Mad science isn’t only the stuff of pulp adventures, steampunk novels and monochromatic horror movies. Sometimes it’s real… or at least as real as budgets allow.
During World War II, British ships were being attacked – and sunk – by German U-boats. Something needed to be done, and some of the best minds of the British empire went to work to solve the problem.
Geoffrey Pyke was one of those minds. Not a scientist, exactly, but certainly an out-of-the-box thinker who had earned a small fortune in the stock market. Some of his patriotic efforts prior to WWII had included attempting unsuccessfully to sneak into Germany to send articles back to UK newspapers; fitting specialized sidecars to motorcycles so as to allow transport of hot food to the front lines and casualties back to medical facilities; and recruiting a team of students to pose as golfers in the pre-war Germany so as to conduct surreptitious polling on the popularity of potential war (the idea was to present Hitler with the poll results showing Germans didn’t want war, and thus keep him from engaging for fear of alienating his citizenry.)
Then World War II broke out, despite Pyke’s innovative anti-war polling effort.
Pyke came to the attention of Churchill and Mountbatten and was recruited to the Combined Operations Command’s think-tank, where he applied his uninhibited mind to problems and issues presented to him. One such was how best to assist a Commando raiding party to destroy the strongly defended Romania oilfields. It was a top secret operation for which Commandos were deployed to nearby Turkey on low profile duties pending orders to strike.
Suggestions from Pyke included; sending in a team of dogs which would howl like wolves causing the guards to flee, sending in a team of dogs with small barrels of brandy hung around their necks, St Bernard-style, so the guards would become drunk; sending in a team of women to [ahem] distract the men and starting a few small fires in the oilfields allowing the Commandos to drive around unchallenged, disguised as Romania firemen in replica fire-engines. Instead of putting out fires, they would stoke then up by spraying them with water containing with fused incendiary bombs.
His most famous innovation, however, was Pykrete and Project Habakkuk. Pyke developed a mixture of wood pulp and ice which, when frozen, was incredibly resistant to damage and was very slow to melt.
The idea was to construct an aircraft carrier out of the Pykrete, effectively having a maneuverable iceberg – only with far greater durability.
Initial testing convinced the dubious, particularly when a bullet fired at close range did minimal damage to a block of Pykrete (although the ricochet reportedly came close to injuring an attending General.) Construction was begun. Years later, a Mythbusters show tested the reported strength of Pykrete and verified the results.
The idea was that Pykrete ships would provide strong protection for transports and also allow for protected troop landings. A prototype was built and it survived a hot Canadian summer. A push was made to create the behemoth ice ships as fast as possible….
…and the invasion of Normandy happened, gaining a foothold into mainland Europe and rendering the immense and costly ice ships unnecessary.
And just so you can see a little bit of what this thing would have looked like, a Youtube clip from the aforementioned Mythbusters episode.
Question of the night: What’s your favorite craft project?