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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 too. However, it is beyond question that he was a one man think tank who had the 'ear' of Churchill and Mountbatten.

The Pre WW2 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 informed the Daily Chronicle that he planned to go to Berlin to send back dispatches to the paper. He arrived there safely, but was soon spotted by the German authorities who considered shooting him as a spy but sent him to an internment camp instead. He soon escaped with another English inmate and on his return the Daily Chronicle made him into a public hero which spawned a book about his exploits and numerous lectures and talks.

After WW1, he dabbled in the Stock Market making a small fortune which he spent founding his own school. It was the antithesis of his own schooling, where he was bullied, partly because he was a Jew and partly because his mother insisted on a special diet and different clothes from the other boys. The pupils at Pyke's school were never punished or reprimanded, or forced to learn any particular subjects; they were encouraged to have an enquiring mind and to find things out for themselves. It worked better than many expected but it was forced to close due to lack of funds.

During the Spanish Civil War he fitted Harley-Davidson motorbikes with sidecars that were designed to carry hot food to the front and to carry casualties back for treatment. He also invented a way to save coal by fitting bicycle pedals and appropriate transmissions to shunting engines! These were but portents of what was to come.

In 1939, when the outbreak of war seemed ever more likely, he recruited 10 students to conduct a clandestine public opinion poll of German citizens. His students, posing as golfers, conducted informal interviews whenever opportunities arose. He planned to present Hitler with the results of his unofficial opinion poll. The preliminary results showed that most Germans were against war but Pyke's scheme was overtaken by events when Hitler's intransigence over his invasion of Poland caused the UK and France to declare war on Germany.


The Romanian Oilfields. Pyke came to the attention of Churchill and Mountbatten and was recruited to the Combined Operations Command's think-tank, where he applied his uninhibited mind to problems and issues presented to him. One such was how best to assist a Commando raiding party to destroy the strongly defended Romania oilfields. It was a top secret operation for which Commandos were deployed to nearby Turkey on low profile duties pending orders to strike.

Suggestions from Pyke included; sending in a team of dogs which would howl like wolves causing the guards to flee, sending in a team of dogs with small barrels of brandy hung around their necks, St Bernard-style, so the guards would become drunk; sending in a team of women to [ahem] distract the men and starting a few small fires in the oilfields allowing the Commandos to drive around unchallenged, disguised as Romania firemen in replica fire-engines. Instead of putting out fires, they would stoke then up by spraying them with water containing with fused incendiary bombs.

The Motorised Sledge. The sledge would carry heavy loads across snow, controlled through reins by a soldier walking behind. In the event of the sledge falling into a crevasse, the driver would be saved! However, this left the driver exposed to gunfire and the elements so most preferred to ride inside the vehicle and to take their chances with crevasses.

The motorised sledge could easily be adapted to a torpedo or other explosive device and used tactically in particular situations. For example, it could be driven slowly up a slope tempting the enemy to investigate. The torpedo could then be released to roll down the hill onto the Germans and blowing them up! 

Furthermore, to prevent the Germans from tampering with any sledge they came across, each could carry a warning, in German, advising finders to keep clear of the "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 his motorised sledges in the Rockies where his scruffy appearance must have raised a few eyebrows. He was tall with a straggly beard, unkempt clothes and no socks. However, despite these concerns there was an imperative at the time to develop Pyke's concept as the "Ottawa Rewind" website explains.

"During World War 2, the chief industrial threat was the creation of heavy water used in the German atomic weapon research at Rjukan in Norway. In March 1942, an eccentric British inventor by the name of Geoffrey Pyke proposed an idea called Project Plough to Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations Headquarters in England. This idea would see Allied commandos parachuted into Norwegian mountains and establish a base on glaciers for commando attacks against the German army stationed there. These troops would be equipped with a radical new snow vehicle to disarm the Nazis and prevent Hitler from further developing nuclear capabilities. The special forces would require a snow vehicle that would be light enough to be carried in aircraft and dropped by parachute and be durable powerful and able to climb through all types of snow."

More information from the Ottawa Rewind website. [Photo above; The M29 Studebaker Weasel, in service with the US Army in WW2, was designed in Ottawa and based on an original idea of Geoffrey Pyke].

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.

Pyke 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. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just 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.

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).

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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.


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.

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