THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR BARNES WALLIS

by Jon Layne Ashbourne Section CROCA

 

Some of the older inhabitants of Ripley in Derbyshire would tell you that its main feature is its market place which is the coldest and windiest one this side of Siberia !! However, it does have other “claims to fame”. 

One is that its underground ROC Post, 8D2, disappeared when the A38 bypass was built in the late 1970’s and was replaced nearby by Ambergate Post, 8/30, probably the last post to be constructed in the UK. Another is that one of its local firms, Butterley Engineering, still going strong, produced all the wrought ironwork for St Pancras Station in the 1800’s and much of the ironwork for the Royal Navy’s 19th. Century “ultimate deterrent” - HMS Warrior - which now is preserved in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard.

But very near to the town centre is a modest family house which bears a plaque on its walls. This tells the passer-by that “Sir Barnes Wallis, the most eminent of 20th century aviation engineers was born here on 26th September 1882”.

The young Barnes Wallis lived there until he was six, when his father, a local doctor, moved with his family to London. After leaving school, the young Barnes became an apprentice, working on many engineering products including a battleship, Britain’s first racing car and the prototype London taxi. His abilities were soon recognized and about the time of WW1, he was offered a post with the Royal Naval Air Service. From then until his death in 1979, he continued to demonstrate his engineering genius which led to the award of a knighthood. The park in Ripley is named “The Sir Barnes Wallis Memorial Park” in his honour.

 

In 1914, the airship was seen as a major German threat and Barnes Wallis worked on airship design at Howden in East Yorkshire. Despite rapid developments in aeroplane design, there was still great interest in airships after the war and Barnes Wallis went to work for the Vickers Company. The British Government wanted an airship capable of long flights to the Empire and two were planned – the R100 (private project by Vickers) and the R101 (Government project). Barnes Wallis’s design for the R100 resulted in a highly successful craft, twice the size of anything else in existence, very light but strong and using only a few basic components. The R100 flew to Canada through an Atlantic storm in three days but the whole project was scrapped by the Government when the R101 crashed on its maiden voyage, killing several eminent politicians.

 

But his design work was not wasted because the R100’s structure depended on geodetic construction – a lightweight metal framework. This was quickly applied to aircraft construction and resulted in the 1930’s in two new Vickers’ products - the Wellesley and the Wellington. The latter became the mainstay of the RAF in WW2 until the development of four engined heavy bombers. Both aircraft were able to sustain a lot of damage and still make it back to base, thanks to the geodetic framework.

 

From the start of WW2, Barnes Wallis had disagreements with the Air Ministry. Policy at the time was that the most effective bombing was through the use of many small bombs, rather than a few large ones. Until navigation techniques improved, this was probably the better option. However, by 1944 he had designed two large bombs - the 12000 lb Tallboy which was used successfully against naval targets including the Tirpitz - and the 22000 lb Grandslam. This bomb, over twenty five feet long, would just fit into a Lancaster and was designed to bury itself into the ground before exploding to produce a man-made earthquake. It was first used successfully in 1945 on the Bielfeld Viaduct in Germany, cutting a vital communication link; it also allowed for successful raids against heavily reinforced submarine pens. 

 

 

 

To most people however, the name Barnes Wallis immediately brings to mind the “bouncing bomb”. From the outbreak of WW2 until D-Day in 1944, the only way in which the war could be brought to the German Heartland was by bombing, first by the RAF, later assisted by the USAAF. One idea put forward was the destruction of the Ruhr Dams - the Mohne, Eder, Sorpe and Schwelme. The thinking was that not only would the flood waters themselves cause tremendous damage but the loss of the water would cause major disruption to the major industries of the Ruhr.

 

 

It was realized that conventional bombs were unlikely to be successful and so Barnes Wallis developed the bouncing bombs. He showed that when these were released with a spin at very low altitude (sixty feet), they could bounce across the water, hit the dam and sink, before exploding near the dam base. The crucial factors were that the delivering Lancasters had to maintain this altitude and release the bomb at a pre-calculated distance from the dam. These problems were solved by two simple methods; the height was maintained by having angled spotlights under the aircraft set so that when their circles of light overlapped, the height was sixty feet. The distance was judged by a sort of wooden catapult shape as shown in one of the photographs; the bomb aimer released the bomb when the two front uprights coincided with the dam towers. The bombs used were cylindrical in shape but spherical ones were also developed and used successfully against shipping targets. 

 

 

Most people are aware of the story of the raid itself which involved Guy Gibson and 617 Dambusters Squadron. Dams in the UK were used for practice and the main one was Derwent Dam in Derbyshire which bore a close resemblance to the Mohne. Present day visitors to Derwent will find memorial plaques on the Dam and an exhibition in the West Tower. These were the initiative of Vic Hallam, a local businessman. It was realized that the attack would be extremely hazardous and, in the event, many squadron members perished but the Mohne and Eder were both breached. With the “usual hindsight”, there are those who today play down the importance of the raid but there is no doubt that industrial production was affected and that the raid gave Britain a major morale boost.

For his work, Barnes Wallis was awarded a considerable amount of money by the Government but he donated it to help the children of those killed in the RAF and to his old school. 

 

 

After WW2, Barnes Wallis continued as Head of Research and Development for the British Aircraft Corporation, developing amongst other things the swing-wing concept – exploited first by the USA but now incorporated into various European aircraft. Just before he died, at the age of 91, he was working on the design of an aircraft to fly four times faster than Concorde. Over the years, the Barnes Wallis Trust has collected memorabilia and artifacts which illustrate his life and work. These are now on permanent display at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington, near York which is not far from Howden where Sir Barnes did his early work on airships.

 

But there is a final coincidence. A few miles from Ripley across the Nottinghamshire border is Hucknall which was also home to an ROC Post, 8/37 but also was the birthplace of Eric Coates, composer of the famous Dambusters March.

Jon Layne 

 

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Barnes Wallis’s birthplace 
2. Wellington recovered from Loch Ness (Brooklands Museum)
3. Grandslam Bomb 
4. Bouncing Bomb
5. Derwent Dam 
6. Model of Lancasters over Derwent (Derwent Dam exhibition)
7. Memorial (Derwent Dam) 8. “Crew member” with sighting instrument (Derwent Dam)

Additional photo of The Grand Slam below.

 


[21dec03 14:30]