What could be the worst April Fools prank that a neutral country amid warring nations could ever receive? For the people of Schaffhausen during World War II, it was some 60 tons of explosives that 50 American B-24H Liberators dropped on their town. While the timing is uncanny, this was no April Fools’ prank because the incident was purely accidental.
Getting involved in war is no easy business. Resources are diverted, the country’s priorities are changed, and military forces are slowly getting depleted. Fortunately, neutrality in warfare became a recognized “stand” during a conflict. When you’re under neutrality, your country’s spared from the havoc of both sides, and you could help in the form of humanitarian aid if the administration wishes to do so.
During World War II, Switzerland chose to remain a neutral country. It was not the first time they did it. Their self-imposed military neutrality can be traced back to 1515, after losing to the French forces after the Battle of Marignano. They did not take sides when World War I ensued, although they took refugees into the country. This remained until World War II when they were active in helping those who fell victims to the ongoing conflict.
Switzerland was not alone. Thirteen other countries chose neutral during the Second World War: Afghanistan, microstates of Andorra, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Portugal, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Vatican City, and Yemen.
Switzerland’s location, however, placed them at significant risk of falling victim to the attacks as they share a 225 miles border between Lake Constance and Basel. An arrangement exploited by the German city of Konstanz. German towns would usually flip their lights off during bombing, so the pilot could not bomb them. By keeping their lights on, along with the people of Kruezlingen, the British nighttime bombers would think they were part of Switzerland during air bombings.
Switzerland was no stranger to being accidentally bombed. According to reports, they suffered no less than 70 accidental bombings from the US Army Air Forces and the British Royal Air Force from 1940 to 1945.
One of them occurred on April 1, 1944, when a group of 50 American B-24H Liberators flew from Britain with a mission to bomb the German city of Ludwigshafen am Rhein, near the border.
There were reports that the skies were clear that day. However, there were claims that the high winds and cloudy skies, combined with the failure of the new G and GH radar system, confused the pilots who misidentified the terrain features. Unsure of where they were and without clearly seeing the ground, it was said that the lead navigator had to base his judgment on the wind speeds, which did not work, as we now know.
With that, the Liberators dropped 371 bombs on the Swiss city of Schaffhausen instead. Down below, the air raid alarm to the town started its loud noise, dutifully alerting the residents of the bombs.
Before that, there had been multiple instances where the raid alarm set off without an attack or emergency. It made the people think that the air raid alarm that day was just another false alarm and maybe a sick April Fools’ prank. They decided to shrug it off and did not seek cover until they realized it was not a joke.
The bombardment that started at 10:58 AM lasted for 40 seconds. After all the bombs dropped and the dust began to settle, Switzerland was left with 37 dead, hundreds wounded, and a large portion of the town destroyed.
There were some rumors during that time that what happened was intentional as Switzerland supplied the Nazis with munitions and was a means to pressure the country to cut ties with Germany. This speculation had been debunked by historical research and agreed that it was indeed an accident. General Carl Spaatz personally delivered the official apology issued by the US Army Air Forces. The US government also paid 4 million dollars for the error and another $14.4 million in compensation for all the other accidental bombings after the war.
An article published by The National Interest says that “the only person disciplined was the lead navigator of the formation, who was never allowed to lead again” and that the two countries did not press the matter too far.