History: When the Americans bombed a Swiss city

 By Sibilla Bondolfi (Text), Ester Unterfinger (Photo editing)

During the Second World War the Allies repeatedly bombed Switzerland by mistake. Exactly 75 years ago the most serious accidental bombing occurred: the US Air Force dropped 400 incendiary and high-explosive bombs on Schaffhausen, devastating the northern Swiss border town.

map of switzerland
(Kai Reusser/swissinfo.ch)

On April 1, 1944, a US bomber squadron took off from Britain with the aim of attacking the German city of Ludwigshafen. But despite clear skiesexternal link the pilots got lost because new radar technology failed. They mistakenly launched 371 bombs over Schaffhausen, believing it was the German city.

Between 47 and 60 people died (depending on estimates) and hundreds were injured. Nearly 500 people were left homeless and around 1,000 lost their jobs because factories were destroyed. The city was in ruins.

Especially tragic was that the people of Schaffhausen were used to Allied planes flying over Switzerland and, as a result, didn’t take cover in air-raid shelters. Instead, they went out into the streets and looked up at the sky.

Schweizer Grenze: Aufgemaltes Schweizer Kreuz auf Hausdach
The people painted Swiss cross on the roofs of houses in the hopes that it would protect them from bombings.


For a long time a rumour circulated in Switzerland that the Allies had wanted to punish the country because a factory in Schaffhausenexternal link supplied Nazi Germany with industrial goods. But today historical research agrees that it was an accident. The US government paid Schaffhausen compensation during the war.

Deadly ignorance

To prevent any future mistakes, people painted big Swiss crosses on their roofs. But the Americans did not always recognise the symbol, as the bombing of the town of Stein am Rhein revealed. The commander of the bomber later wrote in his report that he had seen red squares with white crosses on the roofs of houses in the German town of Ebingen (in reality Stein am Rhein).

“What are they?” he asked in the report. No one knows how many American pilots did not know what the Swiss flag looked like.

During the Second World War the Allies mistakenly dropped bombs on Swiss soil about 70 times. The bombs hit Zurich, Basel, Schaffhausen, Stein am Rhein and small towns in various cantons.

Adapted from German by Jessica Davis Plüss


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