(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions, by John Mitchell (Citadel Press/Thames & Hudson, ISBN