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Potentially the Biggest Ship in the World

Text by M. Christian ("Meine kleine fabrik" - home for some odd, weird, and wonderful things stumbled across or tripped over: art, history, machines, heroes, movies, music, and more.)

The 2,000-foot long monster "iceberg-ship" - displacement: two million tons!

Art courtesy Dominic Harman

From the mythological specter of the doughboy who can only breathe mustard gas, to the coincidence of the crossword puzzle containing the code words for the Normandy landing, conflict can bring out both the best, and the downright strangest, in human behavior and belief. So much so, that it would take much more than this little slice of cyberspace for me to outline them all: the American kamikaze bats with their still-classified incendiary explosives, the stone-skipping delivery of the British dam-busting bombs, the around-the-corner Nazi submachine gun, Patton's phantom army, and the War Magicians, which is one of my faves: a group of British dance-hall conjurers who put their slight-of-hand talents to work making tanks into trucks, trucks into tanks, everything else into something else, all to trick the Axis.

One of my all-time favorites, though, was the one that just, almost, nearly happened:

Massive white slabs of steaming ice, churning through the sea, carrying hundreds of aircrafts

(images credit: History Channel)

But before I reveal this glorious monument to inventive mania, a little about its inventor.

Geoffrey Pyke - An Eccentric, Quirky Inventor

Like many British eccentrics, Geoffrey Pyke at first appears normal when viewed through Who's Who, but a closer examination always starts the head shaking. Not to say that Pyke didn't give his all and then some to the war effort - not at all. But it also would be incorrect to say that what Pyke did give could be called, at best, quirky - and, at best, bizarre.

(image credit: hrvatski-vojnik.hr)

Apprehended trying to sneak into Berlin during the first World War, Pyke was sentenced to a prison camp. By noting that sunlight momentarily blinded his guards every day at one certain location, Pyke managed to escape, becoming something of a celebrity by accounting his daring escapades after the war.

Assigned to the War Office during the second great conflict, Pyke threw himself into devising all kinds of clever (and even often practical) means of aiding the war effort. Stretcher-carrying sidecars for motorcycles? That was Pyke. Pedal-powered shunt cars for railway yards? Pyke. Marking a special motorized cart British commandos were to use with "Officer's Latrine" in German on them -- so the Nazi's would leave it well alone? You guessed it ... Geoffrey Pyke. Disguising British agents as avid golfers, and then sending them all throughout Germany to secretly gather signatures on a poll to convince Hitler that his people didn't want to go to war? You guessed it. Like I said, quirky at best.

The Problem: Counter the German Submarine Fleet

But the concept that propelled Pyke from simple, fascinating, oddity to the military limits of the delightfully absurd was the one he hit on while pondering one of the great problems of the Second World War: that allied shipping was being literally cut to pieces by the merciless, and precise, German submarine fleet. Even Kaiser with his smooth assembly line of cheap shipping couldn't compete with the appetites of the Wolf Packs. What was needed, Pyke considered, was some kind of strong military presence, a way of providing air cover for the desperately-needed merchant ships.

But there were a lot of Liberty Ships, far too many to cover with even a token fleet. Not only did those transport need protection, but they needed cheap and easy protection, something simple to assemble, able to carry long-range aircraft, and not so expensive as to draw valuable resources from the battle fronts.

It would be easy to imagine Pyke sipping something cool when inspiration struck. But what really causes the head to shake is to remember that Pyke was a great British eccentric, and Brits (as anyone who has visited the UK can attest) are completely alien to anything tall, cool, and – especially - frosty.

Maybe it was watching winter slabs majestically move down the Thames, or pale masses of crystals sluice down a gutter, but whatever the inspiration, Pyke had his vision. But before it could be put into anything even close to reality, Pyke had to solve one fundamental problem: ice melts.

Icebergs that look like Navy ships/ aircraft carriers:

(original unknown)

(image credit: Heritage Expeditions)

A marvelous, gloriously absurd vision:
iceberg battleship/aircraft carriers

Pyke's vision was a marvelous, gloriously absurd one: 300 feet wide, 2,000 long mid-Atlantic runways. Displacing 1,800,000 tons of water (26 times the Queen Elizabeth), they would carry aircraft, munitions, crew, and - naturally - a refrigeration system that would guarantee that their 50 foot walls wouldn't fall to their greatest enemy (even more than Germany): heat.

These iceberg battleship/aircraft carriers would have been the stuff of nightmares: massive white slabs of steaming ice, churning through the sea, a flurry of aircraft and support ships darting around their bulk. The Germans, my guess, would quake in fear more from the audacity and insanity of their concept than any weapons they could carry.

(image credit: kirchersociety.org)

Strange Dream of a Frozen Navy:
Project Habbakuk

But these tamed bergs wouldn't just depend on their mass and aircraft to defeat the German hordes. No sir, these were fightin' icebergs! Pyke envisioned a special system mated to the refrigeration equipment so the bergs could spray out supercold water, literally freezing enemy forces in their tracks. Code named Habbakuk after a character in the Bible known for saying: "Cast your eyes over the nations and be amazed, astounded. For I am doing something in your own days that you would not believe if you were told it" (Hab 1:5)

"The Habbakuk" size comparisons:
- with normal ships:

- with the Statue of Liberty:

But there was that big stumbling block to Pyke's incredible plans: his terrifying, freezing giants of the sea would turn to mid-Atlantic slush before ever encountering the Germans. The humiliation alone of having to scream for help as your ship literally melted around you was more than any sailor should ever bear. So, how to make nature act ... unnaturally?

New Bizarre Material - Pykrete

The answer actually came from Max Perutz, who named it after Pyke: take 14% sawdust and 86% water, freeze, and viola: a bizarre material you can saw like wood and won’t melt. Well, okay, it actually will melt, but just a helleva lot slower than regular ice.

Pyke was so excited by this frosty invention that he showed the stuff to Lord Mountbatten, who was so similarly afflicted that he rushed into Winston Churchill's bathroom and in a scene too close to Monty Python to be anything but real, dropped a block of the stuff in the PM's bath water. Maybe it was the audacity, the lunacy, of the idea, or some unknown properties of Pykrete, but Churchill caught the bug: Pyke and his iceberg navy got the go-ahead.

(image credit: combinedfleet)

Building the Monster

A site was found, a secret boat-house on Patricia Lake in Jasper, Alberta, Canada, and a small-size test was organized. Pyke was ecstatic as his materials were assembled into a model of his cold revelation. As a testament to either Pyke's brilliance or the twisted humor of the universe, the ice ship was a complete success: in other words, it didn't melt all through a hot summer.

(images credit: stormy.ca)

The first layer of the ice blocks are in place. The corner pipes are being installed:

The second layer of Pykrete blocks are laid and the vertical coolant pipes are in place:

(images credit: National Archives)

Alas, the landings at Normandy made the ice ships unnecessary. It's easy to imagine Pyke, face beaming in joy, standing on the frigid deck of his dream ship, envisioning its monstrous kin rolling through surging seas, throwing cascades of freezing death at the German Navy, just as somewhere else in the world the war was turning away from needing their frightening, protective presence.

As to what Pyke did after the war, it's hard for me to say: his strange dream of a frozen navy lasting longer than anything else he contributed. But one thing I can guarantee: Pyke could never see the onset of winter without thinking of his great ships, and the battles they might have won.

See this video for more pictures and historical "Ship of Ice" coverage:


Another "History Channel" coverage is here (second part of the video)

Another Aircraft Carrier on Steroids: The Seadrome

It was supposed to be an airplane stop in the middle of the Atlantic - a titanic aircraft carrier 1,100 feet long, 340 feet wide at the middle. The original plan from 1930 required eight such bases to be built, spread across the ocean:

Of course such stopping points for Transatlantic flights were made obsolete by the emergence of long-range airplanes.

The model of the Seadrome built at 1/32" scale and tested at Chesapeake Bay:

Source: December 1930 edition of "The American Architect", EnigmaFoundry


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Category: Boats,Military
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

the iceship would be unstopable even today

Anonymous smokes said...

Mixing sawdust with the ice was not to slow down its melting, it was to make the ice stronger. A normal block of ice disintegrates when hit by a bullet, but when mixed with sawdust ice is nearly as strong as steel and the bullets just bounce off. You could imagine the damage caused by a torpedo on a lump of ordinary ice that big.

Blogger Paul said...

Related to what Smokes said, the version of the Mountbatten story that I remember reading was that he wanted to demonstrate the strength of Pykrete to a group of skeptical Royal Navy officers, so he pulled out his pistol and shot at a slab of it. The bullet ricocheted around the room and hit an officer in the leg.

Don't know if either or both of those tales are apocryphal, but they both sound in character!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many years ago, I was traveling with friends and stopped to check out a frozen lake (unfamiliar to us from Southern California). We drove out on the ice, and in a fit of perverse genius, decided to test the thickness of the ice by firing a .44 magnum into it, straight down. The ferocious blast of the "world's most powerful handgun" (at the time)left an insignificant little crater in the ice- after the 2nd round we finally saw what was happening: when we fired into the ice, the bullet would bounce straight into the air (about 6 feet) and then land, still spinning rapidly, but completely undamaged. We gave up after 5 or 6 rounds- we were getting nowhere. Sawdust was not necessary for this result.

Blogger Pete said...

Geoffrey Pyke? Or....Gordon Freeman?

"Gordon Freeman, in the flesh - or, rather, in the hazard suit. I took the liberty of relieving you of your weapons. Most of them were government property." --The G-Man

Anonymous SMEG HEAD said...

the ice ship is a brilliant idea. absolutely brilliant. the simplest ideas are often the most clever. that would even make a cheap alternative for shipping or personal boating.

OpenID stickmaker said...

The Gerald Pawle (SP?) book _The Secret War_ details the efforts of the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development during WWII. Habbakuk was only one of the projects he writes about.

Some others are The Great Panjandrum, intended to clear obstacles during the Normandy invasion; anti-aircraft flame throwers; and aerial mines.

Though long out of print, this is very much worth looking for in used book stores and eBay.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

wow, guys... thanks for all the info

Anonymous Jelmer said...

Mr Anonymous, you *shot* the ice? And after seeing the bullets bounce off the ice, you continued to shoot at it? That's... Well, a darwin award in the making, isn't it?

I'm going to try mixing sawdust with ice, though. Sounds very interesting!

Anonymous jhonny_paradox said...

"Geoffrey Pyke? Or....Gordon Freeman?

"Gordon Freeman, in the flesh - or, rather, in the hazard suit. I took the liberty of relieving you of your weapons. Most of them were government property." --The G-Man"

Or Dr.House!? :O

Blogger Brian Davis said...

I teach a class an undergraduate class in biophysics, and near the end of the term was always start discussing composite materials... with "Pykrete" as one of the in-class demo. Actually we do it outside, but it's instructive to make two identical pieces of material, one from pure water ice and one from pykrete, and then take turns trying to smash them with hammers. The pykrete is remarkable stuff... and yes, it melts significantly slower as well.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the problem is the amount of sawdust neaded, and all the pipe for the cooling system

Anonymous Cambias said...

The "Seadrome" concept inspired at least one science fiction film. "F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht" was a black and white "technothriller" about a floating airport in the Atlantic, filmed in 1933. It was written by Curt Siodmak, who later went to Hollywood and wrote "The Wolf Man."

Blogger Michael Lonergan said...

I'm trying to picture the sailors slipping and falling all over the place as they walk on the ice deck.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

<< jhonny_paradox said...
Paul said...
"Geoffrey Pyke? Or....Gordon Freeman?

"Gordon Freeman, in the flesh - or, rather, in the hazard suit. I took the liberty of relieving you of your weapons. Most of them were government property." --The G-Man"

Or Dr.House!? :O

Why, obviously, the good Mr Pyke was the (great-)grandfather of one, or both of those men.

A brilliant and wonderful ship, a titanic variation of which should by all rights be a British Superweapon in some RTS.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That would be a very cold weapon platform manned by brave men with shrink-ed nuts.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Large portions of this post is stolen word for word from the uncle john's bathroom reader series. The rest of it appears original however and very informative. Just do a little more of your own work next time please.

Anonymous M. Christian said...

Thank you very much for your comment but you might want to do some research before making any accusations: both this Dark Roasted Blend post and the article in Uncle John's Bathroom reader were written by M.Christian, who originally wrote the piece for a now-defunct site. So they are not copied but instead the same article.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The HMCS Habbakuk would have been a really cool ship to have served on. Guaranteed to not get hot inside due to the needed A/C! Keep in mind that it was only about 30 years after the Titanic disaster and attempts were made to sink icebergs before Geoffrey Pyke dreamed up this deathstar of a ship. If we Yanks were to build one, it probably would be named USS Deathstar. Dictators everywhere would have nightmares of this gem pulling up and parking just off their beach.

Blogger SittingMooseShaman said...

...Has anyone ever, at the least, built a trawler or barge out of this material? It would seem, that when properly insulated and sheathed in stainless reinforcement up front... It'd cut/crush through ice in Antarctica/Arctic rather nicely...and last a long time too!


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