Everything you need to know about Barnes Wallis
PUBLISHED: 13:36 10 August 2020
Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
The inventor and scientist from Effingham was the brains behind the bouncing bomb
Barnes Neville Wallis was born on September 26, 1887, in Derbyshire and went on to become an aviation engineer, whose most famous invention was the ‘bouncing bomb’, used on the ‘Dam Busters’ raid of May 1943.
The son of a doctor Barnes moved to London when he was two and surprisingly, given what followed, he left school in 1904 without being a high achiever, although was able to ‘create’ things from an early age.
He also suffered periods of unemployment, in what was, by no means, a straightforward path to success.
Wallis began work with a marine engineering firm, before moving to Vickers, in 1913, just before the onset of the First World War W1. Here, he invented airships, including the R100. During the war, Wallis briefly served as a private.
In 1922, Wallis showed his worth by obtaining a degree in engineering. In that same year, in the April, Wallis met Molly Bloxam at a family tea party. Despite the fact Wallis was 17 years her senior, they began a courtship that lead to them marrying, when Molly was 20, in April 1925. They remained married for 54 years until Wallis’s death and had four children, plus adopted Molly’s sister’s children, when their parents died in an air raid during the Second World War.
Fortunately for us, Molly (Lady Wallis to be) was an avid letter-writer, her correspondence with Barnes beginning before their courtship, when he was assisting her with Maths tuition. The Surrey History Centre, in Woking, has those letters, which tell us loads about their life together, and about the key events of the Second World War.
It was my privilege to examine these letters recently and marvel at their amalgam of everyday, prosaic events, intermingled with the vital wartime projects that took up so much of Barnes’s time.
In 1930, Barnes moved to White Hill House, Beech Avenue, Effingham, with his family, which would remain his home until his death. The house is named ‘Little Court’ today. It would be here, in the back garden, that Wallis bounced
marbles across the swimming pool during the Second World War. From small acorns...
It was also in 1930 that Wallis moved on to aircraft, including the development of the Wellesley (1935) and Wellington (1936) bombers. By the time the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Wallis was assistant chief designer at Vickers’ aviation section, and was based at Brooklands.
The day before war was declared, Barnes drove home from Dorset, where his family was holidaying under canvas. The last night of peace saw Barnes alone in the Effingham house; the following morning he listened to PM Neville Chamberlain’s radio broadcast to the nation. Britain was, again, at war with Germany. Barnes is said to have sat in miserable silence, contemplating what lay ahead.
Molly’s letters reveal all the hardships of wartime shortages and making do, as she writes on any available scraps, including pages of old diary. A letter of October 1944 uses unused diary from November ’36! She also utilises ‘Walker Smith’ paper (‘Bookham’s oldest established stores’ in the High Street). Needs must. Molly though clearly had some press or other for embossing the Wallis’s address - White Hill House, Effingham, Surrey. Tel – Bookham 27 - on her letters.
A letter of January 30 1943 is full of everyday homilies (Barnes tea-making machine being up the spout, fruit, chickens and eggs, and Molly going out to Leatherhead the previous night to watch ‘In Which We Serve’, the patriotic war film, only released the previous September. But there was also a telling paragraph: ‘Barnes has been to London three days this week lecturing to the Admiralty. Imagine him showing his film and explaining with a chalk and blackboard.’
It was around this time Wallis revealed his thinking for an attack on the Ruhr dams and the dislocation he assumed would be caused to German heavy industry. Although Wallis was employed on aeroplane development, he often spent his spare time looking at ideas to help the Allied war effort. The ‘powers that be’ had to be persuaded that these new-fangled ideas would work. Barnes figured conventional bombing would have little effect against such a mighty mass, so developed a spinning, drum-shaped bomb, that would bounce across water like a skimming stone, before descending at the dam’s face, and exploding below water, causing a shock wave to inherently weaken the structure. The special bomb was codenamed ‘Upkeep’. Specially-adapted Lancaster bombers would carry a single bomb each.
Operation Chastise took place on the night of May 16/17, 1943 and resulted in the breaching of the Mohne and Eder dams by the newly-formed 617 Squadron, but at great cost. Of 19 planes that participated, only 11 returned. Each plane had a seven-man crew (53 died, with three survivors taken prisoner). Debate has raged about the raid’s effectiveness, with many now considering the greatest benefit on morale, with damage to German industry not as significant as had been hoped.
A short note of May 17 is redolent with poignancy. Written hurriedly after the news of the raid’s success, it asks, ‘Did you hear the news this evening? That was Barnes. What he’s been working on all this long weary time.’ Molly must have been bursting with pride. ‘He has a brain like no other.’
Wallis himself was dismayed by the casualties and later donated significant sums for the care of injured RAF personnel. He may have been involved in wartime inventions, but we can regard him as a humanitarian. Molly’s letter of the May 18 is much longer, but the opening is written in haste. ‘B’s name is not to be connected with these dams.’ It seems there was genuine concern the Nazis might be out to get him if they knew of his involvement. Then, ‘he woke at six feeling absolutely awful: he’d killed so many people. It is ghastly for him; but what on earth could he do? Isn’t war damnable?’ Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris is mentioned, and the job Wallis had, persuading him to launch the raid. Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led the attack, also features.
One thing I love about the letters is the way they switch almost matter-of-factly from the urgent news of war to the humdrum. A letter of May 29 1943 reveals that Barnes spent a book token on ‘Cranford’, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and
‘Persuasion’. Good choice I reckon. Come June 2, Molly was looking in the birthday honours list and there was Barnes’s name (a CBE). ‘So that’s better than a poke in the eye with a dirty stick.’ Quite.
On June 30 1943, Molly wrote from the Bookham First Aid Post, reporting that the directors of Vickers had given a dinner in honour of Barnes and Gibson, where Molly sat next to ‘Gibbie’, who revealed his anger that Wallis had not received a knighthood. He insisted on calling his wife ‘Lady Molly’ for the rest of the evening in defiance of this, and, ‘as we were saying goodbye he wrote on Barnes’s collar: To Dam buster Wallis from Guy Gibson.’ Gibson believed that Wallis, whom he had a tremendous admiration for, deserved the credit.
On July 20, Molly reports Barnes being made an ‘R.D.I’ (Royal Designer to Industry). Apparently, Barnes was, ‘very pleased – more so even than with the CBE I think.’
Entries for September 6 (‘the good excellent clever little Barnes has passed his higher school certificate’) and September 13 1943 (‘Barnes (Big)’) clearly distinguished between two generations of Barnes.
In a letter of October 7 1944, Molly recounts returning home from the Lakes to find 17-year-old daughter Mary, with her ‘sweet sunny disposition’, looking after, and mothering Barnes, which sounds about right as Barnes had, apparently, ‘managed to chuck the apple pudding on the floor before it went into the saucepan!’ - a disaster one would think given wartime rationing.
The letters are full of anecdotes about the children: Barnes Jnr (1926-2008), Mary (1927-), Elisabeth (1933-) and Christopher (1935-2006). Later in that same letter, Molly talks of Barnes flying to Brest (Brittany, NW France), and enjoying a rare bit of luxury by kipping in a château, however, Brest itself was ‘fearful’ with, ‘hardly a wall left standing & the stench of dead bodies, animal & human.’ It was six months after D-Day and the fighting had been fierce. The damage inflicted by one of Barnes’s bombs against, ‘U-boat pens - 25-50 feet of concrete – was phenomenal.’
In addition to the ‘Upkeep’ bomb, Wallis also developed the 12,000lb ‘Tallboy’ (used to sink the German battleship, ‘Tirpitz’, and attack V1 rocket launch sites, and those U-boat pens), and the 22,000lb ‘Grand Slam’ (or ‘Earthquake’) bomb, which was the heaviest non-atomic bomb dropped in warfare until 2017. Wallis had become a heavy bomb specialist, using adapted Lancasters to drop them.
Molly’s letter of November 18 1944 talks of the sinking of the Tirpitz by the RAF on November 12. She recalled the ‘eminent men’ at the Admiralty, and so forth, who didn’t think it possible a big bomb could, ‘pierce the double armour plating of the Tirpitz – one deck 2” thick and a lower one 3.2” thick.’
Wallis was proved right though. RAF Lancasters scored two direct hits with Tallboys and the Tirpitz was gone. Molly then switches abruptly to thinking she would still like another baby!
After the war, Wallis became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954, was knighted in 1968, and continued to lead aeronautical research and development at the British Aircraft Corporation until 1971. As is often the case with ‘boffins’, Wallis couldn’t help dabbling, and one of the post-war inventions he looked at was a mist-proof, glassless mirror.
The story of the Dams Raid was retold in the classic movie ‘The Dambusters’ (1955), which still ranks as one of the greatest of war movies. Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave, casting that Wallis initially objected to, complaining that the actor was too young and handsome! Redgrave was 20-odd years younger than the engineer.
Barnes Wallis died on October 20 1979, aged 92. He is buried at St Lawrence’s, Church Street, Effingham. The Latin epitaph on his grave reads, ‘Spernit Humum Fugiente Penna’, meaning severed from the earth with fleeting wing.
Where to find Wallis in Surrey
Brooklands Museum: Wellington bomber and examples of Upkeep, Grand Slam and Tallboy bombs on display.
Effingham: Little Court (the former ‘White Hill House’) and St Lawrence Church, where Wallis is buried. There is also a Barnes Wallis Close in Effingham.
Byfleet: Has a Barnes Wallis Drive and a Barnes Wallis Court, just around the corner in Oyster Lane.
Woking: The Surrey History Centre has the letters of Molly, Lady Wallis, covering the period from 1920 right up to Barnes’ death in 1979.