Project Habakkuk: Britain’s Secret Ship Made of Ice

 Desperate times demand desperate measures, and no time in history was as desperate as the most powerful nations in the world determined to destroy each other. It was the time of World War II, and the Allies were running out of the necessary resources needed to manufacture military and naval equipment. One of them was steel.

In the North Atlantic, the British fleet was pounding against German U-boats. Allied supply ships were being intercepted by German U-boats on their way to sea and sunk at an alarming rate. Aircraft could protect ships, but they could not be deployed in the middle of the ocean without aircraft carriers, and those things were massive and required enormous amounts of steel to manufacture, which were in short supply. . What was needed was a way to land and refuel without overtaxing the aircraft's already strained resources.

A British scientist named Geoffrey Pyke, who worked as an advisor to Chief Lord Mountbatten at Joint Operations Headquarters, came up with a brilliant idea: to build an aircraft carrier out of ice. Ice is hard, they don't sink, and any damage can be easily repaired by freezing new pieces of ice in place.

Pyke, who had a penchant for outlandish views, suggested that a large piece of Arctic iceberg be cut up and carried into the sea. With its surface level, the ice would serve as a landing platform, and if they could hollow out the center, this shelter would provide an ideal location for aircraft.

Somehow, Pyke managed to sell the idea to Lord Mountbatten, who was able to convince Winston Churchill that the war could be won by ice. Churchill let go and the project was named "Project Habakkuk", in reference to a verse from the biblical book of Habakkuk: "... You won't believe it, even if you've been told." (Habakkuk 1:5, NIV)

The aircraft carrier that Pyke envisioned was 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and weighed more than 2 million tons. This torpedo-proof hull would be 40 feet thick. It was to be equipped with 40 double-barreled turrets and several light anti-aircraft guns. The airstrip can accommodate 150 twin-engined bombers or fighters. There was one big problem: ice melts, but Geoffrey Pyke had a solution. A massive cooling system consisting of an intricate network of pipes would pump cold refrigerants throughout the ship to keep the ice from melting.

A 60-foot-tall, 1,000-ton prototype was soon built on Patricia Lake in the Canadian Rockies. A one-horsepower refrigeration system kept the ship cool enough to last through the summer months.

During the tests, some new problems emerged. Although ice is hard, it is brittle. In addition, the ice deforms under pressure, and a ship as large as Habakkuk collapses under its own weight. By a happy coincidence, two researchers from the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, New York made a breakthrough. They found that if a wood pump or sawdust mixed with water was frozen, the resulting material was fourteen times stronger than regular ice and harder than concrete. Experiments showed that this new material was highly resistant to compression, chipping, and even bullets. It can be machined like wood and molded into metal-like shapes, and when immersed in water, an insulating shell of wet wood pulp forms on its surface that protects its interior from further melting. Is. This wonderful material was named pycrate in honor of Pyke.

The story goes that Churchill was bathing at his home one day in late 1942, when an excited Lord Mountbatten broke into his bathroom and dropped a portion of Pycrate into the tub. For the next several minutes, the two stared in amazement as the ice was refusing to melt into the warm water.

Another anecdote involving Lord Mountbatten's spirited performance, which has been repeated by many witnesses, occurred during the Quebec Convention in 1943. For the convention, Lord Mountbatten brought two blocks, one made of ice and the other of pycrate, and kept them both. field. Then without warning, he took out his pistol and shot at the snowflake, shattering it. Then he turned his gun towards Pycrate and opened fire. This time the bullet came out of the block and rounded the observers' legs like an angry bee. The bullet hit the leg of Admiral Ernest King's trousers and went into the wall.

Geoffrey Pike needed absolutely miraculous ingredients for the success of Project Habakkuk. The designs and plans were put forward for the construction of the aircraft carrier. It was determined that each Habakkuk ship would require 300,000 tons of wood pulp, 25,000 tons of fiberboard insulation, 35,000 tons of wood and 10,000 tons of steel. The original cost was estimated at £700,000.

But as the design progressed, it became clear that more steel reinforcement as well as more effective insulation would be needed, and the cost estimate rose to £2.5 million (over £100 million in today's money). Steering also posed some problems. Such a large ship would have limited maneuverability and a top speed of just 6 knots, which the Navy determined was too slow.

But the biggest problem was the raw material itself. Like steel, wood was also in short supply, and the construction of a habakkuk would also have severely affected paper production. Also the complexity of building, insulating and refrigerating such a large structure would require time and manpower that no Allied nation could afford.

Eventually, Project Habakkuk was scrapped and more practical steps were taken such as establishing an airfield in the Azores, which facilitated the hunting of U-boats in the Atlantic, large fuel tanks in British aircraft to increase patrol time over the Atlantic. added, and an increasing number of maintenance carriers.

Today, the only tangible remains of Project Habakkuk lie at the bottom of Lake Patricia in Alberta, Canada, where the prototype was tested. A diving expedition to the site in 1985 found the wooden walls of the hull, an incredible rumble of cold air ductwork, as well as a large amount of bitumen used as part of the insulation, and an underwater remembrance of the project. The plaque was found.

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