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, 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.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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).