NATHANIEL PYKE ~
(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, Pyke
informed the Daily Chronicle that he planned to go to Berlin to send back
dispatches to the paper. On arrival, he soon came to the attention of the German authorities who,
apparently, considered shooting him as a
spy, but decided instead to intern him in a camp. Accompanied by another
Englishman, he escaped back to England where the Daily Chronicle turned him into a public hero!
He subsequently wrote a book
about his exploits and undertook numerous lectures and talks.
After WW1, he dabbled in
the Stock Market making a small fortune which he used to fund his own school. It
was the antithesis of his own experience of education when he was bullied
because he was a Jew, because his mother insisted on a special diet for him and
because he wore different clothes
from the other boys. The pupils at Pyke's school were never punished, reprimanded
or forced to study any
particular subjects. They were, however, encouraged to develop an enquiring mind
and to find things out for themselves. It worked better than many expected but
the school was
forced to close when the funds ran out.
During the Spanish Civil War, he fitted Harley-Davidson
motorbikes with sidecars designed to carry hot
food to the front line and casualties back for treatment. He also proposed to save coal by fitting bicycle pedals
and appropriate transmissions to shunting engines! These were but portents of
what was to come.
In 1939, as the prospect
of war seemed more and more inevitable, he recruited 10 students to undertake a
clandestine public opinion poll of German citizens. His students, posing as
golfers, conducted informal interviews whenever opportunities arose. The
preliminary results showed that most Germans were against war but, before Pyke
could submit the results to Hitler, war was declared when Germany invaded
The Romanian Oilfields. Pyke
was recruited to the
Combined Operations Command's think-tank, where his uninhibited mind considered
problems and issues presented to him. An early scenario concerned Commando raids
to destroy strongly defended Romanian oilfields. In readiness for this,
Commandos were deployed to Turkey on low profile duties to allow them to strike
at short notice if/when the order was given.
Pyke's suggestions included; 1) using
a team of dogs to howl like wolves causing the guards to flee in fear of their
2) providing copious supplies of alcohol for the guards to reduce their
efficiency. This would be achieved by releasing dogs carrying small barrels of brandy
around their necks, St Bernard-style and 3) diverting the guard's attention from
security to the prospect of sex by deploying a team of women
in the area. Meantime, numerous small fires would be started around the
oilfields giving the Commandos the opportunity to drive around unchallenged, disguised as Romanian
firemen in replica fire-engines. Rather than dousing fires, they would spread
them by deploying small, timed incendiary bombs through their fire hoses.
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 just let go! However, this left the driver exposed to gunfire and
the elements so most operators 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 mobile 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!
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.]
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 all Germans obeyed orders!
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.
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 to 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.
Project Habakkuk and Pykrete. Habakkuk was to be an enormous aircraft carrier half a mile long, with a hull 30 foot thick made from
a frozen mixture of water and wood pulp, which was infinitely stronger than ice
alone, more stable and
less inclined to melt. A ship made from this frozen material, which later became
known as 'Pykerete', would be virtually unsinkable. A torpedo, for example,
would only cause relatively minor damage to the outside that could be quickly repaired. Pipes circulating cold air, would keep the hull
Huge ice ships clad in
timber or cork, would superficially look much like ordinary ships but several times
the length of the Queen Mary, the largest ship of the time. They would serve as
transports and aircraft carriers, while smaller ships would be adapted to attack
enemy ports. One plan envisaged the capture enemy warships by spraying them with super-cooled water, encasing
them in ice and forcing them to surrender. Using blocks of Pykrete, a barrier
would be constructed around the port, making it 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
Lord Mountbatten, head
of Combined Ops, took the idea to Churchill. He dropped a lump of Pykrete into his hot bath to demonstrate its
resistance to melting. Mountbatten later demonstrated its superior strength to a group of generals
at the Quebec Conference. Mountbatten then demonstrated its impregnability by firing at the Pykrete
block. The bullet just ricocheted off the solid lump to the danger of everyone
A prototype ice ship was
built on a Canadian lake. Full story here.
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
to make the most of his waking hours. He would hold 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, wrote articles and broadcasts
on radio hoping to capture the interest of influential
people. However, he wasn't successful in this and he became increasingly pessimistic
about the world. One evening in the winter of 1948, at the age of 54, he shaved off his beard, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and said goodbye to an unappreciative world.
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
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.
There are around 300 books listed on
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Ice Ships in the Rockies
Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions, by John Mitchell (Citadel Press/Thames & Hudson, ISBN
Timpson's English Eccentrics, by John Timpson (Jarrold, ISBN 0-7117-0559-3 hardback, 0-7117-0683-2 paperback)
Unknown Genius, by David Lampe (dated 1959).