THE SWISS BRANCH
THE ROYAL AIR FORCES ASSOCIATION
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Swiss Branch, as with many of the early Branches, and indeed the Association itself, was born of the outcome of war. However, this fact was of special significance in the creation of the Swiss Branch.
Switzerland, in 1951, a land of peace and plenty in the middle of a Europe still suffering from the privations and disorganization of a long war, was also host to a very large number of British ex-service men and women who had been placed in clinics specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis by the British Health Services. Ex-Army and Navy were located in Leysin, Vaud Canton, whilst ex-RAF personnel were in Davos in the Canton of Graubunden in south-east Switzerland.
The late Marquis of Amodio è Moya, President of the European Area of The Royal Air Forces Association
wrote in March 1951 to Wg. Cdr. Ian Spencer, the then Air Attaché in
informing him of the opening of the Association's Continental Office in Paris,
and the decision of the National and Executive Councils' decision that every
effort should be made to establish a Branch in Switzerland. Wg. Cdr. Spencer
cleared matters with the Swiss authorities, and, following an exchange of
correspondence and a visit to Bern by the Area President, it was decided that
Geneva would be the best
place in which to set up a Branch as there was a potential membership amongst the
personnel working at the United Nations and its associated Agencies established there.
A meeting was convened in June 1951 to discuss the formation of a Branch which was
duly created the following month. Eighteen members attended the inaugural meeting
in September 1951.Thus the Swiss Branch became the third Branch to be formed in Europe following the Paris and Belgian Branches!
Mention must be made here of the tremendous help given by the Swiss Branch of the British Legion to this fledgling Branch, both in hard cash to help provide comforts for the patients, as well as its collaboration in the organization.
Naturally fund raising became a pre-occupation, and various raffles, dinners and so on were held. A most important event was a ball held in St. Moritz in 1954 attended by no less than Lord and Lady Tedder. The entire evening, with an excellent dinner and a half bottle of champagne cost 50 Swiss Francs per head, about £4 at the time. A raffle was held, and the help given by the Marquis of Amodio è Moya in obtaining a vast number of expensive prizes was greatly appreciated.
Although patients in Davos received visits from the Geneva end of Switzerland, the 500 km journey, without motorways, was a daunting experience. However, a paid Welfare Officer, Flt. Lt. Reding who had himself been a patient, was appointed to Davos to care for their daily needs. He visited all the patients regularly, and reported any special requirements to the Swiss Branch.
These needs were indeed wide and varied, ranging from the obvious need for reading material in English (hundreds of books were sent), to portable radios, a toaster, a billiard table, typewriters and linguaphone sets. Some 40 kg of cobblers tools were imported, and the cost for correspondence courses in English and horticulture provided.
A few patients were in hospital in Zurich, the very summit of efficiency and hygiene -- but the diet! A copy of the daily menu revealed a very spartan diet indeed, so funds were provided to supplement the slim rations.
Brocks sent out a large consignment of fireworks for the Coronation of HM The Queen in 1953, providing a superb display for the patients in Davos, and no doubt the local population as well.
The Area President was very helpful in arranging for films to be sent for showing in the various clinics.
In all, nearly 500 ex-service men and women passed through the Swiss clinics, but by 1955 nearly all had been repatriated. Following this rather crowded welfare programme of the previous years, the question arose as to the Branch's future welfare direction. A minor event that year perhaps signposted the path to be followed. The Belgian Branch of RAFA wrote asking if two brothers aged 7 and 10 could be given a holiday in Switzerland. The boys were in an orphanage having been deserted by their parents, the father ex-RAF and the mother Belgian. They spent three months with a couple at St. Légier in the Jura mountains, and the Branch was able to get them into a school in Cheltenham, the mother, having been found, was more than happy to have them taken off her hands.
The Branch Treasurer of the day, Adam Szapiro, a Polish ex-airman, thought that childrens' holiday would be a worthwhile welfare project. Thus the Swiss Holiday Scheme was born, and a small group of children came to Switzerland for their holidays each year.
The Branch held monthly fundraising dinners with a more formal event, usually a dinner-dance, in the Christmas season. However, it was not until 1961, when Wg. Cdr. Teddy Smouha became Branch Chairman that Branch welfare schemes began to assume the importance that they have today. He brought a new sense of responsibility into the Branch, and organized fundraising on a much sounder basis. He organized a Garden Fête in the grounds of his property that year. This became an annual event and was a 'must' in the Geneva social calendar until 1977 when it was abandoned in order to concentrate on air shows, a decision much regretted by many.
Although the funds raised at the first Garden Fête were modest, about SF 1100, receipts rose each year, reaching some SF 25,000 in the last couple of years, an excellent result for six months' preparation collecting items for one day's selling!
At that time preference was given to providing holidays in Switzerland for needy children from the UK, the numbers varying from 6 to 30 in any one year. RAFA Headquarters or the local Branch in the UK paid the air fares, and mention must be made to the generosity of the Thurrock Branch which contributed to the scheme for many years. Expenses in Switzerland were borne by the Swiss Branch. Judy ffoulkes, Welfare Officer at the time, always met the group, accompanied them to their destination and prepared sandwiches for them. On one occasion she forgot to take the sandwiches, and the Committee had to have an impromptu party -- waste not want not!
Concern was expressed by the Welfare Officer in the late 1960s as to the eligibility of some of the children being sent out to Switzerland. It was discovered, for example, that not all came from needy families. One boy, on being asked if he would be met at the airport on his return to the UK, replied "Oh, Daddy, will meet me with one of our cars". Another had just returned from a holiday in Kenya. Gerald Boake asked one girl on arrival at Heathrow if she had sufficient money for the fare home discovered that she had more cash on her than he had!
These revealing facts coupled with the devaluation of Sterling resulted in a complete re-think of the Branch's welfare programme. The conclusion was that it would be better to provide holidays in the United Kingdom for needy children saving the expense of the air fare. Consequently, in that first year, 28 youngsters were given holidays in a British Holiday Camp, but then it was decided that we should help entire families since it seemed unfair that one child should benefit when there were others in the family who missed out. It was felt that parents too needed a break. This has remained the philosophy of the Swiss Holiday Scheme ever since which has now (2016) been renamed The Swiss Branch Respite Care Fund.
One or two anecdotes about the Garden Fêtes. Teddy Smouha's grandchildren always succeeded in getting him into trouble. One year it was discovered that the large silver-plated serving dishes belonging to the caterers had disappeared. It turned out that one of his grandsons had put them on the white elephant stall and they had been sold! Happily some smart detective work recovered them the following day. On another occasion the small voice of a grandson was heard from the crowd pushing up the bidding for a bottle of whisky being auctioned. During a flash storm one year, as much as possible was carried from the stalls into Teddy's house. However, as his paths were gravel, the parquet floors soon resembled an ice rink after a figure skating exhibition.
On occasion a well known personality has officially opened the Fête, and the first among these was the Marquis of Amodio è Moya. Alistair MacLean did the honours on another occasion, but he being such a shy person had to be well fortified before he could be persuaded to make his speech. He had very generously donated a number of his books duly autographed to the sale, and his three young sons kept rushing to the bookstall asking if their dad's books had been sold yet. James Mason regaled the crowd with tales of some of the mishaps befalling the administration of the village where he lived.
It became evident that the annual Garden Fête, despite increasing benefits, would no longer be able to provide for increasing welfare costs. The opportunity of having a stand at airshows in 1977 offered a means of not only producing more income, but also of making the aims and objects of the Branch and the Association known to a wider public in Switzerland. Other fundraising possibilities were sought, and two film premières were sponsored by the Branch in Geneva 'The Great Escape' and 'The Battle of Britain', this latter being a most formal occasion -- black tie. The cost of the ticket included a champagne buffet, generously offered by a well known French champagne producer and a Geneva caterer. The organization for this première was carried out in collaboration with the Swiss Army and Air Force Families Fund, enabling the Branch to have official backing. A Federal Councillor was among the official guests. The months of hard work paid off, each Association netting some SF 50,000.
Swiss Branch welfare was not limited to providing holidays to those in need. For example, 12 portable television sets, 20 electric shavers, some electric scissors for the therapy section, a wheelchair and a knitting machine were given to the Association's Care Home at Sussexdown in the UK. In addition £10,000 was sent to sponsor a room, £20,000 for renovating the bathrooms, and £10,000 as half the cost needed to renew the heating system. Although public collections cannot be made in Switzerland, £10,000 was sent to the 1981 Wings Appeal. The Branch is very proud of having been the only Branch to sponsor a flat, the Swiss Flat, costing £32,500 at Dowding House, Moffat, Scotland. All the above illustrates the wide and varied range of welfare supported by the Branch.
In the 1960s, the Swiss Branch only had about 50-60 members with very few Friend Members. A concerted recruiting campaign in the early '70s proved effective, and membership rose to 140 Members with the same number of Friend (now Associate) Members. Unlike some other European Branches of RAFA only a handful of Swiss nationals ever served in the Royal Air Force. A second Branch was formed in Zurich in 1964 since there were a number of ex-RAF personnel employed by Swissair and British European Airways. The two Branches were known as the Swiss 'Geneva' and Swiss 'Zurich' Branches. However, the Swiss 'Zurich' Branch was short lived because of the mobility of air transport personnel, and closed in 1970. Subsequently the 'Geneva' Branch reverted to its original name, the Swiss Branch.
The Branch developed a very close relationship with the Groupe de Vol á Moteur du Chablais, GVMC, more commonly known as the Bex Aero Club. Not only did the GVMC allow the Branch to have a stand at their various airshows, but they have always welcomed two or three Committee Members to join their organizing committee, and over the years have contributed some SF 250,000 to the Branch welfare fund from the gate money. As a token of our appreciation, and thanks to the intervention by RAFA HQ, the Branch was able to fulfill a long standing wish of the Aero Club -- the acquisition of a British red telephone box. The GPO not only donated the box, but completely refurbished it as it was destined for a charitable cause. An amusing handing over ceremony was held once the box was installed on its new site at the Bex airfield and connected to the Swiss telephone network. Most of the male Branch members who attended the ceremony turned up wearing bowler hats, dark overcoats, and carrying tightly rolled up umbrellas and of course 'The Times' correctly folded. A London 'Bobby' was also in attendance. The event was shown on the Swiss TV news that evening, and the first call was made to David Green, the then Overseas Secretary of RAFA, and who had been directly concerned in obtaining the box.
The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was celebrated in suitable manner. A mini-air show was held at the Bex airfield. The star of the show was a Spitfire from Duxford, the only one to leave the shores of Britain that weekend, the others all being on duty flying down the Mall in London! The Spitfire, a Russian Yak and a Swiss P2 staged a well orchestrated dog-fight. The day ended with a 'Squadron Party' in one of the hangars, with 'Bangers and Mash' cooked on a Swiss Army Field Kitchen, and dancing to the strains of Glen Miller. Many people wore clothes in the style of the 1940s. The annual Battle of Britain ceremony was held the following day in the War Graves Commission Cemetery, Vevey, and there weren't many dry eyes when, after the two minutes silence, the Spitfire suddenly appeared from behind the trees and did a Barrel Roll and Victory Loop over Lake Geneva. That was one of the best kept secrets of the weekend, only three people being in the picture, and the timing was perfect. A second fly past and the Spitfire headed for Duxford with a cheque for £15,000 in the cockpit. The Branch Chairman followed on a scheduled British Airways flight that evening and presented the cheque to Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Kennedy, Controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund, at Duxford the following day.
Attendance at other shows. Bouveret Memorial. (This section to be continued)
The celebrations by the British community in Switzerland for the 50th anniversary of VE-Day were held under the patronage of HM Ambassador in Bern, HE David Beatty, and were organized by a small group of people from RAFA, the RBL and the British Residents' Association under the Chairmanship of HM Consul General in Geneva, Mr. Philip Priestley. The day started with an ecumenical service of Reconciliation, Peace and Thanksgiving in Christ Church, Lausanne conducted by the Rev. Leslie Steel assisted by Rev. Douglas Murray, Minister of the Scots Kirk, Lausanne, Mr. L.R. Williams, replacing Rev. Geoffrey Cunliffe, Parish Priest of Our Lady of Faith, who was unfortunately ill, and by M. Le Pasteur Bertrand Zweifel, Pastor of the Evangelical Reform Church in the Canton of Vaud at Lausanne Cathedral.
The Church was full to capacity for the service, and in the congregation were dignitaries from Vaud Canton, representatives of eleven Embassies or Consulates, the Chief Rabbi of Lausanne, former diplomats and members of the various Anglo-Swiss societies based in the area, including of course many members of RAFA. The Union Flag and the Branch Standards of RAFA and the RBL, each escorted by two people preceded the procession into the church, and out again at the end of the service.
Later in the evening about 200 people met for dinner at a restaurant on top of the Signal de Bougy overlooking the lake. Following the meal those present formed up behind a lone piper, Eric MacIntosh, and the three standards and proceeded to the site of our Beacon which had been most kindly prepared by the local council. Following the Last Post, Two Minutes Silence and Reveille, HM Ambassador lit our Beacon at precisely the same time as HM The Queen lit the Beacon in Hyde Park, a fitting touch to the day's events.
This history would not be complete without expressing thanks to the Swiss Branch of the British Legion, now Royal, for its generosity and support to the Branch in its early days, to the Marquis of Amodio è Moya for instigating the formation of the Branch, and his tremendous support and undoubted affection over the years, to the late Wg. Cdr., later Air Vice Marshal, Ian Spencer for his work in creating the Branch and his guidance as its first President, and finally to the various Officers and Committee Members, the Members and Friends (now Associates) of the Branch, who by their dedication, enthusiasm, good humour and sheer hard work have helped the Branch to raise nearly SF 1,500,000 which amongst other things have provided holidays for more than 1,000 men, women and children, no mean achievement for a small Branch.