At the height of the Second World War in 1942, the allies were running out of resources and in search of the next great tool that could be used to beat the Nazis.
Steel was in short supply and the world’s navies were dwindling due to constant naval pressure from German U-boats. So, one British scientist, named Geoffrey Pyke, had an idea – to create an aircraft carrier made out of ice.
After all, ice is hard, it naturally floats, and damage could be easily repaired by freezing new portions of ice to the surface. This idea became known as Project Habakkuk. The name being a reference to a verse in the biblical book of Habakkuk.
While the project sounds absolutely absurd, Pyke managed to sell the idea to Lord Mountbatten who convinced Winston Churchill that WWII might be able to be won with a fleet of giant ice-craft carriers.
Image Source: Concerning Reality
The idea was to cut off a large piece of an arctic iceberg and tow the chunk into a dock for the surface to be leveled. Once the surface was made suitable for aircraft, an internal structure would be built and methods of propulsion would be attached.
Pyke envisioned an ice-carrier that was 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide, and one that would weigh more than 2 million tons. The hull would be 40 feet thick of ice and equipped with 40 dual-barreled turrets along with numerous other guns. The airstrip would be able to handle 150 twin-engine planes and a cooling system consisting of complex pipes would keep the ship chilled to below freezing… It sounded like science fiction, but Britain embarked on the daunting task of bringing it to life.
The allies based the prototyping phase of the project in Patricia Lake in the Canadian Rockies. A 60 foot long, 1,000-ton ice ship was built equipped with a 1 hp refrigeration system.
During initial testing, problems continued to arise, as you might’ve expected. The ice was too brittle and along with breaking, it deformed under the large weight of the ship. The project was in dire need of new ideas to keep it afloat, and two researchers from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn did just that.
They created a material that was 14 times stronger than regular ice by mixing the water with wood pulp. Experiments found that the material was highly resistant to compression, chipping, and could even withstand bullets. Another added benefit was that the ice-material could be machined like wood as well as cast into shapes like metal. The wood pulp also provided inherent insulative properties to the ship reducing its reliance on refrigeration.
This new material, named Pykrete, was what the project needed.
Plans and prototyping for Project Habakkuk continued and engineers reached final estimates for the material that would be needed for the project. Each carrier would require 300,000 tons of wood pulp, 25,000 tons of fiberboard insulation, 35,000 tons of timber, and 10,000 tons of steel – all coming in at an estimated cost of 700,000 pounds.
Image Source: Concerning Reality
As the ship began to be constructed, it became obvious to the engineers that they would need more steel and insulation, and the project cost rose to 2.5 million pounds, roughly 138 million USD in today’s money.
Engineers also had problems designing steering for the ship as they estimated it would have limited maneuverability and a top speed of just 6 knots. Ultimately, the Navy decided that the ship would be too slow.
The final nail in the coffin for the science fiction project was how much material it required. Like steel, wood was also in short supply during the war. Even though the ship was designed to be constructed with little to no wood or steel, the end product needed exorbitant amounts of each material. It just wasn’t feasible.
Today, the remnants of Project Habakkuk lie at the bottom of Patricia Lake in Alberta, Canada, along with an underwater plaque commemorating the historic project.