The Swiss at sea

The magic of the sea in Prangins

One of Switzerland’s best-kept secrets is currently the subject of a museum exhibition – the story of its ocean-going fleet.

This content was published on November 17, 2003 - 10:16

It’s a story which begins in 1941 when the neutral and landlocked country needed a guaranteed source of essential supplies.

“We were completely isolated during the Second World War,” says François de Capitani, curator of the national museum at Prangins in the French-language region of Switzerland.

“There were not enough neutral ships to bring in cereals, coal and other supplies from North and South America to Mediterranean ports so it was decided to form a Swiss merchant fleet,” he told swissinfo.

De Capitani expects most of Switzerland’s past and present seamen to visit the exhibition in Prangins before it ends on February 1.

He says many other visitors have expressed surprise at its subject matter: “Most Swiss don’t even know that the navy exists.”

Attacked by mistake

To ensure that neutrality was respected at sea during the war, the Swiss authorities informed the admiralties of the warring nations of each vessel’s position and in turn the information was passed on to their warships in the area.

There were times when the Swiss were attacked by mistake but in general their neutrality was respected.

Not all of the ships carried cargoes to Switzerland – three of them were used by the International Committee of the Red Cross to transport mail and other supplies to prisoners-of-war and internees.

The splendid models of the wartime and post-war Swiss vessels are one of the highlights of this exhibition. All were made by former seamen.

Other exhibits include everyday objects on loan from former sailors, such as navigation and radio equipment, life jackets, log books, flags and even menus.

Switzerland’s wartime fleet consisted of 14 vessels. By 1952 there were 36 merchant ships under the Swiss flag, and although the total tonnage has been in decline for some years, Switzerland still ranks in second position among nations without a coastline.

Homeport Basel

Published earlier this year in German, “Homeport Basel” by Barbara Lüem traces Basel’s role in Switzerland’s maritime history back to Roman times and through the Middle Ages, when it was already a flourishing Rhine port.

It relates how Basel developed as a harbour some 1,000 kilometres up the River Rhine from the North Sea to become the inland homeport for seagoing Swiss cargo ships.

Lüem is convinced that Basel, whose four terminals currently handle about 15 per cent of Switzerland’s foreign trade, has a future as a port.

“Coal, grain, oil and iron and steel products are among non-perishable commodities ideally transported by water,” she told swissinfo. “What the Swiss shipping industry needs is more political and public support, and of course, more subsidies.

“Sea and river traffic is still the cheapest and most environment-friendly means of transporting products in bulk.”

swissinfo, Richard Dawson in Prangins

Key facts

Switzerland today ranks second in the list of “maritime” nations without a coastline.
Cargo ships began sailing the seas under the Swiss flag during the Second World War so that vital supplies could reach landlocked – and neutral –Switzerland.
Basel was already a Rhine port in Roman times and for over 50 years has been the official homeport of Switzerland’s seagoing merchant fleet.
It takes about 90 hours for a powered barge to make the 1,000-kilometre journey between Basel and the nearest North Sea port.
Basel’s four terminals, connected to the European road and rail network, handle about 15 per cent of Swiss foreign trade.
Cargoes include coal, oil and iron and steel products.

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