Churchill’s Account of Lord Mountbatten Nearly Shooting an Air Chief Marshal

A previously unpublished draft of a letter written by Winston Churchill was unearthed from the estate of the late Commodore Gordon Allen and is now on sale with a price tag of $3,000.

Commodore Allen assisted Churchill in writing portions of his memoirs, especially those related to the Royal Navy. The letter is thought to have been written on Churchill’s personal typewriter, which had a larger than normal typeface.

The letter was written after a secret conference held in Quebec in 1943. The meeting had been called to allow the Allied hierarchy of Britain, Canada, and the United States to discuss their strategy on how to invade France and reclaim all the territory overrun by the Germans.

Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference.
Rt. Hon. Mackenzie King, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference.

These strategy sessions included discussions on Operation Overlord (Battle of Normandy) and a future nuclear strategy.

One of the topics on the agenda was a suggestion to build an aircraft carrier out of a new substance called Pykrete. This new material had been developed by a scientist called Geoffrey Pyke and was manufactured from sawdust and frozen seawater.

A great advocate for this material at the conference was the Supreme Allied Commander for South East Asia, Lord Mountbatten, and he was determined to show off the fabulous qualities of this material.

Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Photo: Allan warren / CC BY-SA 3.0.
Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Photo: Allan warren / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Lord Mountbatten was also championing Project Habakkuk, which would build a large aircraft carrier out of Pykrete. This idea had first been raised in 1934. Although Churchill had heard of this revolutionary material, he had not seen the substance itself nor any tests conducted with it.

In his letter, Churchill recounts the fantastic scene that unfolded when things went wrong.

Churchill when he arrived in Quebec City in 1943.
Churchill when he arrived in Quebec City in 1943.

A member of Mountbatten’s staff wheeled in a large dumb-waiter carrying two blocks of ice, each around three feet high.

Mountbatten then asked the most muscular man in the room to try chopping at the ice with a chopper that he had brought along for the occasion. The men in the room decided that General Henry Arnold was best suited to the role, so he took off his jacket and, in typical strongman fashion, rolled up his sleeves.

He took hold of the chopper and split the block of ordinary ice with a single blow. He then raised his hands above his head in the universal sign of victory.

General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold.
General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold.

Spitting on his hands, he gripped the ax again and turned to face the Pykrete. He gave a mighty swing and brought the chopper down on the Pykrete.

He let out a mighty yell and dropped the ax. The Pykrete was undamaged, but General Arnold’s wrists and elbows were badly jarred and left aching.

Mountbatten then decided to take over and, taking out his pistol, he fired at the block of ordinary ice, which shattered as expected.

A block of pykrete. Photo: CyranoDeWikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0.
A block of pykrete. Photo: CyranoDeWikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0.

He then aimed at the Pykrete and fired again. The bullet ricocheted off the Pykrete and narrowly missed Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal. These shots caused consternation amongst the officers waiting outside, and they all burst into the room shouting where the shooting had started.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal. Photo: Yousuf Karsh / CC BY-SA 3.0nl.
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Portal. Photo: Yousuf Karsh / CC BY-SA 3.0nl.

This little demonstration impressed the commanders, and the proposal for an aircraft carrier was given to the National Research Council of Canada, who produced a miniature prototype.

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The entire project was eventually shelved due to the astronomical costs and the realization that there were easier ways of getting aircraft carriers built.

This is one of the amusing anecdotes that come to light now and then, giving us all a small glimpse into the lives of the mighty men that managed the Allied war effort.