Saturday, January 2, 2010

Holy Ice, Batman!




(The iceberg pictured above is suspected to be the one that sank the Titanic. It was photographed near the sinking the following day, with metal scrapes and a line of red ship's paint on it).

Today I'm going to write about something non-medical, and indulge my interest in maritime history. I'm going to tell you a very strange story. And it's entirely true.

To set the background: In 1941-1943, the Axis U-boats dominated the Atlantic, and the Allies were looking for an answer. The airplane was an effective anti-submarine weapon, but the logistics of using planes in the Atlantic were daunting. Aircraft carriers were urgently needed in the Pacific and Mediterranean. Land based planes' range was limited, and could only cover portions of the Atlantic. So there existed a "black gap" in mid-ocean, where the U-boats could roam at will.

So the naval staff of Britain came up with a remarkable idea, which was named Project Habakkuk: to build a gigantic aircraft carrier out of ice. And, as crazy as it sounds, it may have worked.

Normal ice shatters, and melts. A British engineer, Geoffrey Pyke, developed a mixture of ice and wood pulp called Pykrete. The new material was surprisingly resistant to blunt force. As temperatures rose, the wood pulp formed a fuzzy coating over the ice, insulating it from further melting. Experiments on Pykrete were conducted in top secret, in a refrigerated meat locker beneath Smithfield meat market in London. Frozen animal carcasses were used to hide the research areas.

The size of these ships would have been remarkable. The initial design was for a floating airfield 5000 feet (1524 m) long, 2000 feet (610 m) wide, and 100 feet (30 m) high. Later designs were shortened to 2000 feet long. They would have a displacement of 1-2 million tons. By comparison, the huge aircraft carriers in use today by the U.S. Navy are just under 1100 feet long and weigh 101,000 tons.

They could handle the biggest planes of the era, and carry enough food and fuel to resupply them for months. They had externally mounted power plants capable of propelling them at 6 knots, and would act as floating airfields in the North Atlantic. They were cheaper, and could be built much faster, then a conventional carrier, and had an estimated lifespan of 6-18 months (likely longer, as it turned out).

To see if the idea would work, a 60 foot scale model was built at Patricia Lake, in Canada, over the winter of 1942-1943. To preserve secrecy, the Pykrete blocks were made at Lake Louise, and moved to Patricia for assembly. And it worked quite well. In Summer the wood pulp covered the ice and slowed the rate of melting. Auxiliary cooling equipment was developed that could be carried outside the hull.

Churchill thought quite highly of the idea. The ships would be built in Canada, and to this end the Canadians began assembling enough ice and wood pulp to begin construction.

More and more technical problems, however, came up, and by the time they were sorted out the tide had started to turn against the Axis. The Liberty ships were being built faster than U-boats could sink them. The Allies had developed small, relatively cheap, escort aircraft carriers, which were now providing air coverage to Atlantic convoys. Long range patrol bombers had improved. And so one of the most remarkable ideas in naval history was quietly shelved.

The model built at Patricia Lake took 3 years to melt, showing that Pykrete was quite durable. It was allowed to sink into the lake.

And there, at the bottom of Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada, lie the remains of Habakkuk. The test ship's frame, with a small motor and refrigeration plant, are now visited by scuba divers. Jasper National Park receives many visitors every year, most unaware that at the bottom of a small, serene, lake is all that's left of this remarkable idea.

And that's my story. I hope you guys enjoyed it, as I know it's a bit different from my usual. For those of you who share my interest in maritime history, I've previously written about the steamship Portland.

23 comments:

The Tatiotos Man said...

Didn't the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park also have something to do with the Allies' improved ability to defeat the U-boats?

Glad to see there are other Geoffrey Pike fans out there. Interesting true fact: he used to keep bottles in his study so he wouldn't have to interrupt his thinking with bathroom breaks.

Harry said...

The Mythbusters TV show took this on and made a boat that lasted a while and then began to fall apart as well.

Cheryl said...

What a brilliant idea, it is too bad never was used. Aren't ships amazing?

DreamingTree said...

Good timing with this post. I had just watched "Into the Storm" last night. In the movie, Churchill mentions the "icebergs." I wondered what came of the idea, but forgot about it until reading your blog this morning.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Tatiotos Man- breaking of Enigma, improved radar & sonar, Hedgehog & Squid, mining of the Lorient bases, many factors.

Doris said...

http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/wood-pulp-power.html

Above is a clip from MythBusters when they tested the Pykrete boat.

>:)

was1 said...

just as i started reading your blog today, 'wreck of the edmund fitzgerald' started playing on my itunes. cool and creepy at the same time.

Cogitator said...

I wouldn't say I have an special interest in maritime history, but it is a fascinating story.

Thanks for the great posts during the year.
Mark

Mark p.s.2 said...

Good story.

Frantic Pharmacist said...

Wow that is interesting. Never heard the story before...

Sunflower RN said...

If you haven't seen it yet, this blog is right up your alley.

http://www.oldsaltblog.com/

Cheers,

The Mother said...

I didn't know any of that. Very cool!

wondering said...

Way too many Canadian military research projects end up sunk at the bottom of a lake.

(see also: Avro Arrow)

chuckr44 said...

Thanks for the post. I especially like WW2 history. I think I have watched every documentary on WW2 there is and this "ice ship" was never mentioned once. My grandfather was in the Coast Guard and fought at the Battle of Midway. I didn't even know the CG left the states during the war! But their ships were used mostly as transports.

thegooddrlaura said...

That was really cool. Thanks for that fascinating bit of history. Based on the comment by Dreaming Tree, I'll put "Into The Storm" into my Netflix queue.

student dr. blaze said...

very cool! (both literally & figuratively! ;-) )

j said...

It blows my mind that could be THE iceberg.

ERP said...

Very Interesting. I subscribe to Naval History Magazine (being an armchair sailor/military history buff myself) and have never read anything about it. Sounds like it would make a great article.

Horace S. Patoot said...

I'd like to acknowledge the contribution of Max Perutz, a developer and the namer of pykrete who weathered the war as a refugee working on this project. He later went on to earn the Nobel Prize for working out the crystal structure of hemoglobin.

http://www.goodeveca.net/CFGoodeve/bergship.html

Wayne Conrad said...

Pyle was one of those people so smart that he'd forget to bath. One of his crazy ideas ended becoming the Special Forces, but German soldiers called them The Devil's Brigade.

wrin said...

I'm from Alberta, and I had no clue.

I'm a visit that lake.

I concocted Clark Kent's Lunchbox said...

One of my own fascinations is the out-of-the box innovations of WW2. Churchill really lead the charge on these types of initiatives. He once commissioned a scheme to trick the Germans into believing they were bombing Alexandria Egypt when the actual city was miles away.

This is great story. Never heard it before now. Thanks.

Piglet said...

I listened to a dramatization of Geoffrey Pyke's life and the reception his ideas received by some, although not all, members of the 'top-brass'. The man's almost freakishly brilliant ideas always seemed to be designed to achieve a profoundly practical outcome.

For example, ( and I don't konw whether anyone else has mentioned this, if so, please excuse my repeating this story), it was said that Pyke suggested tunneling and creating underground shelter in the chalk hills of Kent and Sussex. In this way, thousands of people could be evacuated from London, and since chalk is easily mined, it would not take long to do the job.
Anyway, the program was aired on BBC Radio 7 in May.

I like your page.

 
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