Sir Barnes Neville Wallis 1887–1979 — Peter Rix — 1 August 2016.

Barnes Wallis - Scientist.
Barnes Wallis — Scientist.

Think of Barnes Wallis and thoughts go to Dam bust­ing boun­cing bombs accom­pan­ied by Eric Coates’ splen­did 1955 film sig­na­ture tune.  Our speaker this week, Peter Rix, opened his present­a­tion by remind­ing us that his subject’s achieve­ments were much wider that those asso­ci­ated with the exploits of 617 Squadron at Mohne and Eder.  Wallis’s port­fo­lio of lead­ing or con­trib­ut­ing to major high-tech  pro­jects was to span over sixty years and was to include ships, sub­mar­ines,  air­ships, air­craft (piston engine to hyper­sonic), tele­scopes, tor­pedoes, heavy bombs and last, but not least, school hot water sys­tems!

Barnes Wallis was born son of a doctor on 26th September 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire.  He gained a schol­ar­ship to Christ’s Hospital School, Sussex.  At 16 faced with the choice of Classics or more Classics, he opted instead for a marine engin­eer­ing appren­tice­ship at Samuel White’s yard in Cowes Isle of White.  While there he took a London University Degree in Engineering in six months!  Wallis left White’s in 1913 to work for Vickers shipyard at Barrow in Furness. Later, he took Maths teach­ing post in Switzerland when the oppor­tun­ity occurred for him to return to Vickers to work on air­ship design at Howden, includ­ing the R (for rigid) 100. This included the first use of light alloy geo­detic con­struc­tion (integ­rat­ing both body struc­ture and shape) in the largest air­ship ever built -at over 700ft long with eleven miles of tubing.  Despite better than expec­ted per­form­ance and a suc­cess­ful return flight to Canada, the R100 was broken up in 1930 fol­low­ing the crashes of its rival “sister ship” R101 and the German ‘Zepperlin’ Hindenburg.

Following the aban­don­ment of air­ships, Wallis was trans­ferred to the Vicars air­craft fact­ory at Brooklands, Surrey. The air­craft designs of the Wellesley, Warwick, Windsor and Wellington all employed Wallis’s robust geo­detic design in the fusel­age and wing struc­tures. When World War Two began in 1939, Wallis was pro­moted to Assistant Chief Designer. He was about to make his mark on his­tory.

In February 1943, Wallis, con­cerned to find tar­gets which could not be moved or easily replaced, revealed his idea for air attacks on Dams in Germany. ”If the destruc­tion or para­lysis of power sup­plies can be accom­plished they offer a means of ren­der­ing the enemy incap­able of con­tinu­ing to pro­sec­ute the war”. One ton of steel requires 100 tons of water.  From rico­chet­ing marbles in a bathtub he developed a sphere-shaped rotat­ing bomb (Codename ‘Upkeep’) that would bounce over water clear of pro­tect­ive net­ting, roll down the dam’s wall and its hydro­static fuse trig­ger explo­sion at its base. The weight of water would do the rest.

Operation Chastise was car­ried out on the night of 16–17 May 1943 by the spe­cially cre­ated 617 Squadron led by Guy Gibson. What happened next is well known. Perhaps the most sig­ni­fic­ant result was the hugely pos­it­ive effect on Allied morale but Wallis much regret­ted the loss of (espe­cially air­crew) life.

When the decision was taken to con­cen­trate on area bomb­ing, Wallis began look­ing at the design of air­craft that could drop heavy bombs.  The adap­ted Avro Lancaster was cap­able over drop­ping two bombs (which he also inven­ted). The ‘Tallboy’ designed in 1944 (there is an example at Kelham Island) and used to sink the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’ and the ‘Grand Slam’ earth­quake bomb the fol­low­ing year.  Both were used against major infra­struc­tures such as rail­way tun­nels and via­ducts and heav­ily for­ti­fied tar­gets or pro­duc­tion centres for the ‘V’ rock­ets and sub­mar­ine pens.

After the war, Wallis led aero­naut­ical research and devel­op­ment at the British Aircraft Corporation. He led his team on many futur­istic pro­jects includ­ing super­sonic flight and ‘swing wing’ air­craft.  His work on aero­dy­nam­ics (aided by his ‘Stratosphere Chamber’ now restored at Brooklands) was to influ­ence such devel­op­ments as the TSR-2 and Concorde. But much of his later work was frus­trated by lack of sup­port­ive fund­ing and the increas­ing loss of expert­ise and mar­kets to the Americans. It was to be same story in other areas such as rocket-propelled tor­pedoes, com­mer­cial sub­mar­ines and remote con­trolled air­craft. He was con­sult­ant to the Parkes Radio tele­scope pro­ject in Australia.

Barnes mar­ried his wife, Molly Bloxham in 1924.  At sev­en­teen years his junior, her father had strong reser­va­tions but he allowed them to con­tinue a court­ship through cor­res­pond­ence which seemed more about phys­ics and dif­fer­en­tial cal­cu­lus than romance!  There were four chil­dren and the couple fostered two more. They settled and lived at Effingham for the remainder of their lives.

Wallis became a member of the Royal Society in 1945 and knighted in 1968. He was awar­ded the sum of £10,000 for his war work from the Royal Commission on Awards to invent­ors. A kindly and God fear­ing man, his grief at the loss of so many airmen in the dams raid was such that Wallis donated the entire sum to Christ’s Hospital School in 1951 to allow them to set up the RAF Foundations’ Trust, allow­ing chil­dren of RAF per­son­nel killed or injured to attend the school.