Nazi U-boats were the scourge of the North Atlantic during the Second World War.
Canada and the United States might have thrown their industrial muscle behind the European campaign, but supply ships were regularly knocked out by German torpedoes. Hundreds of seamen lost their lives to U-boats lurking below the ocean surface in “wolf packs.”
Enter British inventor Geoffrey Pyke.
In the fall of 1942, Pyke had developed a material made from a mixture of ice and wood chips. Called “pykrete,” the substance not only floated, but stayed frozen at warm temperatures for a longer period than regular ice. It also repelled bullets.
Why not, Pyke reasoned, build a pykrete aircraft carrier that could be used to protect Allied convoys? Or better yet, a fleet of indestructible war ships?
The idea would probably have been dismissed at another time, but the British were desperate to protect Allied shipping and get soldiers and equipment safely to England.
Lord Mountbatten, British Chief of Combined Operations during the war, was also intrigued by the concept and threw his considerable influence behind the project. That included convincing a skeptical Prime Minister Winston Churchill to take a small sample of pykrete into his bath.
The next step was to build a “bergship” prototype. That is when Chalmers Jack Mackenzie entered the picture.
Mackenzie had served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War before being named the first dean of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.
Two of his most famous projects in the province, both built during the Great Depression, were the Broadway Bridge in Saskatoon and the now closed Borden Bridge across the North Saskatchewan River.
Mackenzie left the university in 1939 to become acting president of the National Research Council. And one of the wartime projects that came across his desk in late 1942 was the request to build the bergship aircraft carrier.
Mackenzie privately scoffed at the proposal. But however “mad” or “wild” he found the scheme, it had the official endorsement of the British government, and by extension, the support of Canada’s wartime leaders, too.
Preliminary research on the “Habbakuk” project (code-named after a misspelling of the book Habakkuk in the Old Testament) began at the universities of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. It was also decided to make Corner Brook, Newfoundland, the home for the proposed fleet of ships.
The real challenge, though, was to put theory into practice and construct an actual bergship. That was secretly done at secluded Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park, starting in February 1943.
A group of conscientious objectors, who were stationed in the park in lieu of military service, spent several weeks placing large ice blocks into a wooden framed structure in the shape of a barge. Little did they know at the time that they were working on a wartime experiment that violated their pacifist principles.
The prototype was kept frozen and afloat during the summer of 1943 because of an on-board refrigeration unit. But Canadian scientists began to have doubts about the feasibility and cost of proceeding with the larger project.
Lord Mountbatten tried to secure American involvement by personally demonstrating the potential of pykrete at the August 1943 Quebec Conference. While Prime Minister Churchill and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked on, Mountbatten fired his pistol into a block of ice that shattered. But when he shot at the pykrete, the bullet bounced off the sample and ricocheted around the room before lodging in the wall. It is not clear whether those present were impressed or thankful for not being killed or wounded.
Support for the Habbakuk project continued to erode and it was abandoned in early 1944.
But it did not quietly go away.
The Superman daily comic strip began to feature a new story about the man of steel fighting a fleet of Nazi floating ice fortresses.
Jack Mackenzie ordered an investigation into the leak, but nothing came of it.
Maybe there was some connection after all to the verse in Habakkuk 1:5: “be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”
Readers interested in learning more about the man behind the bergship project should consult Henry Hemming’s The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Alternate Service Workers cut ice blocks for bergship on Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park
Photo credit: A. Dick
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