BARNES WALLIS: visionary designer

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Barnes Wallis, 26 September 1887 – 30 October 1979.
Barnes Wallis, 26 September 1887 – 30 October 1979.

In 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Great Britain was playing catch up – a game at which they seemed destined to fail. Decades of falling military budgets had left Britain’s defences severely weakened, and although a major investment program had been started in the mid 1930s, it was definitely a case of too little too late to counter the threat posed by a resurgent Nazi Germany and her allies.

When war came, much of the military equipment available to the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and British Army was obsolete, with a great deal of it dated from the First World War. The Second World War, however, was to be a different conflict, a more fluid and dynamic war, and one during which brilliant creative minds would be encouraged to find innovative solutions to a range of military and strategic problems.

Born: 26 September 1887, Ripley, Derbyshire
Married: Molly Bloxam, 1925
Educated: Christ’s Hospital
Aircraft designed: Vickers Wellington, R100 airship, Vickers Warwick, Vickers, Windsor.
Bombs designed: Bouncing Bombs, Tallboy, Blockbuster
Died: 30 October 1979, aged 92.

Barnes Wallis was one such man. A brilliant aircraft designer with a flair for what we in the 21st-century would glibly call ‘thinking outside of the box’. He found solutions where others would shrug their shoulders in bewilderment. The Wellington bomber’s unique geodetic structure was a stroke of brilliance and the apocryphal game of skimming stones over some water that led to the creation of the bouncing bombs that destroyed the German dams were both works of a creative genius.

Yet for all his brilliance he still had to stare down the two headed devil that was bureaucracy and military stubbornness.

Engineering background

Without a doubt Sir Barnes Wallis will be best remembered for his deceptively simple and brilliant bouncing bombs that shattered the German dams during the famed Dambusters Raid of May 1943. What is less well known is the breadth and diversity of his fertile mind.

Barnes Wallis was born on 26 September 1887 in Ripley in Derbyshire but followed his family south to Horsham in Sussex, where he grew up. Aged 17 he started work at Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath in January 1905 but soon relocated to the shipyard of JS White’s at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

His career with shipbuilding continued until 1913 when he became fascinated by the emerging and adventurous world of aviation. He succeeded in getting a job with Vickers as part of a team working on airship designs and aircraft themselves. Barnes Wallis was to remain with Vickers for the rest of his career.

During his early years at Vickers, Barnes Wallis contributed to engineering the gasbag wiring of the Vickers R100 airship, which was at the time the largest airship in the world. He also developed his revolutionary geodetic engineering designs, which added strength yet saved weight for aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington bomber. Following the loss of the R101 and the Hindenburg, all development of airships ceased and Wallis moved to the Vickers plant at Brooklands.

When war clouds broke across Europe in September 1939, Wallis had turned his innovative mind towards the design of more effective bombs. He wrote a paper entitled ‘A Note on a Method of Attacking the Axis Powers’.

Referring to the enemy’s power supplies he wrote: ‘If their destruction or paralysis can be accomplished they offer a means of rendering the enemy utterly incapable of continuing to prosecute the war.’ As a means to achieve this he proposed huge bombs that could concentrate their force and destroy targets which normal bombs were incapable of affecting.

His first 10 tonne monster bomb was far too large to be hauled aloft by any aircraft in the RAF. Undeterred, Wallis designed his ‘Victory Bomber’, capable of doing the job. His Eureka moment came in 1942 when following a family visit to Chisel beach in Dorset he skipped stones across the water. Wallis took the idea and wrote a paper in April 1942 entitled ‘Spherical Bomb – Surface Torpedo’.

Chisel beach inspiration

Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX.
Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX.

His idea was simple. By using the skimming motion he had seen at Chisel Beach the bombs could skip over protective torpedo nets of large warships and stationary targets. The bomb would sink slightly into the body of water before exploding thereby concentrating the destructive power of the blast. To maintain its position alongside the target Wallis determined that a degree of backspin was required.

The Royal Air Force at this time had limited experience of precision bombing, which was exactly what was needed for the attack on the Mohne, Eder, and Sorpe dams on the River Ruhr. Wallis’s idea was thoroughly tested off Chisel Beach and Reculver in Kent by 611 Squadron, which had been formed especially for the attack. After initial false starts the bouncing bomb theory was proved leading to the breaking of the first two dams, and damage to the third.

Barnes Wallis continued to develop large effect weapons including the 6 tonne Tallboy and 10 tonne Grand Slam bombs, both of which were known as earthquake bombs. These weapons reached supersonic speeds during their descent and buried themselves up to 20 metres into the earth before detonating. They proved ideally suited for use against V2 rocket launch sites, submarine pens, and reinforced structures such as the Atlantic Wall along the French, Dutch, and Danish coastlines. They were also used to sink the German battleship Tirpitz.

Post-war career

A Wellington Mk.IA of the Central Gunnery School based at Sutton Bridge flying south-east of Chatteris, 24 June 1943.
A Wellington Mk.IA of the Central Gunnery School based at Sutton Bridge flying south-east of Chatteris, 24 June 1943.

After the war Barnes Wallis assumed the position of Head of the Vickers-Armstrong Research and Development Department. He would contribute to a number of Vickers and later British Aerospace projects including the swing wings used on today’s Tornado jet fighter/bomber as well as studies into laminar airflow. Both his Wild Goose and Swallow futuristic aircraft designs were cancelled by 1957 but much of his research work found its way into other designs such as the supersonic airliner Concorde.

In the 1950’s Barnes Wallis returned to his original marine background when he designed and built the Heyday torpedo, which was powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide. Portland in Dorset was the site chosen for trials, and although the type never entered service, the only surviving example of the torpedo is on display at Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower at Gosport.

In the 1960s Wallis proposed the use of giant submarines as cargo vessels as they were inherently more efficient than surface vessels and could avoid the worst of the weather conditions on the surface. He also proposed the use of revolutionary gas turbine propulsion for the submarines fuelled by liquid oxygen. Sadly, Wallis’s design never made it off the drawing board.

Up until his retirement in 1971, Barnes Wallis strived to develop peaceful applications for his ideas. He was haunted somewhat by the terrible death toll of the Dambusters raid, both among the aircrew and those caught in the tsunami effect of the breached dams.

To this end he, wherever possible, made radio controlled models of his designs, so as not to risk the lives of test pilots. He also donated his £10,000 prize from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors to Christ’s Hospital School in 1951 to allow them to set up the RAF Foundationers’ Trust, which allows the children of RAF personnel killed or injured in action to attend the school.

Barnes Wallis was knighted in 1968 and died on 30 October 1979 and was survived by his wife of 54 years Molly and their four children Barnes, Mary, Elisabeth, and Christopher.

This is an article from the April 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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