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75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid - developing bouncing bombs

Heavy Munitions Director, BAE Systems Land UK
BAE Systems and our legacy companies have a long history of developing innovative technologies and solutions.
Earlier this month was the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, the 1943 ‘surgical strike’ designed to knock out dams providing hydroelectric power to the German war machine.
 
We at BAE Systems are proud of the vital role that our legacy companies – Vickers and Royal Ordnance – played in developing these innovative bombs. Hailed as one of the most ingenious pieces of British military engineering ever, the bouncing bomb has origins every bit as incredible as the technology itself.
 
Image - Lee Smurthwaite
 
The destruction of the dams had been an ambition of the British since the beginning of the war, but with the structures protected by underwater torpedo nets, it was impossible with the weapons they had.
 
This was set to change when, early in 1942, an engineer called Barnes Wallis based at Vickers had a Eureka moment as he skipped marbles over water tanks in his garden. This led him to publish a paper, "Spherical Bomb - Surface Torpedo," describing something that is simple to explain, but proved far more complicated to put into action – bounce a four tonne bomb across the surface of water with the use of backspin, allowing it to sink next to a target and explode.
 
Without so much as a full-scale drawing of the bouncing bomb, Wallis had to design and test it, while aircraft had to be converted, crew selected and trained, and a new squadron – the 617 – formed.
 
Barnes developed the bouncing bomb rapidly from a concept to reality over a period of months – truly amazing by today’s standards as any engineer will tell you.
 
Vickers’ engineers manufactured the bombs under Barnes Wallis’ close supervision at its factory in Barrow, Cumbria. The bombs then went to Royal Ordnance Factories in Glascoed, South Wales, and Chorley, Lancashire, to be filled with its new ‘Torpex’ explosive, which was 50% more powerful than TNT by mass. Two types were made: ‘Upkeep’, which was used on the dams and a smaller bouncing bomb, ‘Highball’, designed for use against ships.
 
Wallis, who worked for BAE Systems’ legacy company, Vickers, supervised the work at the Royal Ordnance Factories that were born in the shadow of the Second World War, successfully developed and manufactured his bouncing bomb and delivered the aircraft that would carry it in the near-impossible timeframe.
 
The spirit of dedication, perseverance, technological know-how and ingenuity coming together to meet urgent operational deadlines is ever-present in the history of BAE Systems and its predecessors. Our facility in Glascoed, where I’m writing this from today, still provides essential ammunition to the British Army and is proud to continue the tradition of innovation in all that we do.
 
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Lee Smurthwaite Heavy Munitions Director, BAE Systems Land UK 31 May 2018