Churchill's Iceman - Geoffrey Pyke, inventor, genius, fugitive, spy - by Henry Hemming
Geoffrey Pyke lived most of his life as if it was an experiment. The idea he wanted to test was simple enough: that he could solve any problem, and what’s more, so could anyone else. There followed one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century.
Born in 1893, the cousin of the television presenter Magnus, Geoffrey Pyke decided in 1914, in the weeks after the outbreak of war, that it might be fun to smuggle himself into Berlin – which is what he did. He was eventually caught, whereupon he pulled off the first successful escape from Germany of the war. He was just 21.
In the 1920s he set up a revolutionary kindergarten inspired by Freud. To pay for it he speculated on the metals market using a financial model he had concocted himself. It worked and he earned a fortune. The school went on to change the landscape of British pre-school education. In 1934 he predicted the Nazi Holocaust and suggested an institution to debunk the myth of anti-Semitism. He also came up with the idea of the Mass Observation Movement and the following year established a charity in which volunteers all over the country gave time and expertise to provide the Spanish Republicans with industrial aid.
In 1938 he reached the conclusion, like so many others, that there would soon be war. What set Pyke apart was his subsequent decision to find a way to stop it. In the summer of 1939 he sent into Nazi Germany a team of undercover pollsters disguised as eccentric English tourists. Pyke had tasked them with conducting a Gallup poll into the question of whether Germans really supported Hitler’s war-mongering. Amazingly, none of these undercover pollsters was arrested by the Gestapo. By mid-August 1939 the survey was on course to demonstrate scientifically that most Germans were anti-war. Everything was going perfectly until, that was, Germany invaded Poland.
In the years that followed Pyke came into his own. In 1940 he came up with the idea for a snow-borne guerrilla force designed to operate behind enemy lines in Norway. After repeated rejections, this idea was taken up in 1942 by Lord Mountbatten, head of Combined Operations. Churchill loved it, as did the U. S. Army, and Pyke was sent to Washington D. C. to develop this force and its bespoke snowmobile, a mission which resulted in the formation of the original U. S. Special Forces.
At around the same time Pyke told Mountbatten about another idea which he had had almost a decade ago, that of oil pipelines running under the ocean. This spawned PLUTO, the set of pipelines under the English Channel used to pump oil to Allied forces in France.
While Pyke was in the U. S. he had his most radical idea – giant aircraft carriers made out of refrigerated and reinforced ice. These Habbakuk berg-ships would be virtually unsinkable, cheap and large enough to accommodate bombers and long-range fighters. Again Mountbatten jumped at it, as did Churchill. Millions of pounds were spent on experiments and prototypes. The Americans came on board. It remains arguably the most imaginative and ambitious scheme of the war, yet by the time the practicality of the concept had been proved it was too late for the ships to play a meaningful part in the war.
Suffering from depression and an undiagnosed physical illness Pyke became in the aftermath of war a broken man, and in 1948, aged just 54, he committed suicide. In his Times obituary he was described as one of the 20th century’s ‘most original if unrecognised figures’, an epithet which remains true today.
For more, see the new biography of Pyke – Churchill’s Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy out now with Penguin Random House.