What, you’ve never heard of the Diefenbunker? Well, despite many many trips to Ottawa lately, I hadn’t either until the friend I was staying with mentioned it this weekend. When I heard about it, I knew this was something I had to see. You’d never see something like this in the United States open to the public…ever! Way too many “secrets” that could potentially be exposed. I think the closest I saw was the U.S.S. Pueblo which is currently moored in Pyongyang, North Korea. Even that has been stripped of anything remotely interesting, so a chance to experience this part of Cold War history was super exciting to me!
Correction: Appears the Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia is now open to the public too – however, no pictures allowed! I know my next weekend trip from D.C.!
So, what is the Diefenbunker? Also known as Canadian Forces Station Carp, it’s a 4-level underground bunker built outside of Ottawa in order to house the Canadian government in case of imminent nuclear attack. Named after the 13th Prime Minister of Canada John Diefenbaker, it was just far enough from Ottawa that it was thought to be safe from the main targets (Parliament Hill, Canadian Forces bases,etc) but close enough that essential members of government could be evacuated there on short notice. Construction began in 1959, and was completed in just a few months. It was never actually activated, but during the Cuban Missile Crisis preliminary steps were taken to make it operational.
According to Wikipedia: “The underground 4-story bunker was capable of withstanding a near-hit from a nuclear explosion. It had massive blast doors at the surface, as well as extensive air filters to prevent radiation infiltration. Underground storage was built for food, fuel, fresh water, and other supplies for the facility which was capable of supporting several hundred people for weeks. A vault was also constructed on the lowest level to hold the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada”
In 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, CFS Carp (aka the Diefenbunker) was decommissioned, and in 1998 was re-opened as Canada’s Cold War museum. You can tour the entire site, and many parts are just as they were left in the 60s and 70s. After purchasing a ticket at the kiosk outside, there is a small plaque detailing what the site is:
Just past the sign, you enter the building through the massive blast doors:
After passing through the doors, you’re in a massive “room” that connects to the beginning of the blast tunnel. The point of the blast tunnel was to allow the shock wave from a nuclear blast to dissipate before being directed downwards or into the bunker. Not sure what this entry room’s point was, but inside is a couple missiles, a replica of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a little history of the site:
Passing this room, and entering into the blast tunnel. The movie Sum of All Fears was actually partially filmed here, and near the beginning when you see them entering the bunker, they’re actually walking through this blast tunnel and into Diefenbunker, before it shifts to a movie set. Second picture courtesy of the Diefenbunker Website:
After passing through the blast tunnel you step into the reception/gift shop area, show your ticket, and begin the formal tour. The first stop is the decontamination area. This area features two showers. First is with clothes on, then there’s a chute to drop the radiation-contaminated clothes into, and then there’s a second shower sans clothes.
The bunker is divided into four levels, known as the 400s (top level) down to the 100s (bottom level which houses the Bank of Canada vault, the morgue, etc.) The top level was mainly for in-proecssing, medical services, and also had a room for the loony bin. Even back then they realised that based on what folks had seen “on the outside” they might go a little crazy, so there was an isolation/psych ward set up just for this purpose. The rest of this level was pretty much offices, etc.
None of the bunk / dorm areas were shown, except for the quarters of the Prime Minister, etc. The Prime Minister had the largest “suite” of the whole bunker, with a small reception room (maybe 3×3 meters tops), a similar sized basic office, and a private room of about the same size. Gives you an idea of how big this was, if the Prime Minister only had this much space. The Governor General’s quarters were a little smaller, and everyone else was shoehorned in. The bunker was designed to hold approximately 500 critical government officials, so many of them would be hot-bunking in shifts if it had every been activated.
A few pics here of the more interesting areas. A few floors down, here are a couple of views of the “Command Centre” and “War Room” area:
The cafeteria was actually quite large down on the 3rd floor below ground, and reminded me of a basic elementary school cafeteria. It was designed so people would eat in shifts of one to two hundred, and had a hysterical sign posted that clearly shows someone had a sense of humour:
We had read on the website that the lower level where the Bank of Canada vault was was off-limits currently, but when we got there we were surprised to find it was actually open! The plan was in case of worst case scenario, all of the gold in the Bank of Canada vault (as they were still on the gold standard at this point) would be couriered here (not sure how anyone would miss a large gold brick convoy, but that’s beside the point) but that was the plan. During the Cuban Missile Crisis that was actually prepared, and preliminary transport plans were started to move the gold to the vault. However, it was never actually used, and now this area is being “renovated.” Not sure why…structurally unsound? Something to hide? Who knows. Anyways, pics of the Bank of Canada vault entrance:
Check out the size of those vault doors!
Around the vault on all sides there was a narrow walkway. Why? Not sure. It was filled with mirrors, and I suspect it had something to do with being able to monitor who might be outside on all sides. You can’t have an all-sides view if there’s not a side to be seen! So, on this level, there was a maybe one meter wide walkway around the vault:
Unfortunately, it closed at 4:30 (unlike the 6pm mentioned on the website) so we were a bit rushed on the last two levels. I would definitely go back again. It’s clear that parts have been “sanitised” to make them suitable for non-classified tourists, but other than that it’s fascinating to see. Highly recommended as something to do if you’re in the Ottawa area with a car (it’s a good solid hour from downtown Ottawa) and have any interest in Cold War history.
Great write up. Doing some research for my own blog post as I visited here in the fall. Was amazing! I’m planning to link to your post for the interior shots. Thanks for posting this!