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Churchill's Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy Hardcover – August 14, 2014
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After his suicide in 1948, Geoffrey Pyke was described as one of the geniuses of his time; only now can this biography reveal the full extent of his strange achievements. The epithet 'Iceman' referred to a 1942 project to have Churchill build an aircraft carrier of reinforced ice; he also thought up Mass Observation, earned a fortune on the stock market and wrote a bestseller; but MI5 had material suggesting he was a senior Soviet Comintern official and a spy.
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Pyke was born in 1893, the eldest child of a family that soon found itself in straightened circumstances following the death of Pyke's father, a lawyer, when Pyke was 5. His domineering mother (from whom he later became estranged) had Pyke sent off to Wellington, at the time a typical public school for the sons of Army officers. There Pyke was teased and abused by his classmates because of his Jewish heritage. From this experience, he developed a contempt and hatred for "The Establishment". Pyke was at Wellington for 2 years, then was withdrawn and given private tutoring. Subsequently, he gained admittance to Cambridge University, where he studied law.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Pyke left Cambridge set on playing his part in a wholly, unique way. He came up with the idea of smuggling himself into Germany under the guise of an American journalist. It was Pyke's intent to use this cover to obtain information on how the German people were living under wartime conditions and to gauge from discreet observation what the German Army was up to. What made this all the more remarkable to me upon reading about this phase in Pyke's life was that he didn't speak German and had only a short time to perfect an American accent (one of Pyke's friends at Cambridge was American, and he used the memory of his friend to fashion his own 'American' accent). He sold the editor of the Daily Chronicle on his idea, and with a U.S. passport he obtained from an American sailor, Pyke entered Germany via Denmark in the latter part of September 1914.
Alas, Pyke's cover held for little more than a week. Should the reader of this review be interested in knowing how Pyke was found out, sent to an internment camp for Allied civilian nationals near Berlin considered "escape proof" by the Germans, where he nearly died from pneumonia, recovered, and with the help of a fellow internee (who spoke fluent German) managed to escape to neutral Holland in the late spring of 1915 --- and subsequently back to Britain ---- by all means, read "CHURCHILL'S ICEMAN." There is so much more to this man, who went on after the war to work as a journalist, educationalist, and inventor.
Geoffrey Pyke was both the perfect embodiment of the "English eccentric" and in our time, the "revolutionary figure" whose societal contributions are on the scale that completely reshape the way we live our daily lives. For example, people like Steve Jobs who became renowned for "thinking outside the box."
And yet there were innumerable unsung heroes who had the creative and ingenious facility so much needed when conventional solutions to enemy actions failed to block the tide of impending disaster.
One such hero, now recognised in a new book, can only be said to have had been saved from total and undeserved obscurity by the author Henry Hemming who has diligently researched the life of Geoffrey Pyke, cousin to the famous and eccentric Magnus Pyke the TV science guru of the 1970's and 1980's.
If anything, Geoffrey Pyke stood head and shoulders above his later cousin in terms of creativity and ingenuity. Coupled with a brilliant intellect (at Cambridge a contemporary likened him to Einstein) he constantly thought outside the conventional problem solving competency of a scientist. Yet, because of his eccentric approaches, he too often made enemies in the scientific community of the time.
Born in 1893, by 1914 he had breached the German wartime security and arrived in Berlin purely as an act of bravado - to him it was adventure and fun On being arrested he contrived an escape and at 21 was the first escapee of the first world war.
Later, as an advocate of Freudian psychology he decided to set up a Kindergarten based on Freudian principles but requiring substantial funds to pay for it, he speculated on the metals market using an investment model he derived himself. He rapidly accumulated a small fortune.
By 1938 he had decided that a continental war was inevitable and considered ways of stopping it. In the summer of 1939 he sent pollsters disguised as typical eccentric English tourists into Nazi Germany, all of whom were tasked 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!
As the war progressed Pyke's genius blossomed and in 1940 he suggested a snow-borne guerrilla force designed to operate behind enemy lines in Norway. Ultimately Lord Louis Mountbatten adopted the idea and both Churchill and the US Army were enthusiastic. Pyke eventually found himself in Washington DC developing the planned special force and its snowmobile vehicles, all of which resulted in the inauguration of the current US special forces.
Sometime later, Pyke realised that eventually the allies would have to invade the continent and realised that the supply problem was crucial. He had some ten years previously conceived of an Anglo French oil pipeline under the sea and this was adopted and became PLUTO - the allies Pipe Line Under The Ocean.
While Pyke was in the U. S. he had his most radical idea - giant aircraft carriers made out of ice reinforced with wood pulp called Pykrete. These Habbakuk berg-ships, driven by 28 side mounted motors and impellers, were virtually unsinkable, they were virtually impervious to torpedo, artillery or bomb damage. They were comparatively cheap to construct and large enough to accommodate bombers and long-range fighters. Again Mountbatten jumped at it, as did Churchill. The Americans joined in and millions of pounds were spent on experiments and prototypes in Canada. It remains arguably the most imaginative and ambitious scheme of the war - yet by the time the practicality of the concept had been proved (and sag in the Pykrete ice platform plagued construction) it was too late for the ice-ships to play a meaningful part in the war.
For all his undoubted brilliance and energy in supporting the allied cause he was always treated with suspicion. One scientist commented that Pyke 'clothed commonplace ideas with 'pseudo-scientific blather' most of it 'pretentious nonsense'. Only the undinted support by his champions Mountbatten and Churchill saved him from those that believed his perceived left wing ideology made him a security risk, and that his Jewish origins alienated him amongst a small element of anti-Semites. Sidelined, after the ice-ship project and put on half pay, he objected vehemently and was sacked. However he refused to vacate his desk at the HQ of Combined Operations and was eventually turned away by armed guards.
Ultimately discredited, humiliated and lost, he became deeply depressed. Pyke committed suicide in 1948 only to be hailed as a 'genius' in the obituaries.
Henry Hemming's fascinating book Churchill's Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy (Penguin - Random House) is a well written, well researched and gripping tale that explores one of the many unsung heroes of WW2.