Winston Churchill’s Audacious Plan to Build an Aircraft Carrier Out of Ice

iStock/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
iStock/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Winston Churchill was enjoying a steamy bath when he discovered the secret to winning World War II floating in his tub. It was 1942, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations and Britain’s head honcho for unconventional warfare, had stormed into the Prime Minister’s bathroom with unexpected news. (It’s not as strange as it sounds. Churchill regularly conducted meetings from his tub.)

“I have a block of new material that I want to put in your bath,” Mountbatten explained. He dropped a hunk of ice between Churchill’s legs. The two watched in awe as the ice refused to melt.

At the time, Churchill was in a pickle. The Soviets were fighting Germany on the eastern front, but the UK, which had yet to successfully invade Europe from the west, sat in limbo. Knowing that Britain was utterly dependent on imports, German U-boats routinely targeted merchant ships bound for the UK, sending the food and goods intended for citizens and soldiers to the bottom of the ocean.

Those ships needed protection badly, but aircraft based on shore didn’t have the range to offer cover, leaving vessels to navigate a perilous 300-mile stretch of undefended ocean on their own. Experts called this vulnerable territory the "mid-Atlantic gap." Others simply called it "The Black Pit."

Mindful of the gap, Churchill believed a series of floating airfields in the Atlantic could close the distance between his air force and enemy submarines. With aircraft carriers in short supply, he wanted to establish a string of unsinkable floating islands that could serve as hangars and refueling depots. The catch? These buoyant land strips had to be constructed out of a material other than steel; the Allies needed every ounce of the metal for weapons, tanks, and battleships.

Churchill was convinced the solution was bobbing in his bathwater.

For a time, the British seriously considered using ice as a construction material for their floating airfields. Ice, after all, doesn’t sink. Repairs would be easy: just add water. Churchill naively believed it was as simple as chiseling off a slice of the Arctic ice shelf and tugging it back to Cornwall.

There were obstacles, of course. Ice melts, and nobody wanted to send a fleet of floating islands into the Atlantic just to watch them disappear. Ice is also brittle, and Churchill's men knew that if an airfield were too thin, a bomb could split it in two. Icebergs have also been known to violently flip over, and the same went for Churchill’s airfields, which were one well-placed strike away from dumping hundreds of flyboys into the drink.

Geoffrey Pyke, the scientist who cooked up the idea of ice-based airfields in 1942, directed the researchers of Britain's Combined Operations to find a way to make strong, unmeltable ice. He focused his attention on a little-known report by Herman Mark, a Vienna-based professor of chemistry who had fled the Nazis, which explained how a simple mixture of wood pulp, sawdust, or cotton could reinforce ice in the same way that steel wires bolster concrete.

The report was no joke. Pyke's men found that even a small addition of wood pulp worked miracles: It insulated the ice, prevented most melting, and resulted in blocks of building material that were as resilient as concrete. Pyke's men named it “Pykrete,” and when the Prime Minister saw it floating in his bathtub, he was sold.

“It would be of ship-like construction, displacing a million tons, self-propelled at slow speed,” Churchill wrote in his 1951 book Closing the Ring, “with its own anti-aircraft defense, with workshops and repair facilities, and with a surprisingly small refrigerating plant for preserving its own existence.” It would be called Project Habakkuk, named after the Hebrew prophet who wrote, “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”

The code name was apropos. The proposed aircraft carrier was destined to be 2000 feet long and 100 feet thick. (Ten times thicker than the average sheet of Arctic ice, by the way.) It would have a cruising range of 7000 miles, requiring 26 electric motors and a 15-story rudder. It would displace 26 times more water than the largest ship in the world.

The carrier's awesomeness didn't end at its massive size. Max Perutz, a scientist who worked on the project, wrote in The New Yorker that the “bergships were to carry enormous tanks full of supercooled water—liquid water cooled below its normal freezing point—which could be sprayed at the enemy to solidify on contact.”

In other words, freeze rays.

In 1943, the British presented the idea to American commanders during a secret meeting. Accounts vary, but as Perutz told it, Lieutenant Commander Douglas Grant brought two blocks of ice—one regular, one Pykrete—whipped out a pistol, and fired two shots. The first bullet shattered the ice. The second bullet hit the Pykrete, ricocheted, and tore into a high-ranking officer’s shoulder. The Pykrete, however, was unharmed.

The Americans signed on.

That summer, the military built a prototype in Alberta, Canada. Local mills supplied the pulped wood, while laborers at a 200-acre refrigeration plant froze water into monolithic cubes. Within months, a 60-foot-long ice boat rested on a nearby lake. It weighed as much as five blue whales.

But the project went no further. By late 1943, Allied factories had built new fleets of aircraft carriers. With the flying range of new military airplanes (aptly named very-long-range aircraft) improving and the pace of manufacturing gaining steam, the mid-Atlantic gap had already closed. Improvements to radar and an increase in destroyer escorts spelled trouble for Germany's U-Bootwaffe, which would lose a quarter of its submarines that year. Officials poring over production numbers concluded that constructing a fleet of berg-boats was an unnecessary money trap. They scuttled the mission, and the Pykrete barge was abandoned to slowly melt.

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

14 Powerful Facts About the Hoover Dam

Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain
Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain

The hulking Hoover Dam has been holding back the Colorado River and generating power since 1936, but you may be surprised to learn just how eventful its construction and naming were.

1. The construction of the Hoover Dam forced Las Vegas to clean up its act.

Once the public caught wind of the plans to build a dam in Nevada’s Black Canyon, surrounding cities appreciated the potential economic windfall such an undertaking would bring. Las Vegas became especially eager to house the project’s headquarters, even going so far as to sacrifice its “party city” reputation to appear worthy of the honor. When Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a major player in the project, came to town for a 1929 visit, local authorities in Las Vegas shut down a slew of its speakeasies and brothels for the day in an attempt to seem classier.

2. An entire city sprang up to support construction of the Hoover Dam.

Panorama of Boulder City, Nevada from Water Tank Hill
1932 panorama of Boulder City, Nevada, from Water Tank Hill.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sin City’s efforts were ultimately futile, and a planned community went up to house the 5000-person workforce. Miles of paved streets and railroad tracks connected the canyonside village to the project site and neighboring Las Vegas. The community, known as Boulder City, is still standing. However, delays in its development forced a good number of early workers to reside in the nearby Ragtown, which lived up to its name with extremely humble living conditions.

3. The Hoover Dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation—the department subsidizing the project—supplied a whopping 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete for the dam itself, plus another 1.11 million cubic yards for the power plant and additional facilities. This quantity of concrete would be enough to build 3000 miles of road—a full-sized highway from one end of the United States to the other. Additionally, the dam required about 5 million barrels of cement, nearly equaling the total quantity of cement the Bureau used in its previous 27 years of existence.

4. The world’s largest refrigerator cooled all the concrete used for the Hoover Dam.

As you may guess, all this concrete posed some challenges. Without engineers’ intervention, it would have taken the massive blocks of poured concrete 125 years to cool, and this gradual drying would have left the pieces susceptible to breaking. To speed up the process, an engineering team designed a mammoth refrigeration machine. The supersized fridge dispensed upwards of 1000 tons of ice every day, speeding up the cooling and lopping decades off the project’s timeline.

5. The first summer of construction on the Hoover Dam had record-breaking heat.

The giant fridge had its work cut out for it. Work on the Hoover Dam kicked off in April 1931, not long before Nevada’s Clark County weathered some of its hottest temperatures on record. The month of June delivered an average daily high of 119°F, prompting a wave of heatstroke among workers.

6. The Hoover Dam’s laborers were terrific showmen.

Native Americans employed on the construction of Hoover Dam as high-scalers.
A group of Native Americans who worked on the Hoover Dam as high scalers, 1932.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the punishing temperatures, construction attracted curious and enthralled spectators from across the country. Even more entertaining than the technological feats of the project were the death-defying antics of the “high scalers,” who rappelled down the Black Canyon to remove loose rock from the gorge’s walls. While one might expect such a job to be handled with extreme caution, the high scalers became famous for their playful, albeit ill-conceived, stunts.

Spectators were particularly fond of the antics of daredevil Louis Fagan, nicknamed “The Human Pendulum” and “One-Rope Fagan.” When teams worked on outcroppings in the canyon walls, they would move from one area to another by locking their arms and legs around Fagan and having him swing them to their next spot.

7. One heroic high scaler saved his boss’s life during construction on the Hoover Dam.

Fagan was impressive, but Oliver Cowan trumped his fellow high scalers when he snatched his falling supervisor right out of the sky. When Bureau of Reclamation engineer Burl R. Rutledge lost his hold on a safety line at the top of the canyon, he would have plummeted to his demise had Cowan, who was working 25 feet blow, not grabbed his leg as he fell. Shortly after the episode, the city of Las Vegas lobbied for a Carnegie Medal in recognition of the local man’s bravery.

8. The Hoover Dam’s chief engineer badmouthed his workers to the local press.

Not everyone was as impressed with the workforce. The hazards of the construction site and poor conditions in Ragtown contributed to the labor force’s decision to strike in 1931. A committee formed to express the workers’ demands, to which the project’s chief engineer and superintendent, Francis Trenholm Crowe, was defiantly unsympathetic. In fact, Crowe contested each of the team’s qualms with the suggestion of eagerness to have the workforce replaced. Print interviews in local news publications quoted Crowe as calling his men “malcontents” who he “would be glad to get rid of.” The hard line gambit worked, and eventually the laborers returned to work.

9. Nobody really wanted to name the dam after Herbert Hoover.

In retrospect, it seems strange that one of the country’s most impressive feats is named after one of its least beloved presidents. In fact, Hoover is understood to have only earned the honor through a political publicity stunt. In 1930, Secretary of the Interior Wilbur traveled to the site to mark the dam project’s official opening. He took advantage of the pageantry to declare, “I have the honor and privilege of giving a name to this new structure. In Black Canyon, under the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it shall be called the Hoover Dam.”

In other words, Wilbur named the dam after his boss. As Hoover was already widely maligned for his part in kicking off the Great Depression, the name was hotly contested. Wilbur’s successor, Harold L. Ickes, was a particularly vocal critic, and in 1933 he switched the in-progress structure’s name to “Boulder Dam.”

10. Herbert Hoover wasn’t even invited to the dam’s dedication.

Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam
Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam.
Bureau of Reclamation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ickes was hardly alone in his low opinion of Hoover. His own boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t think much of Hoover’s presidential acumen, either. When FDR oversaw the dedication of the still nebulously named dam in 1935, he declined to invite his predecessor and even refused to give Hoover the expected nod in his ceremonial speech.

11. The Hoover Dam didn’t officially take its name until 1947.

The dam spent the 14 years following Ickes’s proclamation without an official name. Ultimately, on April 30, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed a law authorizing the original Hoover handle, recognizing the 31st president’s hand in bringing the dam to life in the first place.

12. Nazis attempted to blow up the Hoover Dam.

In 1939, the United States government learned of a pair of German Nazi agents’ scheme to bomb the Hoover Dam and its power facilities. Destruction of the dam itself was not the central goal, but hampering its energy production was a key piece of the agents’ plan to undercut California’s aviation manufacturing industry. To ward off aerial attacks, authorities considered camouflaging the Hoover Dam with a paint job or even building a decoy dam downstream from the real thing. Ultimately, the Germans only managed to get as far as conducting onsite investigative work before their ploy was quashed, thanks to an increase in military security around the dam.

13. Today, the Hoover Dam helps power three states.

The dam’s energy helps keep the lights on for customers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. It creates enough power for 1.3 million people.

14. The Hoover Dam was once the world’s tallest dam.

When it was finished in 1936, the Hoover Dam was remarkable not only for having completed construction a full two years ahead of schedule, but also for its unprecedented stature. The Black Canyon structure stretched 726 feet from base to top, practically soaring above the old record holder, Oregon’s 420-foot-tall Owyhee Dam. After holding the height title for two decades, Hoover was at last outdone by Switzerland’s 820-foot-tall Mauvoisin Dam in 1957. Eleven years later, it lost its domestic title to California’s 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.