Long before the outbreak of World War II, the Swiss Government in Bern was thinking about the supplies of raw materials in case of war and commenced also to plan means to maintain these supplies. In 1938 the KTA, Kriegs Transport Amt (war transport office) in Bern was founded and its regulations were approved by the parliament on November 24, 1938. In good time the federal government commenced negotiations with various foreign powers to ensure these transports, in case of a crisis. The KTA was part of the federal department of economy and was made up of three sections:
1) Transports on land
2) Maritime transports
3) Federal insurance against war risks
Its first director was Mr. E. Matter, a former manager with the Swiss federal railways (SBB-CFF). After WW II commenced on September 1, 1939 with the German assault on Poland, already 4 days later the Swiss Government introduced the first steps to maintain uninterrupted supplies.
Without delay the KTA began to look for suitable shipping tonnage, but only ships under a neutral flag could be considered. Already on September 15, 1939 the KTA could conclude a time charter contract for 15 cargo ships with the Greek shipping company Rethymnis & Kulukundis Ltd., London and Piraeus, using the brokers Honegger & Ascott, London as mediators (a company which already served the Swiss Federation well during WW I). The ships should be handed over as quick as possible, but not later then spring 1940 and the contract duration was for an unspecified time, until the end of war. Actually all 15 ships went on-hire during the last three months of 1939. The disposition of the ships was made by the KTA, Bern, but the operation of the freighters was carried out by Honegger & Ascott, which had also relations to all ports, important for Switzerland. Also other ships were chartered, mainly smaller freighters under Portugese, Spanish, Panamanian and Yugoslave flag. As necessary, some ships sailed for Switzerland on voyage charter.
When Italy declared war in June 1940 to France and Great Britain, the Mediterranean Sea became a closed sea, the Royal Navy stopped all ships with cargo for Switzerland in ports west of Gibraltar, no matter which flag. After seven months they were allowed to discharge their cargoes in ports of the Iberian peninsula, mainly in Lisbon. The financial losses for Switzerland and the shipping companies amounted to millions.
In the beginning the freight was transported with small Portugese and Spanish coastal vessels to Marseille or to Genova. Also the two vessels of Maritime Suisse S.A. and the ALBULA and MALOJA of the Schweizerischen Reederei AG (Swiss Shipping Company) were engaged in the shuttle service between Portugal and the Mediterranean Sea. Later, also transports over land with trucks and the railway were organised.
Early in 1941 the chartered, Greek vessels of the KTA were seized by Great Britain. Only after long and difficult negotiations London agreed to release 10 Greek vessels, provided that they will not pass Gibraltar and enter the Mediterranean Sea. Apparently this regulation applied to all neutral vessels, which were privately owned.
The confused war situation led the federal council to contemplate the introduction of an own maritime shipping law in January 1941. They asked the professor of maritime law, Dr. Robert Haab of Basel to work out a maritime law. In a remarkable short time the law of shipping under the Swiss flag was created and already on April 9, 1941 it was adopted by a resolution of the federal council and was put into force.
Now the KTA endeavoured to obtain own ships, a difficult task, as ships on offer were very scarce and expensive at the time. Ships on sale were usually old and slow, moreover in poor condition. Despite these harsh circumstances the federal government succeeded to purchase four freighters and to put them into service. Three steamers ST. GOTTHARD, CHASSERAL and EIGER were put into service under Swiss flag still in 1941, whereas the motor ship SAENTIS followed in 1942. Thus the KTA owned a fleet of 27'230 tons deadweight. Intended was to acquire one more unit, the Panamanian steam ship GLORIA (name foreseen was DENT DU MIDI), however this purchase was not approved by the American Government and was stopped.
During the war also the privately owned Swiss vessels had to operate under the directions of the KTA and the owners were paid a charter hire for the vessels. An important task of the KTA was to obtain transit permits and to supply the necessary datas about voyage routes and times and to coordinate with the nations at war. The Government ships also carried parcels and letters of the British and American Red Cross for the prisoners of war.
Unfortunately the neutral Swiss ships were not spared from losses caused by war incidents. The worst catastrophe happened in March 1942, when the Greek steam ship MOUNT LYCABETTUS with a crew of 30 men disappeared in the North Atlantic without any trace. The sinking of the MALOJA near the coast of Corsica in September 1943 claimed three deaths. The two steamers ALBULA and GENEROSO were sunk in the port of Marseille, the master of the GENEROSO lost his life. There were some other war incidents, see also the ship's stories.
With the purchase of own ships, the KTA had to decide, how these ships should be operated. According to a decision of the federal council it was allowed to delegate the management to a private shipping company, offers from two Swiss companies were at hand. However it was decided, that the KTA itself would carry out the operational duties, such as engaging, paying and feeding the seamen, arrange supplies of bunkers and stores, the maintenance and supervision of the ships. We do not have exact information on how these vessels were operated, but it must be assumed, that the offices of the KTA in the ports, together with the company Honegger & Ascott, London managed a substantial part of these duties. The KTA had offices in different towns and ports, these were in Lisbon, Madrid, Cerbère (railway station at the Spanish/French boarder on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea), Marseille, Genova/Savona, Antwerp, Istanbul and New York (later in Philadelphia).
The crews of these freighters were mainly foreigners, to a large part from Portugal, as only seamen from neutral countries or such countries, which were not at war, could be employed. Swiss seamen were not many around at this time, but the KTA commenced early to employ Swiss citizens to form a core of own seafarers. The radio operators were mostly Swiss, as they were regarded as an important link to the home country. At the begin, only cooks and stewards, as well as firemen and engineers of Swiss nationality were employed, later young sailors from the river barges joined to learn the seafaring profession. The EIGER was commanded by the Swiss captain Fritz Gerber, who sailed in the German merchant navy before the war. Around a dozen Swiss were usually on board of these vessels, sometimes more, sometimes less.
To repair and dock the vessels, only the shipyard in Lisbon was available during the war, but allied ships had preference, therefore the maintenance of the Swiss vessels became time consuming and very expensive. We assume, also the Swiss naval architect and marine engineer Adolf Ryniker, who was elected director of the Swiss Maritime Navigation Office, Basel in April 1941, must have had a good say in the repair of these vessels.
The procurement of the necessary fuel for the own and for the chartered ships of the KTA was another highly important task and was carried out in cooperation with Honegger & Ascott in London. At this time most of the ships were coal fired steamers, only a few steam ships burned already heavy fuel. Motor ships were only a few around. Also the fleet of the KTA consisted mainly of coal burners. The average bunker prices were:
1) Marine diesel oil 97.-- USD per ton
2) Heavy oil 78.-- USD per ton
3) Bunker coal (BWC) 28.-- USD per ton (BWC = Best Welsh Coal)
From above bunker prices it is clear, coal was the most economical fuel at the time, even taking in consideration the lower calorific value, which was about 1/3 less then for diesel oil or heavy fuel oil. In the ports of Lisbon, Funchal (Island of Madeira), Las Palmas and St. Vincente (Islands of Cabo Verde) bunkering depots were installed, which were under the direct control of the KTA. To replenish these stocks, 31 voyages were made by KTA-ships, probably mainly with coal from the USA.
The KTA employed in the first years of the war about 20 to 40 persons, as from 1942 this increased to an average of 80 to 85 persons, including the representatives in the foreign agencies. After the war the staff was reduced again and the foreign agencies were closed down. In early 1948 the personnel was down to about 25 persons. All of the dismissed persons found another job in private companies.
After termination of the WW II the federal Government sold the four ships in 1947 to private Swiss shipping companies, the EIGER went to the Schweizerische Reederei AG in Basel and the other three vessels were taken over by Nautilus AG, Glarus. The sales value of the four ships amounted in total to 5'500'000.- Swiss francs.
During the war period from 1939 until 1946 a total of 1287 voyages were conducted on behalf of the KTA, earning a total profit of 33,8 million Swiss francs in favour of the federal Treasury, including the sale of the four vessels. The trading area was mainly the Atlantic Ocean, to South and North America, but also to West Africa. Some voyages were made as far as Lourenco Marques in Mocambique.
- Die Schweizerische Kriegswirtschaft 1939/1948, Bericht des Eidg. Volkswirtschafts-Departementes
- Die Schweizer Handelsschiffe 1939-1945, Walter Zürcher
- Rapport de mer, Ph. Eberlin