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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Ship History: On Ice

It’s World War II and Great Britain is again under attack by the Germans. Dependent on supplies from North America, the British are trying to find ways to defeat the submarine menace that is interdicting ships carrying food and material from the United States and Canada. There are insufficient numbers of escort ships for convoys and none of the current aircraft have the range to provide air coverage on the entire length of the convoy routes. The British, as discussed in an earlier Sunday Ship History post, developed merchant ship “carriers” in which certain types of ships were fitted with flight deck or catapults and carried planes to defend the merchant convoys. In their desperate hours, the collective British imagination was applied to find a way to close the air gap and provide protection for the vital shipping. Out of the fevered mind of a odd gentleman named Pyke came a stunning proposal for a huge, unsinkable floating airfield to be constructed largely out of – ice. Not just ordinary ice – the genius of Pyke’s plan was a new invention – “Pykrete” – a mixture of ice and wood pulp that made the ice stronger and better insulated. Pykrete was not the invention of Pyke, but rather seems to have been developed by scientists working with him. Pyke was able to get an powerful sponsor for his ice air station idea – Lord Louis Montbatten. Montbatten took the idea to Prime Minister Churchill (allegedly while Churchill was bathing) and then allegedly made a dramatic presentation to Admiral King, head of the U.S. Navy during which Montbatten shot at a brick of regular ice and at a brick of Pykrete. Supposedly, a bullet shattered the ice, but another bounced off the Pykrete and then grazed King who was thus convinced to throw American support behind the concept of an aircraft carrier made of Pykrete. These stories, like much information about Pykrete and the ice aircraft carrier may be exaggerated. On the other hand, there was enough interest in such a “ship” that plans were drawn up for a 2000 foot long, 2,000,000 ton displacement floating air base capable of carrying up to 150 aircraft and thousands of men. The project was named “Habbakuk.” The named is derived from the biblical prophet by that name who proclaimed, “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.” The plans called for the ice vessel to have limited mobility (really, it was really not meant to be an escort ship, but rather a semi-permanent presence out in the middle of the North Atlantic somewhat like an island airfield except the island could be placed where needed). A “proof of concept” top secret construction project was carried out on Lake Patricia in Alberta. A group of conscientious objectors was gathered to build a 1/50 scale model disguised as a boat house (the COs were not told what the purpose of the project was). By the time the test was completed, the war had move beyond the need for such an idea:
In the end, the Habbakuk was never built anyway. Land-based aircraft were attaining longer ranges, U-boats were being hunted down faster than they could be built, and the US was gaining numerous island footholds in the Pacific — all contributing to a reduced need for a vast, floating airfield. And deep within the newly built Pentagon was the knowledge that America already had a secret weapon in development to be used against Japan — an end to the war that would be brought about not by ice but by fire.
It was a wild idea and would have been wildly expensive to complete, but it had potential. Service on such a vessel would have provided interesting tales for your grandchildren. As it is, the concept still provides some good conversation on a cold winter’s night around the fireplace. < Good diving videos of the remnants of the test project in Lake Patricia near Jasper, Alberta at Shipwreck See also here.

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