History With Phil: The Ice-ship Cometh


  • To protect the Allied ships being sunk by German U-boats during WWII the British approved building aircraft carriers out of ice.
  • With Canada on board an experimental project was conducted at a lake in Alberta as the test site.
  • In spite of the challenges faced, early 1943 saw a 60-foot long ice prototype disguised as a boathouse with a roof.
  • However, the viable ice ship project sank by mid-1943 with only parts of it remaining today.

Here is an interesting story about extreme steps taken during WWII, ironically to save resources by spending resources brought to you by the Ravalli Republic.

During the early stages of WWII, German U-boats were sinking Allied ships at an alarming rate. An eccentric scientist named Geoffrey Pyke was working on how to protect these ships in what was called the “U-boat alley”, an area where Nazi submarines were able to operate out of the range of Allied warplanes. Pyke came up with the idea of building aircraft carriers out of ice.

The Indestructible Forces of Nature

While this may seem to be way off the beaten path, there was some logic behind it. Icebergs were free, plentiful and thought to be unsinkable. Considering how desperate the British were at the time, Winston Churchill gave the go-ahead to the project.

At that time, ice was considered almost indestructible. The International Ice Patrol, established to destroy icebergs after one had sunk the Titanic in 1912, had reported that blowing them up wasn’t easy, even with torpedoes and bombs.

Pyke named the ambitious design HMS Habbakuk, based on a biblical prophet who wrote: “…be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”

The Idea Takes Form

Building a warship out of ice proved to be just as hard as it sounds. One big issue was that if you want to launch aircraft, the launch area had to be at least 50 feet above the water. However, because only 10 percent of an iceberg is above water, the ice ship would have to have 90 percent of its structure below the water line. Such a huge vessel would be nearly impossible to navigate. Plus to ensure a smooth reliable surface for takeoffs and landings, the flight deck would have to be constructed out of something other than ice. The proposed ship would be like any other ship except for its hull of ice and giant refrigeration system.

The proposed 2 million ton warship would be the largest ever built, some 2,000 feet long and 200 feet wide. It would have enough space for 300 aircraft and would chug along at a top speed of 8 miles per hour.

The Icy Ark

Britain asked Canada for help in conducting an experimental project. A lake in Alberta was chosen as the test site for two reasons: plenty of ice and an available pool of workers – a nearby camp of conscientious objectors. The workers, who were never told exactly what they were working on, dubbed the giant ship ‘Noah’s Ark.’

In early 1943, a 60-foot long prototype was built with interior walls and floors of wood and tar enclosed in a massive chunk of ice. A roof was constructed to protect it from the elements and to disguise it as a boathouse. It worked, kind of. While the modified refrigeration system worked, there were still lingering doubts about the strength of the ice, the tendency for the ice to roll, and the integrity of the structure itself.

Sank, the Unsinkable

The test had proven that the ice ship was viable. However, by mid-1943, the project, not the ship, started to “sink”. Three new developments led to its demise. First, Iceland was being used as a permanent war planes base in the North Atlantic, greatly diminishing the need for aircraft carriers. Second, a new generation of planes that could patrol for greater distances had been introduced. And thirdly, the development of a new type of radar which permitted better tracking of helped track U-boats.

And so, the prototype ship was allowed to sink where parts of it remain today.

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Source: The Ravalli Republic



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