Churchill’s Iceman

Title:                      Churchill’s Iceman

Author:                 Henry Hemming

Hemming, Henry (2014). Churchill’s Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy. London: Preface Publishing

LCCN:    2014471220

DA566.9.P95 H46 2014


  • There is no reason why you should have heard of Geoffrey Pyke. After his suicide in 1948 he was described as one of the great geniuses of his time, to rank alongside Einstein, yet he remains today, as The Times put it, ‘one of the most original if unrecognised figures’ of the twentieth century. Inventor, escapee, campaigner, war correspondent, Pyke was an unlikely hero of both world wars and is seen today as the father of the U.S. Special Forces. He changed the landscape of British pre-school education, earned a fortune on the stock market, wrote a bestseller and in 1942 convinced Churchill and Lord Mountbatten to build an aircraft carrier out of reinforced ice.


Date Posted:      September 11, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

Geoffrey Pyke ranks with Steve Jobs as an innovative genius. In Churchill’s Iceman, British writer Henry Hemming tells us why. The title comes from Pyke’s idea for a gigantic, unsinkable aircraft carrier—made of reinforced ice called pykrete. Lord Mountbatten, Pyke’s superior at the time (late 1943) thought the idea brilliant and demonstrated the concept to Churchill by placing a sample of pykrete in his bathtub—it floated—while the PM was in it. Despite Churchill’s support, his scientific and military advisors resisted, and the war ended before pykrete got off the drawing board.

The First World War began while Pyke was a student at Cambridge, where, wanting to make a contribution to the war effort, he asked himself, “What can I do to help that hasn’t been done?” His answer was to go to Berlin as a journalist after all others had been expelled and to report on events there. He managed to arrive in Berlin to be apprehended and sent to Ruhleben, the escape-proof internment camp where John Masterman—future head of the Double Cross Committee—was a fellow prisoner. Pyke promptly escaped and made his way to England, where he was suspected of being a German spy, since no one had escaped, as yet, from Ruhleben. Undeterred, and never charged with a crime, he wrote a bestselling book about his experience.[2]

In the interwar period, Pyke married and produced a son, established a private school where the children decided what they would pursue for learning day-to-day, and tried his hand at investing. As the Nazi threat to world peace grew, Pyke supported Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and began sending material to them—Harley Davidson motorcycles, microscopes, and sphagnum moss for wound dressings—though such acts were prohibited in England. In the summer of 1939, Pyke had the idea of carrying out an undercover opinion poll in Germany—without telling the Nazis—the results of which could be used to dissuade Hitler from going to war; he completed the task as the war began. Next, he worked on the problem of fighting in Norwegian snow and invented a military version of the snowmobile.

In 1942, Pyke was recommended to Lord Mountbatten, then director of programs for combined operations, charged with thinking about mounting an offense against the Germans. Pyke was just the kind of scientific yet unconventional thinker that Mountbatten wanted; the pykrete ice ship was just one of Pyke’s contributions.

Hemming interlaces the telling of Pyke’s scientific career with the problems Pyke created for himself because of his political views and associates. He was friends with GRU agent Jürgen Kuczynski—who recruited Klaus Fuchs—and atom spy Alan Nunn May, among many other known communists. Documents linking Pyke to the Cambridge Five were found in Guy Burgess’ apartment after his defection. (p. 408) Milicent Bagot, the famous MI5 counterintelligence analyst (the model for John le Carté’s Connie Sachs) doggedly tracked Pyke throughout the war and suspected he was a Soviet agent, even on his many wartime trips to the United States, but she never had conclusive proof.

After World War II, Pyke worked on problems for Britain’s new National Health Service but his own health was not good and he died, by his own hand, in 1948. Among his legacy of convictions was his view that government officials were the greatest barrier to scientifically-based administration and progress.

Churchill’s Iceman is skillfully written and superbly documented with interviews and recently declassified MI5 files-a fine lesson in what an innovative person can accomplish.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 121-122)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] Pyke, Geoffrey (1916). To Ruhleben And Back: A Great Adventure in Three Phases. London, Constable and Company [LCCN: 16006511]

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