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Spring is here, which means that it’s time for me to whip my high-school team into shape for the upcoming football season. Never too early to get started, really – who cares about baseball? It just gets in the way of Oklahoma drills. As the winter ice melts, my excitement for the game heats up. That said, it was a little chillier than normal last week, which got me thinking about what it’d be like if snow football had to be played around the clock. Cold temperatures mess with a lot of things in the sport… and, as it turns, in the world of weapons designing as well.
Country of origin: United Kingdom/Canada
Purpose built: To develop an efficient method of building absolutely massive battleship to help the Allies win the Second World War at sea
Years used: 1942-1944
What is it? In order to better prepare for hunting Nazi U-Boats in the later days of the war, the Royal Navy realized that it needed ships capable of serving as aircraft carriers. Japan led the world in this technology at the time, with the United States not too far behind. The British, realizing the need to catch up, were highly aware of the need to have refuelling points available in the Atlantic for their air force, due to the fact that planes of this era had far more limited ranges than modern ones. With planes no longer having to worry about making the long trip back to land-based airfields while they combed the water looking for German ships, they would arguably be more effective at their job than ever before. The issue, really, with developing an aircraft carrier from scratch is simply that the vessel is ridiculously expensive due to its size – and as a result, the Royal Navy was forced to get creative. With aluminum and steel in short supply, an alternative material would be needed to construct the ships.
Enter Geoffrey Pyke. A British inventor who had worked on a few other projects with Combined Operations Headquarters and with the United States, Pyke was highly regarded by both Lord Mountbatten and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While considered a genius by these high-ranking men, Pyke also had a tendency for some very unusual ideas; he was one of several people who had proposed making gigantic ships out of icebergs to use as stopping points in the ocean. This was, in fact, a running joke in the Royal Navy; it had been proposed a few times previously, mostly as a farce, because of the fact that ice is brittle, melts quickly, and also tends to roll over in water. However, Pyke had been working on a substance known as Pykrete, which he thought would make this “bergship” project a feasible one for the UK.
Pykrete was a mixture of wood pulp and frozen water, and it proved to be incredibly durable; it floated more readily than regular ice, was able to be precisely cut like wood and cast like metal, and melted much slower as well. It was also incredibly tough – in one test, Lord Mountbatten allegedly burst into Churchill’s private bathroom, dropped a piece of Pykrete into the tub – and told him to watch and see how long it floated, unaffected by the hot water. In another test, Lord Mountbatten demonstrated the superiority of Pykrete to regular ice by taking his service revolver, and shooting at a block of each – in the middle of a crowded room. Luckily for him, nobody was injured, but the exploding ice block did send shards everywhere, and the bullet that hit the Pykrete block rebounded off it with hardly a scratch made, and through the pants leg of another nearby officer.
In order to test the feasibility of Pykrete as a ship-building material, the UK tapped the National Research Council of Canada to lead the development of a Pykrete prototype, due to Canadian familiarity with the physics of ice. The NRC selected Patricia Lake in Jasper, Alberta – nowadays a part of Jasper National Park – as the location for this 1:50 scale model to be built. In the winter of 1943, a team of conscientious objectors were put to work constructing the prototype – 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and weighing about 1000 tons – which stayed afloat and was kept frozen over the summer, using a one-horsepower motor to run the refrigeration system that kept the hull frozen.
Despite the success of the prototype, the Royal Navy did not ultimately choose to pursue the project further, due to a number of factors. Eventually, the ship ran out of fuel to power the refrigeration system, and it later melted, causing the refrigeration system to sink to the bottom of the lake, where it still remains today.
Why didn’t it work? Based on the scale of the prototype, the full-sized version of the ship would have been over a mile long – yes! – and weighed over 2.2 million pounds. Without question, it would’ve been the largest machine ever constructed in the history of the world. The name “Project Habakkuk” is taken from the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible; in the book of Habakkuk, one of the twelve minor prophets, one passage is a direct reference to the sheer size and audacity of another major project:
“Behold ye among the nations, and look, and wonder marvellously; for I am working a work in your days, which ye will not believe though it be told you.” (Habakkuk 1:5)
Additionally, it needed to have a range of 7,000 miles, needed to be sturdy enough to support carrying heavy bombers in addition to more traditional fighters, and also needed to be torpedo-proof, necessitating a 40-foot-thick hull made of Pykrete and plated in steel.
Why the steel plating, considering that the War Office was trying to reduce its use thanks to Pykrete? Well, as it turns out, ice will slowly deform when placed under pressure and stress from load-bearing. As a result of this, the Pykrete hull needed to be retained in steel plating in order to ensure that it wouldn’t compromise its structural integrity… and also necessitated an extensive refrigeration system built into the ship in order to ensure that the Pykrete wouldn’t deform too greatly.
All in all, considering the full-sized ship would have required 10,000 tons of steel, 25,000 tons of insulation, and 300,000 tons of wood pulp to actually make it a reality, it’s not hard to see why the plug got pulled on the project. Its projected cost – 10 million British pounds (equivalent to $589,503,977.96 in today’s US dollars!!!) – was unequivocally out of reach for the Allied war effort during this time.
What could make it better?
This was a poor idea from the get-go. Not just due to the ridiculous costs and material requirements, or the fact that the design required ridiculously finicky planning and maintenance in order to make it possible… but really what it boils down to is a simple question of buoyancy.
The issue with ice, and by extension, icebergs, is that when floating in water, over 90 percent of the ice is underneath the surface. In considering that one of the essential purposes of this vessel would have been to provide a base for the Royal Air Force to refuel their planes while hunting U-Boats… doing the math on the size of the craft, there would have been 50 feet of boat above the water to serve as the runway… while underneath the water, the hull would have been over 500 feet deep. 500 feet deep and over a mile long? That’s just too big a target to risk getting torpedoed. Even if they claim that the hull would have been torpedo-proof… they did say, after all, that the Titanic was iceberg-proof, and look what happened there.
So yeah, just go with a regular-ass aircraft carrier. Also, maybe steal Wernher von Braun’s research on rocket engines to kickstart developing JTOL technology, nullifying a need for long runways? I dunno. I’m just a simple man. All I know is the big play tends to go wrong. Best to play it safe, after all.