1961-1966: “In Event of an Emergency”: HYDRA Goes to Ground

1957 to 1963 has been described as the “heyday” of emergency preparedness measures and civil defence planning in Canada.[1] With the advent of hydrogen bombs, long-range bombers, and then ICBMs, civil defence planners in Canada understood that a potential Soviet attack would come with limited warning. And the potential for destruction was high. While planners in the mid-1950s assumed that Soviet attacks against North America would be diversionary in nature and would probably presage a much larger war in Europe they also expected that the targets would be large populations centers – with Ottawa amongst them.[2] Parliament itself would be at risk. 

            Under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, emergency measures planning expanded. It became centralized under the Emergency Measures Organization, with a focus on continuity of government, civil defence measures led by the military, and the coordination of civil defence efforts with NATO allies.[3] In 1959, the Civil Defence Order was passed, giving the Canadian military broad responsibilities for constructing and maintaining adequate emergency warning communications facilities, and for building secure emergency government headquarters.[4] From 1959 to 1961, the army expropriated sites throughout the Ottawa Valley region to serve as relocation sites which could shelter government officials in the event of an emergency (known as RUSTIC), established hardened sites and communications facilities for continuity of provincial government (knowns as BRIDGE), and took on a large parcel of land in Carp, Ontario, where they built the Experimental Army Signals Establishment (EASE).[5] The facility incorporated transmitters, receivers, and cutting edge communications and cryptographic equipment, including an automatic message switching system called the STRAD (Signal Transmit Receive And Distribution).[6] But the “EASE” name was also something of a cover story – in addition to housing signals and communications facilities, the site was to serve as the Central Emergency Government Headquarters.[7] It came to be known as the Diefenbunker.

            Through 1960 and into 1961, the Cold War intensified and the threat of nuclear war grew. In direct response to the Berlin Crisis and a period of elevated Soviet nuclear testing, the Canadian government launched a series of simulated nuclear attacks to test its emergency preparedness measures known as TOCSIN.[8] While none of these tests were a roaring success, the first test in May 1960 revealed a particular weakness in emergency communications systems – in the event of a simulated emergency, they quickly became overwhelmed with traffic.[9] Even if lines of communication could be protected, there was an additional risk that important messages might not get through in the chaos.

            The need to secure communications and ensure important messages got through is evident in this volume. As the Cold War intensified and the threat of nuclear war grew, it became increasingly clear that the HYDRA, located just outside of Ottawa, was vulnerable to attack. By early 1961, plans were underway to move HYDRA to the Diefenbunker in order to ensure that crucial intelligence and diplomatic traffic would be protected in the event of an emergency. These plans required extensive coordination with the British, and to a certain extent, the Americans. Careful considerations had to be undertaken to incorporate HYDRA into the STRAD – and with the concern that Alerts traffic would get “tangled up” in the automatic system, this became a seemingly intractable problem. The documents in this volume also highlight the extreme difficulties encountered as planners attempted to bury HYDRA underground. 

[1] David McConnell, David, Plan for Tomorrow ... Today!: The Story of Emergency Preparedness Canada, 1948-1998, (Ottawa: Emergency Preparedness Canada, 1998), Chapter 2, 20.

[2] McConnell, Plan for Tomorrow, Chapter 1, 8-9.  

[3] Sean M. Maloney, "Dr. Strangelove Visits Canada: Project Rustice, Ease, and Bridge, 1958–1963," Canadian Military History. 6, no. 1, 1997: 44.  

[4] McConnell, Plan for Tomorrow, Chapter 2, 8.

[5] Maloney, “Strangelove,” 48-49.

[6] RCSigs.ca, “The Untold Story of STRAD and TARE,” http://www.rcsigs.ca/index.php/The_Untold_Story_of_STRAD_and_TARE, Accessed August 31, 2019.

[7] Maloney, “Strangelove,” 47-52.

[8] McConnell, Plan for Tomorrow, Chapter 2, 11-12.

[9] Ibid., Chapter 2, 11.

1961-1966: “In Event of an Emergency”: HYDRA Goes to Ground