“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For
I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told."
So sayeth the prophet Habakkuk
The time is 1943 and World War II is raging. An urgent message is received in January in the National Research Council of Canada. It seems the British want to develop a secret weapon that could bring about an end to the war or at least give them control of the seas in the north. What they had in mind sounded preposterous. You see the Brits, they wanted to make a ship out of ice.
Being a little more familiar with arctic conditions, the Canadians pointed out a flaw in the British idea. Sure, there are plenty of icebergs floating around but as they drifted south they tended to break up or melt.
The ever-resourceful British said they had that base covered. Let’s mix the ice with wood pulp. That will not only strengthen the ice but it will also raise its melting point a few degrees. The substance that resulted from this mixing of ice and wood pulp was called 'Pykrete', after its creator Geoffrey Pyke.
The Canucks then pointed out that an iceberg floats at about 90% below water and 10% above. Therefore, if this ship made of ice was to rise fifty feet out of the water, it couldn't sail in water less than 500 feet. Given those conditions, the ship would not get close enough to enemy ports to be effective.
Not to worry, said the Brits, its not the ports we’re worried about, we want to go after the submarines. They wanted to build ships as large as aircraft carriers, made out of this “Pykrete” and sail them in the north Atlantic. The logic was, with these “iceboats” as bases, patrol planes could stay in the air longer and patrol farther. The frozen ships could also be used as halfway stops when ferrying warplanes from the United States.
Secret work began at Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada. Both Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill were highly supportive of the plan. A miniature aircraft carrier, fifty feet long, was constructed by a team of scientists and carpenters. When summer came and the ice melted, the wood pulp formed a coat which slowed the melting process.
The British thought they were on to something and began plans to build a fleet of these ships. Each one would be 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide and house 2,000 men. The ships would be powered by 26 engines fixed in caves in its hull. Below decks, there would be hangars, workshops, and a refrigeration plant needed to repair the ship if it got damaged.
The problem was the price tag. The cost to build these ships of ice came in at about 70 million dollars per ship. Neither the Brits nor the Canadians could afford it. How ‘bout we ask our friends, the Americans, to take over the project.
They got their chance in late 1943 when the allied leaders held a summit in Quebec City, Canada. Britain's then chief of combined operations, Lord Mountbatten, had two blocks of ice wheeled into their conference room. One block was plain ice and the other was pykrete.
Let me state that from this part of the story on, facts are hard to come by. Some might be true and some might be legend. All in all, it does make for a good story though.
Lord Mountbatten rose and asked the strongest man there, one General Henry Arnold of the United States Air Force, to chop the blocks in half. He then handed him an axe. Arnold split the plain ice with a single blow. But when he swung at the pykrete the axe merely bounced off the substance and the General had what is known as a “stinger” in his arms and hands.
Still not satisfied that he had convinced the Americans, Mountbatten drew a pistol from his pocket and shot at the plain ice and shattered it with one bullet. He then shot at the pykrete and the bullet ricocheted and nicked a senior American admiral.
Alas, this was all too much for the Yanks to comprehend and the project (disappointingly) was cancelled.
What remained of the structure was abandoned and left to sink. In the 1970’s a team of scuba divers discovered the remains and they were subsequently studied by the Archeology Department of the University of Calgary.
In 1988, the Underwater Archeological Society of Alberta marked the site with an underwater monument. The following year, with the assistance of the National Research Council and the National Parks branch a plaque, commemorating Project Habakkuk was erected on the shore of the lake.