Canadian Invention: Canada’s Secret, Not-So-Secret, Diefenbunker

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The countries looked at each other with suspicion. Allies during World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on rebuilding Europe after the destructive conflict. Their political philosophies were completely opposite, and the players of the Cold War feared each other’s contentious rhetoric. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s government ordered a secret crisis center to maintain government continuity in the event of a nuclear attack.

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The Cold War between the superpowers triggered intrigue, competition and dangers. Spies roamed among nations using cool cloak-and-dagger devices like the vanishing ink pen and lipstick gun. Intimidations between countries grew until threats were perceived as imminent. While the United States was considered the target of Soviet missiles, Canada was nervous.

To ensure continuity in government functions, a secret bunker was needed. By purchasing Montgomery farmland near Carp, Ont., About 35 miles southwest of Ottawa, the government launched plans for Canada’s central emergency government headquarters. The plot was selected for its proximity to Ottawa and for terrain that could absorb nuclear shock waves that threatened the bunker nearly 23 feet below.

Designed in the late 1950s, the self-sufficient bunker was built between 1959 and 1961 under the guidance of Lt.-Col. Edward Churchill of the Royal Canadian Engineers. The configuration of the building was “like a hardened concrete box put inside a thick crushed gravel envelope,” the designation described the National Historic Site of Canada in June 1994.

The one-meter-thick outer walls were reinforced with strong steel bars, and the 1.52-meter-thick concrete roof was covered with clay soil. With room to house about 535 people in safety for a month, the architects planned a four-story underground bunker of about 100,000 square feet. The cost of completion was $ 25 million.

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With a hidden profile in mind, the shelter was built just below the top of a ridge. “The bunker was built to protect its occupants from both radioactive fallout and blasting pressure up to 1001b per square in,” wrote author Paul Ozorak in Underground Structures of the Cold War: The World Below (Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Yorkshire, England 2012) ). The bunker’s “sloping exterior was designed to deflect the pressure wave from a nearby detonation.”

Upon entering a 115.2-meter-long blasting tunnel, the double airlock doors stood at a right angle halfway along the length of the tunnel. The long entrance allowed shock waves to pass past the bunker entrance. The fortified concrete bunkers’ “air intake and exhaust elements, escape hatches, deep wells and sewage lagoons are hidden in the man-made contours of the surrounding landscape,” the NHSC said. “Only its metal entrance tunnel and butler’s hut, associated antenna farm and fence are visible on the surface.”

Similar to ordinary construction, the interior was painted in bright colors and was well lit. “The Carp facility was a complete residential complex consisting of dormitories, cafeteria, offices, a small hospital ward and a morgue,” according to Ozorak’s Abandoned Military Stations of Canada, Volume 1, Ontario, 1991. Likewise, a CBC radio station was assigned a small television station. office, and “a separate bunker was built along with the first to house the Bank of Canada’s gold reserves.”

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Stalls for decontamination and medical treatment were on the top floor, along with administrative offices and a conversion. The floor also had communication equipment and cryptographic machinery; a box was built to secure RCMP records. Two emergency tunnels led upwards to escape hatches. The next floor downstairs was equipped for a busy operating crew.

The second floor downstairs was “an information coordination center that would track things like nuclear detonations and fallout,” Ozorak said, “and that would estimate the number of casualties.” Space was set aside for female staff, and the Prime Minister’s office, bedroom and bathroom also occupied a small part of the second level. An emergency call center was set up and communication equipment was organized to keep in touch with NORAD and NATO. A meeting room for the war cabinet was also included. Privacy was limited, with closed TV circuits watching staff areas.

The next floor included dining facilities and master bedrooms. The spacious dining room, according to Ozorak, could accommodate 180, and “during crises, staff would have been given regular food for seven days, and then army rations for 23 days.”

The fourth floor was reserved for physical operating equipment, the four diesel generators, storage rooms and battery areas. Air filtration was located on the bottom floor, and “the air filters installed in the plena were known to deliver 99.5 percent clean air.”

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The hostilities between Cold War opponents increased in the early 1960s, but the Canadian government was convinced to have the safe bunker in case of a nuclear disaster. Among many of the events of the time, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 put the world on edge.

The Soviet Union placed missiles on Cuba, pointing at America. US President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) organized a naval blockade around the island and was ready to take military action if the missiles were fired. The world held its breath.

After tense negotiations, “the disaster was averted when the United States agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s (1894-1971) offer to remove Cuban missiles in exchange for the United States promising not to invade Cuba,” History.com said. “Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey.”

Secrecy surrounding the Diefenbunker was probably an illusion. In the 1960s, Canada’s emergency bunkers were mentioned directly in parliamentary sessions, mentioned in newspapers and even described in Maclean’s magazine.

The Canadian government was prepared, but nuclear chaos did not occur. As part of the Canadian Forces Station Carp, the Diefenbunker was used as a military hub for top-secret communications during the decades of the Cold War. Between 100 and 150 people worked in shifts around the clock between 1961 and the closure of the bunker and CFS Carp in 1994. (The Cold War ended in 1991.) Rescued from becoming a dusty relic, the Diefenbunker was transformed into a museum in 1997.

The Diefenbunker is one of many shelters built by the government during Cold War years to ensure continuity in public services and to store essential supplies. Minor secret bunkers were built at military bases and other safe places across the country.

A fascinating virtual tour of Diefenbunker can be viewed at diefenbunker.ca. The website shares information on museum tours, educational programs and an Artist in Residence exhibition. (The museum will be open to visitors when public health rules allow it).

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.

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