Barnes Wallis in Wales: Romance, experiment and discovery

On 4th October 2019, Professor Richard Morris gave an enthralling talk on the great inventor Barnes Wallis. An overview of his career and personal life was followed by a description of his time in Wales and, specifically, Pembrokeshire.

Wallis was born in 1887. Despite his many innovative inventions, he was in many ways a Victorian at heart. He did not go to university but started work at 16 to help support his family after the early death of his father.

His early work included contributions to the design of the first airships built in Britain, including the R100 and ill-fated R101 built between the wars. He moved on to aircraft design. He was closely involved in the development of the Vickers Wellesley, the first aeroplane to fly non-stop from Britain to Australia. Wallis also conceived the geodetic fuselage structure used in the Wellington bomber. The Wellington was the only bomber to serve with the RAF through out the Second World War and more Wellingtons were produced than any other British bomber.

Wallis is best known for designing the “bouncing bombs” used by 617 Squadron to breach the German Moehne and Eder dams. In the 1955 film, The Dambusters, Wallis was played by Michael Redgrave. After the film’s huge success, Wallis apparently altered some of his behaviours to become more like his character in the film. His later war work included designing the first large “earthquake” bombs used to attack underground and/or heavily concreted bunkers. After the War, his mind continued to produce new ideas, the most revolutionary of which were never fully developed. One school of academic thought says he was too far ahead of his time; another says they simply would not have worked.

In 1922, Wallis met Molly Bloxom who was related by marriage to one of his aunts. Molly appears to have been the first woman to arouse Wallis’s interest. She was just 17 and he was 34. Her father refused to allow Wallis to court his daughter because of the age difference. Wallis was, however, allowed to teach Molly algebra by post. They exchanged some 250 letters. On Molly’s 20th birthday Wallis proposed and was accepted. They married in 1925. Their relationship was a long and happy one and they had four children. They corresponded by letter whenever they were apart and Professor Morris used readings from their letters to great effect.

The second strand to the talk was Wallis in Wales. He holidayed regularly at Borth, including for his honeymoon. Some of the early experiments in the development of the “bouncing bomb” were done at a disused reservoir in Wales. It was used to establish how much explosive would be need to breach a dam. These tests showed that much less explosive was required if a bomb could be detonated right against the base of the dam and this led to the “bouncing bomb” concept. Molly Wallis was a witness to some of the testing and wrote a wonderfully indiscrete letter to a friend describing her trip and hinting at the success of the testing.

Wallis developed a smaller variant of his “bouncing bomb”. It was originally conceived as a means of attacking German battleships. The spin imparted to the bomb before its release meant that on hitting a battleship it would run down the hull to the ship’s underside before exploding in the battleship’s weakest spot. Britain’s war planners thought that this bomb, code named Highball, might be used to block the railway tunnels in the Alps cutting off the main supply routes from Germany to her ally Italy. The key question was whether the Highball could be dropped with sufficient accuracy to enter a railway tunnel. The tests were carried out in Pembrokeshire using the Maenclochog tunnel on the Rosebush railway line. Great Western laid on a special train to take Wallis and his team to Wales from London to supervise the tests. The luxurious train carriages and railway attendants were described in detail by Wallis in a letter to his wife. The tests were a success, but the Highball was never used. Wallis put in an expense claim for £4 to cover the cost of celebratory for his team on the return rail journey!

Professor Morris finished his talk with a short film clip taken of a Mosquito bomber and its test bombing runs at the Maenclochog tunnel.