with great difficulty. Otherwise, there were no major problems with the construction of the fortifications, although there was often a lack of material and what was available sometimes had defects. The daily routines were mandatory in the first few weeks of active service. The company diary reports that work on the defensive line took place between midnight and 04.30. Then the troops went back to their quarters, where they had breakfast at 06.00. The soldiers were then able to rest, and clean and maintain their weapons. The afternoon passed in resting and doing various tasks around the quarters. At 20.00, the men went back to ‘creating wire obstacles’. But now the soldiers were also working on the emplacements during the day. In wind and perpetual rain, barracks were built near Weiach in October 1939. The men caught an edible dormouse and quartered the cute little animal in the in the company office. It wasn’t long before that animal escaped as well, and it took some time to get the snapping little ball of fur back in its cage.
Just another task at the border: catching the pig Jda.
Just another task at the border: catching the pig Jda. Swiss Federal Archives

Dangerous train journeys

Although the danger of a German attack decreased from 1941, the troops remained on the border. And the main danger there was from the Allied Air Force, which controlled the airspace above Germany from 1944. The Allied fighter plane fired at anything that moved on the rails, including a freight train in Rafzerfeld in September 1944. They left behind the mangled wreckage of a steam engine, and two severely injured people. Later on a passenger train was attacked between Zurzach and Bülach, resulting in two more seriously injured. But the worst attack was a bombing raid on Rafz in 1945. Eight people died in the bombing.
Destroyed houses in Rafz in February 1945.
Destroyed houses in Rafz in February 1945. KEYSTONE / PHOTOPRESS-ARCHIV/ Eugen Suter
Fortunately, the border guards were spared any serious combat operations. When World War II ended on 2 September 1945, the men returned to their everyday lives with great relief. But bunkers, tank traps and earthworks remain which still act as a reminder of the war years. By the way, Jda the pig only had a few weeks’ experience of life at the border. At the beginning of November 1939 the animal was processed into sausages and stews, and ended up in the bellies of the border guards.

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