Barnes Wallis

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Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis (RNV).jpg
Barnes Neville Wallis

(1887-09-26)26 September 1887
Died30 October 1979(1979-10-30) (aged 92)
Leatherhead, England [2]
Resting placeSt Lawrence's Church, Effingham, Surrey
ResidenceEffingham, Surrey
Occupation Scientist, engineer and inventor
Known forInventing the bouncing bomb, geodesic airframe design and the earthquake bomb
  • Charles William George Robinson Wallis
  • Edith Eyre Ashby
Awards Albert Medal (1968)
Royal Medal (1975)

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis CBE FRS RDI FRAeS [3] (26 September 1887 – 30 October 1979), was an English scientist, engineer and inventor. He is best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the Royal Air Force in Operation Chastise (the "Dambusters" raid) to attack the dams of the Ruhr Valley during World War II. The raid was the subject of the 1955 film The Dam Busters , in which Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave. Among his other inventions were his version of the geodetic airframe and the earthquake bomb.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science'.

Scientist person that studies a science

A scientist is someone who conducts scientific research to advance knowledge in an area of interest.

Engineer professional practitioner of engineering and its sub classes

Engineers, as practitioners of engineering, are professionals who invent, design, analyze, build, and test machines, systems, structures and materials to fulfill objectives and requirements while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium ("cleverness"). The foundational qualifications of an engineer typically include a four-year bachelor's degree in an engineering discipline, or in some jurisdictions, a master's degree in an engineering discipline plus four to six years of peer-reviewed professional practice and passage of engineering board examinations.



Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire to Charles William George Robinson Wallis (1859–1945) and his wife Edith Eyre Wallis née Ashby (1859–1911). He was educated at Christ's Hospital in Horsham and Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Boys' Grammar School [4] [ clarification needed ] in southeast London, leaving school at seventeen to start work in January 1905 at Thames Engineering Works at Blackheath, southeast London. He subsequently changed his apprenticeship to J. Samuel White's, the shipbuilders based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. He originally trained as a marine engineer and in 1922 he took a degree in engineering via the University of London External Programme. [5]

Ripley, Derbyshire town and civil parish in Amber Valley district, Derbyshire, England

Ripley is a town in the Amber Valley borough of Derbyshire, England.

Derbyshire ceremonial county in East Midlands, England

Derbyshire is a county in the East Midlands of England. A substantial portion of the Peak District National Park lies within Derbyshire, containing the southern extremity of the Pennine range of hills which extend into the north of the county. The county contains part of the National Forest, and borders on Greater Manchester to the northwest, West Yorkshire to the north, South Yorkshire to the northeast, Nottinghamshire to the east, Leicestershire to the southeast, Staffordshire to the west and southwest and Cheshire also to the west. Kinder Scout, at 636 metres (2,087 ft), is the highest point in the county, whilst Trent Meadows, where the River Trent leaves Derbyshire, is its lowest point at 27 metres (89 ft). The River Derwent is the county's longest river at 66 miles (106 km), and runs roughly north to south through the county. In 2003 the Ordnance Survey placed Church Flatts Farm at Coton in the Elms as the furthest point from the sea in Great Britain.

Christs Hospital English coeducational independent day and boarding school

Christ's Hospital is a coeducational independent day and boarding school in Horsham, West Sussex, England.

He left J. Samuel White's in 1913 when an opportunity arose for him to work on airship design and then aircraft design. He worked for Vickers – later part of Vickers-Armstrongs and then part of the British Aircraft Corporation – until his retirement in 1971. [6]

Aeronautics science involved with the study, design, and manufacturing of airflight-capable machines

Aeronautics is the science or art involved with the study, design, and manufacturing of air flight capable machines, and the techniques of operating aircraft and rockets within the atmosphere. The British Royal Aeronautical Society identifies the aspects of "aeronautical Art, Science and Engineering" and "the profession of Aeronautics ."

Vickers was a famous name in British engineering that existed through many companies from 1828 until 1999.

Vickers-Armstrongs Limited was a British engineering conglomerate formed by the merger of the assets of Vickers Limited and Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Company in 1927. The majority of the company was nationalised in the 1960s and 1970s, with the remainder being divested as Vickers plc in 1977.

Aircraft design

R100 airship R100.jpg
R100 airship

His many achievements include the first use of geodetic (also known as geodesic) design in engineering and in the gasbag wiring of Vickers' R100 in 1930, which, at the time, was the largest airship ever designed. He also pioneered, along with John Edwin Temple, the use of light alloy and production engineering in the structural design of the R100. Nevil Shute Norway was the chief calculator for the project, responsible for calculating the stresses on the frame.


His Majesty's Airship R100, known simply as R100, was a privately designed and built British rigid airship made as part of a two-ship competition to develop a commercial airship service for use on British Empire routes as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme. The other airship, the R101, was built by the British Air Ministry, but both airships were funded by the Government.

Airship type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft

An airship or dirigible balloon is a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft that can navigate through the air under its own power. Aerostats gain their lift from large gasbags filled with a lifting gas that is less dense than the surrounding air.

Despite a better-than-expected performance and a successful return flight to Canada in 1930, the R100 was broken up following the crash in northern France of its "sister" ship, the R101 (which was designed and built by a team from the Government's Air Ministry). The later destruction of the Hindenburg led to the abandonment of airships as a mode of mass transport.


R101 was one of a pair of British rigid airships completed in 1929 as part of a British government programme to develop civil airships capable of service on long-distance routes within the British Empire. It was designed and built by an Air Ministry-appointed team and was effectively in competition with the government-funded but privately designed and built R100. When built, it was the world's largest flying craft at 731 ft (223 m) in length, and it was not surpassed by another hydrogen-filled rigid airship until the Hindenburg flew seven years later.

LZ 129 <i>Hindenburg</i> German airship in service 1936-1937

LZ 129 Hindenburg was a large German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship, the lead ship of the Hindenburg class, the longest class of flying machine and the largest airship by envelope volume. It was designed and built by the Zeppelin Company on the shores of Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen and was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company. The airship flew from March 1936 until it was destroyed by fire 14 months later on May 6, 1937 while attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of its second season of service with the loss of 36 lives. This was the last of the great airship disasters; it was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 in 1921, the US airship Roma in 1922, the French Dixmude in 1923, the British R101 in 1930, and the US Akron in 1933.

RCAF Wellington bomber, having flown back to England despite a direct anti-aircraft hit, with exposed geodetic airframe construction Vickers Wellington Mark X, HE239 'NA-Y', of No. 428 Squadron RCAF (April 1943).png
RCAF Wellington bomber, having flown back to England despite a direct anti-aircraft hit, with exposed geodetic airframe construction

By the time of the R101 crash, Wallis had moved to the Vickers aircraft factory at the Brooklands motor circuit and aerodrome between Byfleet and Weybridge in Surrey. The pre-war aircraft designs of Rex Pierson, the Wellesley, the Wellington and the later Warwick and Windsor all employed Wallis's geodetic design in the fuselage and wing structures.

Brooklands race track

Brooklands was a 2.75-mile (4.43 km) motor racing circuit and aerodrome built near Weybridge in Surrey, England, United Kingdom. It opened in 1907 and was the world's first purpose-built motor racing circuit as well as one of Britain's first airfields, which also became Britain's largest aircraft manufacturing centre by 1918, producing military aircraft such as the Wellington and civil airliners like the Viscount and VC-10.

Byfleet inland island village forming a suburb of Woking in Surrey, England

Byfleet is a village in Surrey, England. It is located in the far east of the borough of Woking, around 1.5 miles (2.4 km) east of West Byfleet, from which it is separated by the M25 motorway and the Wey Navigation.

Weybridge town in the Elmbridge district of Surrey, England

Weybridge is a town by the River Wey in the Elmbridge district of Surrey. It is bounded to the north by the River Thames at the mouth of the Wey, from which it gets its name. It is an outlying suburban town within the Greater London Urban Area, situated 7 miles northeast of Woking and 16 miles southwest of central London. Real estate prices are well above the national average: as of 2008, six of the ten most expensive streets in South East England were in Weybridge.

The Wellington had 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, are still impressive. The geodetic construction offered a light and strong airframe (compared to conventional designs), with clearly defined space within for fuel tanks, payload and so on. However the technique was not easily transferred to other aircraft manufacturers, nor was Vickers able to build other designs in factories tooled for geodetic work.

Bomb design

After the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, Wallis saw a need for strategic bombing to destroy the enemy's ability to wage war and he wrote a paper entitled "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". As a means to do this, he proposed 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 more than any current bomber could carry. Rather than drop the idea, this led him to suggest a plane that could carry it – the "Victory Bomber".

The Mohne Dam, breached by bouncing bombs Mohne Dam Breached.jpg
The Möhne Dam, breached by bouncing bombs

Early in 1942, Wallis began experimenting with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden, leading to his April 1942 paper "Spherical Bomb — Surface Torpedo". The idea was that a bomb could skip over the water surface, avoiding torpedo nets, and sink directly next to a battleship or dam wall as a depth charge, with the surrounding water concentrating the force of the explosion on the target. A crucial innovation was the addition of backspin, which caused the bomb to trail behind the dropping aircraft (decreasing the chance of that aircraft being damaged by the force of the explosion below), increased the range of the bomb, and also prevented it from moving away from the target wall as it sank. After some initial scepticism, the Air Force accepted Wallis's bouncing bomb (codenamed Upkeep) for attacks on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr area. The raid on these dams in May 1943 (Operation Chastise) was immortalised in Paul Brickhill's 1951 book The Dam Busters and the 1955 film of the same name. The Möhne and Eder dams were successfully breached, causing damage to German factories and disrupting hydro-electric power.

Valentin U-boat pen, with its roof of 4.5 metres of reinforced concrete blown open by a Grand Slam bomb U-Boat Pen Grand Slammed.jpg
Valentin U-boat pen, with its roof of 4.5 metres of reinforced concrete blown open by a Grand Slam bomb

After the success of the bouncing bomb, Wallis was able to return to his huge bombs, producing first the Tallboy (6 tonnes) and then the Grand Slam (10 tonnes) deep-penetration earthquake bombs. These were not the same as the 5-tonne "blockbuster" bomb, which was a conventional blast bomb. Although there was still no aircraft capable of lifting these two bombs to their optimal release altitude, they could still be dropped from a lower height, entering the earth at supersonic speed and penetrating to a depth of 20 metres before exploding. They were used on strategic German targets such as V-2 rocket launch sites, the V-3 supergun bunker, submarine pens, and other reinforced structures, large civil constructions such as viaducts and bridges, as well as the German battleship Tirpitz. They were the forerunners of modern bunker-busting bombs.

After the war

Having been dispersed with the Design Office from Brooklands to the nearby Burhill Golf Club in Hersham, after the Vickers factory was badly bombed in September 1940, Wallis returned to Brooklands in November 1945 as Head of the Vickers-Armstrongs Research & Development Department and was based in the former motor circuit's 1907 Clubhouse. Here he and his staff worked on many futuristic aerospace projects including supersonic flight and "swing-wing" technology (later used in the Panavia Tornado and other aircraft types). A massive 19,533 square feet (1,814.7 m2) Stratosphere Chamber (which was the world's largest facility of its type), was designed and built beside the Clubhouse by 1948 and became the focus for much R&D work under Wallis's direction in the 1950s and 1960s, including research into supersonic aerodynamics that contributed to the design of Concorde, before finally closing by 1980. This unique structure was restored at Brooklands Museum thanks to a grant from the AIM-Biffa Fund in 2013 and was officially reopened by Dr Mary Stopes-Roe (Barnes Wallis' daughter) on 13 March 2014.

Swallow model at Royal Air Force Museum Cosford Vickers Type 010 (10023953863).jpg
Swallow model at Royal Air Force Museum Cosford

Although 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 adopted. His early "Wild Goose", designed in the late 1940s, was intended 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. Both "Wild Goose" and "Swallow" were demonstrated by large (30 ft span) flying scale models without tailplanes; these trials were based at Predannack in Cornwall.

"Swallow" was cancelled in the round of cuts following the Sandys Defence White Paper in 1957, and in an attempt to gain American funding to continue the work, details of the project were passed to the USA. No such funds were made available and Wallis's design ideas were passed over in the UK in favour of the BAC TSR-2 (on which one of Wallis's sons worked) and Concorde. Wallis was quite critical of both the TSR-2 and Concorde, stating that a swing-wing design would be more appropriate. In the mid-1960s, TSR-2 was ignominiously scrapped in favour of the American F-111 – which had swing wings based on Wallis's work which the Americans had received – although this order was also subsequently cancelled.

In the 1950s, Wallis developed an experimental rocket-propelled torpedo codenamed HEYDAY. It was powered by compressed air and hydrogen peroxide, and had an unusual streamlined shape designed to maintain laminar flow over much of its length. Tests were conducted from Portland Breakwater in Dorset. The only surviving example is on display in Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower at Gosport. [7]

In 1955 Wallis agreed to act as a consultant to the project to build the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. Some of the ideas he suggested are the same as or closely related to the final design, including the idea of supporting the dish at its centre, the geodetic structure of the dish and the master equatorial control system. [8] Unhappy with the direction it had taken, Wallis left the project halfway into the design study and refused to accept his £1,000 consultant's fee. [9]

In the 1960s, Wallis also proposed using large cargo submarines to transport oil and other goods, thus avoiding surface weather conditions. Moreover, Wallis's calculations indicated, the power requirements for an underwater vessel were lower than for a comparable conventional ship and they could be made to travel at a much higher speed. [10] He also proposed a novel hull structure which would have allowed greater depths to be reached, and the use of gas turbine engines in a submarine, using liquid oxygen. [11] In the end, nothing came of Wallis's submarine ideas.

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. In particular, his ideas and understanding of supersonic aerodynamics led to research that underwrote the design of the air intakes for Concorde's Olympus 593 engines. Using variable geometry air intakes, the Olympus engines were able to perform efficiently at all speeds from sub-sonic take-off and climb right through to supercruise at over Mach 2.

In the late 1950s, Wallis gave a lecture entitled "The strength of England" at Eton College, and continued to deliver versions of the talk into the early 1970s, presenting technology and automation as a way to restore Britain's dominance. He advocated nuclear-powered cargo submarines as a means of making Britain immune to future embargoes, and to make it a global trading power. He complained of the loss of aircraft design to the US, and suggested that Britain could dominate air travel by developing a small supersonic airliner capable of short take-off and landing. [12]

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. [13] Wallis also received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 1969. [14]

He was awarded the sum of £10,000 for his war work from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. 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 Foundationers' Trust, allowing the children of RAF personnel killed or injured in action to attend the school. [15]

Personal life

Wallis's grave at St. Lawrence Church, Effingham, Surrey, pictured in 2013 Barnes Wallis grave.jpg
Wallis's grave at St. Lawrence Church, Effingham, Surrey, pictured in 2013

In April 1922, Wallis met his cousin-in-law, Molly Bloxam, at a family tea party. She was 17 and he was 34, 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 were married on 23 April 1925, and remained so for 54 years until his death in 1979. [16]

For 49 years, from 1930 until his death, Wallis lived with his family in Effingham, Surrey, and he is now buried at the local St. Lawrence Church together with his wife. His epitaph in Latin reads "Spernit Humum Fugiente Penna" (Severed from the earth with fleeting wing).

They had four children – Barnes (1926–2008), Mary (b. 1927), Elisabeth (b. 1933) and Christopher (1935–2006) – and also adopted Molly's sister's children when their parents were killed in an air raid.

His daughter Mary Eyre Wallis later married Harry Stopes-Roe, a son of Marie Stopes. [17] His son Christopher Loudon Wallis was instrumental in the restoration of the watermill and its building on the Stanway Estate near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

In film and fiction

In the 1955 film The Dam Busters , Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave.

Wallis, and his development of the bouncing bomb are mentioned by Charles Gray in the 1969 film Mosquito Squadron.

Wallis appears as a fictionalized character in Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (though its birthdate is not the same, 1883 instead of 1887, [18] since he says he was eight when the Time Traveller first used his machine), 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.

His character and the WWII research lab are featured in the mystery British television series Foyle's War (Series four, part 2).

In Scarlet Traces: The Great Game , he is responsible for the development of the Cavorite weapon used to win the war on Mars after the departure of Cavor.


Statue of Barnes Wallis in Herne Bay, Kent, near the site of the bouncing bomb tests Barnes Wallis Statue.jpg
Statue of Barnes Wallis in Herne Bay, Kent, near the site of the bouncing bomb tests

A housing estate in the North Yorkshire village Marske-by-the-Sea is named after Wallis. The estate, built upon the former aerodrome home to the RFC Marske, has streets named after various prominent WW2 aeroplanes including 'Lancaster', 'Spitfire' and 'De Havilland'.


The Science Museum at Wroughton, near Swindon, holds 105 boxes of papers of Barnes Wallis. [21] The papers comprise design notes, photographs, calculations, correspondence and reports relating to Wallis's work on airships, including the R100; geodetic construction of aircraft; the bouncing bomb and deep penetration bombs; the "Wild Goose" and "Swallow" swing-wing aircraft; hypersonic aircraft designs and various outside contracts.

Two boxes of records, containing copies of key aeronautical papers written between 1940 and 1958, are held at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. [22]

Other Barnes Wallis papers are also held at Brooklands Museum, the Imperial War Museum, London, Newark Air Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon, Trinity College, Cambridge and Bristol, Leeds and Oxford universities. [23] The RAF Museum also has a reconstruction of his post-war office at Brooklands.

Related Research Articles

Vickers Wellington medium bomber aircraft family by Vickers

The Vickers Wellington is a British twin-engined, long-range medium bomber. It was designed during the mid-1930s at Brooklands in Weybridge, Surrey, led by Vickers-Armstrongs' chief designer Rex Pierson; a key feature of the aircraft is its geodetic airframe fuselage structure, which was principally designed by Barnes Wallis. Development had been started in response to Air Ministry Specification B.9/32, which was issued in the middle of 1932. This specification called for a twin-engined day bomber capable of delivering higher performance than any previous design. Other aircraft developed to the same specification include the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and the Handley Page Hampden. During the development process, performance requirements such as for the tare weight changed substantially, and the engine used was not the one originally intended.

<i>The Dam Busters</i> (film) 1955 film directed by Michael Anderson

The Dam Busters is a 1955 British epic war film starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. It was directed by Michael Anderson. The film recreates the true story of Operation Chastise when in 1943 the RAF's 617 Squadron attacked the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams in Nazi Germany with Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb.

Operation Chastise 1943 attack on German dams by Royal Air Force

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron, later called the Dam Busters, using a purpose-built "bouncing bomb" developed by Barnes Wallis. The Möhne and Edersee dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley and of villages in the Eder valley; the Sorpe Dam sustained only minor damage. Two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed and several more damaged. Factories and mines were also damaged and destroyed. An estimated 1,600 civilians – about 600 Germans and 1,000 mainly Soviet forced labourers – died. Despite rapid repairs by the Germans, production did not return to normal until September.

Vickers Wellesley

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A bouncing bomb is a bomb designed to bounce to a target across water in a calculated manner to avoid obstacles such as torpedo nets, and to allow both the bomb's speed on arrival at the target and the timing of its detonation to be pre-determined, in a similar fashion to a regular naval depth charge. The inventor of the first such bomb was the British engineer Barnes Wallis, whose "Upkeep" bouncing bomb was used in the RAF's Operation Chastise of May 1943 to bounce into German dams and explode underwater, with effect similar to the underground detonation of the Grand Slam and Tallboy earthquake bombs, both of which he also invented.

A geodeticairframe is a type of construction for the airframes of aircraft developed by British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis in the 1930s. Earlier, it was used by Prof. Schütte for the Schütte Lanz Airship LS 1 in 1909. It makes use of a space frame formed from a spirally crossing basket-weave of load-bearing members. The principle is that two geodesic arcs can be drawn to intersect on a curving surface in a manner that the torsional load on each cancels out that on the other.

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Frederick Tees

Frederick "Freddie" Tees was a member of No. 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force and who took part in Operation Chastise, the "Dambusters" raid of 1943, as a rear gunner. The raid was the inspiration for the 1955 film The Dam Busters. He ended his days as a barber in Letchworth.

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Silvermere is an estate in Surrey, England named after its mere – a shallow lake of about ten acres which has a silvery appearance when seen from the surrounding slopes. It was created in the 19th century for the rich architect, William Atkinson, and subsequently became the home of the Seth Smith family, who had also become wealthy from property development. An ancient British burial mound was found on the land and the Silvermere Urn was found within. During World War II, the mere was used for experiments to develop and test the bouncing bomb. The estate is now a golf course and the final green is on an island in the mere.


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