History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 6

So, dear readers, I found this amazing story on the way home from a friend’s house…

And it has absolutely nothing to do with the Renaissance, French architecture, or the Taft administration.  I should really just stop pretending I’m going to give you something ahead of time (I mean, I found some Taft scandals, but this is so much better).

Behold, dear reader, and be amazed, for as it is says in Habakkuk 6:1,  “Behold ye among the heathen [the reader not necessarily included], and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” (King James Version)

This is Project Habakkuk (or Habbakuk, according to some contemporary documents), and it is the story of an aircraft carrier made of water.

Project Habakkuk was conceived from a need for British planes to make anti-U-boat runs in the Atlantic beyond the range of land-based aircraft.  An aircraft carrier at that time was implausible and expensive; the short-supplied aluminum and steel that would have gone into the construction of a new carrier were more desperately needed elsewhere in the war.  Geoffrey Pyke of Combined Operations Headquarters – a British think tank and special operations group dedicated to harassing the Germans – came to the conclusion that ice was an economically-suited material that may be able to cover the convoys and seaborne landings of the North Atlantic.  After all, it took one percent of the energy to produce an equivalent amount of ice than it did steel, and ice floated… right?*  Pyke sent this concept to Lord Mountbatten, the head of the COHQ (who deserves an issue of his own).  Mountbatten, who approved of unorthodox methods and new ideas, sent it straight away to Winston Churchill, who was in turn enthused by the proposal.  Project Habakkuk had begun, its name taken from the verse above, which reads in the New International Version: “Look at the nations and watch- and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

Project Habakkuk hit its first block as a result of its building material: ice.  Pyke had suggested that natural or artificial icebergs be used to carry aircraft, hollowed out and flattened to store, launch and land aircraft.  Because the icebergs would be so large, they could carry conventional aircraft that the standard carrier could not.  The issue with this was that icebergs were seldom large enough for an airstrip, and on top of that they overturned easily; furthermore, ice was not strong enough for conventional aircraft.  Pyke, the ever genius, had a solution.

During his time in America, he had met a chemist by the name of Herman Francis Mark.  Mark himself was Austrian and fled the country after being arrested during the Nazi takeover – yet another example of potential military genius lost to the Nazis as a result of their brutal ideals.  Working at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, an early project of his was the formation of a strong, solid polymer.  While at a meeting in New York regarding the deployment of M29 Weasels in winter operations (the Weasels themselves the results of Pyke’s invention), Pyke met Max Perutz, a former student of Mark’s.  It was Perutz who determined that ice alone was not suitable for the carriers and provided Pyke with Mark’s research on the material. This material was named pykrete in honor of Geoffrey.

block_of_pykrete

Pykrete demonstrates some amazing properties.  Composed of an ideal mixture of 86% water and 14% wood pulp, it can be poured (cast) like a metal, cut and manipulated like wood, and remains solid as concrete.  Being an ice mixture, it can also be maintained with water – even seawater with its higher melting point.  Pykrete is slow to melt compared to regular ice, and the carrier would only begin to experience difficulties at 5 °F/-15 °C.  Past this point, according to Perutz’s research for the Admiralty, pykrete began to slowly sag under its weight (this specific type of deformation is the same as plastic or metal when subject to heat).  Unlike ice, pykrete is also entirely shatterproof.

Mountbatten reportedly went to Churchill’s residence to demonstrate pykrete, only to be told that he was in his bath.  Mountbatten replied, “Good, that’s exactly where I want him to be,” and took the sample to the Prime Minister.  The pykrete was placed in Churchill’s steaming bath (no worries, I presume he exited the bath first) and naturally began to melt… though after the outer layer disappeared, the wood pulp protected the inner layers of ice from melting.

Mountbatten later brought a block of pykrete and equal-sized block of normal ice to the 1943 Quebec Conference – a similar meeting to the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, this was a meeting between the heads of the Canadian, American, and British governments (Stalin declined for military purposes) and where planning for D-Day began.  In front of the highest military and civilian commanders of three countries, he drew his pistol and fired at the ice block, which shattered. He proceeded to fire at the pykrete block, where the bullet ricocheted, grazed Admiral Ernest King’s leg – Navy Chief of Staff and second-senior admiral of the United States – and embedded itself in a wall.  Pykrete was also demonstrated to absorb rifle fire without cracking.

Durable as it was, pykrete have to remain at a temperature of five degrees Fahrenheit in order to survive.  To achieve this, a refrigeration system, complicated ventilation, and insulation for the ship’s surface were to be provided.  The system was proven in Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada, where a 1,000-ton scale model was kept afloat and frozen by a one horsepower engine.  Mountbatten informed his scientific advisor that Churchill “invited” the Chiefs of Staff Committee to make an order for a pykrete ship to be their highest priority, and that if the ship succeeded, that more orders be placed.

Alas, by May 1944 it was decided that current insulation methods were not sufficient for the ship and that more steel supports would be required.  Project Habbakuk’s estimated cost jumped from 700,000 pounds to 2.5 million.  It was determined that  no ship could be completed by late 1944, and furthermore Pyke was removed from the project to secure relations with America: his frequent arguments with the American staff behind the Weasels had already forced him out of that project.  Development of the vessel continued without him, but as outside forces demanded more requirements for Habakkuk to meet, the project became more infeasible.  Mountbatten left the project, and noted that improvements in other sectors, such as larger fuel tanks and permission to use airstrips in Portugal, made the Habakkuk ships obsolete.  It was finally decided that the war was already being won on conventional grounds, and projects such as Habakkuk were a drain of resources.

That said, pykrete remains an incredible phenomena.  The prototype constructed in Canada only fully melted after three summers, and projects such as pykrete ice domes have been constructed.  Pykrete was considered as a building material for a quay in Oslo, but there were concerns regarding reliability and safety.  It was also found by the MythBusters that newspaper-made pykrete was significantly more durable than traditional pykrete.  The show also attempted to create a boat of pykrete, but neglected to add a refrigeration system and was designed with a proportionally thinner hull to the Habakkuk version; for this I consider their “busting” of Habakkuk to be incomplete.  Even despite those omissions, the boat survived for thirty minutes at speeds of twenty-three miles per hour.

Now you know what to take to the science fair.

(And yes, I have extra reading.)
*Pyke’s postwar exploits were similarly reasoned, dealing with logic and forgetting about the people reading them).  He reasoned that as coal and oil were in shortages, but sugar and postwar unemployment were common, that muscle-powered trains were a possibility.  According to his research, a pound of sugar cost the same as the equivalent calories in coal.  This idea was clearly rejected; after a lifetime of rejected inventions and proposals to make the world a brighter place, Geoffrey Pyke fell deeper into depression and took his own life on February 21, 1948.  The world was deprived of an unfortunate genius whose mind was always on the greater good, if not the reactions of the people whom he strove to help.

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