Found on the “Canadian Signature Experiences” list, Diefenbunker really is a unique type of museum and tourist site and was our first stop in Ottawa as we made our way into the city. (Opening photo by L)
Designed and built in secrecy from 1959-61, during the height of Cold War fear, the bunker is a 4-storey, 300 room, 100,000 sq.ft building 75 feet below the surface. It was built to house 535 government officials and military officers in the event of nuclear war. Although nicknamed for the Prime Minister at the time , John Diefenbaker, he never visited the site and is rumored to have refused to use it in an emergency because it would have meant leaving his beloved wife behind, as all those that would be housed here were forbidden to bring any family members or friends with them.
After entering through the main doors to the outside we made our way down the 115 m long blast tunnel. It was designed to withstand a blast equal to 5 million tonnes of TNT at a distance of 1.8 km. Such a blast would have produced a powerful shock wave so the tunnel’s job was to protect the main doors to the bunker by allowing the blast waves to pass straight through it and out into the fields at the other end, instead of hitting the doors. Even though the blast was meant to bypass the doors they were still constructed to a thickness of 35 cm and weight of about 1800 kg. They are huge!
Once inside the huge main doors we signed up for the guided tour and joined our group. Our first stop was back into the tunnel for an introduction to the bunker (though we didn’t stay long as it was quite chilly there) and then through the decontamination chambers and into the bunker. There are quite a few rooms in the bunker that you can visit as part of the tour, or on your own, and today I’m going to take you on a little photo tour of my favourite stops along the tour.
In the event of a crisis medical attention would have had to be provided without any outside help so the medical centre was equipped with everything the doctors would need- an operating room, doctor’s area, pharmacy, and three bed infirmary. In a emergency, staff would have passed through the decontamination chamber and into the medical centre for a radiation and health check.
The cafeteria could seat up to 200 people and would have been able to provide fresh food for meals for 7-10 days. After that the staff would have had to rely on MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) as they could expect to stay down in the bunker for 30 days.
During the bunker’s service as a peacetime base, the cafeteria also served as a recreational room with a pool table, dart board, and shuffle board, to keep staff entertained.
Bank of Canada Vault
If a nuclear war broke out then Canada would have needed to protect its gold reserves so this vault was built to do just that. It is a separate underground building that is connected to the main bunker by a tunnel. The door weights 10-30 tonnes and four people (each with a different combination to one of the four locks) are required to open the door. It could have held 800 tonnes of gold bars, but no gold has ever been stored here. During peacetime it’s been used as a storehouse and the tunnels were used as an exercise room for the soldiers.
War Cabinet Room
At least five people (the Governor General, Prime Minister, and three other ministers) were required to form the War Cabinet, although it was planned to be made up of 12 people. In an emergency these folks would have served as the legal government of Canada and would have met several times a day in this room to receive briefings from outside the bunker. With this information they could coordinate government activities and direct war efforts.
In the event of a crisis the nation would have been all ears awaiting news from the government on the status of the situation and safety guidelines they needed to follow- these would have all been communicated from this room by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Prime Minister’s Suite
Even though he was rumored to have said he wouldn’t use it, the Prime Minister still had a suite that included offices for him and his secretary, along with a private bedroom and bathroom.
After the guided tour we still had a little bit of time so we wandered through some of the rooms that weren’t included in the tour and some that had been turned into art and informational galleries. We really thought this unique museum was well worth the visit. It’s even kiddo approved as he thought it was ‘pretty cool’.
Open weekdays from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closes at noon on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and follow weekend schedule on statutory holidays. For visitor information including admission price, please visit the Diefenbunker website.
Phone: 613-839-0007 or 1-800-409-1965
Guided tours are available in English Mon-Fri at 11:00 and 2:00 and Sat-Sun at 11:00 or in French on Sat-Sun at 2:00. Tours last one hour and space is limited so it’s best to call the number above to make reservations.
They also offer self-guided tours on iPads for free daily between 11:00 and 2:30 (recommended to bring your own headphones). Or you can download the Diefen-app (Android/iTunes) to access the audio guide (free) but it’s best to do it before you arrive due to WiFi restrictions in the bunker.
On-site parking is free.