Sir Neville Barnes Wallace memorial in Herne Bay

An imposing figure stands at the bottom of the Downs, near the King’s Hall, surveying the sea before him.

You may not recognise his face, but you will probably have heard his name, or the name of his most famous invention.

For the man is Sir Barnes Wallis, the engineer who designed the “bouncing bombs” used to break dams in Germany during the Second World War. They were used by 617 Squadron, known as The Dam Busters.

Wallis, a doctor’s son born in 1887, was a prolific inventer who began making things as a child in a workshop at home. He went to school in Horsham, Sussex, before starting an apprenticeship as an engineer, moving to Vickers in 1913, a firm that was later renowned for airship and aircraft development.

When the First World War broke out he tried to join the Army but failed the eye sight test, later managing to pass the medical by memorising the eye test chart. But he was recalled after the Admiralty reconvened Vickers’ airship development team  and was heavily involved in the design of the R100.

At the start of the Second World War, Wallis suggested the quickest way to defeat Nazi Germany would be to destroy its industrial base, cutting off supplies to the military. The most important industrial area was the Ruhr, which was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns, meaning a normal bombing raid was risky.

Instead, Wallis developed a plan for a small team of pilots to fly below the radar and hit the dams that held back the river, releasing the water to destroy everything in its path. He designed barrel-shaped bombs that would spin and bounce over the water to reach the dam wall, before exploding at its base.

Links with Herne Bay

Bouncing bomb, Herne Bay
An early bouncing bomb prototype on display at Herne Bay Museum and Gallery.

Tests of his pioneering “bouncing bomb” were carried out at Reculver using, in most cases, half-size dummy bombs filled with sand.  Vickers Wellington bombers (which Barnes Wallis also designed) were used to sweep in across the sea at a height of less than 50 feet, dropping the dummy bomb to test its ability to ‘skim’ the waves before impacting safely upon the soft, sandstone, cliffs.

During testing at Reculver, Barnes Wallace was frequently accompanied by Winston Churchill and both men stayed at the nearby Mirimar Hotel (now a care home) in Beltinge.

The Dambusters Raid took place in May 1943 and the bombers successfully destroyed two of the dams, although it did not have the devastating effect on Germany’s industry that had been hoped. However, it did provide a massive boost to Allied morale.

As the war continued, and area bombing became more important, Wallis began developing aircraft to carry heavy bombs. The adapted Avro Lancaster was able to drop two bombs developed by Wallis, the ‘Tallboy’ designed in 1944 (used to sink the German battleship ‘Tirpitz’) and the ‘Grand Slam’ the following year.

After the war, Wallis led aeronautical research and development at the British Aircraft Corporation until 1971. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1954 and was knighted in 1968. He died on 20 October 1979.