Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis

With Alfred Nobel, the Scandinavian munitions maker, much in the news lately after the surprise award of the Nobel Peace Prize to American President Barack Obama, it is worth reflecting on another munitions wizard who died forty years ago this month.

His name was Barnes Wallis (September 26, 1887 – October 30, 1979). He was a British scientist, engineer and inventor. He was also a school dropout, although he later obtained his engineering degree through university extension courses while still working. While most of his fame related to aircraft, he was actually a marine engineer.

He is credited with being the first to utilize geodesic design in engineering. This was employed in the construction of the R-100, the largest dirigible in its day. He is also responsible for being the first to use light alloys and production engineering while working on the R-100.

When Wallis moved to Vickers aircraft, his geodesic designs were already incorporated into the Wellesley and Wellington bombers produced by that company. This resulted in both a light and strong airframe. This engineering marvel was often the only thing that stood between life and death for the aircrew.


In the Second World War, he advocated strategic bombing to take out the enemy’s infrastructure, rendering it incapable of waging war.

Of course, when Israel does this against its enemies it is now branded by the U.N. Human Rights Council as committing war crimes. But that is for another posting.

Wallis recognized that a new type of bomb would be required to effectively implement his strategy. He devised the “earthquake bomb”. The idea was not to hit the target directly, but to penetrate to a deep level close to the structure and create a mini-earthquake that would undermine the foundation and render the structure useless.

This was a bomb that was huge, aerodynamically pure, very heavily constructed to provide maximum penetration before detonation, and intended to be dropped from a high altitude (40,000 feet) to obtain maximum terminal velocity of 320 miles per hour. His original design called for a bomb of ten tonnes.

Unfortunately, there were no bombers at the time capable of carrying such a monster. Undaunted, Wallis proposed a new aircraft to be called the Victory Bomber. It would weigh in 45 tonnes and be powered by six engines. It was rejected by the Air Ministry because the idea of having a single aircraft for single purpose of carrying a single bomb disturbed its idea of maximum flexibility in aircraft design.

Wallis then turned his attention to the idea of barrel-shaped bouncing bombs in marine attacks. These were bombs that did not immediately explode on impact with the water, but would skip across the surface much like a skipping stone and strike a target at its base underwater, like a depth-charge, using the water to concentrate the force of the bomb on the target.


This required great precision in bombing and the idea only worked when Wallis discovered that putting backspin on the bomb caused it to fall behind the aircraft and gave it greater distance and prevented it from bouncing off the target.

These bombs were used against three dams in the Ruhr valley. The development and attack were documented in the British film, The Dambusters.

These dams were heavily protected and since the bombers were required to approach just above the surface of the water to create the skipping effect there was a heavy loss in aircraft and aircrew to anti-aircraft fire.

One of the pilots was an American, Joe McCarthy, who had enlisted in the RAF at the outset of the war. I knew McCarthy because he stayed in the Royal Canadian Air Force after the war and was my father’s commanding officer for a time. When the motion picture, The Dambusters, was shown on the air base, there was quite a lot of excitement and McCarthy got up and gave a speech before the film ran.

His story is that his airplane had engine trouble, and, as a result, he took off ten minutes after his squadron had left. As a result, he was able to sneak in a get off his bomb load since the German gunners had stood down thinking the raid was over.

Barnes Wallis was appalled at the aircraft losses in this attack. He subsequently became a pioneer in the use of remote controlled aircraft to test out designs without endangering aircrew. The extensive use of drone aircraft today can trace back to him and this raid on the Ruhr.

His big bomb idea became feasible when improvements were made to the Lancaster bomber. The Lancaster was the work horse of Bomber Command and could carry the largest payload prior to the advent of the B-29.


The first big bombs were called “Tallboys” and they weighed 5 tonnes. When it was determined that the Lancaster could carry even heavier loads, if stripped of its armor and most armaments, the “Grand Slam” was produced, coming in at 10 tonnes. These bombs were used quite effectively against a number of stationary targets and there was a consequential benefit from the high level bombing of fewer aircraft losses.


These bombs could not be mass produced and were so expensive that aircrew were ordered to return to base with them if they could not be dropped on a target rather than jettisoning the load into the sea, which was the normal procedure for safety in landing. In short, the value of the bomb outweighed the value of the lives of the crew.

When the Americans calculated the cost/benefit of dropping one atomic bomb from one aircraft thereby minimizing aircraft losses, they had the benefit of the experience with Wallis’s big bombs.

After the war, Wallis worked on swing-wing designs that were eventually passed over to the Americans, who then incorporated them into the F-111 and tried selling the aircraft back to Britain.

He proposed the development of large nuclear-powered submarines to carry cargo. He calculated these could travel faster and more efficiently than a surface vessel and be immune to ocean storms.

He also experimented with rocket-propelled torpedoes.

He was knighted in 1968 and retired from Vickers in 1971.

No comments: