Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Berg Ship

In future posts, as well as my home experiments, I will delve further into some of the fantastic personalities and myths behind Project Habbakuk, but here’s a brief introduction.

In 1942, the Allies were under attack by Axis forces in the Atlantic. They needed a way to improve the efficacy of their short-range aircraft, and started to look at ways to provide floating platforms to act as aircraft carriers in the North Atlantic.

Projecy Habbakuk was the brainchild of Geoffrey Pyke, an eccentric who had managed to get the ear of Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill. He proposed the construction of vast ships made of ice – its natural buoyancy would protect them from sinking in the event of enemy shelling, and the raw material (water) for their repair was virtually free. However, its brittleness and tendency to creep presented difficulties.

Pyke gained scientist J D Bernal’s support to develop the project. Bernal suggested his former student, Max Perutz, who had worked extensively on the properties of ice. Work was slow to start with, until Pyke sent Perutz a paper referring to the reinforcement of ice with microfibres derived from wood pulp. Tests on this material (given the name “Pykrete”, in honour of Geoffrey Pyke) were encouraging, and Perutz was set up in a lab in the cold stores below Smithfield Market in London.
Smithfield Market

Pykrete was dramatically stronger than ice and resistant to melting. Military chiefs were so impressed that they instigated a pilot project to build a model ship in Patricia Lake in Canada. The technical issues were extreme, however, and the cost of machinery needed to freeze the wood pulp and of iron for reinforcement of the bergship negated the cheapness of the raw materials. Furthermore, developments in aircraft design and deals made with the Portuguese to use the Azores for refuelling stations had effectively made the project redundant, and the model ship was scuttled in 1943.


  1. Funnily enough, someone just gave me an early 1950s book, Engineers' Dreams by Willy Ley that contains a short account of Habbakuk, along with many much vaster scemes. A Pyrcrete carrier would hae weighed 2 million tonnes, actively refrigerated. The Canadian model weighed 1,000 tonnes, which they did keep frozen through the summer of 1943 - wonder of there are any traces left by that lake.

    Didn't know about the lab in the Smithfield cold stores, though. I wonder if it's possible to locate it - although most of that level is a car park, there are some old vestiges left.

  2. Sorry about the extra comment, but I couldn't paste URLs for some reason:

    Here is the car park under Smithfield:

    And, not a very good shot, but there are a lot of spaces round the perimeter like this (here used as a lock-up):

  3. Yeah, I've got some good accounts in books about (and by) Perutz and Bernal. I will return to it in future posts, but wanted to do a Noddy intro first.

    I guess that Smithfield may have been one of the few places with refrigeration units hefty enough for the research project.

  4. Looking forward to more, Yersinia. If I were doing a blog (and I have been vaguely contemplating it as a meta-level to Flickr), I'm sure I'd be doing bits on failed mega-engineering projects myself.

    Yeah - I think it would have to be a choice between Smithfield and Billingsgate then. I seem to recall that the ground under the latter was found to be frozen to a depth of many metres after they turned the refrigeration off, took months to thaw.