80th anniversary of Polish division crossing Swiss border celebrated

It was 80 years ago that the Swiss government gave shelter to some 12,500 Polish soldiers of the 2nd Rifle Division who crossed the Swiss border to find sanctuary from Nazi-German troops under the Geneva Conventions.

The Second Polish Rifle Division engaged in heavy fighting from June 17 to 19, 1940 near the Doubs and Saône rivers. It stopped a German attack on the Clos-du-Doubs hills, but due to the rapid retreat of the nearby French forces, it was surrounded by the Germans.

According to historian Silvio Keller, on June 19, 1940, two officers appeared at a post on the Swiss border with a request to transfer a message to the Polish and French envoys to Switzerland. The message contained information about the extremely difficult situation facing the Second Polish Rifle Division and 45 French Army Corps and a request to take both divisions into internment on the basis of the Geneva Conventions.

Following immediate approval, during the night of the 19 to 20 June, both divisions crossed the Swiss border and were immediately disarmed. Together with the two divisions around 7,000 civilians were let into neutral Switzerland.

“The passage of the 2nd Rifle Division into Switzerland, 12,500 soldiers, marked a milestone in Polish-Swiss friendship,” the Ambassador of Switzerland to Poland, Jürg Burri, told Poland IN, adding that “the Poles appreciated receiving education and trust from the Swiss who saved them from the Nazi-German Army. The Swiss counted on the hard labour the Poles provided to a large extent voluntarily, building roads, helping with agriculture, while the Swiss men were serving in arms on the Swiss border. The two generals who initiated this, General Guisan and Polish General Prugar Ketling are both remembered by the Swiss Embassy in Poland and the Polish ministries in Warsaw, together with the last survivors.”

Poles’ contribution to the Swiss economy

Switzerland suddenly faced a huge challenge - the country had just received thousands of people, over 5,000 horses, many vehicles and guns. The disarmed soldiers were temporarily located in the Swiss regions of Seeland, Napf, Gruyère and Oberland.

Warmly welcomed by locals, the soldiers became an important force of the Swiss economy. The Swiss Ambassador to Poland Jürga Burri said in 2019, “the interned Polish soldiers were not treated as prisoners but as family. Thus today we are celebrating not only the event of taking in the Polish soldiers by Switzerland but most importantly the contribution they made in my country.”

During their internment in Switzerland, Polish soldiers built over 450 kilometres of roads, dug canals and built bridges. Apart from working for the Swiss economy, the soldiers were obliged to defend the Swiss Confederation in case of German invasion.

The motto of General Ketling, whose son took part in Wednesday’s events, was “studying for Poland, working for Switzerland.”