Britons in their late 30s and older will almost certainly be familiar with scientist Magnus Pyke who appeared on “Don’t ask me” in the 70s. He definitely had the air of the mad scientist but he was always entertaining. On the other hand he did suggest using surplus human blood in black puddings during WWII. While the vampire community would be happy, I doubt it would have been a big seller, somehow...
Magnus Pyke had a first cousin Geoffrey Pyke who was very much in the same mad scientist mould. If one of his ideas during WWII had come to fruition then the Royal Navy would have had an aircraft carrier that would have dwarfed any vessel ever afloat.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the one German offensive of WWII that could have brought Britain to its knees. By 1942 Allied forces were losing an enormous amount of merchant shipping to U boats. In part this was due to inadequate air cover in the mid-Atlantic. A large part of the mid-Atlantic was beyond the range of land based aircraft and aircraft carriers were in short supply. Plans for an Allied invasion of Europe were also underway and it was felt that large floating platforms were needed to assist the assault forces.
Lord Louis Mountbatten was Chief of Combined Operations and part of the work of this department was to develop technology and equipment for offensive operations. He encouraged scientists to produce their ideas, however fantastical they might seem. Many ideas did not get past the drawing stage, but others were taken up and experimented with before being abandoned. One of these was the iceberg aircraft carrier which had been supported, Mountbatten and Churchill.
HMS Habbakuk (a misspelling of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk who said “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told to you.”) was the brainchild of Geoffrey Pyke. His idea was that because ice was unsinkable, an iceberg vessel could be impervious to bomb and torpedo attacks. Repairs would be – just pour water into any holes and freeze it. Habbakuk and its sister ships could be up to 4000 feet long, 600 feet wide and 130 feet in depth and to carry up to 150 twin engine bombers or fighter aircraft.
The idea was taken up by Mountbatten and in December 1942, Churchill was convinced that the idea was worth pursuing. One problem had to be overcome. Ice split too easily. Exiled Austrian scientist Max Perutz had invented a composite material Pykrete which consisted of ice with 14% sawdust and was stronger that concrete. Plans were drawn up for a vessel with the dimensions of 2000 feet long with a displacement of 1,800,000 dead weight tons.
A model was built on Patricia Lake, Jaspar in Canada but because of the huge quantities of steel even an ice vessel would need it was essential that the Americans were brought on board. Mountbatten took a block of Pykecrete to the 1943 Quebec Conference to demonstrate its strength. He fired a revolver into a block of ice which, predictably, shattered. He then fired into a block of Pykecrete. The bullet did not penetrate the block; rather it ricocheted off the ice, and grazed the leg of Admiral King, the American Chief of Naval Operations.
The Americans were not convinced about the project. They felt that technical problems would delay the use of ice ships until 1945 by when the conventional carrier fleet would be large enough to make the need for ice aircraft carriers obsolete. Churchill also gave up on the project when he realised that the carriers would cost over £6m.
The model in Patricia Lake was “scuttled” in 1943 by removing all the machinery that had been used and leaving it to sink in place. In the 1970’s remains of the model were found and studied and in 1989, a plaque to commemorate the unusual ship was placed on the lake’s shore.
Geoffrey Pyke committed suicide in 1948.