Various forms of lithic disguise

I finally had a chance to read John McPhee's book La Place de la Concorde Suisse, his somewhat off-puttingly titled 1984 look at the Swiss military and its elaborately engineered landscape defenses.

[Image: Swiss mountain pass, via Google Image Search].

To make a long story short, McPhee describes two things: how Switzerland requires military service from every able-bodied male Swiss citizen—a model later emulated and expanded by Israel—and how the Swiss military has, in effect, wired the entire country to blow in the event of foreign invasion. To keep enemy armies out, bridges will be dynamited and, whenever possible, deliberately collapsed onto other roads and bridges below; hills have been weaponized to be activated as valley-sweeping artificial landslides; mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters; and much more.

First, a quick look at the system of self-demolition that is literally built into the Swiss national infrastructure:
To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage.
Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide.
The impending self-demolition of the country is "routinely practiced," McPhee writes. "Often, in such assignments, the civilian engineer who created the bridge will, in his capacity as a military officer, be given the task of planning its destruction."

But this is where a world of weirdly fascinating artifice begins. After all, McPhee writes, why would Switzerland want anyone to know where the dynamite is wired, where the cannons are hidden, which bridges will blow, or where to find the Army's top secret mountain hideaways and resupply shelters? But if you look closely, you start to see things.
Through locked gates you see corridors in the sides of mountains—going on and on into the rock, with a light in the ceiling every five meters and far too many to count... Riding around Switzerland with these matters in mind—seeing little driveways that blank out in mountain walls, cavern entrances like dark spots under mountainside railroads and winding corniches, portals in various forms of lithic disguise—you can find it difficult not to imagine that almost anything is a military deception, masking a hidden installation.
Indeed, at one point McPhee jokes that his local guide in Switzerland "tends to treat the army itself as if it were a military secret."

[Image: Swiss bridge, photographed by Aaron Plewke].

McPhee points to small moments of "fake stonework, concealing the artillery behind [them]," that dot Switzerland's Alpine geology, little doors that will pop open to reveal internal cannons that will then blast the country's roads to smithereens. Later, passing under a mountain bridge, McPhee notices "small steel doors in one pier" hinting that the bridge "was ready to blow. It had been superceded, however, by an even higher bridge, which leaped through the sky above—a part of the new road to Simplon. In an extreme emergency, the midspan of the new bridge would no doubt drop on the old one."

It's a strange kind of national infrastructure, one that is at its most rigorously functional—one that truly fulfills its promises—when in a state of cascading self-imposed collapse.

I could easily over-quote my way to the end of my internet service here, but it's a story worth reading. There are, for instance, hidden bomb shelters everywhere in an extraordinary application of dual-use construction. "All over Switzerland," according to McPhee, "in relatively spacious and quiet towns, are sophisticated underground parking garages with automatic machines that offer tickets like tongues and imply a level of commerce that is somewhere else. In a nuclear emergency, huge doors would slide closed with the town's population inside."

[Image: Switzerland's Gotthard Tunnel, via].

Describing titanic underground fortresses—"networks of tunnels, caverns, bunkers, and surface installations, each spread through many tens of square miles"—McPhee briefly relates the story of a military reconnaissance mission on which he was able to tag along, involving a hydroelectric power station built inside a mountain, accessible by ladders and stairs; the battalion tasked with climbing down into it thus learns "that if a company of soldiers had to do it they could climb the mountain on the inside."

In any case, the book's vision of the Alps as a massively constructed—or, at least, geotechnically augmented and militarily amplified—terrain is quite heady, including the very idea that, in seeking to protect itself from outside invaders, Switzerland is prepared to dynamite, shell, bulldoze, and seal itself into a kind of self-protective oblivion, hiding out in artificially expanded rocky passes and concrete super-basements as all roads and bridges into and out of the country are instantly transformed into landslides and dust.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have seen this with my own eyes as a foreign student in Switzerland in 1981, when a MOUNTAIN "opened" up and four jets flew out of it, near the quiet town, Martigny.

June 18, 2012 5:42 PM  
Anonymous Tim Cooper said...

How do they manage to keep their infrastructure secure? It's all too easy to imagine a villainous third party collapsing bridges and mountainsides unexpectedly.

June 18, 2012 9:23 PM  
Blogger GlenH said...

I wonder how much is actually Potemkin defense? It would make sense to appear as a national fortress, while leaving a lot of dummy target for saboteurs to get tangled up in.

June 19, 2012 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Swiss. I live near the Simplon overpass. And every word is/was true.
@Tim: the places for the charges are not loaded with explosives in peace times. Thus, no inadvertent blow-ups.

June 19, 2012 3:29 AM  
Anonymous claus said...

Wikipedia has a long entry on the National Redoubt (or Schweizer Reduit, as the system was called). I grew up near the Swiss border, and certain elements of the system were quite visible as soon as you crossed over, for example the several lines of dragon's teeth ("Toblerone lines") crossing through fields and meadows, or the rows of manholes across major roads, which scared the hell out of me when I was a kid because somebody told me that they concealed tons of dynamite for blowing up the streets in case of a war, and I was always afraid they might go off accidentally.

However, there have also always been rumours and anecdotal evidence that the National Redoubt wasn't quite as intricately woven and operationally reliable as is often suggested. I have a couple of friends who served in the Swiss army, and most of them have one or two stories about neglected, unfinished or outdated installations. It seems that the rumours about the National Redoubt's efficiency and the occasional building of Potemkin villages which looked as if they were supposed to camouflage something were just as important to the Swiss army's dissuasion strategy than the proper installations themselves.

It's also worth remembering that the actual defense system was backed up by an ideology of "Spiritual defense" (Geistige Landesverteidigung), which was meant to provide some kind of "fortification of the minds" against totalitarianisms of all kinds by means of propaganda, but which was also accused of leading to a certain "bunker mentality" of the Swiss society. In fact, shortly after the Cold War, Switzerland was rocked by a number of reports revealing how far the Secret Services had dug and tunneled into the private lives many ordinary Swiss citizens.

I don't know how much of the National Redoubt infrastructure is still in place. The Swiss Army underwent several extensive reforms since the Cold War, most notably in 1995 and 2003, during which manpower was reduced considerably and a sizable number of installations have been closed or abandoned, including several of the famed underground hangars. Some of them have become popular hunting grounds with urbex enthusiasts - there's a lot of this kind of material online, if you care to google around.

June 19, 2012 5:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a good book, and the image you mention of the service des resignments calculating the human throughput of the hydro penstock has stuck with me forever as well.

But it is also a dated book. If it has made you curious about Switzerland, do some more research and you'll find that the architecture and infrastructure you read about was at its peak during the Cold War. Today in Switzerland, some of that infrastructure has been sold off, some has been handed over to military museums. And some is undoubtedly still in use.

As for the question of how secret it is, and from who... here's an interesting thought. I noticed a couple walking their dog on an Army airstrip. I asked my Swiss friend, "how can that be a non-secured area where anyone can just walk their dog?". He said, "well, technically the whole country is in the Army (or married to, or sister to someone in the Army), so why wouldn't the whole country be able to take their dog for a walk on that Army airstrip?

For some interesting examples of military infrastructure that was surpassed by the times, read up on the Toblerone Trail and the Villa Rose near Gland, Vaud.

June 19, 2012 9:45 AM  
Blogger Matt Popke said...

@Tim Cooper

Hidden snipers... everywhere, watching every tourist. They're disguised as gnomes and cuckoo clocks.

June 19, 2012 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

West Germany had the same defence in place. They also had bridges and tunnels ready to be destroyed, Autobahnen to be transformed into airports, civil defenses in parking lots and nuclear mines to stop the feared soviet assault.
If you want to know more, search for "Fulda Gap"

June 19, 2012 10:22 AM  
Anonymous suicide_blond said...

when i was in switzerland in 80's ... at dinner ...the restaurants would discreetly pull the curtains at a certain time each night...
because the military would practice maneuvers....basically they would roll tanks full speed thru the towns up/ down & round the mountains ... the waiter would just pour us more wine and shrug ...saying basically "this is how we roll "neutral" ....

June 19, 2012 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's worth noting that the Swiss are not the only ones who build in defenses like this. I serverd in Germany in the late 70s/early 80, and up near the border, every road had its line of manholes. Every bridge had its cavities closed by steel plates. They were pre-drilled cavities where the explosives could be placed for maximum effect if it became necessary to disrupt enemy use of the roads. The woods along the border were under Federal control and you literally could not cut trees above a certain size or create a new path without approval from the defense department.

June 19, 2012 11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is definitely not only a Swiss thing, here in Finland we have plenty of bridges ready to be blown up in case of emergency, most multi story residential buildings have shelters, the main roads have landing strips for fighter jets and all public installations underground (subway stations etc.) are equipped to act as nuclear shelters.

June 19, 2012 4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have this in the United States as well; There are bridges collapsing all the time and our roads often look like they've been bombed... Oh, sorry. I seem to have confused "the ability to self-destruct" with the self-destructive nature of my country!

June 19, 2012 11:36 PM  
Blogger Bossi said...

I visited a couple of these. Here are some photos of an entrance to one that is open to the public, located outside of Luzern:

June 19, 2012 11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not only a Swiss thing, here in Italy we have something similar, it's called "blue cars". These are many and are the cars the politicians use to wander at the expenses of the tax payers during peace-time. In case of a ground invasion they double as street cloggers as all of them would try and flee outside of the country at the same time. More effective than tearing bridges down.

June 20, 2012 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here are some youtube videos:

in german:

June 20, 2012 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Soglio, a town that holds a commanding position over Val Bregaglia (Bergell) near the Italian border, there is an underground garage that you wouldn't know existed unless a local pointed you to its location, or paid keen attention to where cars were going (and there aren't that many cars in the region.) If you look further up the valley, to the area where Maloja Pass is, there's probably no doubt that the Albigna Dam (~900m above the valley) is rigged to blow, sending a wave of water all the way into Chiavenna:

June 20, 2012 11:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing they aren't worried about terrorists.

June 23, 2012 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of these 2nd world war and cold war bunkers are closed or sold by now: The bunkers that were sold are used as storage rooms, wine cellers, atomic bomb save IT storage facilities or even as a hotel:

Hotel La Claustra:

June 23, 2012 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice article about an other facility:

June 23, 2012 9:34 PM  
Blogger ken in tx said...

You should see the huge concrete blocks that are set to fall and block roads from the DMZ into South Korea. There are several rings of these things between the DMZ and Seoul.

June 24, 2012 9:35 PM  
Blogger Orion said...

Remember, prior to WWII, the Dutch had many defenses similar to this to deter invasion.

They were, unfortunately, surprised by the German airborne invasion and blitzkrieg and never got around to triggering the vast majority of them. Planning is one thing. Execution is another - especially when the other side knows what you've got in place.


June 24, 2012 9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to say, this is just a case of national insanity. Just who is this suicidal behavior supposed to keep out? The Germans? The French? The Italians? Just a stupid waste of money. Build a couple of nukes instead.

June 24, 2012 9:56 PM  
Blogger toadold said...

I wonder how many foreign agents are at the bottoms of shafts rotting away over the years.

June 24, 2012 11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, the Swiss are also believers (from what I hear) in their citizens being routinely armed. An armed society and a safe society.

June 25, 2012 12:02 AM  
Anonymous PacRim Jim said...

The Swiss have never fought to defend the West,
Not in World War I,
Not in World War II,
Not in the Cold War,
Not in the War on Terror.
But they have intensified their selfishness. Good to know.

June 25, 2012 12:41 AM  
Blogger Some Schmuck said...

South Korea has much the same system with their infrastructure.

June 25, 2012 1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt Popke

OK, gnomes you can have, but cuckoo clocks! Nooooo.

The Orson Wells school of history is still going strong, I see, but you will find that cuckoo clocks are from the Black Forest region of South Germany.

June 25, 2012 2:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The South Korean mountains and roads along the DMZ are similarly prepared. And manned. With explosives in place.


June 25, 2012 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing new here. When I was a US Army Engineer Second LT in the cold war days, we learned about European road and bridge construction. It turns out that MOST European countries designed bridges and tunnels with demolition chambers as planning factors. In case of invasion, pack the chamber with demo and wait for the right time to blow the bridge/tunnel/whatever. One of our principal training duties was to prepare "target folders" on pieces of key terrain and infrastructure so we wouldn't have to waste time figuring out how to best destroy objects of enemy desire. Driving through Europe one can also see long stretches of straight highways with minimum dividers: can you say "instant airfield"? I won't bother going into the fact that most car washes were designed to accomodate military vehicles for decontamination purposes. Nope; nobody but the Swiss was smart enough to figure this stuff out. Wake up and get real.

June 25, 2012 11:56 AM  
Blogger old guy said...

When the US highways system as designed it was built with the idea of tanks and other heavy equipment being able to use the roads, to get to where they wanted, originally from one coast to the other. But also the roads were designed to be airfields.
These ideas were in reports from Eisenhower back in the 20's I believe. He was tasked with trying to establish how to get troops and materials from one place to another as a Lieutenant after graduating from West Point.

June 25, 2012 4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to take anything away from Switzerland which at least is trying to protect it's citizens. But the effort to block their roads would have been very effective during WW II but have they noticed moderne armies have planes and helicoptors. What this reminds me of is that during WW II when Germany invaded Poland with tanks the Polish army met them in the battlefield on horses. The Polish Army was fully prepared to fight the previous war but not the current one.

June 26, 2012 8:32 PM  
Blogger north guinea hills said...

It's to keep out those shifty Liechtensteiners!

June 26, 2012 10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the picture on top of this article of the Passo Stelvio in northern Italy? Admittedliy, near the Swiss border, but still...

June 27, 2012 4:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

South Korea goes much further than than the mere concrete pillars (which I believe the north has too).

All the older commercial buildings and apartments have openly accessible rooftops. Furthermore, the city plan of new towns, specifically the placement of the modern apartment highrises ("Humansia", "Xii", "Remian", etc) are often drawn up with "shielding" sensitive areas in mind. Take a peek on Google Earth and compare/contrast to medieval fortress and castle design.

Here's a related article specifically on the satellite city of Ilsan:

June 28, 2012 12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The modern Swiss army no longer relies on that old crap. In fact, the entire Reduit doctrine (abandon your cities and keep the army in bunkers in the alps) has been abandoned in the 60ies I believe.
Even the requirement for every new building to have an air shelter has been relaxed, so most people would have to hide in the community shelters under schools and the like.

July 08, 2012 2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know about today, but when we were kids in the late sixties, we joined in a military exercise every two years in our village, where up in a valley they opened gates to a fully equipped military hospital with beds, operating rooms, plaster rooms etc where they brought in casualties to pracise Each school child, all ages, could "choose" injuries from a list to be treated for.
I regulary came home sporting plaster casts for broken legs, arms etc, scaring my parents each time.
These would then be removed the following day and we were rewarded with military biscuits and chocolates. We used to love it!

July 14, 2012 8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whilst making antimatter in Geneva in the 80's I saw many of the Swiss roads dug-up at strategic points. Installations were made with a trench across both carriageways that conceals multiple spring-loaded hydraulic tank-traps. As you drive around Helvetia - just checkout the recessed steel posts across the roads and wonder where the "GO" button is!??

July 25, 2012 7:30 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

This was a fascinating read!

July 17, 2013 10:00 AM  
Blogger Henrik said...

We have This to in Norway, northern Norway is literally a Swiss chess. You can walk from the coast of Norway and in to Sweden... Under ground. Some strategic places are build to withstand a nuclear blast. And where Norway are smalest and where the only way to get down in Norway with an army is trough a small place that are defended of by large caliber guns, mines. And all bridges in both Norway are build to be able to be taken down with minimum explosive. It is all flanked by anti shipping bunkers with there torpedoes, missiles and cannons.

April 07, 2014 9:01 AM  
Anonymous Bill Jones said...

It's called having a defense policy, instead an attack policy like the US

June 23, 2014 6:18 PM  

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