Napalm from the Alps: How the Swiss Developed a Deadly Incendiary Device (2023)

Napalm from the Alps: How the Swiss Developed a Deadly Incendiary Device (1)

For years, the opalm variant of napalm was supplied to warring countries around the world. The deadly incendiary weapon was long thought to be a Soviet product, but today we know it was developed in Switzerland.

This content was published on January 28, 2023 - 10:30 am

Regula Bochsler

In the late 1970s, the Indonesian Air Force made a propaganda film in which soldiers planted bombs on the wings of an American OV-10F Bronco fighter. The bombs bore the logo "BOM-OPALM" and were to be dropped on Timor-Leste, which had been fighting for its independence since 1975.

Incendiary Opalm was thought to be the Soviet version of American napalm, but recently discovered documents show it was actually a Swiss product. It was developed in Domat/Ems in eastern Switzerland, tested by the Swiss Air Force and produced in Germany on behalf of a Swiss company.

Napalm from the Alps: How the Swiss Developed a Deadly Incendiary Device (2)

The story begins in the early 1950s when the US Air Force dropped 32,000 tons of napalm on the Korean Peninsula. Military experts were amazed that napalm could cause a lot of destruction for little money. The Swiss press reported how "a napalm bomb covered almost 2,000 square meters with its searing flames, destroying all living things within its range".

The Swiss army also wanted to get their hands on the new weapon. The possibilities were manifold: in 1950, an American company sent a sample of napalm to Switzerland, a little later the French offered "Octogel" and the Dutch "Metavon". In 1952 another deadly agent appeared: the Swiss company Holzverzuckerungs AG (HOVAG) offered an "improved napalm" called Opalm.

Opalm was the idea of ​​Werner Oswald, the founder of HOVAG. From 1941 he ran a state-subsidized factory for the production of alternative fuels in Domat/Ems. But when petrol was imported again after the end of the Second World War, its fuel was no longer in demand. He needed new business ideas, and napalm, a blend of gasoline and thickeners, was one of them.

Oswald developed and patented Opalm. When he offered to sell it to the Swiss army, he argued that HOVAG could guarantee production independent of foreign countries in the event of war. Although the purchasing government believed opalm was "at least as good as" foreign products, they decided against purchasing it because it was four times more expensive than American napalm.

circumvent the law

This did not bother Oswald as he had already found another customer abroad. The government of Burma, a country plagued by internal strife since gaining independence in 1948, has had thousands of opalm bombs, including projectiles and fuses, manufactured by Swiss companies working with HOVAG. When the Swiss government refused to issue an export license in 1954, Oswald simply relocated production to Germany.

Napalm from the Alps: How the Swiss Developed a Deadly Incendiary Device (3)

In the mid-1950s there was no law in Germany regulating the export of incendiary agents, so the production facility in Domat/Ems was dismantled and rebuilt in Karlsruhe, Germany. The Swiss chemist who developed Opalm traveled to Karlsruhe to show Oswald's new business partner, the German arms dealer Walter Heck, how the "secret recipe" was made.

It was a classic solution: the sale took place in Switzerland, the incendiary device was produced in Germany and delivered to the buyer from there. Although not in the spirit of the Swiss Arms Act, such a procedure was legalized in 1951 provided the finished guns never touched Swiss soil.

At the same time, Oswald transferred all Opalm business to PATVAG, a company he co-owned with his brothers. That meant the profits didn't end up in the state-subsidized HOVAG, which had funded Opalm's development, but went straight into the pockets of the Oswald family.

After recently refusing to export opalm, the Swiss government has now approved the shipment of thousands of Basel-produced bombs to Myanmar. As for the detonators, PATVAG director Erwin Widmer did what many arms dealers did: He declared them "plastic containers" when he was about to ship them to Pakistan, where one of his employees was preparing an Opalm performance for the army.

The fraud was discovered by a suspicious Swiss customs officer, but Widmer used his good government connections and applied for a second proper export license, which was promptly granted. However, when an outraged HOVAG employee reported to a newspaper editor about the "plastic containers" and the misrepresentation, the authorities fell silent, citing professional secrecy. The director of PATVAG only received a small fine for the incorrectly declared detonators.

While Domat/Ems scientists continued to improve Opalm and find additives that would make the combustion effect even more devastating, HOVAG looked for new customers. In the summer of 1955, the company sent samples to NATO and several European and Arab countries. Jordan, Syria and Egypt bought an undisclosed amount of opalm. The Egyptian Air Force used it to bomb defenseless civilians during Yemen's civil war between 1962 and 1967. Police files and letters related to PATVAG even indicate that the company had sold a license to the Egyptian army and was involved in building opalm production. Plant near Cairo.

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Another client was the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN). PATVAG's German business partner Walter Heck supplied him with opalm and flamethrowers, which he described as "pesticides". In 1961, Heck was shot dead on the street, as were several German and Swiss arms dealers before and after him who supplied the FLN. Almost certainly the French secret service was behind the killings, doing everything in their power to prevent insurgents in Algeria, a French colony, from procuring weapons.

Opal in Indonesia

In 1957, HOVAG again applied for a Swiss export license for Indonesia, which the Swiss government again refused to grant. For this reason, the orders were most likely processed via Germany, but there is no evidence of this. It is said that in 1960 an Indonesian delegation visited the Karlsruhe plant and ordered 15 tons of opalm including bombs.

This was not the last order. A letter from PATVAG confirms that the company has made "repeated" shipments to Indonesia. There is evidence that Indonesia ordered enough material for around 3,500 bombs, but it is not known what these shipments were used for.

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste (CAVR), which documented the atrocities of war during the 24-year Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, discovered not only the propaganda film mentioned at the beginning, but also a document detailing the properties of Opalm were listed by the Indonesian military: "Incinerates targets with heat of +/- 1,725 ​​°C for 15 minutes in a 600 m radius" was one of them. A witness reported: "The bombs just cremated people and turned them to ashes."

When the CAVR published its final report in 2006, the Indonesian defense minister denied that napalm had been used in Timor-Leste. "At the time we didn't have the capacity to import, let alone produce, napalm," he said.

However, documents found in German and Swiss archives regarding Opalm's dealings with Indonesia contradict this claim. In any case, the fact is that Indonesia has not yet signed the 1983 Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons.

Regula Bochsler: “Nylon and napalm. The history of the Ems works and their founder Werner Oswald”.Posted by Here and Now, 2022external link.

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Translated from the German by Billi Bierling/ts

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