Alberta

The Problem

Merchant Ship Melee

German U-Boat A torpedo narrowly misses a ship A Merchant ship convoy crossing the Atlantic Deep in the Rocky Mountains, which extend north into the Canadian province of Alberta, hides the secluded and beautiful Patricia Lake… and an interesting secret. Beneath the surface of this lake in Jasper, Alberta, is the final resting place of the skeletal remains of a top-secret WWII mission once thought to be as important to the war effort as the atomic bomb. Many of Canada’s conscientious-objectors to the war, unknowingly took part in the war effort by helping the British build a secret aircraft carrier over 3,700 miles away from the epicenter of the war. What prompted the British to use a remote Canadian lake to build their secret carrier and why is it now at the bottom of the lake?

In 1942, during the height of the Second World War, allied forces were fighting a losing battle against the German U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. This battle was the longest running campaign of WWII and the deadliest for allied merchant ships. Convoys of merchant ships from the United States would cross the Atlantic carrying much-needed food and supplies to the allied forces in Europe. Many of these ships would not finish their journey, as they were intercepted by the wolf packs of U-boats. Like sea-going wolves, the “packs” picked off the slower ships and the stragglers. The losses inflicted by the U-boats were truly astounding; over 10,000 merchant ships and 12 million tons of cargo were lost. The area soon became known as “U-boat Alley” or “The Black Pit”. The continued loss of these supplies would mean certain victory for the Nazis.

Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said, “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” Because of their range, patrolling aircraft could not protect the merchant ships as they sailed through U-boat Alley, making the ships easy targets for the U-boats. U-boats, much like modern-day submarines, were sophisticated launch platforms for their destructive weapon, the torpedo. The explosion of a torpedo as it passed below the keel of a merchant ship would create an enormous gas bubble, causing the ship to break in two. In this way, it was possible for the U-boat to sink even large or heavily-armored ships. If allied forces were going to have any chance of winning the war, they needed a way protect their ships. Conventional aircraft carriers, which were used for take off and refueling of allied aircraft, were extremely vulnerable to German torpedoes and had a difficult time dealing with the heavy seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Making them even less helpful was the fact that their below deck areas were too small for bombers and their flight decks were proving to be inadequate for the newer planes.

The Mother of All Invention

Vought XF5U1 Hurricat Prime Minister Winston Churchill It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention and this truly was a time of necessity for the allies. The supplies and food carried by allied merchant ships were perhaps the largest of all allied necessities. Inventions of all types were being devised as ways to beat the Nazi forces. Two examples were the Flying Flapjack (Vought XF5U1) or the Hurricat, a Hurricane fighter launched off a merchant ship. These Hurricat missions essentially would be suicide missions since once launched, there would be nowhere for the planes to land.

However, these creations never found their place in the allied fleet. What England needed was an invention that would ensure that merchant ships would be able to get through the Black Pit to deliver their much-needed cargo to Europe. Winston Churchill was the new prime minister of England and he seemed to be fighting a losing war. Given the dire situation his country was facing, it was perhaps no surprise that he was willing to take almost anything into consideration.

In March 1942, Churchill appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as Chief of Combined Operations, a military organization responsible for finding new ways to win the war. Mountbatten was a man who believed strongly in science and felt that science would deliver a way to save his country and win the war. It was not long before Mountbatten visited Cambridge University searching for innovators and ideas that would help turn the war around for England. Cambridge was home to Geoffrey Pyke, a colorful man who thought differently than most. It would be only a matter of time before these two gentlemen would meet to create a plan for the biggest man-made machine ever devised.

Father of the Invention

Geoffrey Pyke 1st Special Service Force Patch Geoffrey Pyke was a man with a head full of ideas, although many of his ideas are what some people would have considered crazy. During WWI, Pyke snuck into Germany as a war correspondent with the plan to send information back to the Daily Chronicle newspaper. He was quickly discovered, shot at, captured, placed in an internment camp, then escaped with another Englishman. When he returned to England, the Daily Chronicle told the tale of his capture, turning him into a national hero. Upon his return, Pyke opened a school that was based on every eccentricity he possessed. This school, with no rules and no curriculum, allowed children to grow and learn by studying whatever they liked. Some believed that this was the antithesis of Pyke’s own education, when he was often ridiculed and made fun of. Pyke was able to finance this wild scheme by riding futures markets, which resulted in him claiming that he owned one-third of the world’s tin. When the economic bubble burst, Pyke was left in financial ruin. He lost his family, school, money and, many say, his sanity.

At the height of WWII, Pyke’s head was full of ideas focused on ways to win the war. Pyke had long been an opponent of the Nazi way of thinking, and wanted to find new, resourceful ways to beat the Nazi regime. After Mountbatten’s appointment as chief of Combined Operations, Pyke showed up in his office and declared, “You need me on your staff because I am a man who thinks!” This got the attention of Mountbatten and the two forged a relationship which was ultimately based on Pyke’s creative and slightly crazy ideas, and Mountbatten’s belief in them.

Pyke’s first contribution to the war effort focused on the snow-covered areas of Norway, and the 1st Special Service Force, nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade. Germany had recently invaded Norway and the original mission of the Devil’s Brigade was to parachute into Norway and capture strategic targets such as hydroelectric power plants. This was a joint American-Canadian commando unit trained in the United States to overwhelm German forces quietly and without firing a shot. During this time, Pyke gained a new-found respect from the Americans and used this to begin lecturing them on the evils of capitalism. This caused many people to question him and his motives, and he was soon labeled a security risk. The Americans stopped informing him of meeting locations and times, while encouraging Pyke to get some much-needed rest at a mental institution. Amazingly, Pyke took them up on this offer and retired to a mental institution for some time.