Spelunking the “Diefenbunker”

I remember back 20 or 30 years when a 727 crashed west of Washington DC.  The reporters at the time noted that the aircraft had crashed into “the super-secret Mount Weather facility”, which we learned was one of the emergency shelters for the government in case of nuclear war.  Some time after that, we learned of the shelter for the Congress at the Greenbriar resort.  I still  wonder why there is a 747-capable runway in the middle of nowhere west of my home in Ashburn, VA.

Canada has the “Diefenbunker.”  Named after the then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker by the reporter who discovered its purpose before it was even complete (more on that later), it was decommissioned in the 1990s and now serves as a “Cold War Museum” on the outskirts of Ottawa in a small town named Carp (Question for further research – did the town ever have a radio stations with the call letters C-A-R-P?).

Designed to be able to absorb a glancing hit from a nuclear explosion (they were counting on nobody actually dropping a bomb on the facility since it was secret, except it wasn’t), 535 members of the Canadian government including the Governor General and Prime Minister were supportable for up to 30 days.

You enter the “Diefenbunker” through a long tunnel that runs perpendicular to the main entrance with a door at each end.  The idea was to have any shock wave past through the tunnel rather than knock down the door.  There’s a vestibule where you’d be identified for entry (or not) followed by a radiation check.  If you weren’t safe, back out you went.  No families (not even the PM’s), no members of Parliament (except the heads of the Ministries).  The opposition had its own bunker elsewhere (I’m not making that up!) which wasn’t as deep or secure (I am making that part up).

The bunker itself is a bit of a time capsule.  Although it was in use as a commuinications center until the 1990s, a lot of the furnishings scream 1960’s government office, from the gray metal desks to the dial telephones.  The computer room has the required spinning reel tape drives and blinky lights.  There was a small broadcast (radio only) studio where one CBC anchor who was on the list would communicate with the public.  There was a large concrete vault with separate doors (heavier than the ones to the outside world) which would have held the gold reserves.

So, how was the secret spilled?  Well, as I said, there is a town right next door so there needed to be a cover story for the construction.  Officially, it was to be a small Army communications station.  But people were suspicious given all the digging.  Then a Toronto newspaper reporter flew over the site in a light plane and saw 72 toilets lined up ready for installation, the jig was up.

The bunker has never been used for its designed purpose.  The closest it came was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Diefenbaker said he’d never set foot in the thing after he learned his family couldn’t come along (there is pointedly a single bed in the PM’s suite).  Reportedly, the only PM who ever visited was Pierre Trudeau, who was treated to a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, and promptly cut its budget in half.

The Diefenbunker is certainly worth a visit if you’re interested in that era of history and happen to be in or near Ottawa.  One bit of irony.  John Diefenbaker is known for, among other things, cancelling the Avro Arrow Mach 2+ fighter in favor of US missiles (and perhaps, building a huge bunker…actually lots of them across Canada).  Many of the engineers who worked on the Arrow went on to join the Apollo program and helped us land on the moon.  So what’s for sale at the Diefenbunker gift shop?  Plastic models of the Arrow.

1 Comment

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One response to “Spelunking the “Diefenbunker”

  1. Murray B

    Interesting stuff and building the Diefenbunker was not crazy as it sounds. In a letter of August 21st 1958 from LtG HD Graham it clearly states that the only Canadian cities covered by the joint defence plan were, “Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, and Vancouver” There was no mention of Ottawa but that is not surprizing since that city would have near zero value for reconstructing civilization after a nuclear exchange.

    The Arrow they spoke about is an early imaginary version. The real one was made by always British-owned Avro Canada and had a continuous speed rating of Mach 1.9.

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