The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

The ‘awkward genius’ behind the bouncing bomb

- By Saul David

DAM BUSTER: BARNES WALLIS: AN ENGINEER’S LIFE by Richard Morris 528pp, W&N, T£24.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£28, ebook £12.99 ÌÌÌÌÌ

The use of bouncing bombs to destroy the Ruhr dams in 1943 is one of the great moments of the Second World War: a tale of British ingenuity and courage that has been the subject of countless books and the 1955 film The Dam Busters. The engineer responsibl­e, Barnes Wallis, was portrayed in the film by the actor Michael Redgrave as a shy genius at odds with bureaucrac­y. This, insists Richard Morris, is too simplistic. Wallis was, in fact, a complicate­d man who combined Victorian cultural conservati­sm with faith in technology and an “organic Anglo-British nation”. He is remembered for the bouncing bombs, but his contributi­on to aviation spanned most of the 20th century and included airships, deep-penetratio­n explosives and reusable spacecraft.

Born in 1887 into a middle-class family with “strong evangelica­l conviction­s, commitment to education, forebears in the military and holy orders”, young Wallis was educated at Christ’s Hospital, in Horsham, where he excelled at science. Having failed to gain a scholarshi­p to university, he was apprentice­d to a London engineerin­g firm. A key moment was the death of his influentia­l, if unaffectio­nate, mother Edie in 1911. “She was everything in the world to me,” wrote Wallis. “I simply worshipped her.” Edie was cold, controllin­g and needy, but she had great faith in her son, and he fed off her admiration. Morris does not consider an Oedipus complex, but this surely explains Wallis’s awkwardnes­s with the opposite sex until he fell in love with (and married) his teenage cousin-in-law Molly Bloxam when he was in his mid-30s.

By then, Wallis was one of Britain’s leading designers of airships, which he was convinced would be the future of air travel. If that hope was never realised because of safety concerns, Wallis’s innovative design of gas cells – “a helical mesh of opposingly wound cables in which each cable traces a great circle” – would later reappear in the surfaces of double curvature known as “geodesics” that were a feature of the Wellington bomber. Made by Vickers Aviation, for whom Wallis worked for much of his career, the Wellington was, in 1945, the only British bomber still being built that had been in production before the war. Ultimately, geodetic constructi­on proved a blind alley. But in the 1930s, writes Morris, it liberated aircraft design from truss frames and “offered unheard-of performanc­e”. In 1939, the Wellington had 40 per cent more range than any other RAF bomber.

Wallis’s main claim to fame, however, was his developmen­t of two innovative bombs: Upkeep, a rotating spherical mine that was used against the Ruhr dams; and

It was a publicity triumph and ‘the finest individual technical feat of the war’

Tallboy, a 12,000lb deeppenetr­ation device that destroyed U-boat pens, severed the Ruhr’s main transport links and sank the battleship Tirpitz. The design of Upkeep, in particular, was genius. Carried by a specially adapted Lancaster bomber, it would “ricochet off the surface of the reservoir, arrive at the face of the dam” and “explode at a predetermi­ned depth”.

Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the dams on May 16 1943, was said to have struck a spectacula­r blow against

Germany’s industrial heartland. At a cost of eight bombers and 53 crew members, the Möhne and Eder dams were breached, releasing a cascade of water that inundated thousands of acres of land and killed up to 1,600 civilians, many of them slave labourers from Eastern Europe. The effect on German industry was temporary, and Morris is right to ask why more priority was not given to destroying a third dam, the Sorpe, which would have much increased the devastatio­n. It was, neverthele­ss, a publicity triumph, a display of unparallel­ed airmanship – the chief pilot, Guy Gibson, was awarded a Victoria Cross – and, in the words of Sir Henry Tizard, a member of the Air Council, the “finest individual technical achievemen­t of the war”. Molly Wallis was much put out that her husband’s role was kept from the public on security grounds. He was eventually given the credit in late 1944, as the war neared its end and secrecy was no longer necessary.

What, then, to make of Wallis and his achievemen­ts? He was ferociousl­y hard-working and did not suffer fools. He was also, writes Morris, “God-fearing, romantic, an English exceptiona­list, a doting and patient son, a proud grandfathe­r, at times a selfmythol­ogising martyr, and a creator who approached each task from first principles”. Not all of his ideas were realised. The square fuselage, isothermal flight (balancing altitude with speed) and a “Universal aircraft” equally suited to passengers and shipping containers are all concepts that have yet to be tried.

Morris has followed up his fine biography of Guy Gibson with this comprehens­ive, deeply researched and insightful portrait of Wallis, one of Britain’s greatest engineers. He notes that even Upkeep was almost stymied by Sir Arthur Harris, the chief of Bomber Command, who said it was “tripe” and would never work. A year later, with the dams destroyed, Harris changed his tune about Wallis. There were “few civilians”, he wrote, “whose direct personal contributi­on to the war had been greater”.

 ?? ?? The morning after the night before: the front page of The Daily Telegraph on May 18 1943, following the RAF raid
The morning after the night before: the front page of The Daily Telegraph on May 18 1943, following the RAF raid
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