Barnes Wallis is most associated with the Dambuster raid of 1943 when the legendary ‘bouncing bomb’ that Wallis developed destroyed several of the dams in the Ruhr. Barnes Wallis also developed the huge ‘Tallboy’ bomb and the Wellington bomber. His extraordinary talent was recognised by the nation when he received a knighthood.
Barnes Neville Wallis was born on September 26th, 1887 in Ripley in Derbyshire. When aged two, his father’s work as a doctor took him to London where the family moved to New Cross Road. Both Barnes and his eldest brother John spent many hours in a workshop in their house making whatever they could – including paper toys for their sister Annie.
Wallis was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex. Here he built on his talent for Mathematics and Science and by the time he had finished at Christ’s, Wallis had determined that he would become an engineer.
His first job was working for Thames Engineering Works – a firm that made ship engines. In 1908, he moved to the John Samuel White’s shipyard in the Isle of Wight. In 1913, he joined Vickers – a company that was to become synonymous with airship and aircraft development. However, when World War One broke out, Wallis found himself unemployed as the Admiralty decided not to spend anymore money on airship development. He tried to join the Army but failed the eyesight test. He did pass another medical in a different section of the Army by memorising the eye test chart – before the actual test! Just at this time, the Admiralty decided to reconvene Vicker’s airship development team and Wallis was recalled from the Army.
Wallis was very much involved in the development of the R100.
When World War Two broke out, Wallis believed that the quickest way to defeat Nazi Germany was to destroy its industrial base. Without factories, the Nazi war machine could not be supplied. The most important industrial area in Germany was the Ruhr. It was also very heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. A ‘normal’ bombing raid risked heavy casualties. Wallis developed in his mind a plan for a raid by a small, highly trained team of expert fliers, navigators, bombers etc who could fly so low that radar would not pick them up and hit, with pin-point accuracy, their target. In his mind, those targets should be the dams that held back the mighty waters of the Ruhr. If these dams were breached, the water would destroy anything in its path.
Wallis set himself the task of designing a bomb so special that it would break up the reinforced concrete that made up the Ruhr dams. The bomb needed to be dropped at an exceptionally low height so that it hit a dam, did not explode but sank into the water. At a given depth, a fuse would break and the bomb would explode. The shock waves created by the bomb would be accentuated underwater and, Wallis believed, would be enough to destroy the dam. The first tests of the bomb were done in a large indoors pool with a scaled-down bomb. The experimental indoors tests were a success.
When a life-size one was dropped under the greatest of secrecy in the waters off of the beaches of Kent, the first test was a failure (as were those that followed it) and MOD personnel remained sceptical about any success for the ‘bouncing bomb’. Wallis believed that the plane, which came in unusually low, was flying too high and asked the crew to fly in even lower for the next test. His gamble, and the crew’s piloting skills, worked – the bomb bounced and bounced so, in its imaginary situation, it would have cleared any nets that protected the dams in the Ruhr.
In May 1943, the Dambuster Raid took place. 617 Squadron, commanded by Guy Gibson, VC, attacked the Ruhr Dams using the bomb invented by Barnes Wallis. The actual physical impact of the raid will always be open to debate. The huge psychological impact of the raid, however, can never be doubted. Wallis, however, expressed his view that the raid, having cost eight Lancaster bomber crews out of nineteen, may not have been worth the losses.
Wallis also invented the ‘Tallboy’ bomb that was used to penetrate the U-boat pens on the west coast of France. He also developed one of the mainstays of Bomber Command – the Wellington bomber, used so often in bombing raids over Nazi Germany.
Wallis continued inventing things after the war. He invented a glassless mirror that did not mist up – and put forward ideas for swing-wing planes. He retired aged 83 and his work for the country was recognised in 1968 when he was knighted. Barnes Wallis was also made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Barnes Neville Wallis died on October 30th, 1979, aged 92. In 1980, in recognition of what he had achieved, a memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral.