Military history is filled with strange ideas, which are often created out of extreme necessity. Sometimes they work, such as Hannibal’s ruse of tying torches to the horns of cattle, in order to mislead the Roman army regarding the direction his forces were moving. More often they fail. Still, of all the strange, mad ideas in military history, none was ever so odd as Project Habbakuk. During World War Two, the survival of Britain depended upon victory in the Battle of the Atlantic. An island nation, Britain could not obtain the raw materials and food that it needed to survive if it could not defeat German submarines. As the sea battle moved to a moment of crisis, a strange man of questionable genius named Geoffrey Pyke conceived the idea of building warships out of ice. As bizarre as the idea sounded, a memo on the idea was brought to Churchill in December 1942. He loved the concept and and ordered that research on the project move forward.
It soon became clear that ice was an unsuitable building material. Fortunately, scientists soon learned that by mixing wood pulp with ice an incredibly strong material could be created, which would also resist melting. The plan was to create an immense aircraft carrier, many times larger than any other in existence, out of this new material. According to L.D. Cross (Code Name Habbakuk, p. 52) it would have reached two million tons, and have stretched more than the length of two football fields. Its sheer mass would have helped –at least in theory– to make the ship unsinkable. The work of of designing and building the ship was given to Canada, although Canadian Prime Minister McKenzie King thought, as revealed in his famous diaries, that this was “another of those mad, wild schemes (that started) with a couple of crazy men in England” (L.D. Cross, Code Name Habbakuk, 63). Nonetheless, the government decided to build a small prototype on Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada. Of course, in practice the idea was impossibly complex, and by 1943 Britain had nearly won the Battle of the Atlantic. The project was finally abandoned in December 1943.
if you are curious to learn more about Project Habbakuk, I strongly recommend L.D. Cross’s work: Code Name Habbakuk: A Secret Ship Made of Ice. The book is brief (about 130 pages) but well-written and filled with period photographs, including of the work on the ice-ship prototype at Patricia Lake. Although carefully-researched, this is not an academic study but rather a book for a popular audience, written as part of Heritage House’s “Amazing Stories” series.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Heritage House recently published my own book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History this November. In Canada, you can now purchase the print from my publisher Heritage House, or Amazon.ca here. The print version of the book is forthcoming in the United States and Europe this April. But it is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play Books, Nook, Kobo and iBooks.
Can you think of another military technology that was equally strange? if so, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. The only possible competitor that I can imagine was Project Ice Worm, a U.S. proposal during the Cold War to build a network of mobile missile launchers beneath the Greenland ice cap. Much as with Project Habbakuk, initial work moved forward, only for the whole enterprise to be abandoned in 1966 after engineers realized the many flaws in the initial plan. At a time when competition over the Arctic seems to be heating up, it’s worth remembering that something about ice and the Arctic seems to create strange military ideas. Fortunately, the Antarctic treaty has banned military forces from Antarctica since 1959. Otherwise, one can only imagine the bizarre projects that frozen continent might have inspired.
Of course, the idea of using ice to build the unexpected did not end with creating a ship. Check out this Canadian tire commercial (to advertise a car battery that works in the cold) in which they built a truck out of ice. Really. And of course many people have heard of the Ice Hotel in Sweden.
Finally, if you would like to read about another strange incident in Canadian history, please read my post about the ghost ship called the Baltimore.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University