Pyke's other Canadian Folly: Project Habbakuk.
THE M29 WEASELS and their crews, the First Special Service Force (FSSF), were not Geoffrey Pyke's (pictured above) only 'fourth element' folly. Fie also proposed manufacture of the ultimate behemoth, a 600-metre aircraft carrier to provide air cover for North Atlantic convoys. The colossus was to be built of ice carved out of the polar icecap. Although it was never ultimately constructed, the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada secretly built a scale model of the project in the mountains of western Alberta.
In his memoirs Churchill confessed: "the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril." Pyke proposed to solve this crisis for the prime minister. In 1942-43, the convoys' great vulnerability lay in the 'air gap'. In the mid-Atlantic, convoys could only be escorted by surface craft as they were beyond the range of aircraft from both Newfoundland and Ireland. It was in this air gap that U-boats were at their most effective. They were able to cruise on the surface free from observation and attack at will. Pyke concluded that a floating iceberg airfield, home to over 100 Spitfires and Mosquitos, would resolve the problem.
The total impracticability of the proposal quickly killed it--icebergs have a pesky habit of rolling over as they melt. However, the concept lived on and was revived when 'Pykrete' was discovered. Pykrete is a frozen composite material comprised of 86 per cent water and 14 per cent wood pulp. It does not shatter like ice and is stronger than concrete. It also resists melting. The iceberg airfield morphed into a massive, man-made aircraft carrier. Thus was born Project Habbakuk. (The code name is a misspelling of Habakkuk, a minor prophet in the Old Testament.)
Research into the project's feasibility was undertaken in the UK, U.S. and Canada. The president of the NRC, Dr. C.J. Mackenzie, oversaw the Canadian contribution: the construction of a working-scale model of a Pykrete vessel. He brought in the Montreal Engineering Company and together they settled on Patricia Lake, an isolated site in Jasper National Park. The super secret project was disguised as a floating boathouse. Within, a Pykrete vessel measuring 18 metres in length, with a beam of 9 metres and a draft of 6 metres was constructed. A one horsepower motor was adequate to operate the refrigeration system that kept it frozen.
Two factors eventually killed the project. First was the increasing range of aircraft, which closed the air gap. Also, the shift from natural ice to Pykrete made the material requirements and financial costs as bloated as the vessel. The remains of the experiment, still resting on the bottom of Patricia Lake, remain popular with recreational scuba divers.
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|Title Annotation:||Geoffrey Pyke's proposed floating airfield|
|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2015|
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