Polar bear at the Toronto Zoo, Canada.
Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Ottawa, Canada.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? Reuniting with Max in Germany on October 1st.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Diefenbunker

"People do not want to believe there is going to be atomic bombing of Canada. The thought disturbs our equanimity. We like to look at the situation as though we were protected and insulated by many thousands of miles of sea and a northern ice cap. It's going to take an educational campaign to make people realize the danger in which we find ourselves." - Canada's Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, May 25, 1957, House of Commons.

And so the Cold War went on. The sustained power struggle between The United States and Russia as to who had the most bombs pretty much guaranteed that if either party decided to use them, Canada, being stuck in the middle, might need some protection. And so, Prime Minister Diefenbaker and his cabinet made a decision that the government needed continuity in the event of nuclear attack.

The Diefenbunker, as it was nicknamed, was built 50 kms (30 miles) west of Ottawa in the village of Carp, between 1959 and 1962. The structure was made of thick concrete and thick steel reinforcement that at the time could withstand a near hit from a nuclear explosion. If you are driving by, you would never know it existed.

The Diefenbunker under construction. At the time, the official story was that it was a "test facility" of some kind.

It was built in an old quarry, and is covered by 5 feet of concrete, 5 feet of gravel, and 10 feet of earth. The four story, 64 foot high building is completely underground.

It was designed to house and sustain 535 people for 30 days in the event of a nuclear attack on the nearby city of Ottawa. It had the most modern communications systems available, including 120 kms of special communications lines to various government ministries in Ottawa, and antenna towers further west near the town of Perth. A lot of that cable is buried in solid rock. It was staffed 24/7 by over 100 armed forces personnel doing nothing more than keeping it ready to use.

And fortunately, it was never used.

In fact, only two Prime Ministers ever visited the facility. The story goes that Diefenbaker himself visited during it's construction, but there is no proof of that. And Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau did visit in 1977, the year the computer systems were upgraded. It was closed due to budget cuts in 1994, and reopened as a museum in 1998.

Yesterday, we got to visit! In fact, we spent three and a half hours in the underground facility which is now a museum dedicated to the Cold War.

Tony, Ruth, and Kevin and the entrance. Underneath that mound of earth behind the "garage" is a huge four story building.

Our guide Les, explaining a few things before we enter the structure.

The guardhouse in front had it's own built in bunker. Here's Ruth having a look at where the guard would go if he had to seek protection quickly. He likely would not have survived very long!

First, a discussion about bombs. Hard to believe that an MK4 nuclear bomb this size contains double the firepower of the one dropped on Nagasaki.

The larger bomb on top is the typical size of a 1 megaton hydrogen bomb, the MK43. 

Entering the blast tunnel. The tunnel was designed to absorb part of the shock waves that would come from a nearby nuclear explosion.

Ruth at the main airlock door. This hydraulically operated steel door weighs 4,000 pounds!

Even people who worked at the facility were restricted in their movements. It was so "top secret" that people in one department would not know what was going on in another department of the building.

In the event of a nuclear explosion, those "in the know" might have four hours warning to get to the bunker before the bomb hit. This was because of communication from the Distant Early Warning  (DEW line) system installed near the arctic circle. Interestingly, my father worked in a DEW station as a radio operator in the mid 1950's. In case anybody arrived alive AFTER the bomb hit, there was a cleansing procedure you had to go through...

Ruth walking through the first of two special showers.

Then, you would be checked by a geiger counter for radiation contamination.

The ham radio room.

This scale model of the bunker was kept on site so that it could be explained to new comers or maintenance people where things were. Each level of the model slides out for better viewing.

They had a complete electronics and radio repair facility.

And a medical facility, complete with operating room.

Keeping track of things. Notice the ash tray on the desk. Pretty sure that wouldn't be there today!

Where all the big decisions would be made. The Prime Minister would be at one end of the tables, and the Governor General at the other.

As time went on, of course the facility had to be upgraded. Computers were becoming more popular, and in 1977 there was a major upgrade to the facility to include a computer room. The room housed a bank of mainframe computers from IBM and Bull that probably have only a small percentage of the computing power of your iPhone!

The computer room.

The Prime Ministers office.

The Prime Ministers bedroom. Pretty spartan stuff! At least he got a reading light. 

Word has it that Diefenbaker himself said he would never use the facility. Because doing so would mean that he would be leaving behind his wife to a certain death and he said he couldn't do that. In reality, his sense of duty would probably mean that he would have had no choice but to use it.

The people on duty at the station lived in bunk quarters similar to what you would find on a submarine. The one bright spot was the cafeteria. However, in the event of blast there was approximately 10 days of fresh food. After that, you were given army rations, even if you were the Prime Minister...everybody ate the same.

The cafeteria.

The food may not be good.

There is so much more to show you, but it is worthwhile to save something for your visit! Our guide Les was so knowledgeable and informative and because a guided tour is included in your admission it is worthwhile to take advantage of that, even though you can tour a lot of the facility on your own if you wish. You can see more of the Diefenbunker on their website at http://www.diefenbunker.ca/en_index.shtml

By the way, they are also very accommodating. They have a nice parking area, and if you're visiting with your motorhome or RV, if you ask nicely they might let you dry camp overnight included in your admission price!

Standing on top of the bunker. You'd never know it was there! Here's Ruth having a laugh with our host Kelly who arranged for our tour. They are testing the ground for growing potatoes! In fact, it's actually a project with The Heritage Academy in which a group of kids with learning disabilities are growing 40 pounds of potatoes here for the food bank. They have a goal to grow over two tonnes of potatoes!

Ruth's dad Tony, chatting with our guide Les.

Many thanks to Kelly at the Diefenbunker for arranging our tour with Les. And many thanks to volunteer tour guide Les for taking so much time with us! We had a fun morning, and learned a few things as well. The Diefenbunker should definitely be on the list of places to see for anybody visiting Ottawa and area.


  1. Ah, rotary phones and ashtrays. Them was the days!
    Awesome post. Gotta get there some day. My eldest brother was stationed at Carp at some point in his career in the Air Force. Took many a trip up to the DEW line. Always had some great stories to tell of flying up to Tuk.
    There is an interesting documentary that someone has now put on YouTube about the life of Robert S. McNamarra, who was the Secretary of Defence first under Kennedy, and then later under Johnson. He was not very well liked at the time, mostly due to the Vietnam war, but like he said, he was carrying out the directives of the duly elected representative of the U.S. (Johnson)
    The one thing that stands out in the documentary was when speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he points out that, "We were *this* close to nuclear war". And he makes a gesture with his thumb and forefinger, indicating just how close we were. Not only that, but years later when he met Castro, he was told the Cubans would have actually gone through with it! Thrown the baby out with the bathwater! Incredible.

    Starts here if you're interested:


    I can't use the "target" attribute, so it won't open in a new window, just so you know.


  2. Wow, I had no idea. Interesting piece of Canadian history. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the tour. We visited the titan missile silo south of Tucson and even though we were alive during the cold war it was a real education.

  4. bwaahaaahaaaa "You are lucky to be alive so ... JUST EAT IT!"

    Karen and Steve
    (Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard

  5. I couldn't wait to hear your outcome about the bunker.

    My wife worked there, she was in that "radio repair facility" BUT that is not the radio shop, it is the teletype repair shop. She probably has finger prints all over :)

    It is just unbelievable the sign about "Personnel might be subject to search" when you think that Denis Lortie got out of there with a submachine gun and all the ammos and went to the Québec parliament and shoot several persons.

    I was also serving and working in that big golf ball down the hill... I wander if it is still there? The last I heard it was something to do with the space agency!

    1. Hi Richard, thanks for the clarification about the teletype repair shop.

      There are quite a few stories that came out of the Diefenbunker over the years, and yes the most disturbing was the one regarding Denis Lortie. I was going to tell it, but the post was getting a little long!

      Yes, the "golf ball" is still there, but it is privately owned by a company that does repair work to satellite dishes or something. Apparently they use it as a training facility.


  6. A wonderful history lesson today, thanks for the tour.

  7. WONDERFUL tour. I love visiting places like this and learning how they tie into history. We will probably never get there so thanks for all the photos. Brings the tour to life.

  8. Excellent, thank you for the tour, it was most interesting. It would be pretty amazing to see in person.

  9. Replies
    1. Not on this post but it will be back again on the next post.


We love hearing from you! Please take the time to leave a comment...