Imagine a floating island made of ice and sawdust, big enough to launch planes and withstand enemy fire. That was the vision of Geoffrey Pyke, a British inventor who came up with one of the craziest ideas ever to be seriously considered in time of war: Project Habakkuk.
Project Habakkuk was a plan by the British during World War II to construct an aircraft carrier out of pykrete, a frozen composite material made of approximately 14 percent sawdust or some other form of wood pulp and 86 percent ice by weight. Pykrete has some advantages over plain ice, such as being slower to melt, having a higher compressive strength, and being bulletproof.
Pyke was a man who could look at a problem from a completely different angle than anyone else, and he often came up with solutions that were either brilliant or mad, depending on your point of view. He worked for Combined Operations Headquarters, a unit that was responsible for raids on occupied Europe. He had previously proposed a screw-propelled vehicle for winter operations, which was adopted by Canada and the U.S. as the M29 Weasel.
The idea for Project Habakkuk came from Pyke’s concern about the German U-boats that were wreaking havoc on the Allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic. He thought that a conventional aircraft carrier would be too vulnerable and expensive to build, so he suggested a cheaper and more durable alternative: a floating airfield made of ice.
“The idea was to make a floating island, a floating airfield, out of ice, which would be very cheap and very quick to make, and could be stationed anywhere in the Atlantic where it was needed,” said Henry Hemming, author of The Ingenious Mr. Pyke.
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, was enthusiastic about the project and ordered tests and a prototype to be built in Canada. He wrote to the chief of the Admiralty: “The only thing that gave me any hope was the thought that if we could make a floating island, even of enormous size, it would be unsinkable.”
However, the project faced many challenges and obstacles, such as the difficulty of keeping the pykrete from cracking, the need for refrigeration to prevent melting, the lack of suitable materials and machinery, and the resistance from the naval establishment. Louis Mountbatten, the chief of Combined Operations, described it as “one of the craziest ideas ever to be seriously considered in time of war.”
The project was eventually shelved in 1943, due to rising costs, technical difficulties, and the availability of other solutions, such as escort carriers and longer-range aircraft. “The thing that really killed Habakkuk was the fact that the war in the Atlantic turned in the Allies’ favour in the spring of 1943, and the need for something as outlandish as an iceberg aircraft carrier diminished,” said David Hambling, author of Weapons Grade.
Project Habakkuk remains one of the most fascinating and bizarre episodes of World War II, a testament to the ingenuity and eccentricity of Geoffrey Pyke and his ice dream.
– Project Habakkuk: Churchill’s Plan for an Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice, The National Interest, June 9, 2021
– How Winston Churchill came on board Pyke’s ice aircraft carrier, CBC Radio, June 2, 2015
– Pykrete – Wikipedia, Wikipedia, April 6, 2021
– Making An Aircraft Carrier Out of Ice and Sawdust In World War Two, War History Online, September 5, 2017