Ice Station Zebra (novel)

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Ice Station Zebra
Ice Station Zebra (novel).jpg
First edition cover (UK)
Author Alistair MacLean
Cover artist John Heseltine[1]
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Thriller
Publisher Collins (UK)
Doubleday (US)
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 276 pp.
OCLC 844681
Preceded by The Satan Bug
Followed by When Eight Bells Toll

Ice Station Zebra is a 1963 thriller novel written by Scottish author Alistair MacLean. It marked a return to MacLean's classic Arctic setting. After completing this novel, whose plot line parallels real-life events during the Cold War, MacLean retired from writing for three years. In 1968 it was loosely adapted into a film of the same name.


Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British meteorological station built on an ice floe in the Arctic Sea, has suffered a catastrophic oil fire; men have died and shelter and supplies have been destroyed. The survivors are holed up in one hut with little food and heat. If help does not reach them quickly, they will die.

The (fictional) American nuclear-powered submarine USS Dolphin is dispatched on a rescue mission. Just before it departs, the mysterious Dr. Carpenter, the narrator, is sent to accompany it. Carpenter claims that he is necessary as an expert in dealing with frostbite and other deep-cold medical conditions.

At first, the submarine's Captain Swanson is suspicious of Carpenter, even though he receives an order from Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy instructing him to obey Carpenter's every command except where crew and submarine safety is at stake. Swanson then calls in his boss Admiral Garvie. Admiral Garvie, Captain Swanson and Dr. Carpenter then meet in confidence in Captain Swanson's small cabin. Admiral Garvie questions Dr. Carpenter at length asking why a civilian and a non US Citizen should be allowed aboard the USS Dolphin and says that he can countermand the CNO's instructions and refuse transport to Dr. Carpenter. Carpenter is thus forced to reveal that this is not simply a rescue mission; the station is actually a highly equipped listening post, keeping watch for nuclear missile launches from the Soviet Union. Hearing this, Admiral Garvie allows Carpenter to come along. Swanson asks Carpenter to dinner but Carpenter declines saying that he has been traveling for more than 50 hours. Swanson asks and Dr. Carpenter reveals that 50 hours ago he was in the Antarctic. It is very mysterious and Admiral Garvie gives an old fashioned look [clarification needed] but he lets it go at that point.

Before the Dolphin dives under the Arctic ice pack, it tries to contact Zebra, whose radio signals are becoming weaker by the hour, but in vain. Once under the Arctic ice pack, it approaches the calculated position for Zebra, then searches for a place to surface. Eventually finding a place where the ice is thin enough to break through, the Dolphin establishes tenuous radio contact, and gets a bearing on Zebra's position. But Zebra is too far away to attempt to reach it on foot, so the submarine re-submerges, hoping to get closer. Carpenter confides to the Captain that the commander of the station is his brother.

After a tense, desperate search, the Dolphin finds open water and surfaces just five miles from the station. Carpenter, Executive Officer Hansen, and two crewmen make the perilous journey through an Arctic storm on foot, taking with them as many supplies as they can. Zabrinski, one of the crewmen, breaks his ankle on the way. After a harrowing trek they reach Zebra. Devastation awaits them. Three of the eight huts and almost all supplies have been destroyed by a widespread oil fire. Eight men are dead - burnt to a crisp. Eleven men are alive, but barely. While the victims are being tended to, Carpenter does some investigating on his own.

Unable to make radio contact, as the radio was damaged in Zabrinski's fall, Carpenter just receives a message from the Dolphin telling them to return at once, as the ice is closing. Carpenter and Hansen leave Zabrinski and the other crewman to attend to the survivors. After nearly getting lost in the terrible storm of blowing ice, Carpenter and Hansen finally return to the Dolphin, bearing news of their findings, as well as the relatively thin ice nearer to Zebra. Dolphin submerges and heads for Zebra. The ice there is still too thick to break with the sub's sail, so Swanson decides to blow a hole in the ice with a torpedo. Unbeknownst to him, someone had tampered with the wiring of the indicators which indicated the open/close status of the outer tube doors. When the crew attempts to load a torpedo into one of the tubes, a torrent of water rushes through the inner door, killing an officer and sending Dolphin into a nearly catastrophic dive. Only by heroic measures is Dolphin able to save herself.

After successfully breaking through the ice with a torpedo, fired from a tube not sabotaged, Dolphin finally emerges just two hundred feet from Zebra. The sick men are treated, but some of them are still too ill to be carried to the sub. Carpenter does some more investigating. He finds that the fire at Zebra was no accident; it was a cover to hide that three of the dead men, one of whom was his brother, were murdered. Carpenter already knows why; the only question is who. Swanson also has a look around and finds no trace of the sophisticated listening equipment Carpenter had claimed was Zebra's purpose — Carpenter had lied again. Meanwhile, Swanson found a loaded gun in the petrol tank of a tractor, where the petrol would keep it from freezing, whereas Carpenter found food, batteries and a powerful radio hidden in the hut being used as a morgue.

Finally the survivors are all brought aboard, Zebra is abandoned, and Dolphin heads back, but not without several further incidents. The ship's doctor is knocked into a coma. Carpenter himself is severely hurt in another apparent accident. Then a fire breaks out in the engine room and the sub is forced to shut down its nuclear reactor. Without power for air purification or heating, Dolphin looks set to become a frozen tomb trapped under the ice pack. Only the ingenuity of Commander Swanson and the dedication of the crew saves the ship.

Carpenter announces that the fire was no accident. He reveals to the Captain that he is an MI6 officer. Carpenter's real mission is to retrieve photographic film from a reconnaissance satellite (see Corona) that has photographed every nuclear weapons installation in the U.S. The film, ejected from the satellite, had landed near Zebra. Carpenter's brother had been meant to retrieve it, but Russian agents killed him. The two Russian agents are amongst the survivors from Zebra. Carpenter finally reveals their motives, methods, and the men. The film is now in American hands, and the agents on their way to the gallows.

Background and origin of plot[edit]

USS Skate
Corona spy satellite

The novel was influenced by the heightened atmosphere of the Cold War, with its escalating series of international crises such as the U-2 incident; West Berlin; unrest in Hungary, Indochina, Congo, and Latin America; and the Cuban missile crisis.

The novel exploits contemporary fascination with the under-the-ice exploits of such American nuclear-powered submarines as Nautilus, Skate, Sargo and Seadragon. MacLean may have been anticipating the excitement of his British readers regarding the upcoming commissioning of the HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's first nuclear submarine. Also, MacLean may have been influenced by press reports about the nuclear-powered submarine USS Skate visiting Ice Station Alpha, located on Ice Island T-3 in the Arctic, on 14 August 1958, as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY).[2] At the time that the novel was published, under-the-ice operations by U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarines were prohibited until SUB-SAFE measures had been implemented following the loss of the USS Thresher (SSN-593).[3]

Ice Station Zebra also uses the accelerating Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union as the backdrop for the novel, and may have been directly inspired by news accounts from April 17, 1959, about a missing experimental Corona satellite capsule (Discoverer ll) that inadvertently landed near Spitsbergen on April 13 and may have been recovered by Soviet agents.[4][5] In 2006 the National Reconnaissance Office declassified information stating that "an individual formerly possessing CORONA access was the technical adviser to the movie" and admitted "the resemblance of the loss of the DISCOVERER II capsule, and its probable recovery by the Soviets" on Spitsbergen Island, to the book by Alistair MacLean.[2]

The story has parallels with CIA Operation Cold Feet, which took place in May/June 1962. In this operation, two American officers parachuted from a CIA-operated B-17 Flying Fortress to an abandoned Soviet ice station. After searching the station, they were picked up three days later by the B-17 using the Fulton Sky hook system.

Finally, MacLean even mentions the newly-operational Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker Lenin by involving the ship in an aborted attempt to reach the survivors at Drift Ice Station Zebra.

Film adaptation[edit]

1968 film[edit]

The novel was later very loosely adapted into the 1968 John Sturges film of the same name starring Rock Hudson. The most obvious changes involved the names of the novel's characters:

  • The nuclear submarine Dolphin became the USS Tiger-fish (SSN-509).
  • The British spy Dr. Carpenter was renamed David Jones, portrayed by Patrick McGoohan.
  • Commander Swanson was changed to Commander Ferraday, portrayed by Hudson.

Additional characters were added, including a U.S. Marine platoon trained in Arctic warfare:

Much of the novel's characterization involving the submarine's crew was jettisoned in favor of these new cinematic creations. Also all characters from the Ice Station Zebra in the novel were removed. They were claimed to have died in the fire, notably two main villains who had caused the fire in the first place. Also removed were all references to Dr. Carpenter's brother.

Beyond the name change, the film's submarine has a design similar to the first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus, rather than the more streamlined, teardrop-shaped vessel, either the contemporaneous Skipjack or Permit design, that was described in the novel. In the movie, the fire on the drift Ice Station was explained away as accidental.

Unlike the film, the novel shows little overt Soviet interest in recovering the lost spy satellite other than a spy ship disguised as a fishing trawler waiting outside Holy Loch when the Tigerfish sets sail. The novel's climax of a fire on board the submarine is replaced with the nearly fatal flooding of the forward torpedo room prior to the film's intermission. The film's new climax involves a superpower confrontation between Soviet paratroopers and the American marines at Ice Station Zebra itself, but concludes on a much more ambiguous note than the novel, reflecting the perceived thaw in the Cold War following the Cuban Missile Crisis.


On May 6, 2013, the Hollywood Reporter reported that Warner Bros. will undertake a remake of Ice Station Zebra, with Christopher McQuarrie signed to direct and write the screenplay for the film.[6]

Popular culture[edit]

The novel is referenced in "The Leadership Breakfast", the eleventh episode of the second season of The West Wing. In the opening scene, Josh and Sam are trying to make a fire in the Mural Room fireplace because the building's heat isn't working. As he's piling wood into the fireplace, Josh says, "It's like Ice Station Zebra in here."

The novel is parodied in the Sealab 2021 third season episode, "Frozen Dinner". The Sealab crew must rescue scientists aboard Ice Station Zebra, a research station on top of an ice floe. The ice floe has turned upside down and trapped the two men, while the Sealab crew tries to rescue them in a submarine. While the scientists immediately turn to cannibalism, the Sealab sub — led by a German crew resembling that from Das Boot — predictably fumbles the rescue.

The rock band Silkworm titled a song "Ice Station Zebra" on their 1997 album Developer.

An episode of the TV series Get Smart was titled "Ice Station Siegfried".

An episode of the TV series Breaking Bad mentions a fictional company called Ice Station Zebra Associates.


  1. ^ Existential Ennui: Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s
  2. ^ a b Williams. Submarines Under Ice, p. 133 - 141
  3. ^ Polmar and Moore. Cold War Submarines, p. 156
  4. ^ Chronology of Spy Satellites @
  5. ^ Taubman, Secret Empire, p. 287.
  6. ^ "Christopher McQuarrie to Write, Direct Remake of Ice Station Zebra] (Exclusive)". Hollywood Reporter. May 6, 2013. Retrieved December 27, 2013. 


  • Norman Polmar and K.J. Moore. Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2004) ISBN 1-57488-530-8
  • Phil Taubman. Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003) ISBN 0-684-85699-9
  • Marion D. Williams. Submarines Under Ice: The U.S. Navy's Polar Operations (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998) ISBN 1-55750-943-3

External links[edit]