The 19th August 1943 was a momentous day for the Allies as, meeting in Quebec, they finally agreed on the timetable for the invasion of Europe and the establishment of the long awaited Second Front. The Americans had argued for an invasion of France almost since they first joined the war. The British were much less enthusiastic. Largely based on their experiences in France in 1940 and at Dieppe in 1942, they were reluctant to move until they could be confident, not only of landing an invasion force on a hostile shore, but of keeping it properly supplied for an advance into Germany itself.
The secret development of the Mulberry Harbours was to be the war winning innovation that enabled the British to finally accede to American demands to fix a date for ‘Overlord’. The planning for the invasion of France could proceed without the capture of an existing port being an early priority.
But the Chief of Combined Operations was an enthusiastic supporter of another secret project – Habakkuk – the building of massive unsinkable aircraft carriers made from ice. Or rather specially re-enforced bullet proof ice.
Whilst the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke was preoccupied with his discussion with George Marshall, US Chief of Staff, he also had to contend with Lord Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten:
Dickie had come up to me just before our Combined COS [the Chiefs of Staff of the UK and the USA] meeting, at which I knew I was going to have difficulties with Marshall, and asked me if he might explain to the Americans the progress that had been made with ’Habbakuk’. I am afraid that I replied ’To hell with Habbakuk, we are about to have the most difficult time with our American friends and shall not have time for your ice carriers.’ However, he went on asking that I should remember if there was time.
The meeting was, as I expected, a heated one, and halfway through I suggested to Marshall that we should clear the room of the sixty odd officers that had attended these meetings, and that we should have an ’off the record’ meeting to try and solve our differences. He agreed, and after further heated arguments in our closed session we ultimately arrived at an agreement and were just breaking up the meeting when Dickie rushed up to remind me of ‘Habbakuk’!
I therefore asked Marshall if he and the American Chiefs would allow Dickie to give an account of recent developments in Habbakuk. He kindly agreed and we all sat down again.
Dickie now having been let loose gave a signal, whereupon a string of attendants brought in large cubes of ice which were established at the end of the room.
Dickie then proceeded to explain that the cube on the left was ordinary pure ice, whereas that an the right contained many ingredients which made it far more resilient, less liable to splinter, and consequently a far more suitable material for the construction of aircraft carriers. He then informed us that in order to prove his statements he had brought a revolver with him and intended to fire shots at the cubes to prove their properties.
As he now pulled a revolver out of his pocket we all rose and discreetly moved behind him. He then wamed us that he would fire at the ordinary block of ice to show how it splintered and warned us to watch the splinters. He proceeded to fire and we were subjected to a hail of ice splinters!
‘There,’ said Dickie, ’that is just what I told you; now I shall fire at the block on the right to show you the difference.’ He fired, and there certainly was a difference; the bullet rebounded out of the block and buzzed round our legs like an angry bee!
That was the end of the display of shooting in the Frontenac Hotel drawing rooms, but it was not the end of the story.
It will be remembered that when our original meeting had become too heated, we had cleared the room of all the attending staff. They were waiting in an adjoining room, and when the revolver shots were heard, the wag of the party shouted: ’Good heavens, they’ve started shooting now!!’
For more on Habakkuk see an account by Sir Charles Goodeve at UCL University of London.
Contemporary US newsreel covering bombing of Hamburg and quebec conference: