A depot storing 7,000 tons of explosives and ammunition exploded

Mitholz, the Swiss town that will be evacuated in 2030 due to a military accident from 1947

Switzerland is a country known for its beautiful landscapes and idyllic towns, but in addition to that it has a large network of military fortifications.

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This network was built during the two world wars in order to defend this mountainous country against a possible invasion. To prepare this defense, the Swiss Army distributed bunkers with weapons, ammunition and food to different parts of the country, in order to be prepared for hostilities that ultimately did not arrive. One of the largest ammunition depots in Switzerland was built in 1941 in Mitholz, a town located 50 km south of Bern.

The Mitholz Fluh, the mountain on which the ammunition depot was built (Photo: Andreas Wocke).

The Swiss Army chose that town because of the Fluh en Mitholz, a large rock wall with a height of up to 100 meters. Six 150-meter-long tunnels were dug at that location to house ammunition. The transport of the material to that depot was done through the nearby Blausee-Mitholz railway station. When the depot was completed in 1945, about 7,000 tons of ammunition and explosives were stored in Mitholz.

The Mitholz Fluh after its collapse due to the explosions of December 19, 1947 (Photo: Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv).

On December 18, 1947, Mitholz military personnel were unscrewing the epoles from the projectiles, in order to proceed to store them separately, to avoid possible accidents. However, around 11:00 p.m. on December 19, flames began to be seen in the access tunnels to the depot, in addition to the typical sounds that announce the beginning of a snow avalanche, something not uncommon in Mitholz.

The town of Mitholz after the military accident in 1947. The Balmhorn restaurant is marked with the number 30. The number 31 indicates the grocery store and 32 the Post Office (Photo: Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern).

Half an hour later a large explosion was heard, which destroyed the entrances to the depot and buried the Blausee-Mitholz railway station. A few minutes later there was a second, even more powerful explosion, followed by a third, even more powerful one well after midnight. The ammunition depot collapsed, collapsing the rock wall on which it was built. Huge rocks were shot hundreds of meters and some ammunition flew several kilometers away. In Mitholz, 9 people died, including 3 children, and 40 houses were damaged. Among those who lost their lives were the station chief and his son. Even today, the cause of this accident is unknown.

The Blausee-Mitholz railway station is destroyed after the accident (Photo: Staatsarchiv des Kantons Bern).

That colossal military accident was not the end of Mitholz. The town was rebuilt and so was the warehouse, specifically in 1953, although since then it was used to store medical supplies. The facilities, whose reconstruction was completed in 1982, are still in the hands of the Swiss Army, in charge of the Sanitätslogistikbataillon 81 (Sanitary Logistics Battalion 81), but currently its doors remain closed and under private surveillance.

The access door of the current military depot, in a photo taken on July 15, 2015 (Photo: Kecko).

However, a great threat remained latent under the rubble of the military accident for 71 years, without the inhabitants of this Swiss town knowing to what extent their lives were still in danger. In 2018, the Swiss government commissioned a study that determined that under the Mitholz rocks there were still 3,500 tons of unexploded explosives. This is a serious threat that could be activated by a storm, a rockfall, an avalanche or the degradation of the explosives themselves. A new large accident could occur imminently or within hundreds or thousands of years.

Some railway tracks that end at the wall of a mountain. They are the remains of the railway access to the ammunition depot destroyed in 1947 (Photo: Kecko).

In 2020, the Swiss government decided to clean the old ammunition depot, a cleanup that will cost about 1,000 million Swiss francs (about 1,067 million euros), due to the large amount of rocks that must be removed and the high risk of the operation.

One of the entrances to the current military depot (Photo: Kecko).

In 2021, another Swiss government study established that the 170 residents of Mitholz will have to leave the town between 2030 and 2040, when these cleaning tasks are carried out, being relocated by the State in other places , due to the risk that the cleaning of the warehouse will entail. It is estimated that the first evictions will begin in 2025. Thus, for a decade, Mitholz will become a ghost town and the most dangerous place in Switzerland.


Main photo: Kurt Zwahlen.

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