Amateur historian seeks ‘Holy Grail’ of Diefenbunker secrets

Dave Noble, seen here looking at a sick bay in the Diefenbunker on Monday, February 3, 2014, is an engineer who is researching the various engineering innovations spawned by the cold war era bunker. Photo by: Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen

Reprinted from an Article by Don Butler of the Ottawa Citizen

Originally published on February 4, 2014


It’s the untold story of the Diefenbunker. Dave Noble wants to tell it, but he needs help.

Though it was hush-hush at the time, it’s no mystery that the Diefenbunker, a 100,000-square-foot underground shelter near Carp, was built at the height of the Cold War as a refuge for key government officials in the event of a nuclear attack.

There’s also plenty of material on what it was used for after it was built between 1959 and 1961. After the threat of Armageddon receded, the Canadian Forces used it as a communications centre until 1994.

But, says Noble, a 66-year-old former Canadian Forces officer and engineer, “I could find virtually no information on the proposal to design it, the design plans and the construction itself.”

Building the Emergency Government Headquarters — quickly dubbed the Diefenbunker, after then-prime minister John Diefenbaker — was a major undertaking.

Nothing like it had ever been built before in Canada. It required 32,000 tonnes of concrete, 5,000 tonnes of steel and had to be able to withstand a five-megaton nuclear blast.

It had more than 360 rooms and could house and feed 565 people for up to a month without resupply. It included an emergency broadcast studio for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a suite for the prime minister and a vault to hold the Bank of Canada’s gold reserves.

“It was surrounded by rumour and mystery at the time — one of the worst-kept secrets in Ottawa, probably,” said Noble.

Noble became interested in its design and construction after he started working as a volunteer last fall at the Diefenbunker, now a not-for-profit community museum focused on Cold War history that drew 50,000 visitors last year.

As part of his volunteer work, he was asked to verify that records the museum was digitizing had been accurately transferred by the software.

“In the course of doing that, things pop up and you make note of them,” Noble said Sunday. “That’s what led me down this other trail.”

His plan is to focus on four or five of the many engineering design innovations the project spawned and document them in something “bigger than a brochure, but smaller than a book,” which he’d donate to the museum.

Ideally, he’d like to talk to people who actually worked on the bunker’s design and construction. More than 50 years later, he recognizes the chances of that are slipping away. “But maybe there’s families that remember this and have old papers around.”

The Huntley Parish Historical Society has already helped Noble find the son of one of the principal engineers, who may have some material. “That’s the sort of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon we’re working on here.” Foundation Engineering of Montreal, a predecessor company of today’s Aecon Group Inc., built the facility. Its engineers did such an effective job that they and the project manager, Lieut.-Col. Ed Churchill, were hired to build Expo 67. “I guess they got a lot of street cred out of it,” Noble said.

The Diefenbunker’s designers and builders had access to data from American nuclear tests in Nevada, he said. “The Americans shared the material because they were building, at the same time, things like the NORAD bunker in Colorado Springs.”

The bunker was the first major project to use the Critical Path Method, which identifies all the necessary steps, the resources required and which tasks must be completed before others can begin.

The project also borrowed freely from submarine design, “because of the enclosed space to both build the thing and live in it,” Noble said. “There are a lot of lessons here.”

The challenge, he said, is getting the word out. “I’m casting a net here, hoping to find people with a big box of pictures in their basement. That’s the Holy Grail.”


Noble recently started a blog — — documenting his project, though it’s “not totally ready for prime time.” He’s also set up a dedicated email address,, where people can contact him with information or suggestions.


The project, he said, is partially a labour of love. “This just keeps me busy and out of the malls at night.”