Natural resources such as coal were scarce in Switzerland during World War II. View of the Chandoline anthracite mine, 1945.
Natural resources such as coal were scarce in Switzerland during World War II. View of the Chandoline anthracite mine, 1945. Swiss National Museum

Coal and uranium for the fatherland

During World War II Switzerland, which has few mineral resources, was on a frantic hunt for natural resources within its own borders. The Bernbiet was one of many regions where boreholes were dug, hillsides were excavated and evaluations were carried out.

Reto Bleuer

Reto Bleuer

Reto Bleuer is a volunteer at the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern.

The municipality of Buchholterberg lies on a sunny range of hills northeast of Thun, and forms part of the border region between the Bernese Oberland and the Emmental Valley. A largely agricultural district, Buchholterberg is made up of several hamlets and the village of Heimenschwand. As it was everywhere, here too the period of World War II was challenging and full of privations: those men fit for the military were on active service, facing off against a superior enemy at the frontier. At home, those who remained behind had to carry on with the mostly agricultural work with little technical assistance, helping to ensure the country’s food supply. There were shortages of many goods and more particularly of raw materials, as Switzerland is not rich in natural mineral resources. The impacts of this scarcity of everyday items are shown by a notice from the Oberländer Tagblatt of 3 February 1944 reporting that, due to a shortage of tyres, the daily postal van’s lunchtime run from Steffisburg to the village of Heimenschwand was now able to operate only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The afternoon run was suspended entirely.
The postal van en route from the village of Heimenschwand to Steffisburg, 1930s.
The postal van en route from the village of Heimenschwand to Steffisburg, 1930s. Photo: Fritz Gugger, Heimenschwand
In those days, seeking out the country’s scarce natural resources was the task of the now long-defunct “Eidgenössische Kriegs-, Industrie- und Arbeitsamt, Abteilung Bureau für Bergbau”, the mining division of the Federal War Office for Industry and Labour. On 6 June 1942, government geologist Dr Rolf Rutsch visited Buchholterberg and reported back to the “Bureau”. He was following up on information provided by a farmer claiming there was coal at a number of locations near the Rotache river, long stretches of which form the border between Buchholterberg and the neighboring municipalities of Unterlangenegg and Fahrni. During his survey Rutsch did in fact discover a coal-bearing layer (pitch anthracite) in one of the high nagelfluh walls on the bank of the Rotache. (Nagelfluh is a massive variegated conglomerate forming a prominent member of the Miocene series in the Alps.) The site was difficult to access, but an adit approximately eight metres in length was sunk into the rock to ascertain how the coal layer developed inside the nagelfluh. The result was disappointing; the deposit turned out to be too small to be worthwhile mining. Rolf Rutsch’s report to the “Bureau” was accordingly negative.
Pieces of pitch coal from the banks of the Rotache.
Pieces of pitch coal from the banks of the Rotache. Collection Reto Bleuer
After World War II Switzerland’s economy very soon experienced an upturn, but this period also saw the start of the Cold War. Suddenly, one raw material was especially sought-after: uranium. The country’s economic leaders saw nuclear power as the key to meeting future energy requirements, while the Swiss military dreamed of having its own nuclear weapon. For both of these undertakings, the primary raw material was uranium. As a result, Switzerland stepped up the search for this mineral. In 1949, geologist Dr Hermann Vogel from Basel remembered some pieces of coal that he had examined for a mining company three years previously and which exhibited higher levels of radioactivity. These coal chunks came from a small stream on the Buchholterberg range called the “Ibachgrabe”, a shallow channel that is one of a number of tributary waters of the Rotache. After its 18-kilometre journey, the Rotache itself finally flows into the Aare. Dr Vogel therefore set out to search for and to analyse in more detail further uraniferous coal deposits and marl layers in the Buchholterberg region. He found what he was looking for at several different locations. It turned out that the coal extended in a thin, discontiguous layer from the Falkenfluh, a crag approximately 1080 m above sea level, across the Buchholterberg to the Rotache. In a number of cuts and channels in the terrain, smaller veins of coal outcropped from the nagelfluh. Dr Vogel’s subsequent analyses showed that radioactivity could be measured in the rock and in the coal. He calculated that one ton of Ibachgrabe coal would be likely to yield around 1.6 kg of uranium. But here, too, the small amount of coal, scattered over a wide, inaccessible area, proved too great an obstacle to undertake mining.
Sandstone with coal deposits from the Ibachgrabe.
Sandstone with coal deposits from the Ibachgrabe. Collection Reto Bleuer
Several years later a Thun physician, Dr. med. Otto Hubacher, looked into the question of whether the uraniferous coal layers and the resultant radioactivity in the Rotache area could have an impact on human health. His investigation was triggered by a cluster of cancer illnesses in people who lived near the course of the river, which he had observed over a long period of time. To resolve the question, water samples from the Rotache and coal samples were analysed in detail at several universities in Europe. Although the results also indicated a slightly increased level of radioactivity in the samples examined, Dr. med. Hubacher concluded in his report, published in 1963, that due to the low values obtained he was unable to establish a connection between the uraniferous coal layers and the frequent occurrence of cancers in the region. The illnesses were believed to be an inexplicable coincidence.

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