THE son of a local doctor, Barnes Neville Wallis was born in Ripley in September 1887 and lived at Butterley Hill in the town. After his family moved to London, he became a boarder at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham. He left school at 16 with no qualifications but worked as a marine engineer in Blackheath and on the Isle of Wight. In 1913 he joined Vickers as Chief Assistant of Airship Design. Here Wallis produced the R9, R23 and R26 dirigibles. In 1920 his streamlined R80 made its maiden flight and proved such a success that Wallis was commissioned to design what would become the R100.
Wallis’s revolutionised aircraft design with his ‘geodetic’ lattice-style framework, which weighed far less than conventional designs and allowed for a much bigger craft than had previously been possible. In 1930, the R100 made her maiden flight to Montreal and back. Her success was short-lived, however, following the catastrophic crash of the R101. This was not, as many believed, a sister-ship, but the product of another designer .
Wallis employed geodetic principles to his new role as an aircraft designer. His Wellesley and Wellington bombers were to prove vital components of Britain’s war effort. Although their design was complex, manufacture proved simple and the planes were capable of withstanding greater stresses than conventional aircraft and remained airworthy even when damaged. In all, Vickers manufactured 11,460 Wellingtons, more than any bomber in British history.
When the RAF identified three immense and well-defended dams in the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley as primary targets, it was clear that conventional weaponry would prove ineffective. Barnes Wallis devised a cylindrical bomb that would skip across the water and explode in precisely the right place. Initial experiments were encouraging and Wallis submitted his plans. He was given only eight weeks to design and build the bombs, devise a way to fit them to the Lancaster bombers, and for the crews to be trained.
The five-foot long bombs each contained 6,600 tons of explosive. Precise deployment was essential – they were designed to detonate at 30 feet, precisely 90 seconds after release – so the motors had to be started ten minutes before release and the bombs had to be released 60 feet from the ground at a speed of 240 mph and some 400 to 500 feet from the dams. Intense training over Ladybower, Howden and Derwent reservoirs in Derbyshire ensured the mission’s success in May 1943.
Barnes Wallis’s contributions to what was Operation Chastise are often overlooked, as are his designs for the Grand Slam and Tall Boy bombs – used in attacks on V1 launch sites and the battleship Tirpitz . They were the precursors of the bunker-busting bombs of modern warfare.
After the war, Wallis worked for BAC and on the designs of hypersonic aircraft. He was knighted in 1968 and continued to invent even after his enforced retirement. He died in Leatherhead in October 1979 .