'Stranger than fiction': Book chronicles secret mission to carve warships from ice

A contingent of British soldiers on a top-secret mission arrived in the Canadian Rockies to construct a warship out of ice.

Remnants of ice ship still lie at the bottom of Patricia Lake in Jasper

Geoffrey Pyke was the inventor behind Project Habbkauk, a top-secret military operation to construct warships out of ice and wood. (Project Habakkuk/Publishers Group Canada)

A contingent of British soldiers on a top-secret mission arrive in the Canadian Rockies to construct a warship out of ice.

This unlikely plot serves as the premise for At the Wolf's Door, a new work of Alberta-inspired historical fiction, but there is more truth than fantasy to this story line.

"This was a real, bona fide project," author Chaz Osburn said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "It's so bizarre to think about. 

"You know that saying that truth is stranger than fiction? This really epitomized that to me." 

The strange piece of military history still lies beneath the placid depths of Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park. At the bottom of the glacier-fed waters, sits the rusting mechanical guts of a melted prototype for the massive warships.

It's all that remains of Project Habakkuk, a top-secret military operation which once used the secluded lake as a testing ground. 

It's mission? To construct massive aircraft carriers and warships capable of joining the fight against German U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. 

'My jaw dropped'

Osburn decided to chronicle the bizarre military operation after taking his first trip through the Rockies in 2007, shortly after moving from Michigan to Edmonton. 

"I stumbled across this quite by accident," Osburn said. 

"We just happened to be driving along Pyramid Lake road and came across Patricia Lake and along the shore, there is a plaque talking about Project Habakkuk.

"My jaw dropped when I saw that because I had absolutely no idea that such a project existed and I started thinking to myself, this would make a great story." 

Sprung from the eccentric mind of amateur scientist Geoffrey Pyke, the ice ships would have been constructed from a mixture of ice and wood pulp called Pykrete. 

Pyke claimed the material was bulletproof, unsinkable and would take months, if not years to melt on the open seas.

The berg ships would be insulated and impervious to bomb and torpedo attacks.

A bathtub and a bullet test

According to legend, Pyke pitched the idea to Prime Minister Winston Churchill via a diplomatic package.

Churchill, in turn, tested the material's durability by placing a large hunk of the stuff into his bath.

There was also an incident where Lord Mountbatten, looking to personally secure American involvement in the project, nearly maimed an important guest of the August 1943 Quebec Conference.

Looking to prove its ability to repel bullets, Mountbatten shot at a block of pykrete with his pistol. 

But the demonstration went awry. The bullet ricocheted around the room before grazing the trouser leg of an American admiral and lodging itself into the wall.

Despite diplomatic mishaps, by 1942 Operation Habakkuk was born. 

They were pretty much willing to try anything.-Chaz Osburn

When it came to supporting unorthodox ideas for waging war, Churchill was in a class by himself, and it was desperate times for the Allies.

Hitler's U-Boats were ravaging merchant ships that Britain depended on for its survival. France had fallen to the Germans and Britain was now on its own in the fight. 

"Even with factories running flat out they could not produce enough material to fight the German war machine," Osburn said. 

"They did not have the firepower, they did not have the air cover, so they were pretty much willing to try anything." 

Jan. 9, 1941: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects an American motorized squadron at Horse Guards Parade in London. (Central Press/Getty Images)

In 1943, 15 men spent two months on Patricia Lake building a 1-to-50-scale model prototype of a bergship.

Measuring 18 metres by 9 metres and weighing 1,000 tons it was kept frozen by a one-horsepower motor.

As the Allies began to gain the upper hand, the ice ship proved too impractical to execute in full size. By 1944, the project was abandoned completely and the ship was scuttled. 

 It took three hot summers to completely melt the prototype before it sank to the bottom of Patricia Lake. 

"The weirdest thing to me is that this project existed at all," Osburn said.

"You have to admit, it has to be one of the most bizarre, outrageous military projects anyone has ever heard of."

Osburn will be hosting a reading and book signing at Audreys Books in Edmonton this Friday at 7 p.m. 

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca


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