A little over a month ago, I chanced upon a radio program online in which the author of "Churchill's Iceman" was interviewed about its subject, Geoffrey Pyke, whose radical, innovative, and far-reaching ideas during the Second World War led to the creation of the First Special Service Force (FSSF) --- a unique, unconventional military unit made up of American and Canadian soldiers skilled in living off the land and in irregular warfare who distinguished themselves in combat from the Aleutian Islands, to Italy, France, and the Rhineland --- an underwater pipeline (which was later developed and used in sustaining the Allied drive across France during the Battle of Normandy, and the proposal to "build an aircraft carrier of reinforced ice [named Pykrete in Pyke's honor]" to help the Allies overcome the U-boat threat in the Atlantic. The more I listened to Henry Hemming speak about the life of Geoffrey Pyke, the more my curiosity about this man grew. So much so, that I bought this book.
Pyke was born in 1893, the eldest child of a family that soon found itself in straightened circumstances following the death of Pyke's father, a lawyer, when Pyke was 5. His domineering mother (from whom he later became estranged) had Pyke sent off to Wellington, at the time a typical public school for the sons of Army officers. There Pyke was teased and abused by his classmates because of his Jewish heritage. From this experience, he developed a contempt and hatred for "The Establishment". Pyke was at Wellington for 2 years, then was withdrawn and given private tutoring. Subsequently, he gained admittance to Cambridge University, where he studied law.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Pyke left Cambridge set on playing his part in a wholly, unique way. He came up with the idea of smuggling himself into Germany under the guise of an American journalist. It was Pyke's intent to use this cover to obtain information on how the German people were living under wartime conditions and to gauge from discreet observation what the German Army was up to. What made this all the more remarkable to me upon reading about this phase in Pyke's life was that he didn't speak German and had only a short time to perfect an American accent (one of Pyke's friends at Cambridge was American, and he used the memory of his friend to fashion his own 'American' accent). He sold the editor of the Daily Chronicle on his idea, and with a U.S. passport he obtained from an American sailor, Pyke entered Germany via Denmark in the latter part of September 1914.
Alas, Pyke's cover held for little more than a week. Should the reader of this review be interested in knowing how Pyke was found out, sent to an internment camp for Allied civilian nationals near Berlin considered "escape proof" by the Germans, where he nearly died from pneumonia, recovered, and with the help of a fellow internee (who spoke fluent German) managed to escape to neutral Holland in the late spring of 1915 --- and subsequently back to Britain ---- by all means, read "CHURCHILL'S ICEMAN." There is so much more to this man, who went on after the war to work as a journalist, educationalist, and inventor.
Geoffrey Pyke was both the perfect embodiment of the "English eccentric" and in our time, the "revolutionary figure" whose societal contributions are on the scale that completely reshape the way we live our daily lives. For example, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who became renowned for "thinking outside the box."