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Digging in for Survival

For the week of Monday October 19, 1998

On October 22, 1962, the world held its breath under a threat of nuclear war. The Soviet Union had installed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, and the United States demanded that they be removed. By October 28, the Soviet Union publicly agreed to remove its missiles, while the United States secretly agreed to remove similar missiles from Turkey. Gradually, life returned to normal.

Federal Warning Centre - Diefenbunker

Federal Warning Centre - Diefenbunker
© Diefenbunker Cold War Museum

The fear of attacks on North American cities was very real, long before the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker outlined plans for government to continue in case of a nuclear attack on Ottawa. The key to this plan was an underground Central Emergency Government Headquarters in Carp, 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Ottawa, to shelter the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, the Cabinet, and key civil service and military personnel. Bank of Canada gold reserves could also be transferred into a huge vault for safekeeping. The underground complex was built between 1959 and 1961; Canadians immediately nicknamed it the "Diefenbunker."

The four-storey buried structure can withstand the effects of a nearby nuclear explosion. The bunker is entered through a long tunnel, open at both ends to allow a blast to pass through. The actual entrance runs off this tunnel at a 90 degree angle. A five-foot layer of gravel surrounds the bunker, allowing it to absorb the shock of an explosion and move four feet in any direction without significant damage! Generators and other mechanical equipment were mounted on springs so that in an explosion, they would move with the building.

The mushroom cloud

A cloud resulting from a nuclear detonation
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-115124

The two most important rooms in the bunker were the Federal Warning Centre and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio station. The warning centre was to receive information from survivors outside the bunker, and news could then be broadcast to the Canadian public from the CBC radio station. Ordinary civilians, listening to transistor radios in their basement fallout-shelters, could be told when radioactivity levels had fallen and it was safe to emerge.

The Diefenbunker never housed government officials in its 33 years as a major Canadian Armed Forces communication centre, not even during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the Cold War drew to an end in the late 1980s, fear of nuclear attack subsided, and in 1994, the Diefenbunker was decommissioned. In the same year it was designated a national historic site as "the most important surviving Cold War site in Canada." Today, the Diefenbunker is open to the public for tours.

For more information, visit the Diefenbunker Web site.

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