ARTICLES

The weirdest secret weapon of the war

A Maclean's Flashback

Terence Robertson December 17 1960
ARTICLES

The weirdest secret weapon of the war

A Maclean's Flashback

Terence Robertson December 17 1960

The weirdest secret weapon of the war

A Maclean's Flashback

Terence Robertson

In 1942 an erratic British genius named Geoffrey Pyke sold Winston Churchill a vision of unsinkable carriers made of unmeltable ice. Here’s how Canadians almost built his incredible frozen flotilla

ADMIRAL LORD LOUIS MOUNTBATTEN called on Winston Churchill one day in April 1943, and was informed that the Prime Minister was taking a bath. “Good.” he said. “That’s just where I want him to be.”

He went upstairs to the bathroom and answered the Prime Minister’s scowl with a grin. Then he unwrapped a small brown-paper package and tossed into the bath a lump of what seemed to be blue, frosted ice.

The startled Churchill, not knowing what his Chief of Combined Operations was up to, ordered him to take it out before it melted and made his

bathwater cold. “It won’t melt, sir,” said Mountbattcn. "It’s ice that won’t melt — new stuff we're going to use for Habbakuk.”

Churchill turned on the hot water until he was forced by the heat to clamber out and sit on the edge of the bath watching the ice float intact. “Amazing,” he muttered. “Imagine — ice that won't melt.”

"We call it pykrete,” said Mountbattcn, “after Geoffrey Pyke, who dreamed up the idea in the first place.”

This oddly boyish scene at 10 Downing Street was one of many unlikely incidents that marked the brief exciting life of Operation Habbakuk, a plan to revolutionize war with a fleet of gigantic, unsinkable aircraft carriers made of ice that wouldn’t melt. If torpedoed or bombed they would use powerful refrigeration units to seal their wounds with more ice.

Because ice was to be the structural material and because Englishmen still regarded Canada as a land of ice, the Canadian government was requested to undertake the work that might prove Habbakuk feasible.

When the war cabinet in Ottawa agreed, scientists of the National Research Council faced a dramatic challenge, one that for a time surpassed their work on atomic fission in urgency and importance.

Could they produce ice that wouldn’t melt? And if so, could Canada build an unsinkable ship?

Geoffrey Pyke, who was later to take his own life, had conceived the Habbakuk plan while “resting” in a mental institution. He was an erratic English eccentric with a rudimentary knowledge of scientific matters — but a boundless imagination. He was tall and lean, with a gaunt biblical face. He dressed in rumpled, threadbare clothes but always wore spats — instead of socks, his colleagues maintained. He made many enemies and few friends among the war leaders of Britain, the United States and Canada, but he was able to captivate men like Churchill and Mountbattcn with a dazzling vision of quick victory.

When Pyke joined Combined Operations early in 1942 he was 48, an undistinguished man. A school friend with influence in Whitehall rescued him from oblivion by arranging for him to meet Mountbattcn, who was then searching for unorthodox means to wage war against an enemy that occupied all Europe and threatened to seai off the Atlantic with U-boats.

Pyke illustrated his novel approach to old prob-

lems by suggesting that if a small, fast, armored snow vehicle could be devised, a few British commandos in Norway could tie up thousands of German troops. Mountbatten was so impressed he appointed Pyke to his staff as an idea man.

Combined Operations engineers designed his snow vehicle and the U. S. Army offered to produce a prototype. Pyke followed the design to Washington, where he immediately did as much as one man could to disrupt Anglo-American relations. At staf!' conferences he condemned the U. S. war organization as incompetent and lectured senior officers on the evils of capitalism. He also switched his plans for the snow vehicle. Originally, he had suggested that it should be made to carry three men; the third man was to guard it while the others carried out sabotage missions. Then he came out in favor of a two-man craft, and presented a memorandum showing how the unoccupied vehicles would be protected from German patrols. When parked in the Norwegian forests each vehicle would be shrouded by a canvas screen on which would be printed in German: LATRINE

FOR COLONELS ONLY. LATRINES FOR OTHER

RANKS TWO KILOMETRES SOUTH.

German patrols, he said, would be led by sergeants, and what good German sergeant would dare enter a colonel’s latrine?

The Pentagon reacted to Pyke’s behavior by withdrawing his accreditation to staff conferences and classifying him as a security risk. They thought him quite mad and the dismayed heads of British missions in Washington bombarded London with urgent requests for Pyke’s recall.

But he stubbornly remained in Washington, succumbing only to a suggestion that he was suffering from fatigue. Once persuaded that he was too valuable to be allowed to overwork, he was easily manoeuvred into the seclusion of a mental home. Officially, he had retired to await the results of the snow vehicle tests; in fact, he was in private isolation — with a new idea.

After the Titanic disaster in 1912, the International Ice Patrol had tried in vain to destroy icebergs with gunfire and bombing. The bergs had proved bombproof. Now the Allies needed floating airfields in the Atlantic, so why not use icebergs?

It was a brilliant idea. The Allies could win the war only by defeating the German army in Europe, but there could be no question of an invasion while U-boats operated successfully in the mid-Atlantic beyond the range of air patrols. If aircraft had the means to land and refuel in this remote ocean deepfield. then the U-boats would have nowhere to hide and their destruction would be quick and certain.

Conventional aircraft carriers were too vulnerable, their flight decks were too short for bombers and they would be ineffective during bad weather. I he solution. Pyke thought, would be unsinkable carriers, so large that they could be used in the worst Atlantic weather, and so indestructible that victory at sea would lead to an early opening of the Second Front.

He pictured iceberg ships hollowed out to carry fuel tanks and given mobility to avoid drifting in high seas. 1 hey would be self-refrigerated to slow, if not halt, the natural process of melting.

He expanded this theme into a 232page memorandum entitled Habbakuk. a misspelling of the Old Testament book that says, “For 1 will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you

He sent it to Combined Operations headquarters in London. Mountbatten, appalled at its complexity and aware that Churchill was disinclined to read a memorandum that could not be set out on one sheet of paper, asked Professor J. D. Bernal, a leading British physicist and a friend of Pykc's, to produce a s\ nopsis.

Bernal’s condensation revealed in a single page what Pyke had hidden in more than two hundred — a scheme of such bold simplicity that it not only attracted Mountbatten but also inspired spontaneous enthusiasm in the Prime Minister. On December 7. 1942. Churchill addressed a minute to the British Chiefs of Staff. It said in part:

“I attach the greatest importance to an examination of these ideas. The advantages of a floating island, or islands . . . are so dazzling they do not at the moment need to be discussed. ... 1 he scheme is only possible if w'e let nature do the work

"The advantages are so dazzling that they do not need to be discussed," Churchill wrote

for us. using as raw material sea water and low temperature. The scheme will be destroyed if it involves the movement of very large numbers of men and heavy tonnage of steel or concrete to the remote recesses of the Arctic night."

Since little was known about ice in Britain, the Chiefs of Stall decided to ask the Canadian government to undertake research and eventually build the first Habbakuk aircraft carrier.

Dr. C. J. Mackenzie, who was then president of the National Research Council in Ottawa and is now president of the Atomic Energy Control Board, told me recently:

"Vincent Massey, then our High Commissioner in London, always kept me unofficially informed of scientific work in

Britain. Flatly in January 1943 he warned me by letter that an official approach for Canadian help would be made in connection with a scheme to turn icebergs into ships. Although I was pretty tied up with our atomic research program I prepared the council for orders involving another decisive weapon sharing the same rating of highest priority and utmost secrecy."

Mackenzie thought Habbakuk stimulating. not because of its strategic implications but because it promised an adventure in science. There had never been a thorough investigation of the properties of ice, nor had ice ever been thought of as a structural material, except by Eskimo igloo-builders.

How' brittle or plastic was ice? What stresses could it withstand? And if pure

ice proved unsuitable, how could it be reinforced?

The first informal conference was held in Mackenzie's office on January 14. 1943. attended by. among others. Dr. William Harrison Cook, director of the division of applied biology, and two physicists. Dr. John David Babbitt anti Dr. Charles David Niven.

No minutes were kept in the interest of secrecy, but Niven recalls: “After we were told what was in the wind, someone dismissed the scheme as preposterous. 1 did not agree and said so. As a result I was elected to take charge of building a prototype if that stage was reached. That's how I got into the shipbuilding business.”

At this conference it was decided to ask the universities of Alberta. Manitoba and Saskatchewan to undertake research into the properties of ice. to set up an ice-testing station on a glacier overlooking Lake Louise, to begin preparations at Jasper for the building of a 1.000-ton model on Patricia Lake and for Cook and Babbitt to concentrate in Montreal and Ottawa on the problems of refrigeration.

On January 25. the Canadian war cabinet formally approved Project G Fl-1, placed it under the direction of Mackenzie. anti allotted $150,000 for initial research. This was Habbakuk under another cover name. It was described as “a scientific investigation requested by the British government." Forewarned, Canadian scientists had already been at work for nearly two weeks.

Nor was Pyke idle in Washington. Restored to favor by Churchill's support of Habbakuk. he emerged from voluntary seclusion to telephone Dr. Herman Mark, a former Viennese polymer chemist then on the staff of the Brooklyn Polytechnic in New York.

Speaking cautiously, he asked if Mark had once written papers on the structure of glaciers and the causes of avalanches. Mark agreed he had been guilty of such youthful indiscretions and promised to report the following morning at the Washington liaison office of Combined Operations. Thus, at about the time that Habbakuk formally arrived in Ottawa. Mark was listening as Pyke explained that a torpedo might fracture an iceberg ship. Was there a way to reinforce natural ice?

Offhand. Mark didn’t know of one. but if Pyke were in no hurry he would be pleased to try a few experiments. He returned to New York, rented space in a refrigerated warehouse and vanished from sight, complete with overcoat and carmulls.

Considerable activity was also taking place in London where Dr. Max Perutz, a Combined Operations scientist, had requisitioned a basement beneath the Smithfield meat market—where ice was readily available — anti was busily pounding away at blocks of ice of all shapes and sizes.

Early in February, Mackenzie went to New York to see for himself what was happening in Mark's warehouse. He called on Mark, telephoned London, and fourni that three highly likely means of reinforcing ice were being investigated independently — wood and moss in Canada. wood pidp in New York and a mixture of paper and sawdust in London.

Mackenzie returned to Ottawa where he met Pyke and Professor Bernal, who had flown to Canada from a project in North Africa. They set oil to test the effects of explosives on ice at l.ake Louise.

"They made an odd pair,’’ Mackenzie told me. "Pyke always looked in need of a bath, and Bernal, a really brilliant man, wore thin summer clothing, hopelessly inadequate for a Canadian winter. I had decided to take Dr. Cook with me on this trip and we boarded the train in Ottawa with the two Englishmen, who were as excited as children at the prospect of a ride across Canada.

"In fact, traveling with Pyke was just like traveling with a child. He kept money and old envelopes stuffed in every pocket. He jotted down on old envelopes any thought that occurred to him. If he had to pay for anything he would hand over the first piece of paper to come to hand — and it might contain the outline of a scheme that one day would be a top secret. He kept losing his ticket and even-

tually Dr. Cook had to keep it for him.”

The tests at Lake Louise were carried out with explosives, high-powered rifles and revolvers. Then the party moved to Jasper where Niven, the amateur shipbuilder. was coming to grips with the problems of constructing a warship from ice. He had conscripted labor from a nearby camp of Mennonitc and Doukhobor conscientious objectors, and persuaded the CNR to allow him to use the railway workshops at Jasper.

There a wooden base carrying a twelveinch outer skin of insulation consisting of vcrmiculitc and charcoal was erected to surround the ice hull. Then Niven built on the base with blocks of ice. As the vessel grew taller, so it would sink through the ice into the water. Pipes were laid between the insulating skin and the icc; through them, cold water would be pumped to offset any warmth that might seep through the insulation.

When finished the model would be sixty feet long, thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep.

By the time the party returned to Ottawa near the end of March, Herman Mark had emerged from his Manhattan warehouse to report that the most effective ice reinforcement was wood pulp. When a mixture of ten percent pulp and ninety percent water was churned together and then frozen, the resulting substance resembled the hardest of woods and was capable of withstanding pressures of 3,000 pounds a square inch.

This information was passed to the three western universities and to the testing station at Lake Louise, where work was switched to the construction of huge beams of the new material using pine pulp as the vital ingredient. The scientists began calling the material pykrete. after the originator of Habbakuk.

In London. Perutz made several samples of pykrete to check Mark’s calculations and then closed down his work, which was duplicating Canadian research.

Niven, at Jasper, clashed with the federal department of labor when his skilled conscientious-objector workers were ordered away from Patricia Lake to work on farms. Because Habbakuk was secret he could not tell the department why he needed the men, and a flurry of angry messages flew between Jasper and Ottawa.

Pyke heard about the squabble and. alarmed at "stupid interference by bureaucrats,” insisted that Prime Minister Mackenzie King should be told about it. Not long afterward, to the astonishment of everyone working on the project, Niven’s boatbuilders were returned to him.

"It was a typical piece of Pykery,” I vas told by a senior official in Ottawa. 'He just ranted and stormed until he got

his way.”

While this was going on, an interchange vith Bernal nearly caused Cook to mutiny. Cook had pointed out to Bernal that is icebergs floated with only about an eighth of their bulk above water, the much heavier pykrete would sink lower m the water. How did the eminent British scientist propose to counter this problem?

"That’s easy,” replied Bernal equably. 'We'll just blow air bubbles into the pykrete and increase its buoyancy.”

"How?” asked Cook.

"Oh, never mind that now, old boy. We’ll find some way when the time comes.”

Cook still chuckles about this incident. 'At this stage.” he told me. "I began to ew the whole of Habbakuk as fatuous nonsense.”

Reports from Take Louise suggested Cook might be right. The forty - foot beams of pykrete being tested there were landing only half the stresses claimed by Mark. Only Pyke and Bernal were undismayed. They left Ottawa for England satisfied with progress — and in May two events lent support to their optimism. Niven’s Ark was completed on Patricia Lake and researchers at Lake Louise had restored faith j.-^vkrete with the discovery that sptfjHpflp Save ice greater strength th\^^e pulp.

The naL ?i was further advanced by a letter Churchill to Mackenzie King

expre mig the hope that he would give Habbakuk his "vehement support.” If Churchill smiled at his choice of the word “vehement,” he must have been delighted at the reply. The austere Mackenzie King assured him of C'anada's "continued support."

If Habbakuk proved feasible, the actual building of a pykrete aircraft carrier would be a technical engineering problem. Dr. Mackenzie, as the project's Canadian director, asked the Montreal Engineering Company to get plans started.

Then the British Admiralty, skeptical of Habbakuk from the start, stipulated that the carrier should be able to ride out waves a hundred feet high and a thousand feet long: the flight deck should be fifty feet above the water and two thousand feet long, to accommodate bombers.

Although these specifications would more than double the size of the ship as originally planned, the Montreal Engineering Company produced a design for a Habbakuk carrier 2.000 feet long. 300 feet wide. 200 feet deep and weighing two million tons. It would be equipped with hangars, workshops, fuel tanks, anti-aircraft guns, living quarters for a crew of more than 2,000 and be driven by twentysix aircraft engines capable of producing seven knots. Except for the flight deck the hull would be encased in a thick insulating skin; additional skins would run like veins through the pykrete shell, if the outer skin were to be holed by a torpedo, the damage could virtually be ignored. The exposed pykrete would take months to melt and when it did another insulating skin would appear.

Combined Operations in London ae:epted the design and asked the Canadian government to start work on the world's first iceberg aircraft carrier, at an estimated cost to Britain of $70.()()().()()(). This was less than half the cost of a conventional carrier of such a size.

Corner Brook. Newfoundland, where a suitably low average winter temperature and protected waters of sufficient depth could be found, was selected as the building site.

Mackenzie was appalled at the prospect of mobilizing a large part of the Canadian war effort for Habbakuk. Workers would have to be trained in the manipulation of a new material, factories would have to produce new forms of tools, huge amounts of steel would be consumed by layers of stabilizing trelliswork, the Corner Brook site would have to occupy

at least 100 acres, and the insulating and refrigeration piping would absorb almost the entire production of North America.

Late in June he flew to London for a series of conferences with Admiralty construction experts and scientists, most of whom disliked Pyke.

He received a frigid reception because the confidence exuded by Pyke and Bernal on their return from Canada had created the impression in London that Canadian scientists supported Habbakuk. Vincent Massey resolved the misunderstanding by inviting some of the military

and scientific leaders associated with the scheme, including Mountbatten, to dinner at Canada House, ostensibly to meet the president of the National Research Council.

"I told them I had come to advise against further work on Habbakuk because of the enormous economic strain it would impose on our resources,” Dr. Mackenzie told me. “As I spoke the attitude of my listeners changed. They had expected me to urge more haste and there I was taking their side against the scheme.”

When he finished speaking a senior naval officer, influential in Allied war councils, walked across the room and grasped his hand. “That’s the first piece of, common sense I’ve heard spoken on this fool plan,” he growled. Mountbatten stalked from the room.

Although he and Churchill were unconvinced by either Mackenzie or the hardening opposition on al I sides in London. events at sea. where the Battle of the Atlantic was swinging in favor of the Allies for the first time, forced them to reappraise Habbakuk.

Convoy escorts, equipped with new anti-submarine devices, began to kill Uboats in increasing numbers, anil bombers capable of flying greater distances went into production ahead of schedule, giving promise of an unbroken canopy of

Mountbatten's shot ricocheted off the ice, just missing two war leaders

air patrols over the entire length of the trans-Atlantic convoy routes.

The strategic considerations that had made Habbakuk so vital a few months before were unexpectedly lessening in importance. Churchill, still the scheme’s most powerful advocate, decided that a Habbakuk carrier should still be built — even if someone else paid for it. Why not the United States? If he could convince President Roosevelt and the American Chiefs of Stall that Habbakuk might shorten the Pacific war. then nothing could prevent the iceberg carrier from rising in the sheltered waters of Corner Brook.

The Quadrant conference was to be held at Quebec in August and he chose this as the stage on which he would produce convincing evidence. If his act was

to succeed he would need props, so Mountbatten was told to have samples of pykrete available at the Chateau Frontenac Hotel.

This conference was bitter. It was saved only when all aides and secretaries were dismissed from the conference room and the war leaders settled down to plain speaking. In the relieved atmosphere that followed the resolving of differences, a large block of ice and another of pykrete were brought in and placed on the floor. Churchill invited the strongest - looking American present. General Henry (Hap) Arnold, to pick up a chopper and smash both samples.

The general took a swipe at the ice and splintered it into small pieces; then he delivered another mighty blow at the pykrete. The chopper bounced off and he

yelled with pain as the shock ran up his arms. Mountbatten clinched the demonstration by firing his pistol at the pykrete. The bullet hit at an angle, glanced off and ricocheted round the room, narrowly missing Admiral Ernest King and Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal.

Next morning President Roosevelt ordered the U. S. Navy to participate in the building of Habbakuk at Corner Brook. Since this relieved Mackenzie and the National Research Council of responsibility for the carrier. Mountbatten nominated Pyke as Combined Operations representative at Corner Brook.

When the U. S. Navy chiefs heard this, they blew up. Remembering Pyke’s antics, they told Mackenzie it would be impossible to get priorities from Pyke’s former Washington colleagues as long as he had anything to do with Habbakuk. Mackenzie wrote to Mountbatten: "The presence of Pyke as director of Operation Habbakuk will have a disastrous effect on American participation. I have been compelled to inform my government of this position and I am instructed to request that you do not send Pyke.”

Pyke’s dream collapsed. Not only was he forbidden to watch it come true, but he was also deprived of the support he had always received from Mountbatten, who had left Combined Operations to become supreme commander in Southeast Asia.

Habbakuk was left to an uncertain fate in the hands of the Americans until December 16. 194.3. when the U S. Navy informed the Allied governments that "as Habbakuk’s major use_’_j old be for the Japanese war. the ves. J ” .ild be built on the Pacific coast. Thnam*ll involve such expenditure of effort 11.9551 cannot be undertaken without seriously. '~*crfcring with plans of greater priority a ,1 has. therefore, been accordingly dropped."

Washington had avenged itself on Pyke. Habbakuk had been born 'here: now it died there. The cause was not only economic, but strategic. The development of the island-hopping technique of attack in the Pacific obviated the need for so effort-consuming an undertaking as Habbakuk.

The National Research Council rende: cd judgment on the scientific work by saying that the value of ice as a strategical material was only great where it could be found naturally and where little labor would be required in its manipulation. C anadian scientists still believe that their work was justified by the information obtained on the properties of ice and pykrete.

Pyke himself was never again to advise the great. He moved from war to peace still full of ideas but unable to persuade anyone of their value. In February 1948, on a wet winter’s night in London, he looked around his old-fashioned bed-sitting room for the last time, swallowed a bottle of sleeping tablets and died.

Pykrete remains alive. In 1957, North Rankin Nickel Mines, which operates on the western shore of Hudson Bay, explored the possibility of using it for pit props and in building a pier. There is stili a Most Secret file in Ottawa containing A Report on the Performance of the Refrigerating System in the Jasper Model During the Months of July and August 1943.

When the Canadian Navy asked the Admiralty in 1957 if this report could be declassified the reply was no. For reasons unknown the British insist that this aspect of Habbakuk should remain secret. As mystified as anyone else is Dr. C. D. Niven, author of the report and the first man ever to build an ice-ship. ★