The Diefenbunkers

Play episode
Hosted by
CraigBaird

When the Cold War began, so too did the fear over nuclear war. With the fear of nuclear war, there grew a desire among both citizens and the government to build fallout shelters to weather whatever nuclear Armageddon would bring. With Canada sitting between the Soviet Union and the United States, there was a greater desire to have something to protect ourselves and the heads of state.

From this emerged, the Emergency Government Headquarters, commonly referred to as The Diefenbunkers.

In order to protect various politicians, including premiers and the prime minister, the Diefenbunkers were built in rural locations, outside of major Canadian cities.

Now, I am using the term Diefenbunkers to refer to several bunkers throughout the country, but there is actually one Diefenbunker, located in Ottawa. With all of that being said, I am going to collectively refer to all of the bunkers I talk about as Diefenbunkers because I like the name and it just sounds better than fallout shelter or anything else.

In all, nearly 50 shelters were built in Canada as part of Project EASE, which stood for Experimental Army Signals Establishment, which was a cover for the true purpose of the shelters.

I will begin this episode talking about the main one though, the Diefenbunker.

It was 1958 and John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of Canada and the Cold War was growing as a threat to the survival of the human race. The Soviet Union now had the ability to build nuclear bombs and the number of nuclear bombs worldwide were increasing. In 1955, the United States had 2,422 nuclear bombs, while the Soviet Union had 200, with the United Kingdom having 14 in total. By 1960, the United States would have 18,638 bombs, the Soviet Union had 1,605 and the United Kingdom had 42. The threat of nuclear war hung over the head of everyone.

The Emergency Measures Organization would be created to provide an oversight on the federal government and provincial government levels to protect Canadians in the event of a nuclear attack. In 1961, the organization would run a nationwide drill called Tocsin B for a nuclear attack to check how prepared the government and Canadians were. This news report from that event highlights the preparedness efforts of the EMO.

With the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles rising, Diefenbaker authorized the creation of the bunkers as part of a Continuity of Government Plan, which would be put into place to protect various members and levels of government in the event of a nuclear attack. Prior to the construction of the Diefenbunker, the Canadian Civil Defence College, built in 1954, served as as the temporary emergency government headquarters.

The Diefenbunker was originally planned to be 9.7 kilometres away from Almonte, Ontario but this was abandoned when it was found that the groundwater in the area was impossible to remove. Construction on this original site was in the Mississippi Mills region began in 1958 but was soon abandoned but a look on Google Maps in the region of Almonte shows a square shaped lake that is believed to be the location of the first bunker.

For the second site of the Diefenbunker, a gravel pit located near Carp, Ontario was chosen and construction would begin in 1959. This new site was a former farm that was protected by a natural valley.

The Carp Shelter, or Diefenbunker, would be 100,000 square feet and the only shelter located near Ottawa. The building of the shelter would take three years, finishing in 1962. While there was supposed to be secrecy over the construction, when a reporter flew over a shelter as it was being built, he then published his findings much to the anger of Diefenbaker.

During its construction process, the four-storey bunker would require 32,000 tones of concrete and 5,000 tones of steel. The structure was designed to withstand a five megaton blast from a nuclear bomb from 1.8 kilometres away. On the surface, there were immense blast doors, along with air filters to prevent any radiation from getting into the shelter. The bunker was also able to withstand bunker buster bombs, which were actually developed after the shelter was finished. There were 350 rooms, as well as dental facilities, a war room, dormitories, dining facilities and a decontamination chamber.

It was estimated that the bunker could accommodate 565 people for one month without needing supplies from outside. The storage within the shelter had room for fuel, food, fresh water and more supplies. Beyond the standard facilities for living and hygiene, there was also an emergency broadcast studio for the CBC, along with a vault on the bottom level that would hold the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada.

In all, the construction of the Deifenbunker cost $20 million, or $178 million in today’s funds. The entire construction was overseen by Colonel Edward Churchill, who would go on to become the Director of Installations for Expo 67. Within this facility, there would be a place for the prime minister, the Governor-General, senior government officials, as well as police, judicial officials, civil defence and military officials. Select CBC employees, cooks, cleaners and mechanics would also be included in the Diefenbunker.

In the early 1960s, Norman DePoe, Larry McDonald and Tom Earle were given the assignment that in the event of nuclear war, they would broadcast survival instructions to the rest of Canada from the Diefenbunker.

Designated personnel were expected to get to their emergency assignments using their own vehicles if possible, if an alert came outside working hours. Officials could board special buses marked with RUSTIC at the Supreme Court Building in Ottawa and be driven to their emergency assignments as well.

If bombs fell on Ottawa, the fallout pattern was expected to run to the north east, away from the Diefenbunker and other locations including Kemptville, Carleton Place and Almonte.

While the facility was never used to protect members of the government following nuclear war, and thank goodness for that, it was used by 100 to 150 people who worked 24 hour shifts on site to allow secret communications for the Department of National Defence from the 1960s until the end of the Cold War.

The Canadian Army’s First Army Signals Squadron, the Royal Canadian Corp of Signals, one parted all the communication systems using the Signals Transmission Receiving and Distribution computer system. There were two nearby unattended antenna yards at Dunrobin and Almonte that picked up incoming signals and then relayed them through buried lines to the receiver in the Diefenbunker. Another buried line connected the Diefenbunker to a radio transmitter located between Perth and Smiths Falls. That transmitter consisted of a two-storey bunker with a transmitter antenna yard where 20 army personnel were located.

As for the name of Diefenbunker, that comes courtesy of the man who exposed the secret of the construction of the facility, journalist George Brimmell, who worked for the Toronto Star.

In 1994, with the Cold War over and the threat of nuclear Armageddon greatly diminished, it was decided that the Defence Department would decommission CFS Carp, or the Diefenbunker, and withdraw from the site. Due to its significance during the Cold War, it was made a National Historic Site and with members of the public expressing an interest in touring the site, it was opened as the Diefenbunker Museum in 1998 when it was purchased by the Diefenbunker Development Group. Today, the Diefenbunker is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ontario, with 45,000 people coming to the site each year. In 2017, the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada, 88,000 people came through the museum. The museum has a permanent and rotating exhibit, and there are more than 3,000 books in its archives.

The Diefenbunker wasn’t the only shelter built, as I have stated. The vast majority were two-storey facilities that were designed to withstand a near-miss from a nuclear explosion. There were several different types of shelters designed.

The Central Emergency Government Headquarters, which is what the Diefenbunker was and it was the highest form of the emergency shelter built.

The Regional Emergency Government Headquarters were designed to shelter 200 senior civil servants, politicians and military officials from nearby provincial capitals. These facilities would allow those inside to stay there for one to two weeks without outside supplies.

The Municipal Emergency Government Headquarters were designed to shelter several dozen municipal staff, politicians and military officials who were located in larger urban centres. These shelters allowed for a few days of shelter without outside help and all were constructed to be intended to help with rescue and reconstruction efforts.

The Zone Emergency Government Headquarters were built in the basements of new or existing buildings and could house upwards of 70 people.

The Federal Department Relocation Site were multiple locations in the National Capital Region that would allow essential staff in departments within the federal government to be contained in a safe location for up to two weeks.

Diefenbunkers were located at the former Canadian Forces Base Penhold in Sprinbrook, Alberta, CFB Shilo near Brandon, Manitoba, CFB Borden near Barrie, Ontario, CFB Valcartier near Quebec City and Nanaimo Military Camp on Vancouver Island. Another bunker was built near Nelson, British Columbia and designated as a fallout shelter for local officials. This small bunker had a decontamination area, a kitchen with a built-in can opener, washrooms, showers, bunk rooms for men and women, a radio room and water tanks.

There were plans for Diefenbunkers in Saskatchewan but these were not implemented, and more were to be constructed in Manitoba before that plan was scrapped as well.

One Diefenbunker was located at Kemptville, Ontario with another at Carleton Place. These two locations were built to provide additional shelter to officials in the Ottawa area as part of the Federal Department Relocation Site plan. Also known as Federal Readiness Units, these locations were chosen because they were located near Ottawa, were easy to get to and were located to the south and west of the capital to escape radioactive clouds that would blow away from the capital. These locations were above ground and would have been used the recovery phase of attack, which follows the two week shock phase that comes right after a nuclear attack. The Kemptville location was also a back-up location in case the Diefenbunker was compromised and if that had happened, the Kemptville location would be the communication and government centre for the federal government. These two locations could house 40 people each for 15 to 20 days and came with food, water, supplies and electricity. In 1961, the Kemptville location was enlarged to accommodate 100 people and reinforced walls and ceilings were installed. Inside the Kemptville location there was an information display centre, work areas, a dining room, kitchen, dormitories and sick bay. Life support systems had 15 days of fuel, with air conditioning and a ventilation system. Personnel could enter the bunk through steel interior doors that were sealed off from the readiness unit. Access to the information and operations centre was only done through a decontamination chamber. Sand was also packed into tunnels to prevent collapse and provide an air-tight seal against radiation but could also be removed for access and then refilled.

When the Cold War ended, the facility was given to the RCMP for training purposes. It would serve in this role for a decade until it was closed and demolished.

For the other Diefenbunkers, many in places such as British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba were permanently sealed off. The Penhold Bunker in Alberta was sold to a local business before it was bought by the provincial government and demolished in 2001. At the time, the only bids for purchase of the facility were from the Hells Angels, a group of white supremacists and a car-smuggling ring.

The building of the Diefenbunkers would continue into the government of Lester B. Pearson who took power in 1963, but by 1967 with the need for budget cutting, the building of these bunkers was halted and their use would slowly fade away as the decades wore on into the 1990s. By this point, there were plans to make five protected relocation sites in the Ottawa area but only Kemptville, Carleton Place and Smiths Falls would ever be operational. Today, the Kemptville, Carleton Place and Diefenbunker locations are the only Canadian Cold War installations in the Ottawa area to survive to 2020.

Information comes from the Diefenbunker Museum, the Ottawa Citizen, North Grenville Times, Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Toronto Star, Global News, Beyond The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Forgotten Little Bunkers, Finding Diefenbunker,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: