Barnes Wallis — Scientist

The Inventor of the World War II Dam Buster Bouncing Bomb

Image: Fan Art TV

If we think of Barnes Wallis at all it will probably be the face of actor Sir Michael Redgrave, who played the somewhat eccentric scientist in the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, that comes to mind, and, most importantly, the actor’s own gentlemanliness that matched so well the character of the real man at a time of great danger, moral courage and moral challenge.

J. E. Morpurgo’s Barnes Wallis — A Biography, first published in 1972 by Longman’s, is a truly splendid piece of work and, as far as I can glean, the only published biography of the designer and creator of the R100 airship — the only successful British dirigible of the 1930s — the WWII Wellington Bomber, and, perhaps most famously, the so-called ‘Bouncing Bomb’ of Dam Buster fame.

Wallis lived a long and eventful life, most of which was dedicated to aeronautical design and engineering, with his later designs for a British jet fighter way ahead of its time. But he was much more than a scientist dedicated to warfare.

Born in London in 1918, the Scholar and writer, J. E. Morpurgo (Michael Morpurgo’s step father), could put his pen and typewriter to pretty much any subject, not least his superb History of the United States. He was also one of the men responsible, when working for Penguin as an editor, for further developing and popularising the paperback, something that, in the 1950s, changed forever the book industry, and all our lives.

Thankfully Barnes Wallis — A Biography, is not a turgid academic tome where footnotes often take-up half a page, but a clear extremely well written ‘history’ of a man and his times: times that were riven with warfare, social upheaval and change. He was a man ready and eager to take on the evil rise of Nazism and help destroy it.

Wallis. Image: factfile

Wallis was also a strong willed man(stubborn if you like) formed by the aftermath of his service in the First World War, who, during the 1930s and into WWII, often went ahead with a project without official approval, which cost him dearly — financially and emotionally — and undoubtedly pressurised his marriage and home life, although his wife, Molly, was of a very strong character who understood her husband well, and whose father, when she told him she was marrying Wallis, responded with “…you poor child.” It was a long and happy marriage, ending with Wallis’ death in 1979.

But like many an artist of his generation (and Wallis was an artist), Wallis produced works of simplistic and brutal beauty and deadly intent that nevertheless helped produce a post war world where myriad artists, not least Hepworth, Moore and Pollock, could both prosper and defy.

Barnes Neville Wallis was born on the 26th September 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire, and briefly brought hope to his parents, who had already experienced many a set back in their life together, as Morpurgo writes:

“ But the birth of Barnes was to be the only glory of the Ripley adventure. For the rest the move proved to be yet another disaster. The grim ironworking town was no place for Charles [Barnes’s father who had recently qualified as a doctor] ‘with his Oxford ideas’ and his reserved and seemingly arrogant manner. The [medical] practice had been small before he came and now it dwindled almost to nothingness. Edith [Barnes’s mother], for her part, though she made some brave efforts to participate in church affairs [Charles was a keen church-goer], but could not abide Derbyshire or the Ripley people. More and more she came to idealise her home — [her sister]Lily’s home — in Woolwich.”

This unhappy home that Barnes, with his siblings, experienced in Ripley, which, with the death of their father at a young age, helped make Barnes the man he became: a man of truth, integrity, with a deep love of his wife Molly, and his own family which bolstered, with deep learning, integrity and commitment, his own professional determination and patriotism to help ensure Britain at the most dangerous period in its history, was able to maintain its freedom, and (with the US and Canada, and others) the freedom of a large proportion the world.

Morpurgo’s biography gives, in four hundred pages, an almost day by day account of Wallis’s life that is an extraordinary story that covers more than two thirds of the 20th century, taking us, for instance, into the time he spent in Germany observing the Zeppelin works that would most certainly have featured in his own design (with Nevil Shute) and stability of the R100, an airship that crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic on many occasions but, with the crash in flames of the inferior R101 on route to India, was grounded for good.


The designing and building of the iconic Wellington Bomber, in the latter part of the 1930s, is told with some detail:

“ The ‘plane’ that they [the Air Ministry] ordered had but recently been christened Crecy [named after the battle of 1346]. In September 1936 it was renamed Wellington, thus succeeding [the bombers]Wellesley and preceding Warwick in a series which by the use of his initial paid tribute to Wallis’s great contribution.


“ With its future secured it was possible to envisage refinement of the Wellington design. The fuel capacity was to be raised to 696 gallons, the bomb-load set at 4,300 Ib…[and]…It was realised that the geodetic construction of the wing promised a bonus that in earlier designs had not been possible…” namely the construction of separated wing fuel tanks thereby reducing the risk of fire. The same geodetic design principle was also part of the construction of the R100.

As a young child living less than half a mile from a major RAF station in the 1950s, that had, in WWII, been a major operational base for Wellington Bombers, and a training centre for Canadian air crews, one of which managed to crash one of Wallis’s Wellington’s between two trees on the southern edge of the air base in 1944, just twenty metres from the edge of the tarmac. Ten years later it was still there, albeit stripped of most of its fabric skin, guns, and one wing, revealing the craft’s still shiny honeycombed metal structure, and its obvious strength of that geodetic design. I was mesmerised by it and often cycled to it, staring and wondering how it had happened, and how all the crew had managed to survive.

As a bomber the Wellington sat alongside the Lancaster well, and although it had a slightly kinder, hippopotamus look, than its larger, meaner brother, it was a lethal bombing machine, especially at low level, that proved its worth again and again.

Morpurgo’s telling of the ‘Bouncing Bomb’ is also dealt with in depth, with the 1955 film, which is a fairly accurate re-staging of events: events supported by Barnes Wallis — A Biography, based, most importantly, on Wallis’s own papers that had readily been made available to Morpurgo who, when having read the book, asked Morpurgo “…how did you find out so much about me?”

After WWII Wallis went on to design nuclear submarines and radio telescopes, at the same applying his skills in regard to designing mechanical aids for the less able. He was also deeply involved in all aspects of education’.

Wallis was awarded a CBE in 1944 for his work on the ‘Dam Bomb’.

As a Christian Wallis was nevertheless aware that the Devil’s weapons must be used against him at times.

Barnes Wallis — A Biography, is not just a book for those interested in warfare, aircraft and bombs, but a book that should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in, and the future of, humanity.

When I think about it, Barnes Wallis, J. E. Morpurgo, and Morpurgo’s stepson, Michael Morpurgo, were, and are, very similar men with a very deep humanity.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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