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Article by Bob Creber

Life at CFS Alert, 1957 - 1958

After two years at the Churchill location, I was assigned back to HMCS Gloucester in Ottawa, Ontario, to await further orders. While I was there, I worked in the direction finding building. This unit was part of the NSA Atlantic Coast direction finding system. There were several other locations up and down the east coast of Canada and the United States. I will go into that in more detail later on.

During my time waiting for a new assignment, they posted a notice asking volunteers to go to sea for a major NATO exercise aboard one of our ships. Because I had been in the navy for three years and had never been aboard a ship, Alert badge I placed my name on the volunteer list. While waiting for word about the accept­ance, one of my friends, Lynn Tennant, (now deceased) said there was a call out for a few com­mun­i­ca­tions experts to volunteer for a mission to start up a new com­mun­i­ca­tions center in a place called Alert. I had no idea where Alert was and I did not want to go there because I was waiting to hear about the NATO exercise. He told me he took my name off that list and put it on the Alert list because he wanted me to go there with him. (I had nice friends). Low and behold, I was chosen to go to Alert. There was to be six Canadian Navy personnel along with 18 Canadian Air Force personnel to be sent to Alert to inhabit and get operational a new com­mun­i­ca­tions center to be run jointly by Air Force and Navy personnel. It was at this point I found out where Alert was. It was located on the northern tip of an island in the Arctic called Ellesmere Island. It was the closest point of land to the actual North Pole. The true North Pole was 817 Km to the north and west.

The six navy personnel were coming from HMCS Gloucester and the 18 Air Force personnel were coming from Whitehorse Air Base in the Yukon Territories. We were told to be at the airport in Ottawa in three days to catch the flight to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. My friend Lynn Tennant, wanted to go to a town just west of Toronto to see his girlfriend so I went along for the ride to see my family in Toronto. He was to pick me up the day before we were to catch the flight. He did not show up to get me until way after midnight on the day of the flight. The car ride from Toronto to Ottawa was about a 4-hour drive. He did all the driving and we arrived about 1/2 hour before we were supposed to be there. I was a little nervous that we would not make it in time and be considered AWOL.

However, we made it and took off for Winnipeg, Manitoba. We spent a night there awaiting our flight aboard a Canadian Air Force transport plane. The following morning, in the middle of August 1957, we took off headed for the North Pole.

As we travelled north, the population areas grew smaller and smaller. When we reached the end of the trees, we saw nothing but tundra.


About half way to our destination, they announced that the weather at Alert had closed in so we had to divert to a United States airfield in Thule, Green­land. We found out later that Thule Air Force base was a Strategic Air Command base and highly classified back then. When we landed, our pilot apparently did not know the correct code word so our plane was met by jeeps with machine guns pointed at us. There was a big sign on one of the jeeps that read, "FOLLOW ME" which the pilot did.

The plane came to a stop and the pilot got off the plane. He was escorted some­where. We were told to wait until he got it all straightened out. What seemed like a long, cold time, it was decided we were not the enemy and dangerous so we were allowed to disembark and were shown to NCO quarters to stay. We were only allowed to go the PX and the cafeteria. Every place else was off limits. During the time we were there, our plane was parked on the edge of the runway. Along side was a group of U.S. planes with armed guards stationed along side of the planes. Since our plane had all the secret equipment that we were to install in Alert, it was decided we would have to guard our plane as well. Two people from our group were put on 4-hour shifts the whole time we were there. The big difference between our guards and the U.S. guards was we could sit inside our plane out of the cold.

Alert Bay buildings

When the weather cleared after a couple of days, we took off and headed north again. After a short while, we were told we were arriving at our destin­a­tion. Looking out the win­d­ows all we could see was what looked like a very small landing strip and a little ways down the road were six buildings lined up along the top of what looked like a high cliff. We had arrived at Alert, Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories. There was no snow on the ground because it was mid-August. The sun was just starting its journey down to complete darkness. We were driven to the buildings. Of the six buildings, the first on the left looking from the front was the mess hall, kitchen, and recreational building. The next three buildings were personnel quarters. The fifth building was the garage and storage unit and the last building on the right was where we were to set up the communications center. We got to our assigned quarters and settled in. The one who was to be in charge of us up there was an Air Force Petty Officer. He was the ranking officer for the duration. Shortly after arriving in Alert, the snow started falling and did so for quite awhile.

The first order of business was to get the operations area set up and operational, this took several weeks to accomplish. After being there for a few weeks, the sun was slowly settling below the horizon. A friend of mine and me decided to explore a little bit on a day off. We took snowshoes and a rifle and started walking towards the mountains on the other side of the bay. We could walk on the bay as it was solid ice.

As we trekked we noticed a wolf was following us but kept at about 100 yards distant. We had the rifle in case it decided to come closer, but it kept its distance so we continued our journey.

We walked through the valley between two mountains and it gradually led us to the top of one of them. In the dusk, it was still an impressive view. I decided to build a little monument of rocks and put a piece of paper with my name and date inside the little pile of rocks. I thought maybe one day someone would come by, find it, and know that I was there in 1957. (As a footnote here, my son Bob, who was working as a scientist for the US Navy, travelled to Alert on an assignment in 2002. He went up that mountain to search for the note. He was unable to find it). The wolf lost interest in us as we ascended the mountain about half the way up. Shortly after that journey, the skies grew dark and the moon started to rise up. The moon never dropped below the horizon. It just stayed up in the sky and revolved in a circle. During the summer 24-hour daylight, the sun does the same thing. It just revolves in a circle.

The next thing I want to write about is our water supply. Since there was no running water there, it was our job to obtain water from a fresh water lake some four or five miles distance. Off duty personnel took the snow Northern lights tractor, towing a large water tank, down to the lake. Upon arriving, a hole was made through the ice and a large hose was place down into the water below. We pumped enough water to fill the tank. There were gas heaters under the tank so it would not freeze during the trip back to camp. We had to make several trips during the assigned "fill the water tanks" day, usually once a week. It was a chore that no one really enjoyed doing.

One thing that was impressive during the dark period is the Aurora Borealis, also called the northern lights. They were quite brilliant and covered a large portion of the sky.

I will never forget the storm that we had January 17, 1958. The snow was being blown like a blizzard. The winds broke the anemometer at a reading of 100 knots. With that broken, we had no idea at what speed it was blowing. You can just imagine the force of the blowing snow at that speed. It started while I was on watch in the operations building. Our watches were scheduled 12 hours on duty and 12 hours off duty. The wind was howling. Fortunately, all the windows in all the buildings were covered on the inside with thick plastic sheeting. The blowing snow was being forced through the outside window cracks. The plastic sheets on the inside protected us. All the buildings except the garage and storage building were heated with oil furnaces so we were warm enough. The whole storm lasted for over 72 hours and the temperature was recorded at minus 35 degrees. However, with the wind blowing as it was, the wind chill was a lot colder than that. After what seemed an interminable time, all of us on duty were getting very hungry. We could not operate any radio equipment because the storm had created static on all frequencies. It was decided that we would try to get to the mess hall, which was at the other end of camp. We scrounged up all the heavy clothes and parkas we could find and put them all on. The only part of our bodies that was exposed was the small area of skin of our faces that was around the goggles. The fur of the parkas did not Alert Bay shovelling snow quite cover that area. We found a rope, tied ourselves together in a line, and attempted the walk. I do not remember who the first in line was who opened the door. The wind caught the door and pulled him out and into a snow bank. We all got out and got the door closed and proceeded to crawl our way to the mess hall. It took quite a bit of effort pushing against the wind and snow. It took us a while but we finally made it inside. The small area of my face around the goggles was frost bitten by the cold but the rest of me was okay. We enjoyed our meal after that episode. When the storm finally blew itself out the temperature moved back up into the low 20's. It almost felt like a warm summer day after what we had just gone through. When we opened the door to the garage area where the snow tractor was, we found that the snow had blown through the doors and windows of the garage and most of the equipment and storage was covered with deep snow. The windows and doors to this building did not have the plastic cover on the inside like the other buildings.

The garbage was a big problem up there. It was piled in one spot behind the buildings and was frequented by Arctic Hare and Arctic White Fox. They would rummage through it almost daily for food.

Alert Bay garbage dump with foxes

The week before Christmas was an eventful one. A supply airplane was to fly up to Alert from an Air Force base in Manitoba to bring us supplies and our mail. When it took off, our weather was clear and cold. We had tuned into the plane's radio frequency to listen to its progress. We had not had mail for quite awhile so it was important to all of us. After a short while, the plane's pilot radioed that he was having a problem with his compass. This got everyone's attention rather quickly. His emergency was turned over to the air traffic controller at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland. They started trying to get a direction fix on the plane. They seemed to have a problem in obtaining one. The pilot was getting rather anxious to know which way he was heading and if would have enough fuel. Thule scrambled an Air Force jet to try to intercept the plane and guide it down to the airstrip in Thule. After what seemed like a long time, they finally got a fix on the plane and the jet intercepted the plane and guided it safely to Thule. We found out later that when the plane finally landed it only had about a half hour of fuel left. I would say that crew was very lucky. There is a rule of thumb for flying in the Arctic region. If a plane has problems, do not bail out. Your chances of surviving are better if you go down with the plane. Rescue teams have a better chance of finding wreckage than finding an individual. After repairs were made to the plane, it was flown back south to the Air Force base in Manitoba. It was not until the second week in January when we finally received our supplies and our Christmas mail. When it finally arrived at our runway, two of the people took a snow mobile to the runway and lit the rolls of toilet paper on fire that outlined the runway to show the pilot where it was.

One of my friends from the Air Force was an amateur radio operator. His name was Earl Smith (now deceased). His call sign was VE8AT. He had set up in a space in the communications building and was talking to other amateur radio operators all over the world. Because he was transmitting from a location close to the North Pole, he had many requests for a chat and a QSL card. Amateur radio operators exchange QSL cards to confirm two-way radio contact between stations. Each card contains details about one or more contacts. Because he did not have any QSL cards, I asked him if he would like me to design one for him. I did and along with Lynn Tennant, made up quite a few of them and he sent out to all the people he talked with. One particular day, I asked him if he could try to contact someone in Florida. My parents had moved from Toronto to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida a short time before. He said he would try to set up a schedule for a chat. He had a contact in Wichita, Kansas who said he would be happy to set up the link. I got word via a letter to my parents to be at a certain location in Ft. Lauderdale at a specific date and time and to expect a phone call. On the date and time specified, we were in contact with the radio operator in Kansas. He put through a long distance call to the number where we had told my parents to be. As it turned out it was a pay phone in front of a store near where they lived. The call was made and I chatted with them for about 10 minutes or so via the amateur radio. When the call was over, we thanked the operator in Kansas for all his efforts. He said he was very happy to do it. A phone call from the North Pole to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida does not happen every day.

After the daylight started to show on the horizon, we went out on the ice of the Arctic Ocean for a few miles in the snowmobile. It was quite an adventure. Some of the icebergs were as tall as some buildings. We had learned that Polar Bears were around out there but we failed to see any.

Alert Bay crosses

In the summer of 1950, an RCAF Lan­caster crashed during the estab­lish­ment of the JAWS weather station when the parachute for resup­plies being air dropped became entangled on the tail of the aircraft. All nine crew members were killed and are buried west of the air­strip. The grave sites are marked with crosses and the remnants of the crashed plane are still there and visible in the summer months.

We lived that life at Alert in the North West Territories. In March 1958, our group was relieved and flown back to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. When we took off from Alert, it was the first time we saw the sun in months. When we reached altitude, it was shining brightly and was a good sight to see after four months of total darkness, except for moonlight.

I would like to quote a little history of Alert that I found on a Google search on the Internet:

" During the Cold War, Alert was strategically important because of its proximity to the Soviet Union. It was the closest point in North America to many Russian military installations. The Soviets used the Arctic for naval bases and missile testing, giving them first-strike capability against North America. Alert was near enough to pick up radio communications between the bases and submarines, ships and aircraft. In fact, Alert is closer to Moscow that it is to Ottawa. The possibilities of using the site for intercepting radio signals warranted a military presence.

" In 1956, when consideration was being given to a listening post in the high Arctic, there were already two "experimental" stations in existence – Resolute Bay, NWT (now Nunavut) and Alert. Resolute Bay was referred to as "Alto Near" and Alert was "Alto Far". In September 1958, Resolute was closed down and Alert became the high Arctic station operated by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (RCCS). Five additional buildings were constructed in addition to the existing structures built in 1956 – a mess, three barracks / accom­moda­tions buildings, a power house and vehicle maintenance building. The operations building housed the radio intercept and cryptographic equipment. Initially, 27 men were posted to Alert at any one time. On the technical side, this consisted of one Chief Radio and Telegraph operator, 18 radio and telegraph operators, one radio equipment technician plus one teletype and cipher technician. A tour of duty at Alert was normally six months in duration back then but today it can vary from three to six months. The first major expansion of the Alert Wireless Station occurred in the summer of 1959. Although the Canadian Army continued to administer the station it was to be manned by personnel from the Army, the Navy and the Air Force until the RCCS could man it on their own. Back then it cost nearly $1 million per annum to operate the station. The expansion program, completed in the summer of 1959, included the installation of the extensive antenna field four km south of Alert at the transmitter site."

The summary above was taken from a web site called CFS Alert.

Email Bob Creber.