The Dam Buster in Dorset
Sir Barnes Wallis, creator of the ‘bouncing bomb’, had a great love for Dorset. Marie Stopes-Roe, his daughter, and David Wallis, his nephew, have fond memories of holidays in the county with him.
Published in April ’08
|breakfast in Corfe, looking at the beloved Castle…
Last year, the classic film The Dam Busters was shown in cinemas for the first time since 1954. Telling the story of 617 Squadron’s daring raid to destroy dams in Germany’s Ruhr district with the bouncing bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, the film became immensely popular and fixed him in the public imagination as a great British inventor.
Less well known is his association with Dorset, but it was off Chesil Beach that the prototype bouncing bomb was tested. A Wellington bomber (one of his most successful designs) had been converted to accommodate a dummy bomb and, with Mutt Summers as pilot and Barnes as passenger/observer, the plane set out along Chesil Beach towards Portland. The whole exercise was very ‘hush-hush’, so much so that the anti-aircraft batteries on Portland hadn’t been told of the test flight and, on spotting the now unrecognisable shape of the converted Wellington, they opened fire. Fortunately, they were not very good shots, so pilot, inventor, crew, bomber and bomb survived.
A few years before this incident, Barnes’s brother, Charles Wallis, had bought Wyke House near Gillingham, following a posting in Malta. His interest in Dorset led later to his founding the museum in Gillingham, but both brothers had a love for the Dorset countryside; so after the war, when Barnes and family took their summer holiday in Dorset, the two families would get together. Barnes rented a field between Corfe and Swanage under Nine Barrow Down as a camping site. The excitement for Barnes’s family started with the drive down from Surrey, leaving in the half light of early dawn with a full car drawing a heavily loaded trailer. The appearance of signs saying ‘You are entering the STRONG country’ were greeted with delight, although actually drinking the beer of Strong and Co of Romsey was not the point. Making good time, the party were able to breakfast in Corfe, looking at the beloved castle from the Castle Tea Rooms. The tents, stored since the previous summer by Wilson’s of Swanage, had been delivered to the field, and all were set up and ship-shape by tea time.
At first the family fitted into three ex-Army bell tents, which were pitched with military precision, the parents’ tent being slightly away from noisy youngsters. They were fitted with all sorts of pockets and slots, even small loops for toothbrushes, fastened round the tent post – a place for everything and everything in its place! Numbers increased, however, and the bell tents were replaced by larger ridge tents, but Barnes’s was always pitched a little further off in peace and quiet. During the violent summer storms of 1956 the tents were blown down and ripped, and the camp was never quite the same again.
At the end of the 1930s, the demands on Barnes of his work for Vickers-Armstrong and the Government were increasingly heavy. Colleagues came down from time to time and he worked intermittently throughout the month’s holiday. But when the work was laid aside, Barnes enjoyed the holiday as much as anyone. He took pleasure in keeping the camp trim and well-ordered, and in making sure that the younger ones knew how to pitch tents, deal with sanitary matters, see to guy ropes and take weather precautions. The sound of his Wellington boots clumping round the tents on wet and windy nights as he checked the ropes was unforgettably comforting. He took part in the daily chores, joking, singing and inventing games. When he washed up, plates would be tossed to the person drying up, and from him or her to the person stacking away. The larder cabinet was strung up on a tree trunk, and a barrel of cider (‘It’s cheaper by the barrel!’) carefully raised to allow for easy pouring.
|‘the answer to the uncomfortable problem of carrying two full buckets of water without a shoulder yoke…’
Simple solutions were best, and the answer to the uncomfortable problem of carrying two full buckets of water without a shoulder yoke was to lay a large and strong metal ring against the handles of the buckets as you picked them up. He taught the children signalling by semaphore and to use a small boat safely and sensibly. We had a small sailing dinghy which was kept on Studland beach, where we had a beach hut. Studland was quiet in those days, and there was ample room for the construction of complicated castles and water works, ably designed and executed every time.
Barnes had a deep feeling for history and for the old buildings of Dorset. Maiden Castle and Wimborne Minster were places of pilgrimage, as were Woolbridge Manor, the walls of Wareham, the effigy of Lawrence of Arabia in St Martin’s Church at Wareham, the dramatic little chapel on St Aldhelm’s Head and of course romantic Corfe Castle (the walk along the length of Nine Barrow Down earned a cream tea!). We went to Sunday service in the lovely old church at Worth Matravers, and a glass of cider at the Square and Compass was not unknown.
The skill of the quarrymen and stone masons in the Worth and Kingston quarries, and the beauty of the Purbeck stone, inspired Barnes to design and commission a fountain for the terrace at home, a little bit of Dorset in Surrey. And on one unforgettable day he took us on a trip by steamer into the Solent to see the great Queen Mary set forth on her maiden voyage, just over 25 years since the last great giant, the Titanic, went down. The experience was only slightly marred by a rough passage home!
|‘He taught the children signalling by semaphore…’
A favourite meeting place for the two branches of the Wallis family was that paradise for adventurous swimmers, the Purbeck coast. Here, rocky inlets and caves only accessible from the seaward side could be explored. The slight hazard only added spice to these swimming explorations and, in those pre-Jaws days, one wasn’t too alarmed by moving shadows under the water.
One of the most spectacular venues was Dancing Ledge. This was a flat limestone terrace, maybe an acre in extent, marked with the coiled fossil remains of ammonites. At certain times of the tide, the sea just lapped the edge of the terrace and, if you stood on the edge, you realised that you were standing on the top of an underwater cliff which seemed to disappear into darkness fathoms below. Local lads with lead weights tied around their waists would step off the edge and, plunging down, would collect the spider crabs hiding in the kelp on the cliff face and then, surfacing, would thrown them onto the rock shelf to be gathered by their friends.
|‘…a good, if slightly scary, way to learn’|
Other meeting places were Winspit and Seacombe. At Winspit, if there was a strong sea running, the narrow entrance turned the small inlet into a natural jacuzzi. In this inlet on calmer days, Barnes attached a harness made of small bathing towels knotted together to those young ones who could only swim with one toe on the bottom. He walked up and down on the flat rock and the swimmer ploughed through the dark and chilly depths as well as he or she could manage. It was a good, if slightly scary, way to learn.
Sometimes at these family gatherings, Barnes would rehearse a lecture he had to give to some learned society, possibly on the basis that if we could understand it, then a more intelligent audience would find it easy to meet. He spoke well in clear, exact English, possibly the result of a classical education, and he also had a few rhetorical tricks to keep the attention of his listeners.
|The airship R100, which Barnes Wallis designed
One of his engineers once said that it was his ability to find solutions to daily problems that commanded their respect. It was typical of the man that when he was in charge of designing and building the airship R100, instead of staying aloof in his office, he placed his own drawing board in the middle of the drawing office where he could encourage and assist his team at first hand.
Barnes was fiercely patriotic. He once said that an Englishman working alone in a cellar by the light of a candle was worth more than a boardroom full of American PhDs. Whether true or not, it would surely not have passed the test of political correctness!
There is one final Dorset connection in the Barnes Wallis story. Jack Holsgrove, a Dorset man now living in Poole, tells in his book, Dambusters Away, how as Leading Aircraftsman he had to redesign and make a new release gear for the bouncing bomb, without which the Lancasters would have remained on the runway, unable to lay their eggs on the dams – egg-bound, you might say.
|Barnes Wallis, played by Michael Redgrave in the 1954 film The Dam Busters, demonstrates the principle of the bouncing bomb to his children