Dam Buster – Barnes Wallis: an engineer’s life


The 80th anniversary of the Dambusters raid in May received a certain amount of media attention and several new books on the event will have appeared by the end of this year. Yet Barnes Wallis, whose invention of the bouncing bomb made the operation possible, has remained something of an enigma. A handful of biographies have appeared over the years, the best of which until now was probably Jack Morpurgo’s 1972 study, published during its subject’s lifetime. We also have two outstanding studies of his engineering projects: Stephen Flower’s Barnes Wallis’ Bombs and Iain Murray’s Bouncing Bomb Man. Now, however, Richard Morris has given us what is almost certain to be the definitive full-length life of Wallis.

In an age of ever-increasing academic specialism, Morris is an exception to the rule: a professor of archaeology with a feel for landscape and passion for his native Yorkshire, combined with genuine expertise in aviation history. Almost 30 years on from his definitive biography of the raid leader Guy Gibson, he has turned his attention to the designer of the secret weapon used on that fateful night.

Morris takes us beyond the popular image of the mild-mannered, yet also single-minded boffin portrayed by Sir Michael Redgrave in the classic 1955 film. What emerges is a much more complex figure, who overcame professional setbacks to become one of a small number of individuals credited with making a decisive contribution to Britain’s war effort. Some of the engineering avenues that Wallis explored turned out to be dead ends. For example, Morris charts the frustration of his work on rigid airships during World War I, which led in peacetime to his appointment as chief engineer on the R100 project. In his early 40s, he saw his own airship scrapped after its ill-fated rival, the R101, crashed on its maiden overseas flight.

Wallis’s next major innovation, developed at the Vickers aircraft plant at Brooklands in Surrey, was the geodetic airframe. At once light and robust, it was a space frame formed from a spirally crossing lattice-work of load-bearing members. It provided the structure for the twin-engine Vickers Wellington, the only RAF bomber to be produced throughout World War II. Yet, ingenious though the design of the airframe was, it was not to be taken up by other aircraft manufacturers.

Most readers will be interested above all in Wallis’s work on the dam-busting bomb, and the deep-penetration ‘earthquake bombs’ used against the battleship Tirpitz and strategic targets including submarine pens, rocket-launching sites, and railways. Morris demonstrates that, almost from the beginning of the war, Wallis was interested in developing a means of hitting the key sources of energy – coal, oil, and water – that powered the Nazi war economy.

This was the genesis of Upkeep, the rotating spherical mine deployed against the Möhne, Eder, and Sorpe dams. Without diminishing Wallis’s own originality, Morris shows that the project drew heavily on the aid of several expert professional contacts. The bouncing bomb was the product of genuine teamwork rather than the brainchild of an isolated genius. Wallis’s struggles with sceptics in high places, the weapon trials, and the raid itself form a familiar story. Nonetheless, Morris has woven them into a genuinely gripping narrative.

Here is a convincing portrait of Barnes Wallis in his various roles – the hugely talented designer, tender family man, and often prickly colleague. Richard Morris has brought his subject to life with considerable skill. He has a talent for clearly and economically explaining complex engineering concepts. For readers who may be unsure about, for example, the difference between angle of attack and angle of incidence, there is a helpful glossary.

Another useful feature is a map of Britain, highlighting the key locations in Wallis’s career. This is a biography that anyone with an interest in Britain’s military engineering past will read with profit.

Richard Morris
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hbk (£28)
ISBN 978-1474623421