Non-fiction review: Churchill’s Iceman by Henry Hemming

ChurchillsIcemanIn 1914, a 21-year old journalist escaped from a German internment camp using an optical illusion. It was neither the most bizarre nor the most brilliant act of his life.

In 1942, the British Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, showed a lump of ice to a meeting of senior allied commanders. To prove that it was not ordinary ice but the material that would win the war, he pulled out his revolver and shot it. He proved his point a little too well. Instead of shattering like ordinary ice, Mountbatten’s ice sent the bullet ricocheting around the room. The ice nearly did more damage to the allied high command than either the Germans or the Japanese ever managed.

It wasn’t ice. It was pykrete, named after the man who proposed to build aircraft carriers out of it: Geoffrey Pyke. He is the subject of Henry Hemming’s biography, which reads like a novel written in collaboration by Evelyn Waugh and John Le Carré.

Pyke was an English eccentric and a polymath, whose life was devoted to ideas. Undaunted by his lack of formal training, he leaped from field to field, innovating as he went and often carrying people who wielded real influence along with him. His idea for building aircraft carriers out of ice reinforced with wood pulp could have been dismissed as the dream of a crank. Instead it was championed by Mountbatten who in turn persuaded Churchill by throwing a lump of pykrete into Churchill’s bath to show it didn’t melt in warm water. Whether or not Churchill was in the bath at the time is something Hemming speculates about.

Britain has never been short of dilettantes carried away with their own ideas, but what set Pyke apart was the number of times he followed them to fruition. Faced with the problem of how to educate his son without having him brutalised by the disciplinarian approach of boys’ education in the 1920s, Pyke wasn’t satisfied with the boozy pontificating in vogue among the 1920s intelligentsia. Pyke opened his own school, funded by the proceeds of a stock market trading system he invented, and developed an education system that challenged the disciplinarian approach followed by the ‘best’ schools of the day.

After inventing a field ambulance for the Spanish Republicans and masterminding an espionage operation against Nazi Germany from his London flat, his idea generation was recruited by Mountbatten, then Chief of Combined Operations. It’s difficult to know how many projects he influenced, but his nickname of ‘John the Baptist’ places him high up a hierarchy of nicknames in which Mountbatten was ‘Mahomet’ and Churchill, naturally, was ‘God Almighty’. Pyke is best known for pykrete, although the ships he envisaged were never built. He had more practical influence through the idea that led Mountbatten to form the American-Canadian First Special Services Force. The ‘Black Devils’ operated behind German and Japanese lines and along with the British Special Air Service, gave rise to the modern concept of special forces.

Combined Operations got the best out of Pyke but also brought out the worst in him. He was never at his best when working with others, and was incapable of moderating his temperament to the military hierarchy. The more seriously his ideas were taken, the more frustrated he became at what he saw as the obstructionism of the people he had to deal with. He appears to have fallen into a trap that often afflicts conceptual geniuses: when his ideas weren’t taken forward, he felt overlooked and when they were, he felt sidelined.

Peacetime should have brought happiness to Pyke. His abilities were established and a government that shared his socialist views approached him to help develop the National Health Service. Perhaps Pyke had slipped too far into depression to make the most of it, or perhaps he was simply burned out. He had lost his ability to cut through the problems before him, and believed the conclusions he did present were being stolen. He committed suicide at the age of 54. His last letter begged his son to forget him and on no account to name any of his own children after him.

It was a tragic end to a remarkable life, vividly recounted by Henry Hemming.

Perhaps a better epitaph for Pyke than the one he wrote himself is an understanding of the ‘auto-Socratic’ technique that he applied to areas in which he had no background knowledge. He started from the premise that all accepted truths must be questioned, and that that an innovator must be willing to make a fool of himself in front of the majority who have already accepted the truths. He would then imagine a dialogue between two characters, one who was wildly imaginative and another who would present arguments based on reality. When reality was unable to crush the fantasist’s ideas, Pyke knew he had an approach worth following.

He believed that genius lay not in innate ability but in the application of the right approach to thinking. Thanks to Hemming’s description of it, we can all give it a try.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification
2 comments on “Non-fiction review: Churchill’s Iceman by Henry Hemming
  1. Sounds intriguing.

    I love these lost fragments of the past, of extraordinary stories that never became mainstream. Will keep an eye out for the book.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks. I do wish Pyke had put his ‘auto-Socratic’ approach on paper. I’d love to know how he managed to master so many different problems in different disciplines.

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