-Do you see that grating over there? Down those stairs, that’s where it is.
Laila Andersen from Telenor Cultural Heritage, points towards a white painted metal fence encompassing what seems like an ordinary set of steps leading down to a cellar. Down those steps, behind half a metre of concrete door, we find one of the most extraordinary objects on Telenor’s protection plan; a secret doomsday room. The hidden emergency exchange in the cellar of Åsen tele building is a direct consequence of the Cold War, and of the fear of total annihilation.
The Cuba crisis 1962
Let’s rewind to October 1962. For thirteen dramatic days the whole world held its breath. We have never (as far as we know) been so close to an all-out nuclear war. The Cold War between the east and the west reached a climax when the Soviet Union decided to move nuclear missiles with the capacity to reach US cities to Cuba. The USA, on the other hand, had already positioned mid-range missiles pointing towards the Soviet Union in Turkey. Intense negotiations between President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrusjtsjov, were initiated. Both of them had their finger hovering over their respective red buttons. At the last moment the Soviet ships carrying weapons to Cuba turned back, and the crisis was cancelled. The world society was left in a state of shock; doomsday had never felt more real.
Also Norway stood in standby during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the military was on high alert. Telenor’s (Televerket) emergency exchange at Åsen is one of very few remaining traces of civilian vigilance. In the event of an attack, 15 unsuspecting telephone operators would be transported here through the Telegraph building in Kongens Gate.
-They were frightened of the Soviets, says Laila, as she battles a troublesome zip.
-The means of communication is often the first thing to be under attack in a war. This principle is noticable in the regimes of today as well, where the political leaders are trying to gag free speech. That’s why, in the beginning of the 1960s, there was a plan for how the telegraphists would be transported here. Of course, they knew nothing. The plan was top-secret.
There is a rank smell of dampness in the bunker, and it hits us as Laila opens the heavy door. We enter, and find ourselves in an entrance hall. On three of the walls there are rows of hooks for hanging up outerwear, enough for a small school class. The clothes hooks are painted in the same colour as the concrete walls, a nuance of moss green. This colour, as it turns out, is prevalent in all of the emergency exchange’s three rooms.
-Maybe it was meant to be a bit military-like, suggests Laila.
She has been here before, and opens a door into a kind of control room. We’re guessing this would be a work-place for two people, as there are two chairs in the room. Like a pair of archaeologists, we have to interpret the interior and materials to find out how the space would have been used, because there is no one left who can tell us about the secret emergency exchange.
-Not even the project manager was told what it would be used for, and he led this entire development, says Laila.
The objects in the room and the room itself bear witness to the effort Telenor was prepared to exert in the event of a two-sided nuclear war: There are jars of Aspirin in a medicine cabinet; it seems the telephone operators would have had to be prepared for long days entrapped in the bunker. A similar story is being told by a stretcher that sits leaning against a wall, and the dry toilet in the cubicle next to it. Most of the equipment down here, however, is of a technical sort. A cable board, a switchboard complete with old fashioned telephone receivers and a log book with “Åsen nødsentral” (Åsen emergency exchange) written in neat cursive on the cover. And what’s that? In the middle of the room there is something that looks like a modern fuse box. Next to each lever a small lamp is lit.
-There is always light in this, tells Laila, and laughs quietly:
-No one knows what it’s connected to, so no one dares to turn it off.
Innermost in the bunker is the telephone operator’s work room, equipped with 15 switch boards. The room is small, and just the thought of the hectic activity that would have played out here, moves me to the edge of a migraine. Also, it makes me wonder, why did Telenor choose to place the emergency exchange exactly here?
-Åsen Tele building is placed over the main long distance cable going out of Oslo, explains Laila.
-This means that all conversations going out of Oslo would go through this, she points to a hatch in the wall behind the switchboards.
-Just through there is the cable shaft.
-Could you follow that out of Oslo, as an escape tunnel?
-Yes it’s stretching all across the underside of Oslo.
-And the equipment, does it still work?
-Yes, there’s a reason this is a manual telephone exchange. It is likely that an eventual enemy would have made sure the automatic telephone exchange was turned useless. You’re very vulnerable in a war if everything is automated and digitized. These cables?
She lifts one of the red cables up.
-Directly on to the physical cable. That’s irreplaceable.
A forgotten heritage
The equipment at Åsen emergency exchange remained unused. The Soviet Union never attacked Norway. The office chairs are still wrapped in plastic, and no one could be bothered to unpack the dry toilet. The secret emergency exchange was gradually forgotten, until Telenor started developing their plan for the protection of buildings and installations in the mid-nineties. That’s when a confused caretaker called and wondered what on earth his cellar contained.
-That’s how the Norwegian Telecom Museum was contacted, says Laila.
-So no one in Telenor knew of these rooms?
-So in a catastrophic event, who was supposed to initiate the crisis plan?
-The leadership of Telenor (Telegrafverket) was naturally aware of this place, and the military. So, of course, some knew, but only people right at the top. Like the caretaker, none of the employees in Telenor, and definitely none of the neighbours in Hans Nielsen Hauges Gate at Torshov, had any idea about what was there underneath them. Laila bolts the door behind us, and locks it with a massive pad lock. A sign says, “Protected Cultural Heritage Telenor,” it is impossible to see unless you were to stumble down the steep, concrete steps. What’s happening to the bunker? Should it not be opened to the public, or at least receive school classes?
-The challenge is that everything around the emergency exchange has been altered, making access difficult. In earlier days, the entire quarter was owned by Telenor. This was where the fitters would clock on and off, load up cables and collect their tools, wash the company vehicles and eat their lunch in the canteen. Today, this is the backyard of an apartment complex.
We walk up the steps and emerge into a green backyard, surrounded by newly built apartments. It’s a bit of a shock, to suddenly find yourself out in the safe Oslo-summer, knowing what is down there, a few metres under your feet.
That’s when it dawns on me; isn’t it exactly this feeling we’re after when we’re trying to understand history, the feeling of having experienced something authentic? The emergency exchange at Åsen is a site that lets you sense the tension felt by the world-society in the 1960s. The Cold War is embedded in its walls.