Always Agree With an Armed Man by Mike Creasy
Canada – Land of ice and snow… That’s been a common adage for years and it’s still a view held by much of the world. We’ve all heard the jokes about folks from Africa or Asia getting off the plane on a hot summer’s day clad in down-filled parkas, asking for directions to the dog sleds. Ho, ho, ho!! Most of the time, it’s just irritating to the locals before it becomes one of those “can you believe it?” stories. But when you add in wartime and a certain lack of humour on the part of the military, it quickly becomes truly bizarre.
It was 1942; Lord Louis Mountbatten was Chief of Combined Operations. Allied losses in the Atlantic were severe and all available resources were working at capacity to replace merchant ships and build new warships. Steel was scarce, and some attention was being given to new materials for ship hulls, such as concrete. Mountbatten ordered Allied scientists to put forward any new ideas they might have, no matter how fantastic, for consideration.
A fellow named Geoffrey Pyke happened to be working on the effect of temperature on various materials, and he discovered that sawdust, mixed with water and frozen, produced a very hard concoction with much greater longitudinal stiffness than plain water – as you know, a block of ice will shatter quite easily. This new material (named Pykrete) was hard enough to withstand gunfire – as was proven by Lord Louis at a senior staff meeting.
The story goes that while introducing Pykrete to the Combined Operations brass, Mountbatten pulled out his service pistol and fired a round into the sample block. The richochet hit an American Admiral in the leg… I say old man, did that hurt? … leaving the committee no option other than approval of the Chief’s idea to build aircraft carriers out of ice.
Code named Habbakuk, the plan was to prove the concept at a secret location and then build a fleet of 2,000 foot Pykrete carriers to support squadrons of anti-submarine aircraft in the north Atlantic. Where better than Canada? Top secret plans were developed for the 1.8 million DWT ships, to be built with onboard refrigeration plants big enough to keep the thing from thawing out plus heated spaces for aircraft and crews. In 1942 (hopefully during the winter…) a group of scientists and technicians was sent to Patricia Lake near Jasper, where they began work on a 1:50 model of the monster carrier. The model would have a wooden frame lined with ice blocks from the lake, supported by three freezer units pumping Freon through a circulation system inside the ice. Work continued for some months and a seaworthy model was built, before it became apparent that the idea had problems. The ships were going to require substantial amounts of steel and other strategic metals as well as their Pykrete hulls, quickly eroding the initial advantages of ice over steel and forecast costs were rising quickly. Presumably, the scientists were smart enough to have His Lordship’s staff remove the bullets from his pistol on the day they were to break the news! The project was abandoned, while the model and all its onboard machinery were allowed to sink into the lake.
Geoffrey Pyke was reputed to be a brilliant eccentric who apparently had the ear of both Mountbatten and of Winston Churchill. Amongst his other – unsuccessful – ideas: spraying enemy ships with Pykrete to immobilize them; sending teams of dogs laden with whisky barrels ahead of the troops to get the enemy drunk; building motorized sledges to tow torpedoes up hills behind the enemy, from where they would release and roll down on top of them. His successes were mostly in the area of things like staffing and manpower allocations, but these weren’t sufficient to prevent his death by suicide at the age of 54.
In 1979, the remnants of the model were discovered by divers, and a plaque was placed on the shore by the Government of Canada.
So, the next time the bartender looks at you strangely when you ask for ice in your martini, you can honestly claim that you’re researching your next modelling project!
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Photos from National Research Council of Canada