Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

Barnes Wallis

A Biography
By J. E. Morpurgo
Published 1981 by Ian Allen
ISBN 0 7110 119 2
400 pages, 37 illustrations
First published 1972 by Longman
Penguin edition 1973

Barnes Neville Wallis (1887 - 1979) is probably best known for the 2nd World War air raid on the Rhur dams in Germany with his novel "bouncing bomb", immortalised in the film "The Dambusters". Less well known is that from 1913 to 1929, the formative years of aviation, Wallis was almost continuously involved with the design and building of rigid airships. In 1923, after a brief period as a teacher in Switzerland, Wallis was employed as the Chief Designer for the new Vickers airship R100 and in this capacity, in 1924, he employed a young Oxford graduate as his Chief Calculator: Nevil Shute Norway.

Wallis is fortunate that his biographer was a friend and fellow "Blue" of Christ's Hospital, the charitable public school where they were both educated. Morpurgo is not blind to Wallis' shortcomings, however he does minimise and excuse them. One cannot help feeling that Wallis must have been a very difficult man to deal with. Conviction in your own abilities and opinions always appears as arrogance when coupled with less than adequate interpersonal skills. The stress of work and the almost paranoid views he took of others often led to severe attacks of migraine and illness. I found the most telling part to his story to be when his old friend H B Pratt, who had introduced him to the airship world, approached him to get back into aviation design at almost any level. Wallis considered that Pratt had been out of aviation design too long and in no uncertain terms told him so. Although Pratt was to later take charge of the Supermarine works building Spitfires he never recovered from this rejection and in 1940, after resigning from that position, he shot himself.

Wallis also designed the Wellesley, Wellington, Warwick and Windsor bombers, of which the first two were the most successful. He designed the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, respectively 12,000 lb and 20,000 lb penetration weapons. After the war he developed the concept of the swing wing, tail-less aeroplane (although more accurately an aerodyne). Model tests were carried out, but for various reasons the full concept was never exploited. Variable geometry was used on the American F-111 bomber and later on the F-14 "Tomcat" fighter and Wallis was convinced that the Americans had "stolen" his idea after he had approached them for funding.

He worked until he was over 80, moving on from the swing wing aerodyne, to long range nuclear powered submarines and finally to the "square" aeroplane. Along the way he: got involved in the development of an airborne method of sweeping magnetic mines; designed a radio telescope mounting; started the Royal Air Force Foundation for the education of the children of RAF personnel at Christ's Hospital; and, designed the extensions and theatre to his old school.

It was his connection with the R100 and Nevil Shute that attracted me to this book, but there are very few references to Shute. At one point Morpurgo comments that Wallis "had reservations about Norway's intelligence and integrity" (he seems to have had such reservations about everyone from time to time) and in another place describes Shute as "a man with cheerfully sybaritic tendencies". As I read the book however I was reminded more and more of "No Highway". Characteristics of Wallis described by Morpurgo are very reminiscent of those exhibited by Mr Honey and, to a lesser extent by E. P. Prendegast. Clearly I am not suggesting that Wallis was the blueprint for Honey or Prendergast, but the traits of the scientific "genius" and the overbearing chief designer described by Shute are uncannily close to some of Wallis'.

Wallis was a fitness fanatic in early life and later went on hiking trips with his wife (remember Mr Honey's strong walking boots). Indeed his wife was much younger than him, by some 18 years, she was 20 when they married (Marjorie Corder was 25). Wallis specialised in the use of light alloys in airships and aircraft (Honey's speciality was fatigue in light alloy structures). Wallis studied a wide variety of topics approaching each from fundamental scientific principles (Honey studied a variety of subjects in his spare time all from a strict scientific point of view). Wallis found difficulty in persuading others to his point of view despite detailed scientific analysis (compare with Mr Honey on the Reindeer). It is clear from the book that Wallis needed the support of others to get his ideas accepted (Honey needed the support of his boss, Scott, and the Director of RAE). Wallis suffered from migraines that were aggravated by stress (Honey had bad bouts of "indigestion"). Wallis was an anti-sybarite and had an innate puritanism that led to repugnance for those who exhibited more mortal weaknesses, particularly his boss on the R100, Dennistoun Burney (Honey thought the RAE Director "a renegade who had deserted the field of science for the flesh-pots of administration"). Wallis was an avowed Christian (Honey had strong beliefs in God and the second coming).

Shute must have been familiar with a number of the top aircraft designers of the time such as Camm (at Hawkers) and Mitchell (at Supermarine) and most of these people were regarded as difficult and overbearing, however he worked alongside Wallis for 5 years and claimed in Slide Rule to have a great admiration for him and considered him a genius. The similarities to E P Prendergast from No Highway are lesser, but definitely there. As already said Wallis was an avowed Christian (Prendergast would not allow work on a Sunday for religious reasons). Wallis suffered stress related illnesses when he came into conflict with others (Prendergast is said in No Highway to have been capable of making himself physically sick in such situations). Wallis was particularly obsessed with geodesic constructions (Prendergast had a particular "hobby-horse" of "nesting sections"). Prendergast was probably an amalgam of all the designers Shute had come across however (apart from possibly Hessel Tiltman) Wallis must have been the one he knew best.

Overall I found the book very interesting as Wallis is such a well-known character in the aviation world and Morpurgo is a professional and very accomplished writer. The story moves on at a good pace and Morpurgo introduces aspects of Wallis' life in a clear and logical fashion. The factor that kept me reading however was Wallis himself. He seems to have been a character full of contradictions and problems. Very sure within himself, but unable to assert himself with the rest of the world. After reading the book again, I am personally doubtful as to his credentials as an engineering genius. To me his "inventions" seem just too contrived and do not display the innate simplicity of true engineering genius. He did display a great understanding of the scientific basis of problems and proposed some innovative solutions, but they mostly then foundered on fundamental practical problems. Wallis demonstrated remarkable tenacity in resolving these, however to many people this must have appeared as just obsession with proving his own ideas. Morpurgo states that it was ironic that his greatest successes were during wartime, even though Wallis himself was basically a pacifist. In wartime however one goes to extraordinary lengths to achieve things and the shortcomings of Wallis' ideas were resolved then when in peacetime they would never have got "off the drawing board". Wallis, I believe, suffered from the British engineering disease of too much concentration on design novelty and not enough consideration to manufacturing aspects and simplicity in use. Wallis is mirrored by many British inventors whose ideas have been productionised by other countries: hovercraft, hydrofoils and microwaves to name but three.

Whether he was consciously using Wallis' characteristics or not, to me the following extract about Mr Honey's feelings from No Highway sums up Wallis very well.

"He regarded technical executives as mean creatures who had abandoned scientific work for the fleshpots, for the luxuries of life that could be bought with a high salary. He had no opinion of us as men; for this reason he preferred his own company or the company of earnest young men fresh from college who were not yet tainted with commercialism. He went cynically on this occasion, already embittered by the anticipation of disbelief. It had always been so when he had put forward new ideas; he had not got the happy knack of making people credit him from the start."

Wallis was knighted in 1968, a long overdue honour according to Morpurgo. He considers that Wallis' blunt speaking and his opposition to the "establishment" at the time of the R100/R101 led to the extended delay. In his introduction Morpurgo makes an interesting comment, that: "The Establishment has an institutional memory that is longer than the careers of individuals. It does not forget or forgive sins against its predecessors." As we all know Shute was never honoured by his country and, as a writer, was largely denied critical acclaim. Perhaps he too suffered from the "Establishment memory"?