A SHORT HISTORY
OF THE SWISS FLAG AT SEA

 

Introduction

During the dark days of the second World War Switzerland was practically forced to create a seagoing merchant fleet flying the Swiss flag under the most adverse conditions imaginable. This story is practically unknown to most people. Introduction of a maritime law into Swiss legislation was also undertaken with greatest urgency as a necessary preamble for the forming of a small merchant fleet. Among the events of the war this was just an insignificant small side-show mostly unnoticed even by the population of the landlocked country itself. It was the struggle of a small nation to keep afloat in the turbulent and stormy waters of an upheaval the likes of which the world had never seen before. By necessity this report is far from complete or perfectly accurate. It highlights only some isolated aspects of a complex story.

  • Early attempts

During the 19th century the Swiss government received countless proposals and requests concerning the official introduction of the Swiss flag at sea. These demands came mainly from Swiss traders or trading companies which had opened subsidiaries or owned trading companies in European and Overseas port cities. Some of them acquired their own ships and operated under the flag of their port of residence. There were also manufacturing and trading companies located in Switzerland which operated their own ocean going ships registered in some foreign port.

Another group proposed to carry the increasing number of Swiss emigrants to North America on ships under Swiss flag to spare them the abominable conditions on the typical emigrant vessels. There were also a considerable number of Swiss nationals among the crews of merchant ships of many nations despite - or may be because of - the landlocked location of Switzerland. Some of them even managed to attain officer or captain status.

All these groups argued that better control of the ships and their fate would be possible if they would be able to sail under the Swiss flag. To some extend this might have been true. However, it would have required an internationally accepted maritime law to assure a minimum of stability and security for ships belonging to a nation with no direct access to the sea. Nothing like that was in sight at that time. Every seafaring nation created its own laws and interpreted them to its advantage.

This must have been one of the many reasons why the Swiss government was not very much interested in this question. However, it asked several of its embassies and consulates in seafaring nations to submit a report about the feasibility of operating ocean going ships under the Swiss flag. A similar request was sent out to the foreign offices of 17 seafaring nations. The reports from the embassies and consulates were mainly sceptical. The Swiss Consul at Le Havre considered the idea ridiculous and expressed his view in no uncertain terms. The foreign offices of most countries kept back, waiting for the reaction of France which they probably intended to emulate. Finally the Swiss government decided to drop the matter.

  • The First World War

During the First World War Switzerland was surrounded by belligerent nations and completely isolated in every respect. The country had no natural resources to speak of and was therefore completely dependent on imports. Deliveries from Eastern Europe were reduced to near zero by the Allied blockade and the war in the Balkans. Attention focused more and more on overseas markets. However, mainly because of the U-boat war, shipping tonnage became very rare. Consequently freight rates increased dramatically followed by an increase in market prices.

The Swiss government and some private entrepreneurs tried to negotiate several charter agreements or outright ownership of ships under neutral flags. A great part of the world’s merchant fleet was under control of the "Interallied Chartering Executive" in London. After long and difficult negotiations Switzerland was offered a contract for the use of may be a dozen ships of 5000 gross register tons (grt) each. Right from the beginning this was rather theoretical. In the autumn of 1917 only a total of about 30’000 grt was officially reserved for the Swiss. Even then ships became unavailable on short notice because they were urgently needed for some war transport.

In march 1917 the Swiss Federal Council established a central authority to handle all import and export problems, called FERO. The main task of this office was to organise the transportation and import of food and all other vital goods needed for survival. FERO managed to close a contract with the US War Transport Office ensuring the delivery of grain to Switzerland via European neutral ports. The cargo was carried on US flag vessels, including even some sailing ships. The ships were required to carry a stretched out Swiss flag on the foremast. Also the word "SCHWEIZ" (German for Switzerland) in huge white letters was painted on both sides of the hull. The rather nave idea was that these measures would help to prevent U-boat attacks. When the USA entered the war against the Central Powers these ships were of course no more available.

The situation became critical and numerous Swiss delegations in London and Paris tried desperately to obtain ships under all circumstances. However, the Swiss were told that they had to help themselves somehow. There were several other schemes, for instance the forming of a Dutch/Swiss shipping company using Dutch vessels marooned in US ports. This plan failed mainly because the USA, after their entry into the war, confiscated the ships for their own use under the so called Angary rule.

The increasing shortages in Switzerland and the failures to secure shipping space caused alarm and a feeling of vulnerability bordering on panic. Any endeavour, never mind how risky, seemed to be justified to improve the situation. This certainly explains, at least partly, another project christened the "Swiss Sea Transport Union". A total of 28 ships (some of them not even built yet) were to be chartered from a Belgian Shipping Company. The costs were to be distributed equally between the Swiss Government and several private enterprises. After long delays a third of the fleet was finally put into service in spring 1919 (!) and the rest in the autumn of that year. However, after the cease-fire in November 1918 a great number of ships became available and the blown up freight rates plummeted to a rather low level. The whole enterprise collapsed in 1921.

  • Between the Wars

The experience of the First World War had demonstrated with utmost clarity that there was indeed a need for a small Swiss merchant fleet under their own flag. However, Switzerland followed the example of the Western Democracies. Everybody seemed to believe that the age of eternal peace had finally dawned. Switzerland reduced its militia army to an absolute and ridiculous minimum. The idea of an ocean-going merchant fleet under Swiss flag was buried forever, or so it seemed. It was all understandable somehow, but nevertheless short-sighted and nave.

In March 1933 the NSDAP ("National Socialist German Workers Party", a.k.a. as Nazi Party) came to power in Germany. The massive re-armament in Germany and the aggressive stance of its dictator caused grave concern. It was clear to discerning people all over Europe that another war was likely in the not to distant future. The Swiss government was determined not to repeat the mistakes made during WW1. Quietly plans were discussed to find ways and means to survive another war.

Talks were held with a few neighbouring governments to allow ships carrying cargo for Switzerland to use their ports. After long and laborious negotiations an agreement was finally reached. Other difficult talks revolved around the problem of the necessary overland transports from the coastal ports to Switzerland. In normal times a majority of imports, especially bulk freight, were carried on Rhine river cargo ships from the ports of Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp to Basel. Germany was another important source for many raw materials, fertiliser, liquid fuel, coal, etc. most of which were also carried on the river. It was very unlikely that this would still be possible in case of war. In fact, the Germans closed the Rhine river for all traffic right at the start of the hostilities.

  • The Second World War

On 1 April 1939 the Swiss government ordered the stockpiling of grain. When Germany attacked and occupied Poland in agreement with the Soviet Union on the 1 September 1939, some carefully prepared measures were put into effect. Apart from the immediate and total mobilisation of the army, a special Office for War Economy started working on 4 September 1939. One of its departments was the "Kriegs Transport Amt" (KTA) or "War Transport Office".

As mentioned before, Switzerland has no natural resources at all, except hydro-electric power. Literally everything else has to be imported to keep the industry and economy going. The country with almost four million inhabitants was even then overpopulated and not self sufficient in food production either. Professor of Agriculture F.T. Wahlen at the ETH Zurich (the Swiss Technical University) had made a thorough study of the food problem. He showed that many more people could be sufficiently nourished if they would eat grain products directly, for instance bread. That is, without the detour of feeding the grain first to poultry or cattle. The conclusions were simple and were also put into practice without delay. The number of cattle was drastically reduced. In addition every square centimetre of arable soil was requisitioned to grow wheat, potatoes and vegetables, etc..

At the same time strict rationing was introduced, not only for food but for almost everything; leather, metals, liquid fuel of any kind, coal, textiles, fertilisers and so on. Copper became unavailable. Electrical conductors were made of Aluminium, were brittle, almost impossible to solder and expensive. Private cars became a rare sight. Most of them were requisitioned by the Army which had a tremendous shortage of cars and lorries. There was almost no petrol for private use. Delivery vans, buses, etc. ran with either Carbide or Wood Gas Converters. Food rationing included eggs and the ration finally dropped to one egg per person per month. Bread contained around 50% potatoes. Also the sale of bread that was less than two days old was forbidden. Nobody complained. The rations sank to an all-time low in 1944. In that year the rations represented less than 2000 calories a day. At the beginning this had been considered the absolute minimum. By necessity rationing was in force until 1 July 1948.

But all this turned out to be insufficient. The Swiss government realised the urgent need for a small fleet of merchant ships dedicated to carry food and raw materials exclusively for Switzerland. Only ships under flags of "permanently neutral" nations could be considered . On 15 September 1939 the Swiss government managed to close a time charter contract with the Greek Shipping Company Rethymnis & Kulukundis Ltd. in London. It stipulated the leasing of 15 ships under Greek flag for the whole duration of the war starting at the latest in spring 1940.

During the period from 1 September 1939 until May 1940, relations between the Third Reich and Switzerland were strangely quite. The lull enabled Switzerland to greatly step up imports and the stockpiling of all kinds of goods. The Swiss armament industry now worked overtime for the Allies. There were no orders from the Third Reich and export through France was still possible. It seems like a paradox today that to fulfil the Allied orders the Swiss processed great quantities of German raw materials, like for instance Steel, Coal and so on. The only other major orders for war material came from the Swiss Army. At that time it was hopelessly outclassed, under equipped and used obsolete weapons and other material that dated from World War 1 or even the last century.

After the occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the fall of France in May 1940, the Swiss found themselves completely encircled by the Axis forces. Immediately the attitude and tone of the notes from Berlin to Bern became frosty and even nasty. The Swiss trading mission in Berlin was confronted with hard and impossible demands from the Third Reich. Now there was only one main source for vitally needed raw materials, namely Germany. Berlin of course was fully aware of that fact. The Third Reich immediately ordered a complete stop of all coal deliveries to Switzerland as a warning and demanded the hand-over of war material ordered by the Allies. The historian Werner Rings wrote. "The Third Reich was in a position to strangulate Switzerland without firing a shot." The negotiations for the various necessary ship and transit permits, etc. and for vital imports from Germany itself became more difficult from day to day. Concessions had to be made. One of them was the total black-out to make navigation for the Allied Air Forces more difficult.

Inevitably the few neutral states in Europe were viewed with distrust and suspicion from both sides during the conflict. Switzerland was continually accused, from the Allies and the Germans, to support the other side. It was a classical case of being "between the devil and the deep blue sea". However, some of the Allied leaders were more understanding. The following is an excerpt from a memorandum the great Winston S. Churchill wrote:

Prime Minister to Foreign Secretary

3 December 1944

I put this down for the record. Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international force linking the hideously sundered nations and ourselves. What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep herself alive? She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self-defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side.

signed: Winston. S. Churchill

When Italy declared war on France and England in June 1940 the Mediterranean became inaccessible. Greece demanded the hand-over of their chartered ships from Switzerland. Finally they agreed to release ten of their ships for the time being. England stopped all vessels carrying goods for Switzerland, regardless of their flag, in ports west of Gibraltar. After seven months they were allowed to discharge their cargo at Iberian ports, mainly Lisbon. The financial losses for Switzerland and the respective shipping companies went into the millions. At the beginning the freight was transshipped to Genoa or Marseilles using small coasters under Portuguese flag. Later transport over land was also organised, using hundreds of Swiss and Spanish railroad freight cars or even truck convoys. As the Spanish Railroad gauge was wider than the rail tracks of Central Europe, all goods had be transferred again at the Spanish/ French border.

Italy had occupied Albania on 7 April 1939 and attacked Greece on the 28 October 1940. Now the Italian ports were definitely closed for Ships under the Greek flag. It became increasingly difficult to import sufficient food and other vital goods into Switzerland. The intensifying U-boat war in the North Atlantic again caused a tremendous shortage of ship's tonnage.

  • A new flag on the high seas.

During the summer of 1940 the Swiss Shipping Company (Schweizerische Reederei AG) in Basel had already purchased two freighters under Panama Flag, the s/s "Calanda" and s/s "Maloja". Andr & Co. in Lausanne, an important grain trader (today: Suisse Atlantique SA) also bought a ship under Panama flag and called it s/s "St. Cergue". Both companies asked the Swiss Government to have the vessels registered under the Swiss Flag. The Government declined, arguing that there was no urgent need for doing so and that the administrative efforts and the costs would be prohibitive for such a small fleet. Also there was of course still no Swiss maritime law.,

The threatening military and political developments in Europe however, made the government to finally change its mind. In January 1941 the Swiss federal council asked Prof. Dr. Robert Haab of Basel to prepare a draft for a maritime law. Mr. Haab had been studying the maritime legislation of major shipping nations since 1922 and was recognised as an expert in this field. Drawing on his knowledge and experience he was able to finish the document within 30 days. The provisional Federal Maritime Law was put into force on 9 April 1941.

There remained only one problem: there were few ships for sale. They were mostly old and some of them could only be described as swimming wracks. Also they were terribly expensive. Prices were ten or twenty times as much as compared with those before the war. However, the Swiss had no choice. The only thing they could do was buying the best vessels they could afford and have them overhauled, refurbished and made seaworthy. The costs for this endeavour were enormous but considered justified by its urgency.

At the beginning of 1941 Great Britain confiscated all Greek ships in charter to Switzerland. One of the reasons given was that the Swiss would have the opportunity at a later time to obtain cargo space with regular cargo lines. Also it was suggested, somehow unnecessarily, that Switzerland should reduce its living standard and adapt its economy to war conditions similar to the countries that were actually at war. Finally London consented to release ten of the Greek vessels under the proviso that they were not allowed to pass Gibraltar and enter the Mediterranean. Apparently this rule also applied for all neutral ships under private ownership. Therefore the Swiss Government, respectively its War Transport Office KTA, decided to become a shipowner on its own. It managed to buy four ships with a total tonnage of 27 230 dwt which were operated under the Swiss flag. The ships were also used to carry aid and help parcels from the British and American Red Cross as well as letters and parcels for POW’s. Westbound these were all carried free of charge. Finally the increasing amount of Red Cross cargo left very little space for the real purpose of the ships. Consequently the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva decided to purchase their own ships tonnage as well. Three vessels were obtained through a specially created ICRC foundation at Basel. They were also registered in Switzerland and managed by the Swiss Shipping Company. The complex story of the KTA and ICRC ships cannot be told here for reasons of space. Suffice it to say that KTA sold their vessels to Swiss private companies after the war and the ICRC returned their ships to their former owners.

List of the Ships acquired by Switzerland during the war years and operated under the Swiss Flag:

Register Number Ships Name /
Owners , Operators
Year built
dwt / Sale or Loss

Year of purchase / Year of sale or loss

1

s/s CALANDA
Swiss Shipping Co., Basel
1913 7400
Sale

24.4.1941
12.11. 1946

2

s/s MALOJA
Swiss Shipping Co., Basel
1906 2750
Total loss

24.4.1941
19.4.1944

3

s/s ST. GOTTHARD
KTA, Bern / Nautilus AG, Glarus
1911 8339
Sale

6.5.1941
29.7.1954

4

s/s GENEROSO
Maritime Suisse SA, Basel
1896
2150
Total loss

29.5.1941
29.3.1946

5

s/s ST. CERGUE
Suisse Atlantique SA, Lausanne
1937 7600
Sale

10.7.1941
17.3.1952

6

s/s CHASSERAL
KTA, Bern, Nautilus AG, Glarus
1897 4064
Sale

17.7.1941
8.10.1951

7

m/s SAENTIS
KTA, Bern, Nautilus AG, Glarus
1915 6690
Sale

12.12.1941
30.9.1963

8

s/s EIGER, later CRISTALLINA
KTA, Bern, Swiss Shipping Co., Basel
1929 8137
Sale

30.12.1941
7.1.1949

9

s/s ALBULA
Swiss Shipping Co., Basel
1910 2030
Sale

26.2.1942
18.12.1945

10

s/s LUGANO
Nautilus AG, Glarus
1898 9200
Sale

29.4.1942
13.4.1948

11

s/s CARITAS I
ICRC Foundation, Basel*
1903 3950
Return**

5.5.1942
2.6.1945

12

s/s  ZUERICH
Maritime Suisse SA, Basel
1893 2800
Total loss

30.3.1943
16.12.1946

13

s/s CARITAS II
ICRC Foundation, Basel*
1929 3950
Return**

17.3.1944
2.6.1945

14

s/s HENRY DUNANT
ICRC Foundation, Basel*
1910 8500
Return**

28.9.1944
24.10.1945

* Foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Basel
** Ships were returned to their former owners


According to international law the home port of every ship has to be in the country of the flag it flies. Basel was designated as the home port and the Federal Maritime Authority (it calls itself "Swiss Maritime Navigation Office") and the Swiss Maritime Ships Register were established there. The Swiss Maritime law defines the strict conditions for registering a ship in Switzerland. For instance, owners, operators and all management and administrative personnel must be Swiss citizens living in Switzerland. All shareholders must be Swiss nationals and at least three quarters of the shares and the basic capital must be owned by Swiss citizens living in Switzerland.

  • The crew problem

Obviously one of the problems during the war was staffing the ships. Only crew members from neutral countries could be considered in theory. There were a large number of Portuguese, also Belgians, Danish, Dutch, Estonians, Greeks, Norwegians, Poles, Spanish, Swedes, Swiss and White Russians. The White Russians were a special problem. They were refugees which before the German occupation had lived in exile in France. They were stateless, most of them had Nansen passes only or no papers at all, and in most countries they were denied shore leave.

The Swiss could be found in almost any position on board. Some were Deck- or Engine officers, others were sailors, stewards, cooks or grease monkeys, etc. There was only one Swiss Captain. He was Fritz Gerber who had been born in 1895 and joined a Sailing Ship at Bremen when he was 18. He then sailed for ten years on windjammers on the traditional routes between Europe and Australia, via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. After ten years at sea he obtained his Masters certificate at Bremen. Then followed 11 years as Captain with the North German Lloyd on routes to the Far East and Siberia. After that he was Captain of a Whaler in the Antarctic for five years. Finally during WW2 he became captain of the s/s "St. Cergue", then the s/s  "Eiger" later "Cristallina. 1948 he took over the s/s "Ascona" under Honduran flag and in 1952 he took command of the m/s "General Dufour". Later in the same year he died of a heart attack at Taltal in Chile.

Only Radio Officers could be wholly trained in Switzerland. As their position was considered vitally important, every effort was made to provide each Swiss ship with a Swiss Radio Officer. The training was carried out by Radio Suisse SA in Bern, a forerunner of todays Telecom. It was realised that a direct communication link with the nation’s ships was absolutely necessary. Therefore a Swiss "Coastal Radio Station" was established at the military airport of Dbendorf near Zurich with the call sign HBZ. In 1949 the station was moved to a location near the new civilian airport at Kloten and used the call sign HEZ. In 1963 the location was changed to Bern and the call sign to HEB. The station is also equipped for long range voice communication on short wave with aircraft (Long Distance Operational Control = LDOC).

  • Operating the ships

Not only purchasing, repairing and manning the ships was difficult. Managing the ships under war conditions became a nightmare. Both sides held up sea blockades. Besides the usual ship’s papers, every Swiss vessel had to carry a multitude of permits, documents and certificates ("Ship Warrants", "Navicerts", etc.) issued only for one specific voyage. Also each voyage had to be reported in detail and in advance to Allied and German officials.

The ships carried the word SWITZERLAND in huge white letters on both sides of the hull. They were brightly illuminated at night. Also the Swiss flag was reproduced on the superstructure wherever possible. The Allies and the Germans had installed check points where the ships were stopped and searched. There were many restrictive rules and regulations. The crew was not allowed to have notebooks, diaries, sketches, food, cigarettes, cameras, etc. If found during a search, such things were confiscated.

Typical is the story of the journey of two Swiss Radio Officers (Mr. Jakob Wismer and Mr. Ernst Wyler) from Basel to Lisbon in January 1944. They had to join a German Army transport train and were the only civilians among hundreds of German soldiers and officers. Until Irn, at the French/Spanish border, they had to remain in a compartment with boarded up windows. The whole trip took 65 hours. One of the two Swiss carried three, partly hand-written, books with him. They dealt exclusively with operating practices in Maritime Radio. In order to be allowed to take them along at all, he had to obtain a special permit from the German Embassy in Bern. It said: "The contents have been thoroughly checked. Their unoffensiveness and the necessity for taking them personally across the border to Portugal on the 3rd January 1944 is herewith certified. In view of the urgency of the voyage, sending the material through the post is not possible. signed German Embassy Bern on the 31st of December 1943."

  • Losses

Inevitably the war at sea also caused losses and damage among the ships sailing for Switzerland. Despite their small number and despite all the precautions and markings the vessels were attacked from the air and the sea. And then of course there were the mines.

The Greek s/s "Mount Lycabettus" left Baltimore on 11 March 1942 bound for Leixes, Portugal. She never arrived there. The ship vanished without a trace and all inquiries and investigations revealed nothing about her fate. One can only assume that she was torpedoed most probably on March 14th. 1942 by U-373 and sunk with the loss of all hands.

The s/s "Hadiotis" ran aground near Leixes, Portugal on 15 February 1941. The wreck was bought by the KTA, refloated and repaired. She became the Swiss flag s/s "Eiger" in autumn of 1942.

The s/s "Maloja" was erroneously attacked by British aircrafts near Corsica on 7 September 1943 and sank. Three crewmembers lost their lives.

s/s "Chasseral" was erroneously attacked by British aircraft also in the Mediterranean. She suffered heavy damage. One crewmember was dead, four were badly wounded. The ship was towed to Ste and later repaired.

The s/s "Albula" arrived at Marseilles on 21 July 1944. The liberation of the city by Allied forces was imminent. The vessel was scheduled to load valuable goods blocked in the port from further transport to Switzerland and bring them to a safer place like Lisbon. Also planned were extensive repairs. During the night from 20 to 21 August the retreating German forces blew up the wharf using powerful explosives. They had also laid 2500 mines. The crew had been evacuated to a school building about 4 km from the port. The ship was heavily damaged and sank in the harbour. In addition a heavy harbour crane collapsed right on top of the s/s "Albula" causing further damage. In February 1945 the wrack was towed to Lisbon and sold.

On the 14 September 1944 American and Free French navy personnel tried to clear all mines in the port of Marseilles. They asked Captain Gouretzky to shift the s/s "Generoso" a few hundred meters to a safer place. However, under way the vessel struck a mine. The explosion ripped the ship apart. The captain and Radio Officer Christian Schaaf, standing on the bridge, were thrown high into the air. The R/O was fortunate to land in the water. Although the water was covered with oil it did not ignite and Mr. Schaaf survived heavily wounded. However, the captain did not survive and the ship was a total loss.

On the positive side it might be mentioned, that in many cases Swiss flag ships managed to pick up survivors from torpedoed and sinking ships and bring them to safety. During the war years the s/s "Saint Cergue", for instance, under the expert leadership of Captain Gerber managed to pick up several hundred survivors of torpedoed ships.

A typical incidence took place in June 1942. While on a voyage from New York to Genoa they were able to take on board 214 passengers and crew of the sunk Dutch "Jagersfontein" in the western North Atlantic. There were several American Armed Forces officers among the survivors and Captain Gerber was worried about the possibility of their presence being detected by German U-boats. He ordered their telltale steel helmets to be thrown overboard. Also the Americans were to remain below deck at all times. Only one and a half hours later the s/s "Saint Cergue" was stopped by a German U-boat which first circled around the ship and them came alongside. The German Commander asked if everything was OK and why the vessel was not on its prescribed course. Captain Gerber managed to conceal his apprehensions and replied calmly that the ship had encountered unexpected cross currents. The German U-boat captain accepted the explanation and did not insist on a search but let the s/s "Saint Cergue" continue.

  • After the War: The Transition Period

Long before the end of the war in Europe, the question if Switzerland should continue to operate sea going merchant ships under its own flag in peace time was hotly discussed by the interested parties. In 1943 the Association of Forwarding and Shipping Agents voiced its fervent opposition. They were afraid to lose a long-time advantage of favourable freight rates. The association of Swiss Ship Owners was just as firmly for a continuation of their activities after the war. The Swiss government supported the latters view as it considered the political and military future in Europe as highly insecure.

As was to be expected the cease fire in Europe on 8 May 1945 did not bring an immediate improvement in conditions for the shipping trade. Lisbon and the ports of southern France remained the main places for discharging goods destined for Switzerland. In the autumn of 1945 the ports of Antwerp, Savona and Genoa were considered sufficiently cleared up and opened again. In August 1945 the Allies established a shipping pool called the "United Maritime Authority" (UMA). Its main purpose was the orderly retrieval of military personnel and war material from Europe. It was clear that now the main interest of the Allies, and especially the USA, was concentrated on the Pacific theatre of war and the need to end operations there as quickly as possible. As the UMA ships were usually in ballast on the eastbound voyages, their carrying capacity was offered to European governments at favourable conditions. Switzerland had ten ships allocated for its most urgent needs. These units transported coal, cotton, bauxite, aluminium, sulphur, steel, copper, grain and sugar any many other goods to Genoa, Savona and Antwerp.

The UMA vessels eliminated to a great extend the scarcity of cargo tonnage which had been prevalent during the war. Now however, in the chaotic aftermath, the biggest problem was the transport of freight from the seaports to points inland. Not only were most of the harbours still not able to work at anything like full capacity, the railways and roads in a great part of Europe were destroyed or heavily damaged and largely unusable. Also there was a scarcity of rolling stock.

Fortunately, in February 1946, shipping on the Rhine river was resumed, which made it possible to bypass the railways and roads. The direct transfer of cargo from seaship to rivership in ports like Antwerp and Rotterdam also eased the load on the seaports' installations.

In March 1946 the UMA was dissolved. Slowly conditions in the maritime freight business normalised. Switzerland was also able to abolish the fuel depots that had been established in Lisbon, Las Palmas and Funchal. Between February and April the KTA sold its four ships to new Swiss owners (see table 1). Also the time charter for the Greek ships was successively terminated and the vessels returned to their owners one by one.

  • Developments and Consolidation

The Swiss government and the Shipping companies agreed that two tasks were of highest priority. The fleet had to be modernised and the tonnage increased. Practically all ships purchased during the war were old, slow, small and very inefficient and therefore expensive to operate. Their fuel consumption was very high and in no relation to their slow speed. Also they were unreliable and prone to frequent mechanical breakdowns that caused a lot of delays, costs and even dangerous situations.

When the war in Korea began in June 1950 bulk freight rates increased by 100% and more. If the war should proliferate, Switzerland would then depend entirely on the ships under Swiss flag to transport provisions for the country. However, the existent fleet of ten old ships with about 70’000 dwt total capacity was too small. The association of Swiss Shipping Companies worked out a plan to increase the tonnage by at least an additional 60’000 dwt. The Swiss government agreed to provide one-time-only subsidies in the form of long term loans with low interest rates. The loans covered up to 75% of the costs of new ships or purchases. However, the conditions were very strict. The ships could not be disposed of during a period of ten years, except with government approval. The type of ships to be built or purchased was clearly defined. The vessels had to be of modern construction and capable of a minimum speed not below 12 kts. During their service under Swiss flag they had to be maintained in top condition. In two steps a total of 12 ships were built or bought for a sum of 78.2 Million Francs. Their total capacity was almost 100’000 dwt. Other ships were bought or ordered using private capital. On the 31 December 1952 there were 36 vessels under Swiss Flag with a total of 207’291 dwt and an average age of 13 years.

Naturally the role of a larger and more modern Swiss merchant fleet during peace time had to be redefined. For the Swiss government the cargo ships under Swiss flag were still seen as a kind of insurance in case of another armed conflict. Of course it was impossible to predict if, when, where and what would or could happen. Very few things, if at all, could be planned ahead. One was the availability of a small fleet of ships with a minimum total carrying capacity. The only other scheme, which was effectively carried out, aimed at securing a maximum of Swiss crewmembers aboard the ships in case of war. All Swiss seamen who had accumulated a certain time and experience at sea and were otherwise considered suitable were registered in a list. It was drawn up in agreement with the Military authorities and kept at the Swiss Maritime Office. In the case of a general mobilisation all persons on the list would have been exempted from military service and were scheduled to join the ships as crew members.

When conditions normalised and world trade picked up in the late forties the vessels under Swiss flag were no more needed for provisioning the home country. They had now to find work in the free world market. In one case two bulk carriers were engaged for several years in a kind of shuttle service between Australia and Japan. Others were in long-time charters to European and Overseas shipping companies, like for instance Hapag-Lloyd in Germany or Saguenay Terminals (ALCAN) of Canada. One company - Keller Shipping of Basel - introduced regular line services from Europe to West African and Mediterranean ports. This company also represents Lloyds of London in Switzerland. The MV Basilea of the Swiss Shipping Co. was engaged on a regular run from Europe to China under long-time charter to Rickmers Shipping in Bremen, Germany.

At that time conditions were favourable and practically all traditional shipping nations continually increased their fleets. The Swiss operators did the same but their main objective was to increase carriage capacity. While the number of ships fluctuated, the total tonnage steadily increased. On 31 December 1974 there were 26 units with a total carrying capacity of 308’425 dwt. In April 1986 there were again 34 ships with a total of 580’965 dwt and an average age of 9.56 years. Today, that is as from 12 February 1998 the official statistics show 20 seagoing vessels under Swiss flag with a total tonnage of 769’745 dwt. Average age is 10 years.

The percentage of Swiss crewmembers was at its highest during 1965 when it reached 62%. In 1997, with a total crew complement of 393 on 19 ships, only 11.7% of the crews were Swiss. Six of them were captains. The rest of the crew were nationals of the following countries: Germany (1 captain), Chile, Indonesia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Croatia, Philippines, Poland, Slowakia, Slovenia, Spain and the Ukraine. With the addition in February 1998 of a new unit, the bulkcarrier m/s "Vindonissa" of 45’527 dwt, the above numbers will have to be corrected slightly.

Surprisingly the Lloyds Maritime Directory for 1997 shows 27 shipping companies registered in Switzerland. They own, operate and manage a total of 277 (now 278) ocean going ships. The great majority of them, except for the twenty flying the Swiss flag, are under flags of convenience.

  • Conclusion

The slow but continuous deterioration of conditions for international shipping during the last decades also affected the small Swiss fleet. Some companies closed down. Others registered their ships under flags of convenience and officially ceased to exist here. The most prominent victim was the pioneering "Swiss Shipping Company". It still exists but its main area of business is traditional but modernised Rhine river shipping.

When Nol Mostert published his book "Supership" in 1974 the reader was under the impression that conditions couldn’t possibly get any worse. However, there is little improvement to be seen and in some respects the situation is even worse today than in 1974. There have always been Shipping Companies that endeavoured to maintain high standards of quality and safety. Many of the Swiss companies belonged or still belong to this class. It is hard to say what the future will bring to the merchant ships under the Swiss flag. One can only hope that they will not vanish completely one day.

H. Walser

This article was first published in SHIPS MONTHLY, April issue 1999

From the Team Swiss-Ships we would like to add the folwing comments: 

The GENEROSO was sunk in the port of Marseille on 19.09.1944 by a floating mine.

The FONES (Federal Office for National Economic Supply) in Bern has confirmed, that MOUNT LYCABETTUS sailed from Baltimore on 11.03.1942 and disappeared on 17.03.1942. According to www.uboat.net the steamer left Baltimore on 13.03.1942 Baltimore, was reported missing on 14.03. and was probably sunk on 17.03.1942 by U-373.

The ALBULA was ordered together with the GENEROSO to load Swiss goods, stowed in the port of Marseille and bring them to the safe port of Barcelona.

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