Sir Barnes Wallis

The man behind the story of the Dambusters
Barnes Neville Wallis was born in Ripley Derbyshire on September 26th 1887, sixty years on he was a celebrated hero following his work in WWII and sixty years after that he was a knight, celebrated annually for his success and vision. This is a very simple way to sum up to life and legacy of Sir Barnes Wallis and it is the man that most people know; however, there are many other steps along this journey, from the apprenticeship at the shipbuilders in the Isle of Wight through his marriage to Molly Bloxam – his 20 year old cousin-in-law, 18 years his junior – his forty years at Brooklands in the aviation industry and his numerous creations.

Barnes Wallis

Plaque of Barnes Wallis on the house were he was born.

The inventive mind of Sir Barnes Wallis
After his apprenticeship, Wallis started a career in marine engineering, earning himself a degree from the University of London, and later found himself working in aircraft design. During his time in this industry, Wallis put his creativity and ingenuity to work with a range of objects including modern frames for aircraft, airships and bombs. He definitely had a different way of looking at the problems of aviation and warfare; his extra large, ten ton bomb, for example, was too big to carry in a standard plane but he decided that this meant they therefore needed specialised, capable planes rather than smaller bombs. Often the creations were short-lived, such as the geodetic airframes and airships but this was in no way due to their success.

Barnes Wallis

The great man Barnes Wallis

The best example of Wallis’ luck with these early creations came with his airships. Barnes aided work on a ship in 1929, which undertook a successful flight to Canada, but the disaster of the Hidenburg gave the mode of transport such a negative image that the concept was abandoned. The geodetic structure within the Wellington bomber was deemed revolutionary at the time and played a big role in reinforcing aircraft but it too was abandoned not long after its inception as the industry progressed. The one area where Barnes Wallis saw continued success and recognition was his series of bombs; the 10 ton, “Grand Slam” deep-penetration earthquake bomb was remarkable – particularly in the way that its weight and low altitude equalled a force that could send the bomb 20 metres into the ground for a deadly impact – but it was a different sort of bomb that would make Sir Barnes Wallis famous.

Mohne Dam Breached

Job done by the Dambusters

Sir Barnes Wallis and the Dambusters.
The “bouncing bomb” is easily Barnes’ best known achievement, partly because of its success during the war and the admiration of its invention and partly because its use has been depicted so many times on the big screen and in television documentaries. The idea behind the bomb, which was first put forward in his paper “Spherical Bomb – Surface Torpedo”, was that it should be dropped at a low altitude, with a backspin, and skip across the surface of the water like someone skimming a very large, explosive stone. This action would then send the bomb over the German defence system and down to the bottom of the reservoir so that it could make contact with the dam at a critical point and limit damage to the aircraft. The idea sounds both ridiculous and genius but it was hailed as a success when Operation Chastise effectively damaged dams in the Ruhr region and impacted upon the areas factories and hydroelectric power – despite the loss of 53 airmen and 8 aircraft.

Wallis’ years after the war and remembering the success of the bomb.
After the war, Wallis continued to work at Brooklands in aviation as the head of Vickers-Armstrongs’ research and development facility, working on more futuristic aerospace projects. His career at the centre lasted for almost forty years in total and in that time he was well decorated and commended for his work, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and being knighted in 1968. Sir Barnes Wallis died aged 92 on October 30th 1979 but his achievements continue to be recognised to this day, from the statue at the test site in Herme Bay to the golfing term and Red Wheel Heritage plaque at his birthplace, and nothing is remembered more fondly than the Dambusters.

The 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise is being celebrated in May 2013 with a flypast at the most fitting Derbyshire landmark, the test site at Derwent Reservoir, and the surviving crewmen of 617 squadron will come together to observe a moments silence for those 53 airmen that lost their lives and those that saw direct action; however, while these remembrance events are meaningful and important, people should also spare a thought for Wallis, the man that ensured the operation was successful with his designs and inventive nature but paid his own personal price.

Barnes Wallis

Another Barnes Wallis plaque

Wallis’ personal remembrance and legacy.
There are events and moments across May 2013 with a much deeper significance to Wallis’ life and work; exhibitions are being set up that showcase the man’s dam busting inventions – such as the prototype of the bomb and and a model of the catapult that tested it – as well as other models like the Grand Slam Earthquake bomb. Many supporters and admirers of Wallis’ work will be pleased to see the bombs and equipment given the same time in the spotlight but Wallis himself may not have been so enthusiastic. In the years following the raids, the effect the operation had on Barnes was clear to see and his apparent guilt began to influence his work and decisions. The loss of life encouraged his work on remote controlled aircraft and he donated his £10,000 fee for his war work towards the formation of a RAF Foundationers’ Trust to help educate the children of those killed or injured.

These 70th anniversary events are far from the last that we will hear about the Dambusters and the “bouncing bomb”, esecially if the film by Peter Jackson and Stephen Fry finally makes it to the cinemas. Time will tell which part of the story gets the most attention in this new depiction, the airmen, the bomb or Wallis himself, but is it clear that it is a story that people still want to hear and, in another sixty years, Sir Barnes Wallis will hopefully still be talked about as an important inventor and designer.