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(1894 - 1948)

A short account of the life and times of Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke, variously described as a genius, an eccentric and less flattering names. However it is beyond question that he was a one man think tank who had the 'ear' of Churchill.

The Early Years WW2 A Motorised Sledge Habakkuk and Pykrete
A People Pipeline Mountbatten's Appreciation Further Reading Acknowledgments

The Early Years

Described by Lord Zuckerman as "not a scientist, but a man of a vivid and uncontrollable imagination, and a totally uninhibited tongue."

During WW1, he persuaded the Daily Chronicle that he had a plan to go to Berlin to send back dispatches to the paper. He managed to get there safely, but was soon spotted by the German authorities and they nearly shot him as a spy. He was sent to an internment camp, from which he managed to escape with another English inmate. The Daily Chronicle made him into a public hero, he wrote a book of his exploits and gave lectures.

After the war he dabbled in the Stock Market, made a small fortune, which he spent on founding his own school. The school was the antithesis of his own schooling, where he was bullied (partly because he was a Jew, partly because his mother insisted on a special diet and different clothes from the other boys), and the pupils were never punished or reprimanded, or forced to learn any particular subjects; they were encouraged to find things out for themselves. It worked, but he lost so much money on the school that it was forced to close.

During the Spanish Civil War he fitted Harley-Davidsons with sidecars that were designed to carry hot food to the front and to carry casualties back. He also invented a way to save coal - by fitting bicycle pedals to shunting engines!


In 1939, as war was imminent, he decided that the way to avert war would be to present the results of an opinion poll to Hitler showing that the majority of Germans were against war. He recruited some students, dressed them as golfers and sent them off to Germany with a clipboard in one hand and a bag of clubs in the other. Preliminary results showed that most Germans were against war, but in the meanwhile Hitler was obviously receiving other information and the plan had to be aborted due to the outbreak of war.

During WW2, he was recruited to the British Combined Operations think-tank, were he came up with some cracking ideas:

TOP SECRET: How to make it easier to for commandos to destroy the strongly defended Romania oilfields.

  •  Send in a team of dogs, the dogs would bay, the guards would think they were wolves and would flee.

  •  Send in a team of dogs with barrels of brandy round their necks, St Bernard-style, so the guards would get drunk.

  •  Send in a team of women to [ahem] distract the men.

  •  Start a few small fires, then the commandos could simply drive about the oilfields dressed as Romania firemen in replica fire-engines. Instead of putting out fires, the 'firemen' would stoke then up by spraying them with water mixed with fused incendiary bombs.

A Motorised Sledge

This was a motorised sledge controlled by a man walking behind holding reins, so that if the sledge fell into a crevasse, the driver didn't - unless he forgot to let go! Unfortunately this left the driver exposed to gunfire, and most preferred to ride inside and take their chances with crevasses.

A refinement was a sledge towing a torpedo. The sledge was to be driven slowly up a slope to tempt the Germans into giving chase. Half way up the slope the torpedo was to be released to roll down onto the Germans and blow them up! 

With added inspiration, to prevent the Germans from tampering with any sledge they came across, the sledges were to be marked with a sign in German warning them to keep clear as it was a secret Gestapo death ray, or "'Officers' Latrine for Colonels only" on the premise that were a very obedient race. 

Pyke was sent to America to experiment with the sledges in the Rockies, but the Pentagon weren't too impressed with the scruffy Pyke - tall, straggly beard, unkempt clothes and no socks (he once met the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, with his flies wide open because he couldn't close the zip) and they didn't appear to give the sledges a fair trial. None were ever used in Norway, but after the war the 'Weasel' played a vital part in polar exploration.

Project Habakkuk and Pykrete

Habakkuk was to be an enormous aircraft carrier half a mile long, with a hull 30 foot thick made from reinforced ice. The hull was to be made of 'Pykrete, a mixture of water and wood pulp frozen solid, which was stronger than ice, more stable and less inclined to melt. A ship made from Pykrete would be virtually unsinkable, a torpedo would only make a slight dent in the side that was quickly repaired. Pipes circulating cold air would keep the hull permanently frozen.

Huge ice ships, clad in timber or cork and looking like ordinary ships but much larger, several times the length of the Queen Mary the largest ship of the time, would serve as transports and aircraft carriers, while smaller ships would be adapted to attack enemy ports. The plan was for them to sail into the port and capture enemy warships by spraying them with super-cooled water, encasing them in ice and forcing them to surrender. Blocks of Pykrete would them be used to build a barrier round the port, making an impregnable fortress. From there special teams would spread out into the countryside, spraying railway tunnels with super-cooled water to seal them up and paralyze transport.

Lord Mountbatten, head of Combined Ops, loved the idea so much that he rushed in to Churchill's bathroom and dropped a lump into his hot bath to demonstrate that it resisted melting. Mountbatten later demonstrated it's strength to a group of generals at the Quebec Conference by inviting one of them to take an axe to an ordinary block of ice and a block of Pykrete. The block of ice was shattered with a single blow, but when the axe was brought down on the block of Pykrete the general let out a yelp of pain as his arms were nearly jarred out of their sockets. Mountbatten then demonstrated its impregnability by drawing his revolver and firing at the Pykrete block, but unfortunately the bullet ricocheted off the solid lump and narrowly missed decapitating one of the generals.

A prototype Pykrete ship was built on a Canadian lake and it lasted through a hot summer without melting. Unfortunately the Normandy landings made the need for ice ships unnecessary, and they paid no part in the war.

A People Pipeline

An idea for a pipeline for pumping men and equipment from ship to shore, or across difficult terrain.

He often worked from his bed so as not to waste time by getting up and dressing, and he would summon military chiefs to bedside conferences in his Hampstead flat among piles of papers, bottles and other debris. After the war he helped the fledgling National Health Service solve staffing problems. He wrote articles and made broadcasts, hoping to introduce his ideas to influential people. The more he studied the world, the more hopeless and pessimistic he became. One winter evening in 1948, when he was still only fifty four, he shaved off his beard, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and said goodbye to an unappreciative world.

Mountbatten's Appreciation

In October 1943 Mountbatten left Combined Operations Headquarters for the Far East. On his last day in charge of Combined Operations he wrote to Pyke...

Combined Operations Headquarters
1a Richmond Terrace
Whitehall SW1

Dear Pyke,

I am leaving C.O.H.Q. today and feel that I must write to thank you for all you have done for me during the past eighteen months.

You must feel proud to think that the force, the creation of which you originally suggested to me in March 1942, has become such a vital necessity in the coming stage of the war that General Eisenhower and the C-in-C Middle East are vying between them to try to obtain the services of this force, probably the most bold and imaginative scheme of this war, and owing its inception to you. It is still too secret to refer to it in a letter of this nature, but one day I feel that you will be able to look with pride on this child of your imagination.

My Chief Planners told me that you have on more than one occasion contributed valuable suggestions to their plans and in general I consider that the original thoughts which you have contributed to this Headquarters have been of the utmost value to the war effort.

I am arranging for you to help the Director of Plans, Admiralty after I leave.

Your sincerely

Louis Mountbatten

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.

See Ice Ships in the Rockies

Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions, by John Mitchell (Citadel Press/Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0-8065-1031-5)
Timpson's English Eccentrics, by John Timpson (Jarrold, ISBN 0-7117-0559-3 hardback, 0-7117-0683-2 paperback)
Pyke, the Unknown Genius, by David Lampe (dated 1959)


Thanks to Pete Hall for this page about Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke.

News & Information


Memorial Maintenance

We have a small band of volunteers who take turns to visit the memorial each month, particularly during the growing season, to undertake routine maintenance such as weeding keeping the stones and slabs clear of bird dropping, lichen etc. and reporting on any issues. If you live near the National Memorial Arboretum and would like to find out more, please contact us.

Remember a Veteran

You can pay a personal tribute to veterans who served in, or alongside, the Combined Operations Command in WW2 by adding their details and optional photo to our Roll of Honour and They Also Served pages on this website.

Read the Combined Operations prayer.

Forthcoming Events

To organisers: Reach the people who will be interested to know about your Combined Operations or war related event by adding it to our forthcoming events page free of charge.

To everyone else; Visit our forthcoming events page for things to see and places to visit. If you know of an event of possible interest, that is not listed, please let us know.

To notify an event click here.

To visit the webpage click here.


Why not join the thousands who visit our Facebook page about the Combined Operations Command in appreciation of our WW2 veterans.

See the 'slide shows' of the dedication ceremony and the construction of the memorial plus the 'On this day in 194?' feature where major Combined Ops events are highlighted on their anniversary dates with links to additional information.

You are welcome to add information, photos and comment or reply to messages posted by others.

Find Books of Interest 

Search for Books direct from our Books page. Don't have the name of a book in mind? Just type in a keyword to get a list of possibilities... and if you want to purchase you can do so on line through the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). 5% commission goes into the memorial fund.

WW2 Combined Operations Handbook

This handbook was prepared for Combined Operations in the Far East. It illustrates the depth and complexity of the planning process necessary to ensure that the 3 services worked together as a unified force.

Restoration of Geoffrey Appleyard's  Memorial 

Click on the image if you'd like to contribute to the improvement of the memorial to Geoffrey Appleyard, DSO, MC and Bar, through the purchase of a limited edition print of a book about him. Geoffrey achieved so much in service with No 7 Commando, No 62 Commando, the Small Scale Raiding Force and the Second SAS Regiment. He was posted Missing in Action in July 1943, aged 26.


The Gazelle Helicopter Squadron Display Team

The Gazelle Squadron is a unique team of ex-British Military Gazelle helicopters in their original military colours and with their original military registrations. The core team includes four Gazelles, one from each service; The Royal Navy, The Royal Marines, The Army Air Corps and The Royal Air Force. A fifth Gazelle in Royal Marines colours will provide intimate support for the team. Their crest includes the Combined Operations badge. The last, and possibly, only time the badge was seen on an aircraft was in the early mid 40s. A photo of the Hurricane concerned is included in the 516 Squadron webpage.

Legasee Film Archive

As part of an exciting social history project, the film company Legasee is looking for veterans from any conflict who would like to have their stories filmed for posterity. Films are now available on line. www.legasee.org.uk

New to Combined Ops?

Visit Combined Operations Explained for an easy introduction to the subject.

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