Britain's Frozen Aircraft Carrier
Last time we covered a pair of interesting aircraft carriers. Now, let's take a look at a British project that was much more ambitious.
In the early 1940s, the war was not going well for Britain. The Germans effectively controlled the Atlantic with their U-boats, which sank any and all ships that they encountered. There were fears that Germany would be able to starve out Britain. The British needed a way to hunt down and destroy these U-boats.
At the time, a British scientist and inventor named Geoffrey Pyke was working in the US. Pyke was overseeing the production of a tracked vehicle named M29 Weasel. The Weasel was designed to supply troops in areas where wheeled vehicles could not go, and was intended to help with efforts to hamper the German nuclear weapons program.
Pyke put his mind to work on the problem of defending British shipping. His solution: an aircraft carrier made out of ice. Pyke chose this material because both steel and aluminum were in short supply in Britain. Pyke also determined that the effort would only require 1% of the energy needed to produce a similar amount of steel. Any damage could be easily repaired by adding some water and letting it freeze.
Pyke's idea was shown to Lord Mountbatten, the head of the Combined Operational Headquarters. Mountbatten liked the idea and passed it onto Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who also liked it and gave the project his approval.
To be fair, this was not the first time that someone had considered using ice to make an island. A German scientist named Dr. Gerke von Waldenburg had come up with the idea in 1930 and had even made some experiments on Lake Zurich. The idea had popped up in 1940, but was not taken seriously by the Royal Navy at the time.
Project Habakkuk is Born
This crazy project was given the code name Habbakuk by its creator. (Pyke misspelled the name of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk.) The name was specifically a reference to Habakkuk, 1:5 "Behold ye among the nations, and see: wonder, and be astonished: for a work is done in your days, which no man will believe when it shall be told."
Pyke's plan called for a carrier that was 600 meters long, almost 100 meters wide with a weight of more than 2,000,000 tons. It was designed to carry 150 fighters and bombers. For reference, no aircraft carrier of the war was longer than 300 meters or wider than 40 meters. The largest aircraft carrier of the war, the Japanese Shinano, was 265.8 meters long, 36.3 meters wide, and displaced 69,151 tons.
I'm sure that for the last few minutes you've been yelling at your screen, "That thing's going to melt as soon as it leaves port. That's insane." Don't worry. Pyke had the situation in hand. His plan called for a network of ducts to pump coolant throughout the ship.
Work Begins on a Prototype
Pyke and his team contacted a molecular biologist named Max Perutz to determine if the project was feasible. Initial plans had started with a natural iceberg and required cutting it into shape. It was decided that ice by itself was not strong enough to build an aircraft carrier. Also, natural icebergs had a tendency to roll or turn over without warning. On top of that, most icebergs would be too small to be a carrier.
That would have been the end of the project if not for the creation of Pykrete. Scientists at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University discovered that adding sawdust to water before freezing it resulted in a product that was both stronger than regular ice and didn't melt as quickly. Government scientists took up the idea and named it Pykrete. The new substance was made out of 14% wood pulp and 86% water. It could be machined like wood and cast into shape like metal.
According to legend, Lord Mountbatten tested the two materials himself at the 1943 Quebec Conference. He took a block of ice and block of Pykrete and fired a pistol at each. The ice block shattered, but the bullet bounced off the block of Pykrete, hit Admiral Ernest King's pant leg and embedded itself in the wall.
With a new material, the first step in the project was to make sure that it would work. To that end, a prototype was built in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, on the shore of Patricia Lake in 1943. The area was also used to train ski paratroopers. The prototype was about 18 meters long and weighed 1,000 tons.
The Project is Cancelled
Immediately, problems began to surface. For one thing, the coolant system was found to be lacking. The materials needed for the project turned out to be problematic. The project was calculated to need 300,000 tons of wood pulp, 35,000 tons of lumber, and about 10,000 tons of steel. At the time, wood was scarce, and the new coolant system was becoming expensive. The project was originally estimated to cost £700,000, but soon ballooned to £2,500,000.
Most importantly, it was becoming very apparent that Project Habakkuk was no longer required. By this time, advances in naval warfare had given the Allies the tools needed to protect their shipping, and the War in Europe was going in their favor. Projections showed that by the time the vessel was completed, the war would be over.
The project was cancelled. The prototype was scuttled and sank to the bottom of Patricia Lake. Today, the only thing that remains of the project are a few pieces of the prototype at the bottom of the lake and a plaque erected at the site.
What Makes this Story Cool?
Ice. Seriously, someone wanted to send an iceberg to war. I'm getting brain freeze just thinking about it.
I think I'm going to stop the ice puns before someone tries to lock me up in Arkham Asylum.
Honestly, the saying is true, necessity is the mother of invention. The only time an idea as crazy as an ice aircraft carrier would even be taken seriously is during a war. History is full of crazy ideas intended to change the course of war. (Some will even be cover here.)
It would be interested to see an entire fleet of Pykrete ships. I'm sure they would not work as advertised, but it's still fun to imagine.
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