The Secret Military Fortresses Hidden in the Swiss Alps

These clandestine bunkers helped keep Switzerland out of WWII. Now they house everything from museums to raclette cheese.


DB: Unlike most train rides in Switzerland, there is no postcard view of the snow-dusted Alps on the Metro del Sasso. Cold, damp air cuts through the underground funicular as it chugs uphill in near darkness, deep in the Gotthard mountains in the country’s southernmost canton of Ticino. Disembarking at the top, instead of a sweeping bucolic landscape, passengers arrive at a military command center.

Only declassified in 2001, Sasso da Pigna was one in a chain of secret fortresses constructed in the Swiss Alps during World War II. After France fell to the Axis powers in 1940, Switzerland lost a powerful ally, and army general Henri Guisan knew trying to continue to defend the country’s borders against indomitable Germany was futile. Instead, the Swiss National Redoubt was born.

The military strategy drew troops away from the front lines, concentrating manpower in impenetrable mountain bunkers.

Fortresses like Sasso da Pigna, built in 1941–45, and two other key citadels at Saint-Maurice and Sargans served as strongholds in a network that stretched across the Alps. They housed troops and artillery, while others acted as hangars for fighter planes. Sasso da Pigna’s location at the Gotthard Pass was a particularly important one. The pass marks the main route through the mountains from north to south and has served as a major trade route through the Alps since the Middle Ages, modernized in the late 19th century with the creation of the Gotthard railway line.
When the fortress was finally declassified, its transformation began into Sasso San Gottardo, a museum that pays tribute to the area’s storied past. “This is where Switzerland started, at the foot of this pass,” says Sepp Huber, a former mountain infantry commander who now leads tours through the historic fortress.
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