Mar 17, 2014
Geoffrey Pyke was a man who was always coming up with some kind of crazy, zany, improbable, yet often practical idea. During World War I, he was captured and thrown into a POW camp while serving as a war correspondent. He escaped by hiding in a shed which he noticed that, die to the way the Sun hit at a particular time, would obscure him from & blind the guards who were patrolling. During the Second World War, he developed stretcher-carrying sidecars for motorcycles, a vehicle that traveled on snow propelled by two large screws, and even concocted a plan just before the war where he and several British agents traveled throughout Germany disguised as golfers to secretly interview Germans for a poll showing Hitler that his people didn’t want war. Pyke’s largest scheme was by far his most ambitious.
In 1942, the Allies had a problem. German U-Boats were on the prowl in the North Atlantic, and there were huge swaths of ocean with no air cover. There wasn’t enough steel and aluminum to build more carriers. Pyke had an idea. Ice. Ice could be made by using much, much less energy than steel. His idea was to take an iceberg, level it so that it could allow planes to land & take off, and hollow it out to provide parking and protection for them as well.
Pyke soon discovered that natural icebergs were far too small and had a propensity for rolling over. There was another option, though. Mixing woodpulp with water and then freezing it would create a material that was stronger and more resistant to melting than regular ice.
Pyke’s boss, Lord Louis Mountbatten, loved the idea. He brought a block of ice and a block of this woodpulp composite (named ‘Pykrete’) to the Quebec Conference. During one of the meetings, he took the blocks, placed them on the ground, and, pulling out his pistol, fired shots into each. The block of ice shattered. The bullets fired at the pykrete ricocheted off and almost killed an Admiral.
Winston Churchill loved the idea:
I attach the greatest importance to the examination of these ideas. The advantages of a floating island or islands, if only used as refueling depots for aircraft, are so dazzling that they do not at the moment need to be discussed. There would be no difficulty in finding a place to put such a stepping stone in any of the plans of war now under consideration.
Work began immediately on a prototype. Scores of conscientious objectors worked at Patricia Lake in Alberta to build a model. It was 60’ by 30’, weighed 1000 tons, and used a small motor to keep it frozen.
Churchill originally ordered one full-sized aircraft carrier. It would’ve been 2,000 feet long, weighed almost 2 million tons, with generators, refrigerators, living space, and hangers. It was codenamed Project Habbakuk.
As the team worked on the project, higher-ups kept changing what they wanted. It had to be able to sail 7,000 miles. It had to be torpedoproof. Bombers had to be able to take off and land on it. By the end of the redesign, it weighed 2.2 million tons, had two enormous outboard engines, and would’ve been loaded with anti-aircraft guns. It would’ve housed over 400 officers & 3200 crew.
As you may have guessed, the Project became super expensive. The designers figured they’d need over 8,000 workers working for 8 months and cost around $70 million. Habbakuk needed way more steel just for its refrigeration system than an entire normal aircraft carrier. Additionally, the U.S. was producing more and more escort carriers, and longer-ranged aircraft made Habbakuk redundant. Unsurprisingly, the Project was scrapped.
As for the prototype sitting in Alberta? All of the refrigeration equipment was taken out for scrap metal, and the ship was left to melt.
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