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, suffers a catastrophic oil fire; several of its men die, and their shelter and supplies are destroyed. The survivors hole up in one hut with little food and heat.

The (fictional) American nuclear-powered submarine USS Dolphin is dispatched on a rescue mission. Just before it departs, Dr. Carpenter, the narrator, is sent to accompany it. Carpenter's background is unknown, but he claims that he is an expert in dealing with frostbite and other deep-cold medical conditions, and he carries an order from the Chief of Naval Operations of the U.S. Navy. Commander Swanson, the submarine captain, is suspicious of Carpenter, and calls in his superior Admiral Garvie. Garvie refuses to allow Carpenter on board without knowing his mission. Under duress, Carpenter says that the station is actually a highly equipped listening post, keeping watch for nuclear missile launches from the Soviet Union, a statement which convinces the commander and the admiral.

The Dolphin reaches the Arctic ice-pack, and dives under it. It surfaces in a break in the ice and succeeds in making tenuous radio contact with Ice Station Zebra. Carpenter confides to the Captain that the commander of the station is his brother. Having obtained a bearing on the station, the Dolphin dives again, and succeeds in finding a lead five miles from the station. Carpenter, Executive Officer Hansen, and two crewmen make the journey to the station through an Arctic storm on foot, taking with them as many supplies as they can. They reach the Zebra after a near-impossible trek, and find that eight of the men on the station are dead, while the 11 others are barely alive. Investigating the corpses, Carpenter finds that one of them has been shot. They find that their radio has been damaged, and so Carpenter and Hansen return to the Dolphin. The submarine moves close to the station, and finding no open water, blows a hole in the ice using a torpedo.

The sick men are cared for by the Dolphin. Carpenter does some more investigating, and finds that the fire was no accident; it was a cover to hide that three of the dead men, one of whom was his brother, were murdered. He also discovers several unburned supplies hidden in the bottom of a hut, while Swanson finds a gun hidden in a petrol tank. The surviving members of Zebra are brought on board the Dolphin, and the station is abandoned. While still under the ice, a fire breaks out in the engine room and the sub is forced to shut down its nuclear reactor. The crew succeeds in saving the ship, after several hours of hard labor, and thanks to Swanson's ingenuity.

Carpenter calls a meeting of the survivors, and announces that the fire was no accident. He reveals that he is an MI6 officer, and that his real mission was to retrieve photographic film from a reconnaissance satellite (see Corona) that has photographed every missile base in the U.S. The film had been ejected from the satellite so that Soviet agents operating under cover at Zebra could retrieve it; Carpenter's brother had been sent to the station to prevent this. Carpenter reveals the identity of the Russian agents, and successfully retrieves the film.

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 SUBSAFE 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 Spitzbergen 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.

Maclean says he got much of the technical information of the novel from an American naval commander called "Polaris 19 North".[6]

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.[7]

Popular culture[edit]

The novel is referenced in "The Leadership Breakfast", the eleventh episode of the second season of The West Wing. While building a fire, one of the characters 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.


  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. ^ War Is Hell, but It Pays Off for MacLean: War Pays Off for MacLean War Pays Off for MacLean War is Hell, but It Pays Off for Alistair Johnstone, Jain. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 Dec 1972: p1.
  7. ^ "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]