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Bizarre iceberg islands never used

Jan 1, 2003

One of the more bizarre areas of military research in England during WW II concerned proposed development of an unusual kind of vessel.

In 1942 the only way to get both fighter and bomber aircraft from America to beleaguered England was to transport them by ship, since they could not be flown that distance because of fuel requirements. Germany's U-boats had mastered the Atlantic, and the loss of shipping tonnage to torpedoes was staggering.

To overcome that problem it was proposed to the Admiralty, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that a fleet of unsinkable icebergs could be stationed as refueling depots for aircraft at a number of points in the North Atlantic. The bergs would be towed from Arctic waters and armored in some way to protect them from submarine attack.

The British Admiralty's specs for the bergs required that they be at least 4,000 feet long to accommodate landing strips for aircraft, be made maneuverable using electric motors, and be capable of continuing to function even if struck constantly by torpedoes or mines. The large number of torpedoes necessary to inflict even a small amount of damage to one of these icy aircraft carriers, at 25,000 reichsmark a pop, would be financially prohibitive for the German central bank.

While other top-secret projects were hidden away from prying eyes in New Mexico in the U.S. (the Manhattan Project) and Peenemünde in Germany (the V1 and V2 weapons), this wild scheme called London home. It was housed beneath a meat market, presumably because refrigeration equipment was available. A research laboratory was soon established to work on the technical aspects of armoring ice. In the five underground floors of the commandeered property, Dr. Max Ferdinand Perutz (1914- ) and his colleagues worked in almost 0° F conditions, wearing protective, electrically heated lab suits, experimenting with various ice "cocktails" to produce a kind of ice cement called pykrete, after one of the projects advisors, Geoffrey Pyke.

At a time when the U.S. and Germany worked on the "ridiculous" ideas of atomic bombs and ballistic missiles, Britain forged ahead with the much more sensible iceberg "weapon." Pyke even foresaw specially prepared icebergs being deployed as super siege platforms with which to attack Japan and invade France.

The project, which could have been taken from a Marvel comic book, finally melted down when the flying range of aircraft being sent to England was increased sufficiently to allow them to be flown directly without refueling.

It is interesting to imagine how Grand Admiral Dönitz's U-boats might have coped with "HMS Iceberg." Perhaps U-boat wolf packs would have attacked on the surface, having demounted their 88-mm deck cannons and substituted in their place giant hair dryers for melting the enemy vessels.