Project Habakkuk: what not to hide in an iceberg

Investigating the Arctic and Antarctic you discover  unusual things about where humans have put energy, intelligence, innovation and money. This is plain crazy, where glaciology & warcraft met during WWII. Canadian engineers in Jasper helped build a model ‘iceship’ for the Brits.

Project Habakkuk was a plan by the British in World War II to construct an aircraft carrier out of pykrete (a mixture of wood pulp and ice), for use against German U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, which were beyond the flight range of land-based planes at that time.

The idea came from Geoffrey Pyke who worked for Combined Operations.

Initial concept

Geoffrey Pyke was an old friend of J.D. Bernal, and had originally been recommended to Lord Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, by the Cabinet minister Leopold Amery. Pyke worked at Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ), alongside Bernal, and was regarded as a genius by Mountbatten.[1]

Pyke conceived the idea of Habbakuk while in the US organising the production of M29 Weasels for Project Plough, a scheme to assemble an elite unit for winter operations in Norway, Romania, and the Italian Alps.[1] He had been considering the problem of how to protect seaborne landings and Atlantic convoys out of reach of aircraft cover. The problem was that steel and aluminium were in short supply and required for other purposes. Pyke realized that the answer was ice, which could be manufactured for only 1% of the energy needed to make an equivalent mass of steel. He proposed that an iceberg, natural or artificial, be levelled to provide a runway and hollowed out to shelter aircraft. From New York, Pyke sent the proposal he had composed on Habbakuk via diplomatic bag to COHQ with a label forbidding anyone apart from Mountbatten from opening the package. Mountbatten in turn told Churchill about Pyke’s proposal, who was enthusiastic about it.[2]

Pyke was not the first to suggest a floating mid-ocean stopping point for aircraft, nor even the first to suggest that such a floating island could be made of ice: German scientist Dr. Gerke of Waldenberg proposed the idea and carried out some preliminary experiments in Lake Zurich in 1930.[3] The idea was a recurring one: in 1940 an idea for an ice island was circulated round The Admiralty but was treated as a joke by officers, including Nevil Shute, who circulated a memorandum that gathered ever more caustic comments. The document had to be retrieved just before it reached the Sea Lord’s inbox.[4]

above from Wiki

  1. Swann, Brenda; Francis Aprahamian (1999). J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics. Verso. ISBN 1-85984-854-0.
  2. Perutz, Max F. (2002). I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists, and Humanity. Oxford University Press. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-19-859027-X.
  3. “Ice Island in Mid-Atlantic Proposed”. Moder Mechanix. October 1932. Retrieved 18 February 2009. Terrell, Edward, Admiralty Brief: The story of inventions that contributed to victory in the battle of the Atlantic, p. 27. London: Harrap, 1958

Further reading: Perutz, M. F. (1948). “A Description of the Iceberg Aircraft Carrier and the Bearing of the Mechanical Properties of Frozen Wood Pulp upon Some Problems of Glacier Flow”. The Journal of Glaciology 1 (3): 95–104.

I appreciate Antarctica is preserved for peace and science under the Antarctic Treaty (1959) so we can now learn more about the earth’s ecosystem and less about camo aircraft shelters.

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