July 29, 2022

13-Ice: The ice ships of Project Habbakuk

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Dive down into the freezing depths of Patricia Lake, in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, and you will find the wreck of the Habbakuk—a sixty-foot model battleship originally constructed of wood and ice.

This “berg ship” was the brainchild of the eccentric wartime genius Geoffrey Pyke. In 1943, the Allies were being hard pressed by German U-boats, and British and American leaders were desperate to gain the upper hand in the War of the Atlantic. Pyke’s idea was to construct a fleet of the huge ships, each 1,970 feet long and made from a mixture of ice and wood pulp called Pykrete. He claimed the ships were bulletproof and unsinkable. The project was approved by Winston Churchill himself, and Project Habbakuk was born.

The history of Project Habbakuk is more than a tale of unconventional ice engineering: it touches on theTitanic, the Bible and Superman.

This episode was produced by Jamieson Findlay and mixed by Collin Warren, with production assistance from Jace Steiner.

Transcript

Shane Hanlon:              00:01                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:01                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:03                Are you a game person? Do you like board games?

Vicky Thompson:           00:06                Board games?

Shane Hanlon:              00:07                Board games.

Vicky Thompson:           00:09                I feel like I’ve been ruined for board games since having a kid.

Shane Hanlon:              00:13                Oh, okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:13                She’s five and super into board games. We have a big, big pile of board games.

Shane Hanlon:              00:13                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:19                But I’m just tired, man. So I feel like my first reaction is always, “No, I don’t want to play a game. No.”

Shane Hanlon:              00:25                Like when you’re hanging out with friends, you’re like, “This is literally the last thing I want to do.”

Vicky Thompson:           00:29                This is literally what I do all the time. Yeah, but I do like games. I like Rummikub. Rummikub?

Shane Hanlon:              00:38                What’s Rummikub?

Vicky Thompson:           00:41                Maybe it’s not a board game. It’s like a tile game.

Shane Hanlon:              00:43                Okay, because Rummy is like a card game.

Vicky Thompson:           00:46                Yeah, yeah. So it’s like a mix almost of maybe Rummy and MahJong.

Shane Hanlon:              00:54                Oh, interesting.

Vicky Thompson:           00:55                You have to put out little tiles that have numbers on them and your first move has to add up to a certain number, and then you can only put out tiles that… Wow, I sound old when I’m talking about that.

Shane Hanlon:              01:04                Yeah, yeah. No, you do sound pretty old. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. I appreciate that. What’s funny, as you’re describing this, I’m simultaneously very interested but also appalled, because I like games. I like a good game night, but I hate strategy games and I hate thinking games with the exception of Catan, basically, and Risk.

Vicky Thompson:           01:04                Catan.

Shane Hanlon:              01:27                I go big if I’m going to go into strategy games. But much like you’ve been ruined with board games because of your daughter, I’ve been ruined because I don’t want to think outside of work. Right? Work is for thinking. Game nights are for fun. I want to play charades. I want to do fancy telephone. I want to do dumb stuff-

Vicky Thompson:           01:49                Fancy telephone?

Shane Hanlon:              01:51                – like Exploding Kittens. I want to do really-

Vicky Thompson:           01:52                Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. No. Stop.

Shane Hanlon:              01:54                – dumb games.

Vicky Thompson:           01:55                I can’t get with Risk because that seems like a lot of commitment for a game.

Shane Hanlon:              02:01                Well, it’s too topical right now.

Vicky Thompson:           02:02                But what’s Exploding Kittens? What are you talking about?

Shane Hanlon:              02:05                We don’t have time for it. We’ll have to discuss it some other times. It’s very topical though, very fun and-

Vicky Thompson:           02:10                Exploding Kittens.

Shane Hanlon:              02:11                Exploding Kittens. Yeah.

Vicky Thompson:           02:13                Okay.

Shane Hanlon:              02:13                Look it up.

Vicky Thompson:           02:14                Risk and Exploding Kittens are very topical. Okay.

Shane Hanlon:              02:14                All over the place.

Vicky Thompson:           02:14                Hmm. Okay.

Shane Hanlon:              02:21                I asked you about board games because I was actually originally thinking about a board game I really love, Battleship. What do you think about Battleship?

Vicky Thompson:           02:29                Battleship sunk. Yeah, no, I like that [inaudible 00:02:34]-

Shane Hanlon:              02:34                Did you have the electric version?

Vicky Thompson:           02:35                I just thought about the commercial.

Shane Hanlon:              02:35                Oh, I see.

Vicky Thompson:           02:37                Did you ever see the commercial?

Shane Hanlon:              02:38                I did. Yeah. We are really dating ourselves here. Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           02:55                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              02:56                And this is Third Pod from the Sun. But thinking about battleships, not necessarily from the board game perspective, but think about if you had a battleship in real life made out of ice.

Vicky Thompson:           03:13                Like a Battleship battleship? Like the game or a real battleship?

Shane Hanlon:              03:18                No, like a real, like a life-size battleship. All right. This is so fascinating. There was this top-secret World War II project called Operation Habakkuk. And to tell us about it, let’s bring in our producer, Jamie Findlay. Hi, Jamie.

Jamie Findlay:               03:34                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              03:35                Okay. So I have to say, I love this, but it’s really hard to picture a working battleship made of ice.

Jamie Findlay:               03:44                Yeah. Actually, it was ice and wood pulp, because apparently, a slurry of water and wood pulp when it’s frozen is super strong, and that was the vision behind Project Habakkuk. It was to create basically a fleet of these ice composite battleships that would be invincible.

Vicky Thompson:           04:05                Well, except during a heat wave.

Jamie Findlay:               04:09                Yeah. Okay. Well, that was the idea of the composite. The composite was supposed to melt more slowly than pure ice, and also, they planned to make the ships insulated and cooled.

Shane Hanlon:              04:26                Okay. I believe you, but this is still pretty hard to picture.

Jamie Findlay:               04:31                Yeah, I agree. It’s a pretty incredible story, and it’s not just a story about unconventional ice engineering. Let’s see. It’s a story that touches on, as we’ll hear later, the Bible, the Titanic, and Superman.

Vicky Thompson:           04:49                Oh, okay. Well, we like a long leash here at Third Pod, so where do we start?

Jamie Findlay:               04:54                Okay. Well, we’re going to start with Chaz Osburn. He’s written a novel about Operation Habakkuk. It’s called At the Wolf’s Door. And he’s done a lot of research, so he’s just going to set the stage for us.

Chaz Osburn:                05:13                My name is Chaz Osburn. I’m a dual American-Canadian citizen who moved to Canada in 2007. I make my living as a Communications Consultant. I’m a former journalist who has worked in both the newspaper and magazine businesses.

Jamie Findlay:               05:39                We’re here to talk about Project Habakkuk, and I’m wondering if you could just give me a brief thumbnail sketch of what this project is all about.

Chaz Osburn:                05:53                Sure. I’d be happy to. First of all, the name comes from a book in the Bible in the Old Testament. Habakkuk was an Old Testament prophet, and there is a part in that book where Habakkuk is speaking with God. There’s a great line that says, “I’m going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told.” I think this project, this top-secret project grown during World War II really, really captures that well. Habakkuk was essentially a project to build ice ships, specifically aircraft carriers out of icebergs, and this was an actual bonafide project, a real project that took place in the early 1940s, 1943, to be exact, in the Canadian wilderness of the area just outside of Jasper, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies. That’s it in a nutshell. We have to remember that the early days of the war were really, really brutal for the Allied powers.

Speaker 5:                    07:31                The war enters its third year. [inaudible 00:07:34]

Chaz Osburn:                07:34                And one of the things they struggled with was the Nazi subs and the way that they hunted. Unlike World War I, when the subs sort of went after each ship individually, the Germans had adopted a new tactic. It was called brutal tactic, where they hunted in wolf packs. And this presented a huge problem for the Allies who were trying to protect their convoys. You see, airplanes of that era, in the early part of World War II didn’t have the range. They couldn’t fly out into the part of the Atlantic where the wolf packs like to hunt. Basically, the convoys were sitting ducks in the early part of the war because the Allies just didn’t have the fire power, especially aircraft carriers in the aircraft to offer any kind of protection, so the British were basically willing to try anything to get a leg up.

Jamie Findlay:               08:42                How did you stumble on this story and what’s your interest in the story?

Chaz Osburn:                08:46                Almost 15 years ago, my family and I had just moved from Michigan to Alberta, and while we were in Jasper, we were told that one of the drives that we should check out was the drive to Pyramid Lake. Well, just before you reach Pyramid Lake is Patricia Lake, and I believe I had stopped to let either a herd of deer or herd of elk cross when I noticed a sign along the roadside. I stopped. Being curious, I stopped and started reading about it, and it was a sign explaining Project Habakkuk. As I recall, it said that during the winter months of 1943, the British built a prototype, a 150th scale of an ice ship on the frozen surface of Patricia Lake to test the validity of their idea. In my research, I’ve seen old photos of the project. It was disguised as a boathouse. They had built a structure over it.

Jamie Findlay:               10:13                The man behind this theme was Geoffrey Pyke. Can you tell us a bit about him and how he came up with this idea?

Chaz Osburn:                10:24                Geoffrey Pyke, from what I’ve read about the man, he was either a genius or an eccentric, flamboyant eccentric with an uncanny knack for self-promotion. He was also an amateur inventor, and I suspect he was a bit of a Svengali as well, because not only could he command attention, but he actually got people to listen to his ideas, no matter how far-fetched you or I might consider them to be. Another thing about Geoffrey Pyke is that he was an authority on ice in an era when, who made their living or whatever from being an authority on ice?

                                                            What we do know for certain is that Pyke, like me, was a former journalist. He was also a man who was in the right place at the right time, because his work drew the attention of Lord Mountbatten, who was the Chief of Combined Operations for the British. He was up there about as high as you could go, and he was a friend of Winston Churchill and had Churchill’s ear, so having Mountbatten’s ear meant that Pyke also had Churchill’s ear.

Jamie Findlay:               11:50                Okay. So Pyke, this man Pyke managed to convince certain people in the military and the government that this was a workable idea, and so they built this prototype at Patricia Lake in Alberta, in what is now Jasper National Park. How long did the prototype last and what actually were they able to achieve with it?

Chaz Osburn:                12:18                They were able to show that they could, A, construct such a ship, and B, that it would float. That was important. And C, it was able to last several months.

Shane Hanlon:              12:40                Okay, so this secret project was named after a biblical prophet named Habakkuk.

Jamie Findlay:               12:45                Habakkuk, yeah. And incidentally, guys, there’s a whole series of YouTube videos on how to pronounce the names of Old Testament prophets, in case you ever need that resource.

Vicky Thompson:           13:00                Thanks.

Shane Hanlon:              13:00                Yeah. I can’t imagine, except for this specific moment needing that resource, but I do love a good YouTube deep dive. But getting back to this prototype ice ship, it was much smaller than the projected big ice battleships, right?

Jamie Findlay:               13:18                Yeah, much smaller. About 60 feet long, and the real ships were projected to be about 2000 feet long.

Vicky Thompson:           13:27                Well, what happened to the prototype?

Jamie Findlay:               13:30                They built it in the winter and spring of 1943. As far as it went, it was successful, and so that was kind of the end of that stage. So they basically just removed the part of the refrigeration unit and let it sink to the bottom of Patricia Lake, and that’s where it is now. You can actually dive down to see it.

Vicky Thompson:           13:56                If you’re a hardcore Rocky Mountain diver, that is? That’s right?

Jamie Findlay:               14:03                Yeah. You have to be a hardcore Rocky Mountain diver, and that actually describes my next guest, Susan Langley. She’s a marine archeologist, a textile expert, a beekeeper, and an authority on Project Habakkuk. She’s been down to this wreck many times, and I’ll let her take up the story.

Susan Langley:              14:30                My name’s Susan Langley. I’m the Maryland State Underwater Archeologist. I’m always interested in the offbeat. I’m a master spinner, which a friend gave me a bumper sticker that says, “Spinning, because knitting’s not weird enough.” In fact, I often call my lectures, “What do the Titanic, the Bible, and Superman have in common?”, and it’s Operation Habakkuk. There was an ice patrol sent out after, or it was formed and sent out after the sinking of the Titanic to get rid of all those pesky icebergs and they’ll never sink our ships again. And it was discovered that icebergs resist incendiary bombs, torpedoes, and that suddenly clicked with, “Well, maybe we can build our refueling depot out of ice and it can’t be sunk.”

Jamie Findlay:               15:15                Tell us about the first time you dove down to the wreck.

Susan Langley:              15:20                Well, we were fortunate. I ran into two gentlemen who hadn’t dove it, but they had more contacts and information and they agreed to work with me on this. We carried our gear down a trail initially, and there happened to be an eye, a metal eye sticking out of the side of the bank. It’s a horse trail now. And there was a cable, metal cable running into the water, and they had been told that this would lead us to the model, which it did. At the end of the project, it was left floating in the lake but still moored, so the information we had was correct. We dove down. It’s sitting on quite a steep side slope, and if you picture a shoe box, it’s sitting on a diagonal, so the long sides are almost parallel to the shore and the short ends are the highest corner and the deepest corner of the site.

Jamie Findlay:               16:12                Can you tell us a bit about, just paint us a picture of going down there, and what did you experience? What did you see exactly? What was the quality of the water, et cetera?

Susan Langley:              16:24                Well, like most mountain lakes, it’s reasonably clear. It’s on the deep side, in the sense that the shallowest corner is about 65 feet. The deepest corner is about 120, but you have to calculate for the altitude. We’re at 4,000-foot altitude, so it’s the equivalent of adding about 20 feet to each of those. To do any work at all, we were getting into decompression diving. We couldn’t get enough done within the no decompression range, so we did have to stage stops coming back up, and of course have a substantial period between dives to off-gas.

                                                            The visibility wasn’t too bad. There was some backscatter in the summer as plant life. As much as mountain lakes warm up, we did get some floaties, if you will, snow, as photographers call it. We tried in the winter one time to see if it would improve the clarity, and there’s nothing more bizarre than standing in the middle of nowhere on a mountain lake, sweeping at the lake to get the snow off the ice before you pull your toboggan. It felt very Canadian, pulling our toboggan with our chainsaw along and cutting a large triangle. You never want a circle because it can pop back in and lock you under, so you put a triangle. You push it under and stake it. Then we put all our safety lines. Safety divers went down. And of course, because the ice was two feet thick, it really didn’t improve. It might have been clearer, but it was darker, so it was kind of moot. We stuck to diving in the summer.

Vicky Thompson:           17:55                Okay. Clearly, Susan is no armchair archeologist. Really adventurous.

Shane Hanlon:              18:00                Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It’s wild hearing about these stories. But I’m really interested about this prototype. Is it the only actual remnant of Project Habakkuk?

Jamie Findlay:               18:15                Yeah, pretty much. Susan says that the prototype was basically a wooden shell that was built using ice from the lake, no wood pulp, just ice. They had the idea of adding wood pulp later to make the planned battleships stronger, and they actually gave this ice composite a name, pykrete.

Shane Hanlon:              18:39                Pykrete named, I assume, after the guy that Chaz mentioned.

Jamie Findlay:               18:47                Geoffrey Pyke, that’s right. And of course, he was the visionary behind the operation, and pykrete apparently has some unusual properties, according to Susan.

Susan Langley:              18:59                When the first pykrete was made, and it was made at Billingsgate Fish Market, there’s was sort of a secret lab in the back, Mountbatten took it to Churchill, who was at Chartwell, and took it in. Churchill was in the back, and he barged in and threw it in the tub with him. I’m hoping that’s not an apocryphal story. I think it’s true. But Churchill was convinced. He took it out of the tub and they kept adding hotter and hotter water, and when it resisted melting, he was convinced and went along with it. And once it was reinforced with this pykrete, once the ice had the wood slurry added to it, it became turnable on a lathe. You can saw it. You can hammer it. The walls of these vessels would’ve had to be 40 feet thick, massive, and still have the piping in them.

Jamie Findlay:               19:42                Now, has pykrete been used as a structural material at all, in any context?

Susan Langley:              19:50                Yes, surprisingly. One that I can think of, it was not very often, but the one I can think of offhand was in the 1950s. It was used in Hudson Bay by Nickel Rankin Mines to build an ice cushion around their docks so that they wouldn’t be crushed by the winter ice.

Jamie Findlay:               20:08                If we can go back to your description of the projected ships, and you said they were massive and they had walls 40 feet thick or something like that, what was the idea there? If a U-boat shot a torpedo at these ships, that the ice would actually absorb the torpedo but with limited damage? Is that correct?

Susan Langley:              20:34                That’s correct. They thought that the torpedo into a 40-foot thick wall of pykrete, and that is pykrete, not just ice, would make about a four-foot hole, and they felt that could be repaired at CISA, would not penetrate.

Jamie Findlay:               20:46                I see. So they tested this prototype. It seemed to be feasible, and they had a tremendous, a grandiose plan to create these massive ice pykrete ships, and what happened? Why didn’t the plan go ahead?

Susan Langley:              21:04                Churchill wanted 100 of them before 1944, and we’re now in March of ’43. It would’ve taken a lot of wood pulp in the country, but it would’ve taken a lot of the piping, the metal for piping which was needed for ships and aircraft, and it would’ve taken 2000 people working around the clock in shifts to build these. And they just decided, well, one thing was they couldn’t get 100 of them built in time, and they came up with the VEL liberator aircraft, which had a longer range and could fly farther in guarded convoy. So there were a number of factors sort of coalesced and just made it obsolete before it even started, really. So it was feasible, but it ended up not really being practical, or in the long run, necessary.

Jamie Findlay:               22:04                That’s the story of Project Habakkuk, and you can see why Chaz decided to make a novel out of it.

Shane Hanlon:              22:11                Yeah. Just one last question. Susan said the story contained elements of the Bible and Titanic and Superman.

Jamie Findlay:               22:21                Right.

Vicky Thompson:           22:23                And we know that the project was named after the Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk. Habakkuk?

Jamie Findlay:               22:29                You got it.

Vicky Thompson:           22:30                Oh!

Shane Hanlon:              22:32                See, just side tangent, that resource he mentioned on YouTube’s actually going to come in pretty handy. I am going to do some deep diving. But Susan did mention that after the sinking of the Titanic, scientists tried to destroy icebergs using explosives, but that they didn’t have much success.

Jamie Findlay:               22:50                That’s right. Icebergs turned out to be amazingly strong and of course, buoyant, and that suggested that, gee, maybe this could be used as construction material for a battleship.

Shane Hanlon:              23:05                All right. So where does Superman come in?

Jamie Findlay:               23:07                This is a great final twist. The Superman comic was going strong in daily newspapers during the second World War, and in March of ’43, the writers came up with this new story development. Basically, Superman encounters huge icebergs that turn out to be camouflaged Nazi fortresses, complete with troops and planes and cannons and so on. This really is an echo of Project Habakkuk, and according to Susan, there was alarm among the top military brass that their secret project had been leaked. But no, it was just coincidence. It was just an illustration of the strange convergence that sometimes happens between the comic book imagination and the military imagination.

Vicky Thompson:           24:05                The Bible, Titanic, and Superman, oh my!

Shane Hanlon:              24:10                Oh, I love it. All right, folks. Well, that’s all from Third Pod From the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           24:14                Thanks so much to Jamie for bringing us the story, and to Chaz and Susan for sharing their work with us.

Shane Hanlon:              24:20                This episode was produced by Jamie with production assistance from Chase Steiner and audio engineering from Colin Warren.

Vicky Thompson:           24:27                We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast. Please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at Third Pod From the Sun.

Shane Hanlon:              24:43                No, like a real, like a life-size battleship. All right. This is so fascinating. There was this top-secret World War II project called [inaudible 00:24:52]… Ah! I can’t even pronounce operation! All right. I’m going to start from there.

Vicky Thompson:           24:56                It’s a hard one.

Shane Hanlon:              24:57                I know.

Vicky Thompson:           24:57                Habakkuk.

Shane Hanlon:              24:57                Habakkuk.

Jamie Findlay:               25:02                [inaudible 00:25:02]

Shane Hanlon:              25:04                [inaudible 00:25:04] Habakkuk.

Jamie Findlay:               25:04                But you know what, you guys? It doesn’t really matter, because if you pronounce it one way and I pronounce it the other way, that’s fine. Who’s going to write into Third Pod and complain?

Shane Hanlon:              25:14                Yeah, no. That’s a good point, but I should be able to pronounce operation.

Vicky Thompson:           25:18                Yeah, that’s [inaudible 00:25:20].