Wallis Dams Raid plan shown on Antiques Roadshow

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris wrote the above comment on a memorandum sent to him on 14 February 1943. The memo summarised the research in Barnes Wallis’s paper ‘Air Attack on Dams’ sent to Air Ministry chiefs a few days earlier. [National Archives AIR 14/595.]

In an edition of the BBC TV Antique Roadshow programme, broadcast on 19 May 2019, the grandson of a wartime army officer, Maj H F Boddington OBE brought a collection of his grandfather’s wartime memorabilia for valuation. The programme’s expert, Mark Smith, focussed on one particular file for mention during the recording. It had been given to Maj Boddington in early 1943 by Barnes Wallis, and included a copy of Wallis’s paper ‘Air Attack on Dams’.

Several copies of this paper still exist in official files, including those available to the public in the National Archives. It has 19 pages of text, including a number of tables and footnotes, and a further eight pages of illustrations, which appear to be the ones which excited Mark Smith.

A meeting with Boddington is recorded in Wallis’s diary. Boddington had been brought in to oversee security arrangements for the forthcoming RAF trials of the Upkeep ‘bouncing bomb’ and it is likely that the paper was passed over to him then.

The paper is interesting because it was written and produced by Wallis at a crucial stage in the planning for the Dams Raid. A summary of it was discussed at an important meeting at the Air Ministry on 13 February 1943, chaired by Air Vice Marshal Ralph Sorley, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Technical Requirements). This was the meeting when it was decided to bring Bomber Command into the picture, since its personnel would be required to drop the weapon from specially adapted Lancasters, and Gp Capt Charles Elworthy, a New Zealand-born officer who would go on after the war to become Chief of the Defence Staff, was deputed to brief the command’s staff.

His first contact must have been with the Bomber Command Senior Air Staff Officer, Air Vice Marshal Robert Saundby, who then wrote a lengthy memo for his boss, the AOC of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris. This outlined the research and testing that had gone on so far and considered the possibility of a weapon being developed for the special purpose of destroying dams, in particular the Möhne. A specially modified Lancaster would be needed and the attack would be need to be made when the dam was full or nearly full. One squadron would have to be nominated, depriving Bomber Command of its strength for ‘two or three weeks’ for training. The tactics are not difficult, Saundby concluded, somewhat optimistically. He appended a copy of Wallis’s ‘Air Attack on Dams’ paper and sent it over to Harris.

Harris was not at all convinced. He handwrote a scathing note on Saundby’s memo:
‘This is tripe of the wildest description. … there is not the smallest chance of it working. To begin with the bomb would have to be perfectly balanced around it’s [sic] axis otherwise vibration at 500RPM would wreck the aircraft or tear the bomb loose. I don’t believe a word of it’s [sic] supposed ballistics on the surface. … At all costs stop them putting aside Lancs & reducing our bombing effort on this wild goose chase. … The war will be over before it works – & it never will.’

Wallis was not defeated by this setback, perhaps knowing that Harris himself would not have the final say on the matter. Some nine days later, he was able to show Harris the films of the test drops, but the AOC was still not impressed and sent an impassioned letter to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal. ‘All sorts of enthusiasts and panacea-mongers are now careering round MAP [the Ministry of Aircraft Production] suggesting the taking of about 30 Lancasters off the line to rig them up for this weapon, when the weapon itself exists so far only within the imaginations of those who conceived it,’ he wrote.

Portal tried to smoothe Harris’s ruffled feathers. He accepted that the weapon might come to nothing, but it was worth conducting a trial in a Lancaster to see if it could work. Portal assured Harris: ‘I will not allow more than three of your precious Lancasters to be diverted for this purpose until the full scale experiments have shown that the bomb will do what is claimed for it.’ [Harris papers, H82, RAF Museum.]

Harris reluctantly accepted Portal’s decision, and by the end of the month the operation was given the final go ahead. Further trials were now lined up, some of which Maj Boddington may well have witnessed. One must hope that his archive – which apparently contains much other interesting material unrelated to the Dams Raid – finds a safe home if it ever leaves the care of the family.

Here is the relevant clip from the programme in a rather poor quality video grab, courtesy of Richard Taylor’s Facebook page. The full programme is available for another 21 days for UK viewers here on the BBC iPlayer.

Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.
Source: John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2012, pp49-59.

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Mary Stopes-Roe

Pic: Barnes Wallis Foundation

I am sorry to have to announce the death of Mary Stopes-Roe, who died peacefully at her home in Birmingham on Friday 10 May.

Mary Eyre Wallis was born in York in 1927, the second of the four children of Barnes and Molly Wallis. When her father’s job at Vickers took him to Brooklands in Surrey, the family moved to nearby Effingham. Mary went away to boarding school at Godolphin School in Salisbury, and was a pupil there in the run up to the Dams Raid in 1943. Earlier she and her siblings had helped her father in his famous home experiments with marbles, a catapult and a tin bath as he tried to work out how to ‘bounce’ a bomb across water. When she heard the news about the raid itself from her headmistress she worked out what had been going on and sent a telegram to her ‘wonderful Daddy’.

After the war, Mary got a degree in history from the University of London. She then married the academic Harry Stopes-Roe, who had started his career as a physicist, but went on to take a PhD at Cambridge in philosophy. They had four children of their own, the last born in 1958 shortly before they moved to Birmingham, when he took up a post at the city’s university. Once all of her four children were at grammar school, Mary took a second degree in Psychology. ‘I thought the subject would be rather interesting, and I didn’t want to dust the house for the rest of my life,’ she said in a recent interview. She also gained a PhD and became a Research Fellow in the University of Birmingham School of Psychology where she remained until she retired in the 1990s. During her academic career she did extensive research, particularly on parent and family-child interactions, and was widely published.

After retirement she took on organising her father’s archives as well as other work on her family history. She edited the extensive pre-marital correspondence between Barnes and Molly Wallis in the early 1920s which had taken the form of a correspondence course in mathematics, but in fact was composed of dozens of charming love letters. This was published as Mathematics with Love in 2004. The archives are now housed in various institutions, and Mary herself became the President and a Trustee of the Barnes Wallis Foundation, formed to advance education in aviation design and honour her father’s name.

Mary was also very active in 617 Squadron Association affairs, and made many media appearances in the last few years talking about her father’s involvement in Operation Chastise. She will be sadly missed at future events.

Mary and Harry Stopes-Roe were married for 66 years until he died, almost five years to the day before her, on 11 May 2014. Mary leaves four children, ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and also her sister, Elisabeth.

Sources: Barnes Wallis Foundation
Moseley B13 magazine

Public viewing day for 1941 test model dam

Pic: BRE

The UK-wide’s annual Heritage Open Day on Saturday 8 September means the public get their once-a-year chance to see the very first (and only surviving) test model of the Möhne Dam, used in the very early stages of the development of what became the Dambusters’ bouncing bomb. This is housed at the premises of the Building Research Establishment at Garston, near Watford.

This free-to-attend event will not only allow access to the model dam, with talks on BRE’s role in the story repeated through the day, but also allow behind-the-scenes access to many of BRE’s current test facilities.

There will be talks and presentations repeated through the day about the role of BRE in the Dambusters raids, and also about the B17 Bomber ‘Choo-z-suzy’ that crashed on the site in 1943.

The story of how the BRE became involved is because of the friendship of two men who had met while studying engineering at Queen Mary College, University of London. They were Norman Davey, who was one of the then Building Research Station’s first staff, joining as a research assistant in November 1921. His colleague William Glanville joined as an engineering assistant in November 1922. Glanville left BRS in 1936, to become a Director of the newly-formed Road Research Laboratory at Harmondsworth in Middlesex.

At the outset of the war a team of BRS engineers, who had been working on the effects of explosives on structures since before the war, were transferred to the Road Research Laboratory. Led by A.R. Collins, they had also identified the Möhne Dam as a possible target.

Hearing about this work, Barnes Wallis met Collins and Glanville, along with Dr A.H. Davis, RRL’s assistant director, and they discussed how much damage would be caused if a large explosion occurred on the upstream side of the Möhne Dam, very close to the wall. On an unknown date in late 1940, Glanville and Wallis then held a meeting with Davey, and they decided that the most effective way to determine both the weight of explosive needed and the optimum location for it to breach the dam was to construct a scale model – and then blow it up. Davey agreed to build the model in a secluded area of the BRS’s Garston site, and so work began in November 1940. Some two million miniature concrete blocks were made, and the construction took about six weeks. The model was completed on 21 January 1941, and the first explosive test took place the following day. In all, ten explosions were carried out and the model was badly damaged. This is the model (now a listed structure) which the public can view on the Open Day.

The largest structural test hall in Britain, the wind tunnel and (possibly) the quietest place in the UK will also be open for tours and demonstrations, as will other attractions. In order to gauge numbers for the catering and (free) onsite parking, people are asked to register at the BRE website .

The first 1000 visitors through the gates on 8 September will also receive a free ticket to Grand Designs Live in London in October.

Barnes Wallis autograph sale will benefit AJ-A memorial appeal

A rare first day cover autographed by Barnes Wallis has gone on sale on eBay. It has been donated to the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation, and the proceeds from the sale will be given to the appeal fund for a new memorial to the crew of Dams Raid aircraft AJ-A, piloted by Sqn Ldr Melvin (Dinghy) Young, which shot down at Castricum-aan-Zee on the Dutch coast on 17 May 1943. The memorial will be unveiled in 2018 to mark the 75th anniversary of the crew’s burial in the nearby Bergen cemetery.
The item was generously donated to the Fund by the collector Ray Hepner.
The cover was signed by Sir Barnes Wallis in June 1976 at his residence, White Hill House, Effingham, Surrey, and given to Ray Hepner. It is one of the First Day Covers produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Vickers Wellington bomber, designed by Wallis.
Further details can be found on the eBay site here.
The sale will close on 30 November 2017.

Historic dams test site on view

Pic: Diamond Geezer

Short notice, I know, but if you are in the Watford area tomorrow (Saturday 9 September) you might like to visit this important site. This is the model dam which was built in the grounds of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Garston, near Watford. The construction took place with great secrecy in the winter of 1940–41, two years before the Dams Raid actually took place. On their own initiative, BRE scientists and their colleagues at the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) in Harmondsworth had been discussing possible ways of attacking the German dams before the involvement of Barnes Wallis.

Wallis was put in touch with the BRE and RRL team, and it was agreed to build a 1/50 scale model of the Möhne Dam on a secluded part of the Garston site. The very informative article on the BRE website tells the story:

The model, which survives today at the centre of the now enlarged BRE site, was built in seven weeks between November 1940 and January 1941. Temperature records from the time show that the winter was very cold, with daytime temperatures close to or below freezing over much of this period, and photographs show snow on the ground.

To conceal its identity, the model was referred to as ‘Weir No. 1.’ in the records. These show that work at the site started on Monday 25 November 1940, when the area was excavated to widen and deepen the stream, and to prepare an area for the concrete base of the dam. The foundation concrete was poured on 29 November, and the two towers of the dam were cast in situ the following Monday. The side wings [were] completed shortly after this. To allow the model to be built across the stream, a pipe was placed in the foundation to carry the water beneath the centre section during its construction.

Having built the model, the scientists then proceeded to try and blow it up. The dam was badly damaged during these tests, and further experiments were carried out elsewhere. However, because it was repaired in the 1960s this is probably the only place where Dams Raid test infrastructure remains in place and viewable by the general public. As such, it was scheduled by English Heritage in 2002 as being not only of ‘national but also international importance’. (In later tests in May 1942 the Nant-y-Gro dam in Wales was also blown up, but it is still viewable in its damaged state.)

To get a flavour of what is also viewable at Garston, read this account of last year’s open day by Diamond Geezer. Hat tip to him for the post alerting me to this event, and also for use of the photograph above.

Barnes Wallis and the ripple effect

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Four graphic design students from Northumbria University have been working on an exhibition project about Barnes Wallis as part of their degree course. I am sure that readers will agree with me that the images they have produced are very interesting and effective, and would grace the walls of any gallery if one could be found to take it on.
The exhibition is entitled ‘Ducks & Drakes’ and, in the creators’ words, portrays Wallis’s struggles with his conscience ‘after an innocent idea of skimming stones inspired him to create the Bouncing Bomb which had a devastating impact on the German Dams of WW2. The exhibition aims to immerse the viewer into the inner psychological feelings of Barnes Wallis. It does by making the walkways wider in times of happiness and narrower when Barnes struggled with his conscience.’

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You can see the full exhibition here.
The students are Patrick Pyka, Ashley Sowerby, Shaun Okoh and Megan Anderson.

The shape of the future: Barnes Wallis’s 1929 airship design


R100 cover loresThe name of Barnes Wallis is of course well known to students of the Dams Raid. But I bet that most people would struggle to remember many of the other projects, besides the so-called bouncing bomb, which he worked on throughout his long career as an engineer.
Back in the 1920s, Wallis headed the design team which built the R100 airship. This was a privately designed and built rigid British airship made as part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, a competition to develop a commercial airship service for use on in the British Empire.
The scheme is described on this website, dedicated to the work of Barnes Wallis:

Two airships were to be built and trialled against each other, the best elements from both being used to develop a second generation of airships. The ships were to have a speed of 70 knots and carry 100 passengers over a range of 3,000 miles. One ship was built by the Royal Airship Works at Cardington under direct Government control, and the other was built by Vickers (under their subsidiary the Airship Guarantee Company) on a wholly commercial basis, with Wallis as Chief Designer. Although built to the same specification, and hence broadly similar with a length of over 700ft and a capacity of 5,000,000 cubic feet, Wallis’s R100 and the Government R.101 were very different in the detail of their construction.
R100 was built from Duralumin (a light aluminium alloy) while most of R101’s structure was stainless steel. R101’s gasbags were held in place by a novel parachute-type harness, while Wallis developed a geodetic wire mesh for R100 to give greater gasbag volume. … most of R100’s structure was built from just 11 components (which could thus be mass-produced in their millions) and the entire structure was built from just 41 different components. Duralumin tubes of the length Wallis required were not available, so he designed a machine which would take flat Duralumin strip (which was available in long lengths), form it into a helix, and rivet the edges together to form a tube.

R100 first flew in December 1929. It made a series of trial flights and a successful return crossing of the Atlantic in July–August 1930, but following the crash of R101 in October 1930 the Imperial Airship Scheme was terminated and it was broken up for scrap. R100, which it could be argued had the more innovative design, was thus terminated even though it had a more successful life.
The brochure (from the Ray Hepner collection) whose cover is shown above would seem to have been designed about the time of R100’s first flight. The internal pages have an interesting design, which involved some hand mortising of metal type. The typeface is a large size of Garamond, with the full point hand cut so that it fits exactly above the tail of the curve of the swash capital R.

R100 inside lores

Wallis went on to use a similar geodetic wire mesh design for his later Wellington bomber, which made its maiden flight in 1936. More than 11,400 Wellingtons were built over the next decade, making it the largest production run of any British bomber in the Second World War.
Ray Hepner has also sent me some more pictures of Barnes Wallis taken at Reculver in Kent in 1976, 43 years after Wallis’s previous visit, to observe the last test drops of his Upkeep mine, the weapon used on the Dams Raid. Here are Lady Wallis and Sir Barnes, alongside Ray, who is sporting a particularly fine pair of 1970s flares.

Wallises+Hepner1976 lores

All pics © Ray Hepner Collection.