Sunday, June 26, 2011

CSE facilities: Rideau Annex

Part two of my “brief” tour of CSE’s facilities, past and present.
(Part one; part three.)

Rideau Annex (1950-1961)

CBNRC’s (CSE’s) second headquarters was in a former convent that had been used as a military hospital during the Second World War.

The building was built by the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa (the Grey Nuns) in 1915 and served as their novitiate until 1941, when it was converted for use as the Rideau Military Hospital. As the photograph shows, the building had four storeys plus a basement. (Kudos to author Mark Kristmanson for finding this photo.) Judging from that photo, and the 1958 air photo reproduced below, the gross size of the building was about 6000 square metres. (More precise information would be welcome.)

After the war the building was no longer needed as a hospital, and in October 1948 the Grey Nuns rented it to the NRC, which was looking for a new home for CBNRC.

In August 1949 the Department of Public Works let a contract to renovate the building to serve as the home of both the CBNRC and the NRC’s Division of Radio and Electrical Engineering (REED). At the time, REED had about 250 employees and CBNRC was growing towards its approved establishment of 227. The two organizations were thus expected to have a total of about 475 employees, which is about the number of people a building of that size would have been expected to accommodate at that time.

Among other modifications made to the building in preparation for CBNRC's arrival was the installation of an incinerator for the destruction of classified waste, eliminating the need to truck waste to the NRC’s Montreal Road site for secure destruction.

CBNRC’s Comcentre was moved to the new site, now called the Rideau Annex, in December 1949. The rest of CBNRC moved to the site in January 1950.

The Cold War intervenes

It is not clear whether REED ever took up residence in the building. If it did, however, it was quickly pushed out.

By 1950 the Cold War was rapidly heating up. The Soviets had tested their first atomic weapon, based on a stolen U.S. design, in August 1949, and in June 1950 the communist regime of North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War. The post-war demobilization of Canada's armed forces was rapidly reversed and military spending skyrocketed.

Intelligence-gathering was also stepped up dramatically. In November 1950, CBNRC’s establishment was increased to 393. Four months later, in March 1951, it was increased to 449, twice the size it was when CBNRC moved into the Rideau Annex and enough to require the entire building.

At the time CBNRC moved to the site, the Rideau Annex was surrounded mainly by farmland. Located east of the Rideau River near Hurdman Bridge on Alta Vista Drive (which was then Churchill Drive in Gloucester), it was nicknamed “the Farm” by those in the know.

According to Mark Kristmanson, "the building's location in a sequestered field overlooking the embassy district of Sandy Hill made it an ideal site for Colonel Drake's Communications Branch." Despite its rural setting, "the Farm" was not far from downtown Ottawa: "The spire of Parliament was clearly visible, rising above the embassy district across the river." (Mark Kristmanson, Plateaus of Freedom: Nationality, Culture and State Security in Canada, 1940-1960, University of Toronto Press, 2003, pp. 108-109.)

Kristmanson also reported an interesting bit of detail about operations within the building: "The Branch's administrative sections occupied the Nunnery's lower levels, preparing briefs to be transported twice daily by armed courier across the bridge and downtown to the Privy Council Office in the East Block of the Parliament."

The building was vacated by CBNRC in 1961 and demolished sometime during the 1960s, so it is not possible to visit the building today. However, this 1953 air photo shows the location of the Rideau Annex (circled in red). The spot is now occupied by the Alta Vista Towers apartment buildings.

This website confirms that the Alta Vista Towers were built on the site of the former Grey Nuns convent. Here is the spot today.

No Room for Canadians

CBNRC’s years in the Rideau Annex were a time of rapid growth and transition for the agency. CBNRC Director Ed Drake was a Canadian, but much of the upper echelon of the organization had been and was still being recruited from Britain at that time, and by early 1950 resentment began to boil over within CBNRC over the lack of opportunities for Canadian staff. As the History of CBNRC tells it, "The word went round among the CB staff that NRC had come to mean ‘No Room for Canadians’" (Chapter 27, pp. 28-29).

The appointment of former MI6 officer Peter Dwyer as Head of Reporting, replacing Steve Diditch, the Canadian who had been serving as acting head, was one of the catalysts of the controversy. Dwyer moved to the Privy Council Office two years later, and eventually became Director of the Canada Council. Diditch was formally confirmed as Head of Reporting in 1953.

Recruits from Britain continued to play leading roles in the agency for several decades to come—Kevin O’Neill, recruited from Bletchley Park in 1946, served as Drake’s second-in-command from the departure of GCHQ official Geoffrey Evans in 1949 until Drake’s death in 1971; he then served as Director CBNRC (and first Chief of CSE) until his retirement in 1980. By the mid- to late 1950s, however, the dominance of British recruiting was over and the controversy had died down.

The Rideau Annex was an improvement over the facilities CBNRC had occupied in the La Salle Academy. But it was far from ideal by today’s standards, with no air conditioning, primitive electrical infrastructure, and only one cantankerous freight elevator.

Writing many years later in CSE's in-house newsletter, Harold Stewart called the building “drafty and cold in the winter, hot and humid in the summer," and "ramshackle", with a cafeteria that "consisted of two rooms adjacent to each other in the basement" that had formerly been used as the hospital morgue (Tillian, May 1979, p. 31). The lack of air conditioning led to work cancellations on the hottest days:
A hundred people, more or less, worked in one big room on the second floor. I say ‘worked’ because that’s what most of them claimed they were there for. In the summer when it was very hot one of the girls would fake a faint (so the story goes) and ‘due to the threat of heat prostration’ everyone would get the rest of the day off...

We used to play horseshoes at the rear of the building. It became quite a pastime at break and at noon hours. Even in the extreme heat we would play. But, I can recall some people becoming quite incensed on occasion and vocally took us to task for jeopardizing their chances of getting off due to the heat. If management saw a few of us enjoying ourselves in recreation with no apparent ill effects they would surely see no reason for sending employees home. (p. 32)
Stewart also contributed a story about the building elevator:
The old freight elevator, the only elevator in the building, was a rather hazardous vehicle and quite tempermental [sic]. We were not supposed to operate it without the assistance of "Marty", the official operator. One day I did. I made the mistake of overloading. "Never overload the elevator" I was told. Anyway, I did and just before closing the elevator door along comes Mr. Drake, the Director, and hops on with me....and the several too many boxes....minus "Marty", of course. Never get on the elevator "minus Marty!!" After a cheerful "good morning" the vehicle floor and a half...and STOPPED! Well, that left us, of course, between floors, immobile! Mr. Drake looked at me - I looked at him - and one of us said "I guess we're stuck!" I don't recall how long we were there, and I don't recall the conversation. But, for some reason Mr. Drake never forgot my name after that. Two days after this little incident a memo was circulated throughout the building advising one and all, once again, "not to overload the lift"...or words to that effect....reminding us, too, that "Marty so-and-so" still had a worthwhile contribution to make, running the elevator! (p. 32)
Others had equally amusing memories of life at the Farm:
Some of the entertainment was unscheduled, like the evacuation demonstration of the building on behalf of the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), when the demonstration smoke bombs were found to be toxic and inextinguishable too late, as the entire building was filled with smoke that would not go away and the entire staff choked and gasped their way outside. Fortunately, there were no real casualties except for a few inhalers who felt they needed oxygen at a local hospital, and the hapless and luckless demonstration casualty who had been strapped to a stretcher preparatory to being lowered from the fifth floor by ropes, and couldn’t escape the toxic smoke. Next day it was business as usual, even if your clothes smelled funny for the next few days and fellow passengers in buses eyed you oddly. Then there was the day a sudden gust of wind hit the big room on the second floor and everybody’s work sheets and papers were blown about the room, with those tables beside the windows (the DPW still considering our request for window screens) scattering across the adjoining fields “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”. The mad dashes about the fields that day must have looked to onlookers like something out of “The Rites of Spring”. (Tom Chadsey, Tillian, Spring 1980, p. 24.)
Other aspects of security, beyond the lack of window screens, were also rudimentary by today’s standards.
An RCMP guard was stationed at a desk in the main entrance to Rideau Annex, and checked the passes of entering staff members. There was also a chain-link fence surrounding the property, with a guard house intended to control entry to the premises. The gate and guardhouse were, however, not put into full operation until May 1952, at which time a Commissionaire was stationed at the gate and checked the passes of all who entered. There was only one gate in the ten-foot fence, which was topped with barbed-wire. (Curiously, the barbed-wire was slanted inwards, giving rise to comments that the fence was intended to keep the staff in, rather than to keep out intruders.) (History of CBNRC, Chapter 26, pp. 6-7.)
More importantly, the building lacked any kind of modern emission security features to prevent eavesdropping on inadvertent emissions from its cryptographic and other electronic equipment. The Western intelligence community had become acutely aware during the 1950s of how top-secret information could leak through cables, power lines, and even through the air, and it was busy both exploiting and attempting to defend itself against the phenomenon. The History of CBNRC records that “GCHQ showed great concern” about some redacted element of the Rideau Annex’s security (Chapter 26, p. 21). Almost certainly, its concern related to emission security.

Size also eventually became a problem. By 1956-57, CBNRC had grown to close to 470 staff, roughly the same as the combined CB and REED establishments (about 475) at the time the Rideau Annex was first occupied, suggesting that the building was probably close to full. And it was still growing. By the end of 1958, CBNRC's staff target had risen to 600 employees, a total that could not all be accommodated at the Rideau Annex.

When it was first occupied in 1950 there had been plenty of space in the building, but by the late 1950s that was no longer the case:
I remember when we moved in that we had to spread out our desks to make our large room on the third floor look occupied. In the 11 years that we spent at Rideau Annex (as that building became known), how much CB grew. The empty fourth floor, where we used to have pingpong tables was taken over, the back room on the first floor was put into use and the cafeteria in the basement expanded across the hall. Finally, some of the sections had to head for the Montreal Rd. Complex of NRC because the building became too small to hold us all. (Frank Cumming, Tillian, Spring 1980, p. 38.)
M36 (1956-1961)

To ease the crowding, T&D Section, later known as T Group, was moved to temporary accommodations in NRC’s M36 building at its Montreal Road campus. The move took place in November 1956, just as the brand new building was opening. The building is currently the home of NRC’s “Design and Fabrication Services”, and it is possible that it housed the same kind of activities when it opened. T&D Section’s work, which involved the production and distribution of COMSEC materiel, may have been considered in need of less rigorous secrecy than SIGINT work and certainly would have been more easily separated from the work at the main building than any section of the SIGINT program.

Moving again

By the late 1950s, it had become clear that the Rideau Annex was no longer a suitable location for CBNRC. Its age, its lack of emission security features, and, ultimately, its size led eventually to a decision to build a new headquarters specifically for CBNRC.

The contract for construction of the Sir Leonard Tilley building was let in February 1959, and in June 1961, fifty years ago this month, CBNRC moved out of the Rideau Annex and into its new home.

[This post was modified on 7 April 2013 and again on 10 September 2013 to update my estimates of the size of the Rideau Annex. Minor updates were also added on 7 March 2017.]


Blogger Marc said...

Interesting, I found some black and white images of this buildings in boxes at the City of Ottawa Archives today. I was trying to find a history of the building and found your site. Good work.

February 24, 2016 7:54 pm  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Hi, Marc. Thanks for the note! If you get a chance to make copies of the Rideau Annex photos, I'd love to see them.



February 25, 2016 9:28 am  
Blogger geoff radnor said...

Hi, I am doing a small article about the Grey Nuns building on what became Alta Vista Drive, I would love to see any pictures that anyone has to help illustrate my article.

March 31, 2016 5:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a kid I remember sneaking into the basement through a window. We tried to explore but heard a noise upstairs and as most 8 or 9 year olds our imagination got the better of us and we ran back to the window. This was when we realized we had actually dropped down a little and we had a panicked time reaching the window ledge to get back out. This was the only time I went near the " Nunnery". Years later my sister lived in the tower build on the site and my brother lived in the one on Alta Vista.

October 11, 2023 10:40 pm  

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