~ PYKRETE ~
ICE SHIPS IN THE ROCKIES!
Pykrete? Ice ships in the Rockies? The improbable, but true,
story of a top secret WW2 project to build ships from a mixture of ice and
sawdust. Project Habakkuk! Behold ye among the heathen, and regard and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye
will not believe, though it be told to you. So reads a biblical quotation
from the book of Habakkuk ... a name adopted by the top secret project to build
In 1942, the Allies were
already developing plans for the invasion of Europe, which included
experimentation in the construction of large floating platforms to support the landings. In addition, the allies were suffering heavy merchant shipping losses from
German U-boats, due, largely, to the limited range of patrolling aircraft and the resulting "mid Atlantic
air gap." Churchill, therefore, welcomed the idea of building large ships made of ice,
as explained to him by Lord Louis
Mountbatten was Chief of
the Combined Operations Command working alongside the Chiefs of Staff on all
matters concerning offensive joint operations against the enemy. These
operations involved the three services in small amphibious raids on the coasts
of enemy occupied territory as well as major landings, which culminated in D
Day. Mountbatten's remit also included the development of equipment and special craft for
these offensive operations.
One of his scientific advisers,
Geoffrey Pyke, suggested constructing "berg-ships" up to 4,000 feet long, 600 feet wide and 130 feet in depth, that could,
he thought, be made cheaply, in great numbers, from ice. The ships would be
insulated and cooled and would be practically invulnerable to bombs and torpedoes.
They could be used by aircraft to provide protection for shipping, particularly in the mid Atlantic and as a base for invasion. With Winston Churchill’s enthusiastic endorsement, the project got underway.
In early 1943, two American professors discovered that a very tough material could be produced by adding a small amount of wood pulp to water before freezing
it. They called this material Pykrete, in honour of
Lord Mountbatten had a block of
Pykrete prepared by a Canadian engineering company
and took it to the Quebec Conference in the fall of 1943. As it appeared that "Habakkuk" would run into supply, technical
and financial problems ($100 million for the first ship), Mountbatten hoped the
Americans might take over the project, if they could be convinced. What better
way than to set up a live demonstration! The story goes that he took out his revolver and
fired at a block of ordinary ice, which immediately shattered. He then fired at a
similar block of Pykrete, which was so strong that the bullet ricocheted,
narrowly missing Sir Charles
Portal the, Chief of the Air Staff!
commenced into the two paradoxical elements of ice – plastic flow and
brittleness. One such study involved the construction of a structure, 60 long by
30 feet wide and 19.5 feet high, on Patricia Lake, near Jasper in the Canadian
The structure comprised a
wood frame with 3 inch x 6 inch studs and 3 inch x 8 inch floor joists. It was filled with ice cut from the lake,
insulated and cooled by 3 Freon compressors driven by 10 hp electric motors.
Cold air was distributed throughout the ice by a network of 6 inch
galvanized-iron cooling pipes. This study was to identify problems in construction and
to record the thermal behaviour of ice in the heat of summer.
No Pykrete was used in these trials.
[Photos above; work in progress on
Patricia Lake, Jasper, Alberta, Canada. Circa 1943. Courtesy of the National
Research Council of Canada].
A concurrent experiment was
undertaken in front of the Chateau Lake Louise, near Banff, Alberta. This project was to determine ways to reinforce large ice units. The work at Lake Louise indicated that a hull at least 35 feet thick, would be needed to contain damage from bombs and torpedoes.
by this time the 'Battle of the Atlantic' was all but won and new conventional aircraft carrier construction was promising to further
strengthen defences. With the change in circumstances, the project was shelved.
The floating structure in Patricia Lake was abandoned at the end of August 1943
after removing all machinery. It was left to sink. In the 1970s, scuba divers
discovered the remains which were subsequently studied by the Archaeology
Department of the University of Calgary.
In 1988, the Underwater
Archaeological Society of Alberta marked the site with an underwater monument.
The following year, with the assistance of the National Research Council and the
National Parks branch, a plaque, commemorating these unusual wartime events, was
erected on the shore of the lake.
[Photo left July 2001].
There are around 300 books listed on our
'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the
Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands
of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or
use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no
registration and no passwords. Click
'Books' for more information.
Elsewhere on this site -
Pyke 1894 - 1948
Find out about
Pykrete including photographs of blocks
subjected to gunfire.
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Walk, London - books available:-
has Another Pattern memoirs by George W. Ball 1982 ISBN 0-393-01481-9
the Unknown Genius David Lampe 1959 (no ISBN given?)
The Challenge of War: Scientific and Engineering Contributions to World War II Guy Hartcup 1970
"Scientists at War" Wilfred Eggleston 1950 (no ISBN given)
Canadian War Museum- books available:-
No Day Long Enough George R. Lindsey. Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies 1997
Scientists at War
Wilfred Eggleston 1950.
I wish I'd made you angry earlier - Essays on Science and Scientists
by Max Perutz. The essay that discusses the development of Pykrete is entitled
'Enemy Alien'. A fantastic read written by one of the greatest
scientists ever. ISBN:0879696745.
Butter Side Up: Delights of Science by
Magnus Pyke (ISBN:
0-330-25309-3) This book was written by
Geoffrey Pyke's first cousin and includes a chapter on Pykrete. Copies available
on line through ABE Books - see book icon above.
Written by George H Pitt, Alberta, Canada.
If you have any information or book
recommendations about Pykrete, please
contact us with details.