Review: Going Underground at The Diefenbunker – Canada’s Cold War Museum

11 minutes

The Diefenbunker had been on my list of attractions to visit during my time in Ottawa, Canada. Throughout the pandemic, it had remained closed and just outside of my reach. The Diefenbunker has recently re-opened to visitors. I would end up stopping by before my afternoon flight home to Vancouver. I would end up finding a really quality museum attraction that was well worth my time. Read on to see what you can expect from a visit to The Diefenbunker Museum.

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Review: Going Underground at The Diefenbunker – Canada’s Cold War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

The Diefenbunker is a underground concrete bunker and nuclear fallout shelter situated in the rural farmlands of Carp, Ontario. It has been on my list of things to visit in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and I finally got the opportunity to visit on my last trip through town.

The Diefenbunker Museum turned out to be a large and interesting facility. It was much more elaborate that visiting Churchill’s War Rooms in London, United Kingdom given that there was much more space involved and the set up was much more intensive.

Why Visit The Diefenbunker ?

The Diefenbunker was previously known by it’s military name Canadian Forces Station Carp (CFS Carp) after the small hamlet of Carp Ontario.

In an effort to ensure that there would be no disruption in the functioning of the government in the event that the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack during the cold war, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker gave approvals for the design and construction of the Diefenbunker as the Central Emergency Government Headquarters (CEGHQ Carp).

The Diefenbunker structure remains a significant symbol of Canada’s response to the Cold War. It was designed in the 1950’s to withstand all but a direct hit by a nuclear weapon, it was intended to shelter key political and military personnel during a nuclear attack.

Fortunately, it never served its intended purpose, although the Diefenbaker  government made plans to retreat to its protection during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The bunker functioned as the hub of a communications network and civil defence system until it closed in 1994 and was fully decommissioned in 1994.

The Diefenbunker serves as a poignant reminder of the concept of mutually assured destruction and the realities of nuclear war.

Getting to the Diefenbunker:

The Diefenbunker is located about some 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of downtown Ottawa in the town of Carp, Ontario, Canada.

I left the Ottawa Marriott Hotel and drove about thirty five minutes out to Carp, Ontario. It was an easy drive on highway 417 out towards Carp. Despite recent winter conditions, there were no issues navigating the highway.

I eventually arrived and passed through the town of Carp, Ontario. It’s a small rural city located outside of Ottawa that seems to contain a few recently upgraded microbreweries, restaurants and a general store. Just past town was the entrance to the Diefenbunker, which was well marked from the highway.

After arriving down a long driveway, I arrived to a very industrial looking gate reminiscent of a cold war facility. Parking at the Diefenbuker is ample and free, with no issues finding a spot.

As I arrived and parked the car, I was a bit surprised to see how busy it was on a Saturday morning just twenty minutes after opening. There were at least thirty cars in the parking lot, making this a popular attraction on a weekend.


Going Underground at the Deifenbunker:

The Diefenbunker has been marketed up a little bit since its days as a Canadian Forces Base. A nuclear fallout symbol marks the industrial door entrance, in what might be a non descript entry.

The underground 4-storey bunker required 32,000 tonnes of concrete and 5,000 tonnes of steel. The structure was capable of withstanding a nuclear blast up to 5 megatons from 1.8 km (1.1 mi) away. It had massive blast doors at the surface, as well as extensive air filters to prevent radiation infiltration.

Once inside, visitors are greeted to an initial display time line of the cold war and are invited down the entrance blast tunnel. The blast tunnel was designed to run 90 degrees from the actual entrance to the underground entrance to the bunker.

The blast tunnel is a long corrugated and non temperature controlled tunnel that leads through to the entrance. Sharp movie goers will recognize the tunnel from the initial scenes of the movie “Sum of All Fears”, which was filled at this location set in the movie at Mt Weather, Virginia, USA.

An audio visual display set in the blast tunnel at the entrance explained the remote nature of The Diefenbunker. The concept was that if the nation’s capital of Ottawa was bombed at the time, The Diefenbunker located approximately thirty five kilometres away from Ottawa would be someone safe from any nuclear blast damage.


Entering the Diefenbunker:

After walking halfway down the tunnel, I turned left for the entrance to the Diefenbunker. Unlike the John Badham movie “War Games“, and perhaps in a more discrete and measured Canadian version, the blast doors to enter the Diefenbunker are smaller and singular in nature. The doors are similar to what you might expect in a banking institution, except re-inforced to withstand nuclear fall out.

I paid my admission fees ($18 CAD or $13 USD). No reservations were needed to visit, although it was recommended for a reservation for guided tours which took place at 1 PM daily.

The Diefenbunker was set up as a museum of what life was like in the Diefenbunker during the cold war period between 1961 until the base was de-commissioned in 1994. The Diefenbunker was set to house up to five hundred people, split across four levels of living.

While the Diefenbunker does not contain the exact equipment used within the bunker, the museum has done an excellent job of replicating the equipment and environment of the

Exploring Level 400:

Housing the Communications Support and Medical Facilities

The first level contained many of the museum and reception areas of the Diefenbunker Museum. Passing through a series of decontamination showers, the Diefenbunker contained an operating room equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

The Diefenbunker also contained a location for dentistry, in the event emergency dental repairs were needed. The equipment was pretty primitive in nature, at set in the period of the time.

Cryptology and Message Decoding:

The top floor contained a vast message control center and teletype repair room.

Its hard to believe message centres being these large equipment units in today’s world of smart phones and USB thumb drives but communications into the Diefenbunker used message decoding in order to process and codes.

A large teletype repair room was also on site in order to repair any equipment needed for the survival and business continuity of the Canadian government.

Rounding out the top floor was also a four floor model of the Diefenbunker. The model demonstrated the sheer size of the facility, including the many places one could hide within the complex as a result of its massive size.


Descending to Level 300:

The working war administration space.

The Umayyad Palace is among the few ruins left at the top of The Citadel that are still standing. The Umayaad Palace was built by Arabs dating from 720 CE. The palace was once an elaborate complex of buildings and gardens.

After making the rounds on Level 400, I walked down the stairs to level 300. The third level (or first level down from the ground level) contained much of the working war adminstration space.

I started off in the Federal Warning Centre, which contained tiered seating against old school protectors and wired rotary phones of the day.

Immediately adjacent to the Federal Warning Center was the War Cabinet Room. The War Cabinet Room contained what would have been the working equipment during this period. Analog clocks, overhead projectors and cathode ray televisions marked the room.

The room had quite a distinct feel to it, similar of the time and era. The various shades of drab brown colours reminded me of that cold institution feel that was often around my junior and senior secondary schools in that time.

Immediately off the War Cabinet Room were the war secretariat offices. The space was covered with authentic looking predicted fall out cartography maps. Additional rooms contained population damage simulations and facilities along with analyst desks for the necessary calculations.

In an ominous tone, the third floor also contained a remote Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio post. The government subsidized CBC Radio post was installed to allow the government to communicate with the rest of the country in any doomsday scenario.

The floor also contained a “Tempest” room containing computer mainframes. A Tempest Room is generally designed to prevent against computer espionage by blocking radio signals from being intercepted outside of the room. The computers on display were from the period and represented older versions of technology.

Many of the sleeping arrangements in The Diefenbunker were on a shared basis. The Prime Minister was one of the few rooms that were singular and private in nature.

The Prime Minister’s room had a small reception and individual bedroom. It also had an austere attached bathroom.

The museum contained ample story boards that indicated that staff were not permitted to take their spouses and loved ones into The Diefenbunker during peace or war measures. Many stories existed about the concern of the men leaving their wives behind amid the possibility of war.


Going down to Level 200:

Eating facilities and recreational areas

After completing the rounds on the third level, I descended to the second level. Again, I passed by the sloping hallways seen in the movie “Sum of All Fears”, which involved a walking presidential briefing at the onset of a nuclear missile strike.

The Level 200 also featured The Diefenbunker’s food supply and cafeteria. The servery featured a large decommissioned cafeteria that was designed to feed the five hundred people in The Diefenbunker.

The cafeteria also featured outdoor photographs of parts of Canada. It was a somewhat austere reminder of what the occupants of The Diefenbunker were fighting for.

Going to Rock Bottom: Down on Level 100

Inspecting the Bank of Canada Vault and the Morgue

I made it to the bottom of The Diefenbunker by getting to the lowest level. The lowest level did not contain many working areas of The Diefenbunker. However, there were a few interesting show cases in this underground space.

The Bank of Canada Vault in the Diefenbunker was initially designed to safeguard some of the remaining gold reserves of the Bank of Canada. During the time of my visit, the area was set up to showcase the story of Justin Case. Justin Case was an investigator that was designed to root out corruption by, at the time of the period, targeting LGTBQ+ communities as they were deemed by the government to be susceptible to corruption.

The fault was decorated in a manner that held investigative files of those targeted by these government efforts of the day.

The bottom floor also contained a walk in freezer. Given that the occupants were expected to be underground for up to thirty days in the event of a nuclear blast, the freezer also doubled in a sinister manner as the morgue for The Diefenbunker.

My Thoughts on Visiting The Diefenbunker:

The Diefenbunker is an excellent but dark reminder of the realities of mutually assured destruction. There are few locations like this existing in the world today, where the general public can visit a historic war room bunkers that were once designed to house leaders of government to ensure continuity in operations.

In addition to being a well produced replica of the period and times, The Diefenbunker is a stark scenario regarding of the realities of nuclear war. During a visit, you can’t help but wonder if facility like this will ever be used in the world today.

If you have visited The Diefenbunker, did you find it a sinister reminder of the realities of war ?

2 Comments on “Review: Going Underground at The Diefenbunker – Canada’s Cold War Museum

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