Bulletproof sawdust-and-ice ships almost won WW II

Centerfold picture from "The Athanasius Kircher Society" See: HMS Indefatigable


In 1942, Lord Mountbatten, the British military’s Chief of Combined Operations, convinced Winston Churchill, then naked and in his bathtub, of the the merits of a novel material known as Pykrete. The substance, a surprisingly slow-melting and effectively indestructible mixture of ice and wood pulp, was the creation of Geoffrey Pyke, a Hero of the Athanasius Kircher Society who the Times of London once declared “one of the most original if unrecognized figures of the present century.” Operation Habakkuk was born with the intent of creating a massive floating island 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 40 feet thick that would serve as a sort of glacial aircraft carrier for 200 Spitfires. As demonstrated in the above illustration, the Habbakuk would have been almost 25 times more massive than the largest ship afloat at the time. The problem, according to one source, is that the Habbakuk would have required all the wood chips in Canada to produce. And, of course, in the end the ship would eventually melt…

As ever, our friends at Cabinet have already written on the subject of Pykrete. Plus, details of a modern experiment with the substance, and a reprint of Geoffrey Pyke’s POW travelogue from McSweeney’s. And, “Pykrete: the Myth that Wouldn’t Die.”

War ship, ice blocks and Mennonite COs

It was supposed to be the weapon that would win the Second World War: an unsinkable battleship made out of ice, tar, and refrigeration pipes. And if that’s not bizarre enough, pacifist Mennonites were to construct the prototype.

In the later months of 1942, the British were in desperate need of warships that could withstand attacks from German U-boats. Inventor Geoffrey Pyke proposed a solution: a 2000 foot ice ship, weighing 1.8 million tons, with enough refrigeration equipment to repair any damage that a German torpedo could inflict. Churchill expressed interest in the idea, and as a result, plans were made to construct a small scale version of the ship at Patricia Lake, Alberta, in what is now Jasper National Park. The top secret affair was code named the “Habbakuk project.” “For I am doing something in your own days that you would not believe if you were told it.” (Habbakuk 1:5 Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.)

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