The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The ‘awkward genius’ behind the bouncing bomb
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”.