Podcast Episode 17: An Aircraft Carrier Made of Ice


In 1943 German submarines were devastating the merchant convoys carrying supplies to Britain. Unable to protect them with aircraft or conventional ships, the resource-strapped Royal Navy considered an outlandish solution: a 2-million-ton aircraft carrier made of ice.

In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the strange history of the project, which Winston Churchill initially praised as dazzling but which ended in ignominy at the bottom of a Canadian lake. We’ll also discover a love pledge hidden for 200 years in the heart of a Yorkshire tree and puzzle over the deaths of two men in a remote cabin.

Our segment on Project Habbakuk is based chiefly on L.D. Cross’ 2012 book Code Name Habbakuk. In the photo above, research workers cut ice and form it into beams on Lake Louise near the Chateau Lake Louise resort hotel in 1943.

Our post on the Yorkshire inscription appeared on Dec. 18, 2009. Sources for the podcast segment:

John Lindley, The Theory and Practice of Horticulture, 1855, citing the Gardener’s Chronicle of 1841.

“Redcarre, a Poor Fysher Towne,” in the Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, Aug. 4, 1870.

“Local Writers and Local Worthies: William and Cholmley Turner,” in William Hall Burnett, Old Cleveland: Being a Collection of Papers, 1886.

Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856.

Here’s the illustration from Lindley:

tree inscription

The inscription reads:


Thomas Browne’s poem “The Lovers to Their Favourite Tree” appears in his Poems on Several Occasions, from 1800:

Long the wintry tempests braving,
Still this short inscription keep;
Still preserve this rude engraving,
On thy bark imprinted deep:
This tree long time witness bear,
Two true-lovers did walk here.

By the softest ties united,
Love has bound our souls in one;
And by mutual promise plighted,
Waits the nuptial rite alone–
Thou, a faithful witness bear,
Of our plighted promise here.

Tho’ our sires would gladly sever
Those firm ties they disallow,
Yet they cannot part us ever —
We will keep our faithful vow,
And in spite of threats severe,
Still will meet each other here.

While the dusky shade concealing,
Veils the faultless fraud of love,
We from sleepless pillows stealing,
Nightly seek the silent grove;
And escaped from eyes severe,
Dare to meet each other here.

Wealth and titles disregarding
(Idols of the sordid mind),
Calm content true love rewarding,
In the bliss we wish to find.—
Thou tree, long time witness bear,
Two such Lovers did walk here.

To our faithful love consenting
(Love unchang’d by time or tide),
Should our haughty sires relenting,
Give the sanction yet deny’d;
‘Midst the scenes to mem’ry dear,
Still we oft will wander here.

Then our ev’ry wish compleated,
Crown’d by kinder fates at last,
All beneath thy shadow seated,
We will talk of seasons past;
When, by night, in silent fear,
We did meet each other here.

On thy yielding bark, engraving
Now in short our tender tale,
Long, time’s roughest tempest braving,
Spread thy branches to the gale;
And, for ages, witness bear,
Two True-lovers did walk here.

Browne writes, “There are likewise other letters, which seem to be the initial of the Lover’s names, who appear to have frequented the solitary spot where the tree has grown, to vent the effusions of their mutual passion, and to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s conversation sequestered and unobserved.” The other writers don’t mention this.

Frances Cornford’s triolet “To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train” appeared in her volume Poems in 1910:

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

G.K. Chesterton’s response, “The Fat Lady Answers,” appeared in his Collected Poems of 1927:

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!