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Barnes Wallis

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.


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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.

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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 subsequently cancelled.

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 Gosport.

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 1968.


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 ISBN 0-582-10360-6
  • Mathematics with Love by Dr. Mary Stopes-Roe Macmillan 2005 ISBN 1403944989
  • Barnes Wallis Dambuster by Peter Pugh Icon Books 2005 ISBN 1-84046-685-5


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 hazard.
  • QinetiQ's site in Farnborough, Hampshire includes a building named in Barnes Wallis's honour, being the former site of the Royal Aircraft Establishment.
  • 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 Street.

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