Canadian Forces Station Debert (also CFS Debert) was the location of a Canadian air force, army, and military communications facility in Debert, Nova Scotia.
Debert Military Camp
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in the fall of 1939, the first Canadian units began shipping through the port of Halifax however the end of the Phony War in spring 1940 required a massive ramp-up in Canada's land forces in Europe. The sheer volume of soldiers who would be embarking through Halifax required staging facilities for training and marshalling combat units before embarking on the troop ships.
To meet this requirement, the government announced that existing facilities at Camp Aldershot near Kentville, Nova Scotia and Camp Sussex near Sussex, New Brunswick would be upgraded to handle the requirements of housing and training brigade-size units. In spring 1940, the government also began purchasing additional land in Debert for a division-size training and marshalling facility adjacent to those lands previously purchased in 1938 by the Royal Canadian Air Force for an aerodrome.
Located on the Montreal-Halifax main line of Canadian National Railways, the flat plain surrounding Debert Station were considered ideal for an army staging facility in addition to an aerodrome. The additional benefit that it was located only 100 km north of Halifax.
On August 9, 1940 the first engineering units arrived at the site and began work at clearing the forests and laying out what would become the Debert Military Camp (also referred to as Camp Debert). Employing 6,000 civilians and thousands more military members, the engineers cleared the trees and burnt the plain before building streets, sewer and water services, electricity, and buildings over an area of 80 square kilometres. The camp was bisected with named avenues and numbered streets having innumerable quonset huts, mess halls, warehouses, canteens, and other buildings.
The surrounding community of Debert virtually exploded in growth overnight with movie houses, restaurants, bars and other businesses being set up and the economic effects spilled over into neighbouring Truro.
Camp Debert was the final staging area for units embarking from Halifax and was the location where the majority of troops received and trained with their personal weapons. For these purposes a large ammunition depot was built as well as extensive firing ranges. Component units arrived at Camp Debert from across Canada and were organized into larger formations before being carried by trains to troop ships at Halifax, usually at night in black-out conditions.
All five divisions of the Canadian First Army were housed (all, or in part) at Camp Debert prior to departure for the European Theatre during the Second World War. In addition, the 7th Canadian Division was formed at Camp Debert, although its volunteer troops went overseas as reinforcements rather than an active combat division.
Following the war, Camp Debert was used in the repatriation of troops returning from Europe before undergoing significant downsizing with the majority of training and marshalling areas being decommissioned. In 1948, Camp Debert was reactivated and hosted several active army units during the 1950s.
- 3rd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (1948-1958)
- 12th Regional Ordnance Depot (1948-1958)
- 31st Ordnance Ammunition Depot (1948-1965)
- Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (1950-1952)
RCAF Station Debert
In the fall of 1938 the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) purchased land for constructing an aerodrome on the north shore of Cobequid Bay near the farming community of Debert.
Construction of the aerodrome, which would be named RCAF Station Debert, began in the fall of 1940 and was completed in April, 1941, coinciding with the construction of the army's adjoining Camp Debert. The airfield itself consisted of three 4,200 foot runways arranged in an overlapping triangle.
RCAF Station Debert was one of several similar facilities constructed in the Maritime provinces in support of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and operational coastal patrol requirements.
Following the war, RCAF Station Debert underwent some downsizing but continued to support active flight operations as a training, refueling, and maintenance base until 1954 even though no operational squadrons were stationed there.
In 1960, the RCAF transferred its aerodrome to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) which used the facility for aircraft carrier landing practise in support of naval aviation aircraft stationed at nearby Royal Canadian Naval Air Station (RCNAS) Shearwater. Also in the 1960s, some unused hangar space at the aerodrome was used to house a medical equipment supply depot which was used by all three branches of the armed forces.
The February 1, 1968 unification of the three service branches into the Canadian Armed Forces saw the end of flight operations at the Debert aerodrome and in 1971 the Department of National Defense designated 4800 acres, consisting of the aerodrome and the majority of the training area used by the former Camp Debert, as surplus. The provincial government purchased this land for development into the "Debert Air Industrial Park" while the aerodrome continues to be used as a municipal airfield.
The Maritime "Diefenbunker"
In 1958, at the height of the Cold War and the infancy of the ICBM threat, Debert was selected as the site for 1 of 6 communication centres and "Regional Emergency Government Headquarters" complexes being located across Canada. The Debert facility would be the only such complex built in the Maritime provinces.
A small part of Camp Debert was proposed to be used for the complex along with supporting surface structures and personnel housing. Construction began in 1960 on an underground 2-storey bunker capable of withstanding a near-hit from a nuclear explosion. The underground building had massive blast doors at the surface, as well as extensive air filters to prevent radiation infiltration. Underground storage was built for food, fuel, fresh water, and other supplies for the facility which was capable of supporting several dozen people for weeks. These facilities, nicknamed "Diefenbunkers", were administered by the Canadian Corps of Signals.
Opening in 1964, the Debert facility was already dated, since ICBM targetting had improved to the point where a direct hit was possible on the bunker, however it persisted as a Provincial Warning Centre (for Nova Scotia), staffed by the 720 Communication Squadron, along with the space for the emergency government. Antenna farms were dispersed from the bunker and were located on the shores of Cobequid Bay in nearby Masstown as well as in the Cobequid Hills near Londonderry.
The February 1, 1968 unification of the three service branches into the Canadian Armed Forces saw the Diefenbunker and support facilities, the last remnants of Camp Debert, change its name to Canadian Forces Station Debert (CFS Debert), in keeping with the naming convention for minor military facilities across Canada.
In the 1970s, CFS Debert, as with most Diefenbunker facilities across the country, was downgraded further as the number of personnnel were reduced. Attempts to find other uses for the remaining military facilities took place through the 1980s with militia reserve units training at CFS Debert.
The end of the Cold War and reduction in the ICBM threat, as well as the Diefenbunker's obsolescence, saw all remaining military personnel removed from CFS Debert by the mid-1990s. In 1998 the Department of National Defense finished all environmental assessments and decommissioned the facility, tranferring the facility to "Colchester Park", a local development authority.
Today the only remnant of a once-vast military presence in Debert is a small-arms firing range used by militia reserve units from Cumberland, Colchester and Pictou counties.
The Debert Military Heritage Society keeps the memory of Debert's military history alive with a small museum located in "Colchester Park". The society also conducts public tours of the "Diefenbunker" for several days each year.