Civil Defence: “Can I Survive an Atomic War?”

By Danica Renke and Aimee Benoit

“Can I Survive an Atomic War?” This headline from the Lethbridge Herald in 1960 captured a worry on the minds of many North Americans at the time. Over the previous decade, tensions had mounted between the western and eastern hemispheres in what became known as the Cold War—an ideological conflict in which countries raced to produce more and more sophisticated nuclear weapons. With disaster on the horizon, Canadians began pushing for civil defence.

Lethbridge was especially dedicated to this cause, forming a Civil Defence Control Committee in November 1950. With support from the Lethbridge Police Service and Lethbridge Fire Department, the Committee’s main goal was to identify fallout shelters and plan for the possibility of a new war.

In November 1951, the local Civil Defence Control Committee, led by C. W. Chichester, called for volunteers willing to be trained as wardens, rescue workers, nurse’s aids and administrative staff members. These initial efforts kick-started over a decade of civil defence planning and activity in the city.

Mock disaster scenarios were among the most important forms of training. In 1955, Lethbridge executed “Exercise Surprise 1,” in which “six low-swooping foreign dive bombers wreaked imaginative havoc and destruction on the heart of downtown Lethbridge.” Such surprise “attacks” were meant to fine-tune responses and communications networks. They also helped work out specific roles for fire and police personnel, nurses, civil defence volunteers and general citizens.

Lethbridge took part in larger civil defence efforts coordinated by provincial and federal governments, but officials also called on citizens to be prepared. In a 1953 speech, Mayor Shackleford stated:

A Well Prepared Population is a Well Defended Population. Another fact which must be recognized is that this country is prone to Natural or Civil Disasters. Therefore an Organization is needed which is well trained and on the Spot with an established chain of command so as to be in a better position to defend the population against acts of nature like these.

As these comments illustrate, civil defence was not just about nuclear warfare but also potential natural disasters. Lethbridge needed a quick-response defence group to help citizens in a time of disaster.

You can learn more about civil defence initiatives in Lethbridge in the new exhibit On Guard, Lethbridge! on display at the Galt Museum & Archives until February 11, 2019.