PHOTOS: ALF SPENCE
The Cold War seemed to some of us a much hotter possibility in the 1950s. The United States and the Soviet Union were poised to hurl hundreds of nuclear warheads at each other. Rockets were accurate enough to target any city in Europe or North America, warheads were lethal enough to utterly destroy a whole countryside and annihilate a million souls, and prevailing winds could spread radioactive fallout for thousands of kilometres. It only required a miscalculation or faulty diagnosis of a radar echo to trigger the duel that would plunge the planet into nuclear winter for decades.
It seemed unlikely that most Canadians were fully aware of the hair-trigger danger that threatened them. The various provincial civil defence organizations were busy training limited numbers of civilians in survival techniques, but it was not until the federal Emergency Measures Organization was formed that emergency planning was taken seriously and an EMO director was appointed in each province.
British Columbia’s director was a cheerful, balding and ruddy complexioned man in his early 50s. His name was Colonel Carl Boehm–pronounced Beam–and his office was in Victoria. In the spring of 1956, he assembled a team of senior people from the various agencies that could be most seriously affected should the country’s organizational infrastructure be destroyed. The group involved about 15 people who could–if necessary–take control of their agencies should their operational staff be knocked out of action.
The agencies included various government departments–the ones overseeing transportation, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, labour and health. The Bank of Canada, the coast guard, the provincial telephone company, hydro, the RCMP, national defence and the CBC were also represented.
My involvement–representing the CBC–stemmed from my job as assistant to the CBC’s provincial director. I had also served 13 years in the navy and was still in the naval reserve. Up until the formation of this planning group, I could be counted as one of those who had been greatly concerned about the country’s lack of preparedness, and the apparent unwillingness to make plans for survival. It was a relief to learn that some action was finally being taken, and it was exciting to be part of the team.
Our first meeting was held in July 1956 at the army headquarters on 4th Avenue in Vancouver. None of us, including the colonel, really knew what we wanted to achieve or how we should go about it. We established that our main problem was that if Canada were attacked the two prime targets in British Columbia would be Vancouver and Victoria. There would be vast disruption of communications, electricity, water, transportation and food and fuel supplies. Radioactive fallout would ruin crops, pasture and cattle throughout much of the province, and forest fires would rage out of control. Banking and commerce would break down, and civil unrest would develop because the organizations responsible for taking remedial action would have been destroyed in the target areas.
All of these potential problems pointed to the necessity for the various agencies responsible for recovery to be safeguarded, and a key part of this was to make sure these agencies could maintain communication with any of their surviving field departments. The two prime requirements were for an alternative and reliable communications system throughout the province and a permanent safe and accessible headquarters that would be out of the target area and free from radioactive fallout.
With the prevailing wind from the west, fallout projections showed wide elliptical patterns spreading eastward from any target. Vancouver Island appeared to be the least likely area to suffer fallout, and so Nanaimo was selected by virtue of its location, its army facilities and nearby airstrip. The army drill hall became the Regional Emergency Headquarters and it was eventually partitioned so that each agency could have its own distinctly labelled space. The plan also included some army personnel or “runners” who would be responsible for delivering messages.
With the provincial telephone company located in Vancouver, an alternative communication system between the regional headquarters and the mainland was essential. It was decided that all communication would be routed through the CBC, with a rudimentary radio studio established in the regional headquarters. Every radio station in the province would be connected to the provincial network and thence to the regional headquarters.
All information and direction for the field offices of the various agencies, and even for the citizenry, would be passed by runner to the studio announcer for transmission. This meant that the day’s radio programming throughout the province would consist of these messages, with music and news interspersed during blank periods.
During exercises we found that the problems and information fed to the participating agencies ensured a continuous supply of messages. There proved to be no time for musical interludes, and the day’s radio outputs would have provided surprisingly interesting programming.
It was technically impossible for the makeshift studio to feed the entire network with a signal. Radio Station CHUB in Nanaimo was therefore made the anchor station. The regional headquarters signal was fed to CHUB, amplified and then fed to the network. Located in the basement of the Malaspina Hotel, CHUB was ideally situated as a substitute if fallout should put the regional headquarters out of action. The hotel was a huge concrete structure that was–as far as we knew at the time–fallout proof.
At that time, the CBC had no funding for broadcasting throughout the night. However, it was still essential to make sure the whole network of radio stations remained active 24 hours a day in case the alarm was sounded. Federal funding was provided, and recorded music was fed to the entire network during the silent hours so that all stations could stay on the air. That marked the beginning of CBC’s nighttime broadcasting in British Columbia.
Other provinces at that time were developing similar emergency plans and establishing regional headquarters. Simultaneously, the federal government was planning its Diefenbunker program, and sub-surface concrete bunkers were to replace the temporary regional headquarters (Tunnelling Back To The Cold War, May/June). The bunkers were luxurious structures maintained by the army, with offices, briefing rooms, sleeping rooms, showers, a cafeteria, and a state-of-the-art radio studio. It was popularly supposed that the bunkers were to shelter members of the various governments, but in fact the only cabinet minister present, at least at Nanaimo, was the one designated as our director.
We learned a great deal from holding various exercises. We discovered that driving several miles to the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen (south of Vancouver) and waiting for the ferry to Victoria was not the best way to evacuate a target area threatened by rockets already on their way. And if we were not alerted before the general citizenry, the bridges leading out of Vancouver would be clogged with traffic and we would have little chance of a place on the ferry.
A small minesweeper was permanently moored at the dock at HMCS Discovery, the naval reserve training station in Vancouver, and so it was arranged that the vessel would be available for our transportation to Nanaimo. We learned, too, of the need to nominate alternates in case we ourselves were unavailable, and to make sure the alternates were as knowledgeable as we were. We learned to maintain go-bags so that we were instantly ready to move. And we learned of the problems we would face by leaving a target zone and deserting our wives. In my case, I had a wife and an 11-year-old child.
It soon became evident that an obvious and fatal flaw in the planning was not going to be addressed. All telephone links were routed through Vancouver, the presumed target. We learned that the telephone company was unable to invest in what would have been a costly alternative routing of their lines around the target zone. Indeed, it would be several years before microwave towers were erected across the province. We also realized at the time that the army’s radio equipment was inadequate to guarantee reliable communication across British Columbia’s mountainous terrain. And so from the very beginning the plan was badly flawed–as were many plans made during that period.
It was a strange and perilous time, but all of us in that planning group were gung-ho to see what we could do. Deep down inside we knew that a lot of what we could ultimately achieve depended on how much lead time we would have before an attack. And so while our work may have at times seemed futile in the face of such potential widespread disaster, we had to make an effort.