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Biography of Barnes Wallis

Photo of Barnes Wallis

Sir Barnes Wallis was an inventor, particularly of munitions such as the “bouncing bomb” and is associated with the “Dambusters Raid” of World War Two.

When and Where was he Born?

26th September 1887, Cromer House, Butterley Hill, Ripple, Derbyshire, England.

Family Background:

Barnes Wallis was the younger son of a doctor Charles Wallis and his wife Edith .


Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, London.

Timeline of Barnes Wallis:

1891: Wallis’s family moves to New Cross road, London where his father had found a new medical practice.

1903: Wallis leaves school to work in a shipyard.

1913: He begins working for Vickers (which was to be succeeded by several successor companies such as British Aircraft Corporation).

1924: Aircraft still lacked the range to be useful for moving things around the empire and thus the government turned to airships and start the Imperial Airship Scheme.

1925: Wallis marries Molly Bloxham who is 18 years his junior at St Luke’s Church, Hampstead on 23rd April.

1930: He is involved in the geodesic wiring and light alloy construction for the Airship R100, which is the largest airship yet designed. It undertakes a successful flight to Canada but is broken up after the tragedy that befell its “sister” ship the R101 which was designed by a totally different government team. The R100 team includes Neville Shute who was later to become famous as a novelist.

1932: Wallis goes on to use similar techniques of production in his aircraft, the Vickers Wellesley and the Vickers Wellington.

1938: The Vickers Wellington joins Bomber Command. The crash of the Hindenburg essentially puts a stop to airship production and design.

1940: The idea for breaching dams with bombs originated when Wallis calculates the explosive power required to break the Ruhr dams and discovered that no existing bomber could carry the weight of such a large bomb. He then realises that smaller bombs delivered accurately could do the same job.

1942: Early in the year Barnes Wallis has an idea of “a missile” which would be dropped upstream of a dam and bounced to its target. Wallis shows films of test drops to Government officials who sanction further tests. This eventually leads to the development of two separate versions of the “bouncing bomb.” The large one codenamed “Upkeep” to be dropped by Lancasters and a smaller one called “Highball” to be used against major ships such as the Tirpitz and dropped from Mosquitoes.

1943: 617 Squadron is formed at RAF Scampton on March 21. Operation Chastise is the mission to attack three dams on the Ruhr in Germany; the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe, with the “bouncing bomb” and is flown on 17 May. Nineteen Avro Lancasters take off from RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire in three waves. The leader of 617 Squadron, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, is awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the raid. Out of the 19 aircraft, 8 are shot down and 53 of the 56 crew from those aircraft are killed. After the raid Wallis goes on to build large bombs developing his 10-ton bomb named “Tallboy Large”, and a smaller 6-ton version in August named “Tallboy Medium”.

1944: The first Tallboy bombs are dropped on 8th June at the Saumur railway tunnel in the Loire Valley, France. The success of these bombs leads on to an even bigger bomb of 22,000lb called “Grand Slam.”

1945: Barnes Wallis becomes a fellow of the Royal Society of London. On the 14th March Grand Slam bombs successfully destroy the Bielefeld Viaduct where smaller versions had failed.

1949: The goal in flight after World War Two was supersonic flight achieved by swept wing aircraft. Preliminary tests of Wallis’s Wild Goose model are held at Brooklands Racetrack in June.

1950: First take off of Wild Goose.

1951: Publication of Paul Brickhill’s book “The Dam Busters”.

1952: Cancellation of the Wild Goose project.

1954: First screening of the “Dambusters” film based on the book which immortalised Wallis and the crews of 617 Squadron. Wallis’s next project is a supersonic bomber called “Swallow”. Ground runs on the rail trolley are made at Predannack.

1955: First flight of Swallow.

1957: The Sandys Defence White Paper leads to major cuts in the Armed Forces and Swallow is cancelled.

1960: He produces a new design for an “all-speed” aircraft with a top speed of Mach 4-5. Much of this work leads on to the TSR-2 and Concorde projects although he was not directly involved.

1961: Barnes Wallis’s designs help build a large radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, the Parkes Telescope.

1965: He proposes a fast, deep-diving submarine, which he said, would avoid detection by surface ships. Wallis’s ideas covered many engineering fields and he worked on the redesign of cooling towers after there had been a collapse at the new Ferrybridge power station.

1968: Wallis is knighted by H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Second.

1971: He retires from British Aircraft Corporation, but continues with aircraft design at home.

When and Where did he Die?

30th October 1979, Leatherhead Hospital, Leatherhead, Surrey, England of heart failure.

Age at Death:



23rd April 1925 to Molly Bloxham who was 18 years his junior at St Luke’s Church, Hempstead.

Site of Grave:

St. Lawrence Church, Effingham, Surrey next to his wife.
Wallis is in the South-East corner of the Churchyard between the Vestry and the Old Vicarage. His headstone has an airship and an aircraft on it. Wallis was once Secretary of the Parochial Church Council for this church.

Places of Interest:


Petwood Hotel, Woodhall Spa has a small museum about 617 Squadron.


RAF Museum London, Grahame Park Way, London, NW9 5LL.
Science Museum Library holds his papers, South Kensington.


Newark (Notts & Lincs) Air Museum Ltd, Drove Lane, Newark, Notts, NG24 2NY.


Brooklands Museum, Brooklands, Weybridge.
Lived at White Hill House, Beech Avenue, Effingham.


Yorkshire Air Museum, Halifax Way, Elvington, York.
Barnes Wallis Inn, Station Road, North Howden, Near Goole, has Wallis memorabilia.