4 Bonkers Secret Military Operations (That Failed Horribly)
Having cutting-edge technology -- often without anyone they're allowed to cut down with it -- big militaries will encourage their brightest minds to think outside of the combat box. Sometimes, this leads to absolute military game-changers. Other times, years of research, training, and a third of your taxes are put into insane boondoggles that get swept under the military rug before anyone notices …
Britain's Secret World War II Weapon: An Ice Ship
Small and isolated, World War II Britain had to find unconventional ways to beat off the Nazis from all sides. And that way was the Chicago Way. That means when the Nazis pull a knife, you pull a gun. When they put one of yours in the hospital, you put a decoy corpse with fake military intel in the morgue. And if they send a ship, you send an iceberg.
Everyone who's got their ass kicked in Age of Empires knows that a war is won not with troops but with resources. Churchill was well aware of this in 1943 as he desperately needed to build more aircraft carriers to take on the Nazi U-boats but was running out of steel. Then, one evening, he had his Eureka moment while sitting in the bath. Or, he had it thrown at him when Chief of Combined Operations Lord Mountbatten barged into his bathroom and tossed a lump of ice into his steaming tub. Except, the ice didn't melt. Because this wasn't just some frozen water, it was pykrete.
Pykrete is a combination of Pyke and concrete, and Churchill was well acquainted with both. Geoffrey Pyke was one of Mountbatten's staffers and an eccentric Willy Wonka style inventor -- if Wonka was obsessed with frost instead of frosting. The year prior, Pyke had pioneered a rapid deployment snowmobile propelled by a screw that looked like a combination between a large drill and the kind of bullet your mom hides in her nightstand. Churchill was so impressed by its flanking capacities he exclaimed: "Never in the history of human conflict will so few immobilize so many."
The floater in Churchill's bathtub was Pyke's next invention. While regular ice is as unstable and brittle as a giraffe with osteoporosis and a failing marriage, he had found out that mixing it with one-seventh saw dust results in a material that's as tough as steel and takes months to melt. He claimed that with this pykrete, he could build "bergships" -- ice aircraft carriers with hulls 300 feet wide, 2,000 feet long, and 100 feet thick. But like any good infomercial gadget, that's not all. When damaged, the cost-saving carrier could be patched up with readily available saltwater! Not that the Nazis would even get a shot in, Pyke claimed. His ice cube carrier could shoot a "super cool" (indeed) water jet that would instantly freeze ray the enemy to smithereens.
Churchill was sold. Dubbed Project Habakkuk, it was shipped to Britain's frostbitten daughter, Canada. There, Lord Montbatten performed another razzle-dazzle presentation by shooting a lump of pykrete with his service revolver. The bullet ricocheted right off, whizzed through the room, and almost crippled U.S. Navy Commander In Chief Ernest King. Accidental kneecapping aside, the plan was met with cheers. Great news, since Pyke had already started construction of a 60 foot long, 1,000-ton prototype ship in a lake in Alberta.
So why doesn't every World War II movie end with a massive ice ship bursting into Hitler's bunker and turning him into a Nazicle? To everyone's great surprise, making a weaponized ice sculpture seaworthy wasn't as practical as Pyke had promised. The impenetrable hull was easily perforated by large artillery shells, and even a medium amount of damage would warp the ship so much it wouldn't be able to dock for its miracle water repairs. Furthermore, the bergships were about as slow as actual icebergs. And Pyke's freeze ray turned out to be about as powerful as a super soaker filled with dry ice.
While they were still trying to work out the kinks, advances in long-range aircraft carriers were starting to close the gap in the Atlantic. And when the first bergship wasn't finished by the Normandy landings, Project Habakkuk lost its purpose. The plan was scrapped, hidden away, and the good ship Popsicle was left to melt under the Canadian summer sun. That part took three years.
The Gateway Process Tried To Turn CIA Spies Into Time-Travelling Psychics
While U.S. Military thought they could win the Cold War with the best nukes, the nerds in the darkened rooms knew that the victory would go to the side with the best spies. But the CIA realized that spycraft was about to evolve from the old days of big trench coats and cutting eye holes into newspapers. The future of spying, clearly, would be through computers. Wait, did I say computers? I meant astral projection.
By the '70s, the U.S. government was convinced that the Soviet Union was close to creating a psychic supersoldier who could destroy America simply by holding two fingers to their temples. In response, Lieutenant Colonel Wayne McDonnell was tasked by the CIA to create a psychic spy of their own. To achieve this, Monroe developed the most hyper-advanced psychic training tool in the multiverse: a series of audio cassettes that sound like the combination of a tape that helps you quit smoking and a YouTube playlist called SUPERINTELLIGENCE: BINAURAL BEATS FOR ADHD CONCENTRATION.
Dubbed the Gateway Process, the way the aural soundscape works is simple to explain until it stops making a single scrap of sense. As we all know, the brain is divided into two contrasting hemispheres, the Bert side and the Ernie side. Using audio that pumps subliminal messages and contrasting frequencies into each ear, both sides' brainwave frequencies would harmonize and create one Big Brain. This would allow our noggin to "project energy" in a hyper-focused way, a process called hemispheric synchronization or Hemi-Sync.
The potential for Hemi-Sync was endless. McDonnell posited that since conventional reality is an illusion and we're all just energy (which is also the sentence you hear right before your boyfriend tries to induct you into his sex cult), perfectly synced brainwaves could piggyback onto the vast electrostatic field of the universe by vibrating at the same frequency. To achieve this, McDonnell created the Gateway Process, a series of Hemi-Sync audiotapes that would train spies to project their minds over space and time.
Through binaural sounds and focusing techniques like Energy Conversion, Resonant Humming, The Energy Balloon, and whatever else McDonnell picked up during his hot yoga classes, subjects could unlock abilities like extrasensory perception (ESP), locating individuals by creating a mentally connected map (GPS) and Color Breathing, through which you can heal the body by imagining vivid colors.
After an intense training of seven whole days, 5% of spies had the potential to achieve the Gateway Process' true goals: astral projection and time travel. As a demonstration, psych-spies would have to astrally project into the past to read deleted codes from a faraway computer. None of them got it right, but McDonnell blamed that on reality being distorted by extra-time-space-dimensions -- that apparently have nothing to do than to change numbers into slightly different numbers. In 1984, the CIA even ran a serious experiment of a man astrally projecting to Mars in the year 1,000,000 B.C. There he claimed to witness the extinction of a lanky Martian race as they huddled in their crumbling space pyramids. Or was that MK-Ultra? It's really hard to tell.
By 1993, the Army and CIA finally admitted that all that psy-nonsense was a massive waste of brainwaves. Gateway and all other like-minded projects were shelved and locked away to the deepest basement of the CIA. It wasn't until 2017 and after several lawsuits that the Gateway manual was declassified. (All except the "lost" page 25, which legend claims contains McDonnell explaining the meaning of life). But this unearthed knowledge has now reawakened experimentation in the awesome potential of Hemi-Sync. On TikTok. By Teens. Who listen to the Gateway Tapes as a viral challenge. Not exactly the cyberpunk future McDonnel wanted -- but closer than he deserved.
The U.S. Airforce Once Nuked South Carolina (By Accident)
Growing up during the height of the Cold War, Americans were always prepared to duck and find cover in the nearest fallout shelter, school locker, or fridge at the sound of the Soviet siren. But while vigilant patriots were more than ready for the Russians to blow their homes to capitalist kingdom come, what they weren't expecting was that the only nuclear bombs to drop on American soil would be the property of the U.S. of A.
A nuclear Holocaust is only as good as the pilot delivering it. So in 1958, a small squadron of Air Force B-47 bombers was on route to England to participate in a secret training exercise called Operation Snow Flurry. During the exercise, the planes had to perform a mock bomb run to test how accurately they could deliver their nuclear payload. And it did turn out that one of the bombers was way off target. About 4,000 miles off-target.
While flying over South Carolina, a sinister warning light started flashing in one of the B-47s, indicating that a bomb harness wasn't properly secured. In a blind panic, navigator Captain Bruce Kulka rushed to the weapons bay. But while searching for the loose pin on the harness, he accidentally pulled out another pin. The emergency release pin. While he was atop the bomb. Kulka managed to grab onto the nearest thing (which luckily wasn't a cowboy hat) and swing to safety. Just in time to watch the roughly 8,000lbs of destruction burst through the bay doors and start plummeting towards Mars Bluff in Horry County.
Being responsible for dropping nearly a ton of armaments onto your homeland must be a nightmare for any military man, but Kulka knew something the civilians below couldn't have guessed. That, despite having geared up for a practice wargame, the Cold War brass insisted that every airborne bomber carry live nuclear bombs. (You never know if World War III might break out during your World War III LARP). In the case of the B-47s, they were equipped with Mark 6 nuclear bombs. Being twice as powerful as the nuke that leveled Hiroshima, the Mark 6 would have turned South Carolina into something like this:
Well, double that, so:
The nuke dropped straight into the backyard of the Gregg family. But no mushroom cloud appeared in their vegetable patch. The Air Force would go on to claim that the fissile nuclear core had been detached from the bomb as a safety precaution. But some of the bomber crew later contested this, saying that all the bombs were locked and loaded. (Or loaded, at least). And local residents claim that Air Force planes would routinely circle the area to measure radiation for the next 25 years. Either the nuclear payload was disarmed, or it didn't trigger on impact -- we'll never know. What did trigger was the 7,600 lbs of explosives inside the bomb, which turned the Gregg family yard into a 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep crater.
The blast was so powerful that it obliterated the Greggs' shed, the main house, and several nearby homesteads. As if by miracle, the massive explosion resulted in zero casualties. All six members of the Gregg family were covered in scrapes and bruises from the debris but were mostly fine. Mrs. Ella Hudson-Gregg got it the worst, as she received a nasty gash from a brick the nuke had launched at her forehead.
The Air Force quickly covered up the news of their broken arrow, paying off the Greggs with $54,000, reassigning all the pilots overseas, and secretly swearing they'd never accidentally nuke American soil again … again. Later declassification showed that, in 1950, a bomber pilot losing altitude also kinda maybe dropped and detonated a nuke over Québec, Canada, scattering 100 pounds of uranium. And only a year before the Mars Bluff incident, a pilot accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb a few dozen yards from the biggest nuclear weapon silo in the US. Anyway, they eventually got around to implementing new guidelines for stricter safety protocols on nuclear bombers … about a decade later.
Speaking of dropping nukes over Mars …
The U.S. Airforce Wanted To Build A Starship Powered By Nuclear Bombs
While Russians remember the 14th of December 1957 as the day that they launched the first satellite into outer space, America's five-star generals remember the 15th, when they cracked open several bottles of vodka and started spitballing on how to still win the space race. One of the frontrunner's ideas was to just nuke the moon to show the final frontier who's boss. Luckily, the learned scientists in the room had a much more reasonable plan: Instead of sending one nuclear bomb to the moon, let's send 3,000 of them to Saturn.
Project Orion sounds like the kind of space program you'd get by making a crazy prospector your Chief Operating Officer. Pioneered by Project Manhattan maths nerd Stanislaw Ulam, he posited that the wimpy chemical rockets NASA used were far too inefficient in their energy distribution. Instead, spaceships should be powered by "nuclear pulse propulsion," a fancy term for intermittently dropping nuclear bombs onto a ship's rear to yeet it across the galaxy by harnessing the power of a directed nuclear explosion.
The idea sounded just crazy enough to beat the Ruskies, so the newly formed ARPA -- which is either short for the Advanced Research Projects Agency or Acme Roadrunner Projectile Acquisitions, I always forget -- put down its first million dollars to explore Orion's viability. The research was mind and butt blowing. Detonating a megaton nuke every three seconds for 10 straight days would give a spaceship such acceleration it could reach Mars in a couple of weeks, Saturn in seven months, and Alpha Centauri in 133 years, several hundred times faster than the Voyager Space Probes.
While NASA was in no way interested, Project Orion quickly drew the attention of the U.S. Air Force. The team managed to rack up additional funding and military clearance by mocking up a proof of concept. But since they weren't allowed to play with H-bombs, they did so by strapping several pounds of C4 to a model rocket and blowing it into the sky like they had taken over their kids' middle school science project.
When it was time to strap on actual nuclear bombs, no typical spaceship would do. Instead, the Orion type would be a multi-tiered, reusable starship built more like an interstellar submarine than a flimsy monkey-guided rocket. The hull would be made out of thick steel alloy shaped like a cartoon bullet and protected from the nuclear blasts by a massive bumper-like pusher plate. At its max output, they figured the nuclear pulse propulsion could support a ship that was 400 meters (1312 feet) in diameter, weighed 8,000,000 tons, and could comfortably seat 200 humans and over a thousand nuclear weapons.
Of course, there were some teensy tiny downsides to creating a steel space fortress powered by a localized nuclear Holocaust. Since they couldn't get the thing into space any other way, the starships would have to launch from Earth, firing off hundreds of nukes before reaching the stratosphere. This would create a fireball brighter than the surface of the sun, burning off everyone's eyelids in a 50-mile radius. After doing some more horror-math, it was also predicted that the radioactive fallout scattered in the atmosphere would create about a dozen new Make-A-Wish kids every single launch. Not that that would matter if anything went wrong during said launch, as one little Challenger-like disaster wouldn't leave any living beings alive to complain about it.
Combined with several engineering hiccups (unless the pusher plate was made out of Hollywood movie plot armor, it most likely wouldn't survive being nuked a couple of thousand times), Project Orion was becoming practically, ethically, and, especially, politically infeasible. All hope was lost when the U.S. signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, promising to not detonate any more nuclear weapons above ground, not even for something as innocent as launching a space nuclear sub armed with thousands of bombs into orbit over its many enemies.
With no more skies to irradiate, Project Orion was shelved. Yet to this day, most of its research is still kept classified; because, unlike other military boondoggles, Project Orion still has some nuclear juice. With all the technological advances of the 21st century, nuclear-powered spaceships may once again become a viable, non-apocalyptic option. And when that happens, we might finally achieve mankind's dream of nuking ourselves through the stars, one mushroom-clouded fart at a time.
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