Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke (9 November 1893 – 22 February 1948) was an English journalist; a spy and spy master; an educationalist and later an inventor whose clever, but unorthodox, ideas could be difficult to implement. In lifestyle and appearance, he fitted the common stereotype of a scientist-engineer-inventor or in British slang, a "boffin". Pyke is particularly known for his innovative proposals for weapons of war, most especially the material pykrete and the proposed construction of the ship Habakkuk from it.
Pyke's father, Lionel Edward Pyke, was a Jewish lawyer who died when he was only five years old, leaving his family with no money. His mother quarrelled with relatives and made life "hell" for her children. She sent Pyke to Wellington, then a typical public school mainly for the sons of Army officers; there, it is said that Pyke maintained the dress and habits of an Othodox Jew. The persecution of which he was a victim instilled him with a hatred of and contempt for the establishment. After two years at Wellington, he was withdrawn, tutored privately and then admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge to study law.
When World War I broke out, Pyke stopped his studies to become a war correspondent. He had also been asked to write letters for the Cambridge Magazine. He persuaded the editor of the Daily Chronicle to send him to Berlin the passport obtained from an American sailor and by travelling via Denmark.
In Germany, he was able to converse with Germans and to see that civilian life there was nothing like as grim as had been portrayed in the British national press. He eavesdropped on other peoples conversations and witnessed the mobilisation of Germans for war with Russia - seeing dozens of trains packed with soldiers travelling with seemingly clockwork precision.
After just six days in Germany, Pyke was arrested in his bed-sitting room; he was taken away leaving a highly incriminating letter - written in English - on his desk. His guards told him "Probably you'll be shot in the morning". He was confined to a small cell, convinced that he would soon be executed. As time passed, Pyke came to believe that he might not be executed after all; he rationalised to himself that "...the German government was not going to waste 4d on my keep if it was going to be faced with burial expenses on the fifth day".
Pyke was kept in solitary confinement. He used this time to think. Reflecting on his constant hunger - the rations were meagre - he thought:
...hunger — real hunger — not your going without afternoon tea, or no-eggs-at-breakfast sort of affair — can, when a man is utterly without occupation, make life one continual aching weary desire. If the desire is not satisfied, or does not abate of its own accord (as it very often does), it can have disastrous effects on a man's mind. It has been know to make men think very seriously about the rights of property, and a few have become so unbalanced as to become socialists.
Pyke longed for books, writing materials, and, above all, company. At the rare exercise times when no talking was allowed, he moved briskly round the yard, exchanging a few whispered words with the inmates he passed. He pieced together poems from memory - If by Rudyard Kipling and Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll - and took to regularly reciting them loudly in the darkness. He even asked to see Herr Direktor for permission to whistle occasionally - his request was granted. Given his increasingly odd behaviour, Pyke wondered whether the guards thought he may be going a little mad, and he himself wondered if going mad was the only sane thing to do.
After 13 weeks he was taken to another prison where he was able to mix with other prisoners and buy such luxuries as newspapers. More importantly, he learned that thousands of foreigners had passed through this prison for a period of quarantine before being transferred to the internment camp at Ruhleben; having received no indication of his ultimate fate, the thought of being sent to an internment camp cheered him considerably. However, after just five days he was transferred to his third prison in Moabit. Five days later, he was taken to the internment camp at Ruhleben.
Ruhleben was about west of Berlin. It had originally been a racecourse and Pyke was given a small bed in the cramped barracks that had been converted from a stable block. Here he delighted in the novel sounds of human conversation that he had so missed, he listened intently to the inconsequential conversations, trifling arguments and even the cursing of his fellow human beings.
Pyke soon fell in with a group of fellow graduates from Oxford and Cambridge; his new friends supplied him with extra clothes against the winter cold and, for the first few days of their new acquaintance, with extra food. Books and other amusements were shared. The internees were allowed to run their own affairs to a substantial degree and they were allowed to make purchases and receive parcels from home. There was a thriving black-market in permitted, but rare, luxuries such as soap and forbidden items such as alcohol and English newspapers.
Pyke soon became ill, he nearly died of double pneumonia and he suffered repeatedly from food poisoning. Only as the weather improved with the coming of summer did his health improve. Despite illness, he constantly thought about the possibility of escape and he repeatedly questioned his fellow inmates. Most people he spoke to were pessimistic about escape, but eventually he met fellow Englishman Edward Falk who wanted desperately to get out of Germany. Others had tried to escape: a few had gotten out of the camp, but nobody had succeeded in getting out of Germany. Geoffrey began compiling statistical data on these escape attempts so as to find the common failing factors; one of his key discoveries was that all the attempts had been at night, therefore, he and Falk would escape during the day. Pyke and Falk reviewed many possible plans and finally made a decision.
For weeks before their escape attempt, Pyke and Falk followed a regime of callisthenic exercise, which they said had been recommended to them by a Danish inmate who was a cardiac specialist. In fact, the Dane was a product of Pyke’s imagination as were the exercises: various crawling wriggles that they would soon put to good use.
There was a tiny shed on the exercise ground that was used to store athletic equipment. Pyke had noticed that in the late afternoon the sun’s rays flashed through the window blinding with glare anybody who looked inside. On the afternoon of 9 June 1915, Pyke and Falk crept into the hut and hid themselves under tennis nets. At the usual time, the guard dutifully checked the inside of the hut and, even though the prisoners could clearly see him, the guard saw nothing amiss. They waited until dark and then slipped out and climbed over a succession of perimeter fences.
Pyke and Falk camped at a spot near where Pyke had previously observed German troop trains and then took a tram into Berlin. They bought clothes and camping equipment and then booked a train westward. As they got within of the Dutch border, they decided it was safest to walk. It rained every night and they used up precious time searching for food.
As they walked they had to wait patiently at every bridge and railway crossing for the optimum moment to get over; they got soaked crossing endless ditches and repeatedly negotiated agricultural barbed wire fences and nearly got swallowed up in the quagmire.
Approaching the border, they consumed what remained of their food and discarded all their equipment apart from some rope they had made from a ball of string. They moved on, ready for the final and most difficult stage of their journey - crossing the Dutch frontier. Then, as they rested they were discovered by a soldier who demanded to know what they were doing. Initially they tried to talk their way out of the encounter, but it soon transpired that the soldier was Dutch and they were already or so inside Holland.
Pyke and Falk made their way from Holland back to England. There, Pyke went to see his news editor to confess that his mission had failed. However, his editor was not at all disappointed, smiling, he told Pyke that the story of his escape, based on a long telegraph report Pyke had sent from Amsterdam, had been one of the biggest Fleet Street scoops of the war: Pyke was the first Englishman to get into Germany and out again, and he must write a series of articles for the Chronicle. Pyke refused, he had, by now, rather lost interest in being a war correspondent. After that he divided his time between lecturing on his experiences and founding, with others, the Cambridge Magazine.
Pyke arranged for some food parcels to be sent to friends in Ruhleben, concealed in a false bottom the boxes contained details of his method of escape. Although his parcels arrived unmolested, no prisoner attempted to repeat his methods.
Pyke spent the period soon after his escape on lecture tours in which he described his experiences. As an escaped prisoner of war, he was immune from conscription and in any case, his views now drifted towards pacifism. He wrote a memoir of his experiences entitled To Ruhleben - And Back, published in 1916. Because the war was still on at that time, Pyke omitted some details of his escape from his account. To Ruhleben - And Back was republished in 2002.
In March 1918, Pyke met Margaret Amy Chubb, she was intelligent, pretty, and attracted to Pyke's unconventional good looks and wilful unconventionality. They were married within three months of meeting.
Pyke tried his hand at a number of money-making schemes. For a while, he speculated heavily on the commodity market and used his own system of financial management instead of more conventional techniques. He worked through a number of different stockbrokers so that no one of them would realise the large amount he was investing, thereby avoiding higher stock broking charges.
The Pykes had a son, David (1921–2001). Pyke became preoccupied by the question of his son's education. He wanted to create an education that promoted curiosity and equipped young people to live in the twentieth century - an experience of education that would be utterly different to his own. To do this, in October 1924 he set up an infants' school in his Cambridge home. His wife, Margaret, was a strong supporter of the school and its ideas. Pyke recruited psychologist Susan Sutherland Isaacs to run the school; although Pyke had many original ideas regarding education, he promised her that he would not interfere.
Pyke continued with his city speculations which funded the Malting House School.
The Malting House School was based on the theories of the American philosopher and educationist John Dewey, it fostered the individual development of children; children were given great freedom and were supported rather than punished. The teachers were seen as observers of the children who were seen as research workers. For a short time, The Maltings was a critical if not a commercial success; it was visited by many educationists and it was the subject of a film documentary. Pyke had ambitious plans for the school and began to interfere with the day-to-day running, whereupon Susan Isaacs left The Maltings.
In 1927, Pyke lost all his money; he was bankrupt. The Malting House School was forced to close, Margaret Pyke had to take a job as headmistress's secretary; she left Geoffrey although they were never divorced. Already suffering from periodic fits of depression and burdened with huge debts to his brokers, he now withdrew from normal life altogether and existed on donations from his close friends.
In 1934, Nazis in Germany announced the creation of an institute for the study of Jewish history and culture. Hitler said that it would be endowed with unlimited funds for scholars who would establish "scientifically" why world Jewry should be exterminated. Pyke was incensed by this, not because it represented a personal threat, but because of its inhumanity. Pyke decided to campaign for Christian leaders to make simultaneous public statements condemning the Nazi move. He raised money to set up an organisation to combat anti-Semitism, although this did not succeed. He wrote a number of magazine articles on the irrationality of prejudice and started work on a book, but became distracted by other injustices.
With the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, Pyke supported the British Voluntary Industrial Aid organisation. Voluntary Industrial Aid encouraged those who had little money to contribute their time and skills instead. Organised by Trade Unions, workers were, with the assistance of sympathetic employers who lent the use of machines and premises, able to produce useful item of equipment. In Spain, ambulances were in short supply. Pyke invented a motorcycle sidecar to carry medical supplies or a patient. He raised funds to pay for powerful, American-built Harley-Davidson motorcycles that were then plentifully available second-hand, and persuaded workers to make the sidecars free of charge and the results were sent out to Spain.
Pyke also assisted in arranging for the manufacture of mattresses for the Spanish government, for the collection of redundant horse-drawn ploughs for Spanish farmers, and bundles of hand-tools for use by labourers. He published aggressive propaganda brochures pointing out that British workers were not to consider their contributions a form of charity while Spanish people were fighting and dying for their fellow workers.
To answer a shortage of bandages and dressings in Spain, he recalled that in the First World War, sun dried sphagnum moss sewn into muslin bags was used as a substitute for cotton dressings. Soon, moss collected by volunteers in Britain was on its way to Spain.
Throughout this period Pyke was short-tempered with other supporters of the Spanish loyalists; at meetings, he could not understand why his own plans where not wholeheartedly supported by others; he was frequently loud and rude.
In 1938, Pyke took great pleasure in his son's acceptance as a junior member of a US medical research unit. It pleased him that his son described the work as "beautiful" - to Pyke the most beautiful thing would always be pure research: the acquisition of new knowledge for its own sake. David Pyke went on to become an expert in Diabetes.
In the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two, Pyke considered the problem of finding out exactly what the German people actually thought of the Nazi regime. His idea was to perform an opinion poll in secret by sending volunteers to Germany to interview ordinary people. He would train the volunteers personally. The plan was that the interviewers should pose as golfers on a tour of Germany and that interviews should be informal with the questions being inserted into everyday conversation, the first German city to be targeted would be Frankfurt. After the volunteers had been in Germany for a few days, Pyke himself travelled to Frankfurt where he met Peter Raleigh (later a TV journalist) who was not expecting him. Raleigh jokingly suggested that there were enough of Pyke's golfers in Germany to challenge the Frankfurt golf club to a match. Ruminating on this, Pyke concluded that this would be an excellent idea in all sorts of ways, he put this new plan into action and returned to London. By 21 August, Pyke had ten interviewers working in Germany and turning in excellent results. Although things went more slowly than Pyke had hoped, the interviewers experienced little real difficulty, and if they were suspected by the subjects it was that they were Police informants or Gestapo officers rather than British spies. On 25 August, following hints from his contacts at the Foreign Office, Pyke recalled all his agents and they arrived back in England over the following few days. Pyke's original idea had been to present Hitler with an account of the true feelings of the German people, with the outbreak of war, it was too late for that. Raleigh and Patrick Smith did make a broadcast on the newly formed BBC World Service in which they contrasted the mood in Germany with that in London and Pyke prepared a report for the War Office.
Pyke tried to generate interest in his opinion poll results and in repeating the exercise using people from neutral countries in Germany. He got little support, but did attract the attention of Conservative Member of Parliament, Leo Amery. Amery did think that Pyke's idea was worthwhile and privately convinced others including Clement Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps. Still, nothing was done and Pyke ranted at the frustration of what seemed to be official obstinacy. Pyke's influential friends eventually concluded that nothing would come of the scheme and reluctantly persuaded Pyke to let the matter drop.
Pyke turned his inventive mind to the problems of fighting a modern war. He wrote at some length on grand strategy and worked on a number of ideas for practical inventions. Inspired by the sight of barrage balloons, he conceived the idea of using them to mount microphones allowing the location of aircraft to be ascertained by triangulation. Of course, Pyke had no idea that the development of radar provided a much better means of achieving this effect.
With the invasion of Norway, Pyke considered the problem of transporting soldiers rapidly over snow. He proposed the development of a vehicle based on an old patent called the Armstead snow motor. This consisted of a pair of lightweight cylinders, shaped like very large artillery shells, to support the weight of the vehicle. These cylinders have a spiral flange that digs into the snow; when the cylinders turn (in opposite directions), the vehicle is propelled forwards. Pyke envisaged that a small force of highly mobile soldiers could occupy the attentions of many enemy soldiers who would be required to guard against every possible point of attack.
In October 1941, Louis Mountbatten replaced Roger Keyes as Chief of Combined Operations. This completely changed the character of the department and Mountbatten found room for all sorts of people with unusual talents and ideas. Amery, now with a position in government as Secretary of State for India, wrote to Mountbatten recommending that Pyke's Norway scheme, originally rejected by Keyes, be re-examined and that Mountbatten should take Pyke onto his staff.
Mountbatten became convinced that Pyke's plan was worthwhile and adopted it. The scheme became Operation Plough and many high-level conferences were dedicated to it. When a single sheet précis of the plan was presented to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he notes in the minutes of the meeting:
Never in the history of human conflict will so few immobilize so many.
The problem of developing a suitable vehicle was passed to the Americans, eventually leading to the creation of the more conventionally designed M29 Weasel and to the formation of the American-Canadian commando unit the 1st Special Service Force.
In April 1942, Pyke was presented with the problem of how to prevent the icing of ships in Arctic waters. He took the problem to Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge; Perutz soon proposed a solution. It was about this time that Pyke thoughts began to turn to the possibilities of using ice as a weapon of war and at the end of September 1942, Pyke sent a 232 page memorandum to Mountbatten detailing his ideas.
Pyke’s memorandum suggested a number of uses for ice and for super cooled water – water that has been cooled below its freezing point while remaining liquid. Most famously, he suggested the construction of gigantic aircraft carriers from ice that was either frozen naturally or artificially. Whereas conventional aircraft carriers were restricted to relatively small, specialised aircraft, these giants could launch and land conventional fighters and bombers. As such, they could provide air cover for convoys in mid-Atlantic, staging posts for long flights over seas or as launch pads for amphibious assaults on France or Japan. A biography of Pyke by David Lampe indicates that he had at this early date, decided to use ice reinforced with wood fibres, but other accounts make it clear that this is not the case.
Pyke's memorandum included a couple of cover notes, the first requested that Mountbatten should read the suggestions himself before allowing it to fall into the hands of "that damned fool Lushington". The second, longer, note ask that Mountbatten read the first thirty pages of the memorandum before deciding whether it was worthwhile to continue "It may be gold: it may only glitter. I can't tell. I have been hammering at it too long and am blinded".
Mountbatten read the first few pages and skimmed through the rest of the document. He did not have time to read it thoroughly, but instead handed it to Brigadier Wildman-Lushington somewhat earlier than Pyke might have wished. Lushington, with the assistance of Professor Bernal, concluded that Pyke's main proposals were feasible.
In December 1942, Prime Minister Churchill issued a directive that research on the project should be pressed forward with the highest priority and he expressed the opinion that nature be allowed to do as much of the work as possible. The Fleet Air Arm required a freeboard of at least for the operation of aircraft and the normally land-based fighters and bombers to be flown off the berg ship required a runway long and wide. It soon became clear that ice cut from natural ice flows would not be suitable because the ice was too thin — rarely exceeding — and icebergs were unsuitable because their surface above water was too small. Experiments to determine the mechanical strength of ice were made in the UK and in Canada, the results were disappointing as ice was found to be an unreliable structural material, using it in the manner suggested would be dangerous.
In February 1943, the prospects of the project were transformed. Pyke had learned from a report by Herman Mark and his assistant Walter Holenstein that ice made from water mixed with wood fibres formed a strong solid mass – very much stronger than pure water ice. Mark had been in Vienna, but had by 1940 escaped from Nazi Europe to USA. Scientists working for Pyke at the Brooklyn Polytechnic's Cold Research Laboratory experimented with mixtures of between 4 and 14% wood pulp and their initial tests gave fantastic results. The composition was at first known a piccolite and was later called pykrete. Pyke handed Herman Mark's report to Max Perutz (who had been a student of Physical chemistry under Mark in Vienna) who developed the pykrete idea in a requisitioned meat store at Smithfield Market, in a series of experiments, he confirmed Mark's results and found that ice made with as little as 4% wood pulp was, weight for weight, as strong as concrete.
Mountbatten’s reaction to the breakthrough is recorded by Lampe:
What happened next was explained several years after the war by Lord Mountbatten in a widely-quoted after-dinner speech. "I was sent to Checkers to see the Prime Minister and was told he was in his bath. I said, 'Good, that's exactly where I want him to be.' I nipped up the stairs and called out to him, 'I have a block of a new material which I would like to put in your bath.' After that he suggested that I should take it to the Quebec Conference."
The demonstration in Churchill's streaming bath had been most dramatic. After the outer film of ice on the small pykrete cube had melted, the freshly exposed wood pulp kept the remainder of the block from thawing.
As an after dinner speech, Mountbatten’s story may have been elaborated somewhat to entertain his audience — the mental image of Churchill in his bath perhaps smoking one of his trademark cigars is rather amusing — and the incident may have been entirely imaginary. The story does, however, convey the sense of excitement generated by the discovery.
The project to build a giant aircraft carrier of pykrete was known as Project Habakkuk.
As plans for the great ship evolved, it soon became apparent that the requirement for a freeboard could only be achieved with a hollow vessel: a solid mass of pykrete would have had an unfeasibly deep draft. Even so, a ship long and wide with thick walls would require a draft of and would displace 2,200,000 tons. Its construction, from an untried material, would be a quite staggering undertaking. For the sake of simplicity, the ship was given the shape of a hollow square beam with bevelled edges to reduce drag and the outside walls were to be surrounded by a waterproof insulating skin.
Extensive testing showed that in its resistance to projectiles and explosives, pykrete was weight for weight as good as concrete. A revolver bullet would cause only insignificant damage: a crater wide and deep. From the results of underwater explosive tests, it was calculated that a torpedo hit would produce a crater in diameter and deep. Pykrete aircraft carriers would be slow, at about , but with their thick walls they would be impervious to bombs and torpedoes.
Although pykrete was mechanically strong, it would, like ice, slowly deform when subjected to a constant pressure, a phenomenon technically known as creep. Experiments showed that different sources of wood pulp performed differently, with Canadian spruce being superior to Scotch pine; in the case of Canadian spruce pulp, creep would effectively stop after an initial period of sagging lasting a few weeks provided that the temperature of pykrete was kept below . The ship design included refrigeration plants that circulated compressed air at through U-shaped ducts.
Despite considerable work, the project never got beyond the early planning stage. The manufacture of such a large quantity of pykrete was a formidable difficulty and the problem of steering the great ship had never really been resolved. In the meantime, the range of aircraft had increased significantly, so as to close the Atlantic gap and the American island hopping programme had advanced sufficiently to make such floating islands unnecessary. Finally, the most modern land based aircraft were now so heavy that they required longer runways that even Habakkuk could provide.
Pyke's original memorandum mentioned other applications for pykrete such as building landing ships for the prospective invasion of Japan and for quickly constructing fortifications at a beachhead by spraying an existing building with pykrete liquid that would freeze into a thick layer. Many of these ideas relied upon a misplaced faith in the qualities of supercooled water which he thought could be used as a weapon of war: pumped from a ship it could be used to instantly form bulwarks of ice or even be sprayed directly onto enemy soldiers. However, such ideas were, according to Max Perutz, quite impractical.
In September 1943, Pyke proposed a slightly less ambitious plan for pykrete vessels to be used in support of an amphibious assault. He proposed a pykerete monitor long and wide mounting a single naval gun turret; this could be self-powered or towed to where it would be used. He also suggested the use of pykerete to make breakwaters and landing stages. At the time, Max Perutz thought the ideas were practical and that the preceding research on pykerete was sufficiently advanced to allow Pyke's plan to executed. The plan was not put into action, but for the allied invasion of Normandy a system of preconstructed concrete breakwaters and landing stages called Mulberry was employed. Pyke's plans hint that he had some knowledge of the Mulberry plans, perhaps through his contacts with Professor Bernal who was one of Mulberry's progenitors.
In late 1943, Pyke submitted to Mountbatten a memorandum, nearly fifty pages long, explaining his ideas for a solution to the problem of unloading stores from ships where no proper port facilities are available and few roads inland. This circumstance was common in the Pacific war theatre and a significant military problem. The essence of Pyke's idea was to use pipes of the type that were used to transport fuel from ship to shore, to move sealed containers that would contain any type of sufficiently small material objects. Pyke suggested that four- or six-inch (152 mm) pipes would handle smaller equipment and larger objects could be passed through two-foot pipes. Furthermore, there was no reason why the pipes should stop at the shore, they could be extended inland as required. Professor Bernal gave a cautious endorsement to the idea, adding that it would require a great deal of investigation.
Pykes idea was similar to the cleaning brushes that are sometimes forced along pipes by the pressure of the fluid and today pipeline pigs are used for cleaning and telemetry.
A little later, Pyke proposed, tentatively, that his idea for "Power-Driven Rivers" could be extended to the transport of personnel. The pipes would need to be at least two feet in diameter and the pressures would have to be high. He worked out some rough ideas for supplying the passengers with oxygen and suggested that the problem of claustrophobia might be ameliorated by travelling in pairs and by the judicious use of barbiturate drugs.
The whole experience (of riding in a pipe) however should be far less unpleasant, and take very much less time to become used to, than parachute jumping, or being bombed.
Pyke proposed that this system could be used to move people from ship to shore, from island to island, through swamps and over mountains - anywhere where conventional transport was difficult.
The idea was never taken up. Pyke did not appreciate that it was not practicable to construct a pipeline without first building a road, and a pipeline would be militarily very vulnerable.
Mountbatten values Pyke not just for his original ideas, but because he prompted his other staff to think less conservatively.
Pyke continued his flow of ideas to make a better world. One suggestion for the problems of energy-starved post-war Europe was to propel railway wagons by human muscle power - employing 20 to 30 men on bicycle-like mechanisms to pedal a cyclo-tractor. Pyke reasoned that the energy in a pound of sugar cost about the same as an equivalent energy in the form of coal and that while Europe had plenty of sugar and unemployed people, there was a shortage of coal and oil. He recognised that such the use of human muscle power was in some ways distasteful, but he could not see that the logic of arguments about calories and coal were unlikely to be sufficiently persuasive.
Pyke was given a commission to look into the problems of the National Health Service and, characteristically, made his contribution as a part of a minority report. He remained eager to convey his unconventional ideas, he wrote and broadcast. He campaigned against the death penalty, and for government support of UNICEF But the more he thought about trying to achieve a better world, the more pessimistic he became - it seemed that human nature was antithetical to innovation in general and his ideas in particular. He was widely mocked in the media of the time, even in left-wing publications. A sense of gloom overtook him.
In the evening of Saturday 21 February 1948, Pyke shaved his beard and consumed a bottleful of sleeping pills. His landlady found his body the following Monday morning. The coroner gave a verdict of suicide at a moment of mental unbalance. Immediately before consuming the pills, he had written some private letters that made it clear that his death was premeditated.
An obituary in The Times newspaper praised him and lamented his passing, beginning with the words:
Professor Bernal, who knew Pyke well, wrote: