Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, CBE, Kt,
FRS, RDI, FRAeS (26 September
1887 – 30 October 1979), commonly known as Barnes Wallis, was an English scientist, engineer and inventor. He is
best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the RAF in Operation
Chastise (the "Dambusters" raid) to attack the Möhne, Sorpe, and Eder dams
in the Ruhr area in May 1943, during World War II. This was famously
portrayed in the 1954 film The Dam Busters, in which Wallis was
played by Michael Redgrave.
Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire, and educated at Christ's
Hospital in Horsham, leaving school at seventeen to start work in January
1905 at Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath, South East London. He
subsequently changed his apprenticeship to J Samuel White's the shipbuilders
based at Cowes in the Isle of Wight. He originally trained as a marine
engineer and only much later in 1922 did he take an external degree in
engineering via the University of London External Programme,
He left J Samuel White's in 1913 when an opportunity arose enabling him to
work on airship design and then aircraft design. He worked for Vickers and
its successor companies including British Aircraft Corporation from 1913
until his retirement in 1971.
His many achievements include the first use of geodesic airframe design
in engineering, in the gasbag wiring of the R100, in 1930; which, at the
time, was the largest airship ever designed. He also pioneered the use of
light alloy and production engineering in the structure design of the R100.
Despite a better-than-expected performance and a successful return flight to
Canada in 1930, the R100 was broken up following the tragedy that befell its
"sister" ship, the R101 (which was designed and built by a separate
Government-led team); the later crash of the Hindenburg would lead to
the abandonment of airships as a mode of mass transport.
With the ending of Vickers' interest in airships, Wallis moved to their aircraft division. The pre-war aircraft designs of Rex Pearson, the Vickers Wellesley and the Vickers Wellington, both employed Wallis's geodesic design in the fuselage and wing structure. The latter was one of the most robust airframes ever developed, and pictures of its skeleton largely shot away, but still sound enough to bring its crew home safely, still astonish today. The geodesic construction offered a light and strong airframe
(compared to conventional designs) with clearly defined space within for
fuel tanks, payload etc. However the technique was not easily transferred to
other aircraft manufacturers nor was Vickers able to build other designs in
factories tooled for geodesic work.
On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War in
Europe began. Wallis saw a need for strategic bombing to destroy the enemy's
ability to wage war, writing a paper "A Note on a Method of Attacking the
Axis Powers". Referring to the enemy's power supplies he wrote (as Axiom 3):
"If their destruction or paralysis can be accomplished THEY OFFER A MEANS OF
RENDERING THE ENEMY UTTERLY INCAPABLE OF CONTINUING TO PROSECUTE THE WAR".
He put forward the means to do this: huge bombs that could concentrate their
force and destroy targets which were otherwise unlikely to be affected.
Wallis's first super-large bomb design came out at some ten tonnes, far
larger than any current plane could carry. This led him to suggest a plane
that could carry it, the "Victory bomber", rather than drop the idea. His
second paper, in 1942, was Spherical Bomb — Surface Torpedo, which
heralded the development of the bouncing bomb, immortalised in Paul
Brickhill's 1951 book The Dam Busters and the 1954 film of the same
name. After the success of the bouncing bomb, Wallis was able to return to
his huge bombs, producing first the Tallboy (6 tonnes) and then Grand Slam
(10 tonnes) deep-penetration earth quake bombs. These were used on strategic
German targets such as V1 rocket launch sites, submarine pens, and other
reinforced structures, large civil constructions such as viaducts and
bridges, as well as the German battleship Tirpitz. These two bombs
were the fore-runners of modern bunker-busting bomb, and could enter the
earth at supersonic velocity. The Tallboy should not be confused with the
5-tonne "blockbuster" bomb, which was a conventional blast bomb.
Though he did not invent the concept, Wallis did much pioneering
engineering work to make the swing-wing concept functional. However, despite
very promising wind tunnel and model work, his designs were not taken up.
His early "Wild Goose", designed in the late 1940s, hoped to use laminar
flow, but when this was shown to be unworkable, he developed the swing-wing
further for the "Swallow", designed in the mid-1950s, which could have been
developed for either military or civil applications. On UK government
instructions, however, Vickers passed the swing-wing designs to the US
Government and instead adopted the BAC TSR-2 (on which one of Wallis' sons
worked) and Concorde. Wallis was quite critical of the BAC TSR-2, stating
that a swing-wing design would be more appropriate and demonstrating the
concept by flying scale models without tailplanes. In the mid-1960s, The BAC
TSR-2 project was ignominiously scrapped in favour of the American F-111 –
which had swing wings based on Wallis's work – though this order was also
Wallis also proposed using large cargo submarines to transport oil
undersea, hence avoiding surface weather conditions. This idea was put into
practice on a tactical level by the Germans, with their milch cows.
In the 1950s, Wallis developed an experimental rocket-propelled torpedo
codename HEYDAY. It was powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide.
Tests were conducted from Portland Breakwater in Dorset. The unusual shape
was designed to maintain laminar flow over much of its length. The only
surviving example is on display in Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower at
During the 1960s and into his retirement, he developed ideas for an
"all-speed" aircraft, capable of efficient flight at all speed ranges from
subsonic to hypersonic.
The story described in The Dam Busters reflected the difficulties
Wallis often faced in persuading those in authority or who controlled
funding sources to support his ideas.
Following the terrible death toll of the aircrews involved in the
Dambusters raid, he made a conscious effort never again to endanger the
lives of his test pilots. His designs were extensively tested in model form,
and consequently he became a pioneer in the remote control of aircraft.
Wallis became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and was knighted in
In April 1922, Wallis met his cousin-in-law, Molly Bloxam, at a family
tea party. She was only 17 and he was 35, and her father forbade them from
courting. However, he allowed Wallis to assist Molly with her mathematics
courses by correspondence, and they wrote some 250 letters, enlivening them
with fictional characters such as "Duke Delta X". The letters gradually
became personal, and Wallis proposed marriage on her 20th birthday. They
married on 23 April 1925, and had 54 years together before his death.
He lived with his family in Herne Bay, Kent.
His daughter Mary Eyre Wallis later married Harry Stopes-Roe a son of
Marie Stopes, who cut Harry out of her will as Marie advocated eugenics, and
Mary was myopic and wore glasses from an inherited eye defect.
His great-grandson, Benjamin Wallis, is currently a sergeant with the Air
Training Corps, serving with 59 (Huddersfield) Squadron and as such carrying
on the family affiliation with the Air Force.
Another connection with the Air Training Corps is the fact that 1401
(Alfreton and Ripley) Squadron ATC features both a Lancaster bomber and a
dam on their squadron crest as a tribute to Wallis.
Barnes Wallis by Prof. J.E. Morpurgo. Longman Group Ltd 1972
Mathematics with Love by Dr. Mary Stopes-Roe Macmillan 2005
Barnes Wallis Dambuster by Peter Pugh Icon Books 2005 ISBN
Wallis appears as a fictionalized character in Stephen Baxter's The
Time Ships, the authorised sequel to The Time Machine. He is
portrayed as a British engineer in an alternate history, where the First
World War does not end in 1918, and Wallis concentrates his energies on
developing a machine for time travel. As a consequence, it is the Germans
who develop the bouncing bomb.
In Scarlet Traces: The Great Game, he is said to have developed
the Cavorite weapon used to win the war on Mars after the suicide of Cavor.
The Student Union Building on the University of Manchester North
Campus is named in Barnes Wallis's honour; Wallis was awarded lifetime
membership of the Students' Union in 1967.
A "Barnes Wallis" in golf is a shot that bounces over a water
QinetiQ's site in Farnborough, Hampshire includes a building named
in Barnes Wallis's honour, being the former site of the Royal Aircraft
There is a Barnes Wallis public house by the side of Howden railway
station on the Hull to Selby line. It is in view of the airship hangars.
The School of Engineering at Nottingham Trent University is also
named after Barnes Wallis. The Barnes Wallis Building is on Goldsmith
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