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by Harry Pope

The year was 1963, I was a 16 year old still at school with a part time job in a local hotel as barman, waiter, and general dogsbody. The hotel was the Bookham Grange, near Leatherhead in the middle of Surrey, owned by an affable ex-publican. The remote venue in the middle of Bookham Common, a mile from the railway station and double that from any shops, or more than a dozen people living in any form of proximity was a project of faith.

He used to be the guvnor of the Crown pub on Bookham’s crossroads, selling a successful business with excellent trade to buy a new hotel and wedding venue, specialising in outside catering. I had already been with Mr. Sale for over a year, was one of the more experienced team members at my tender age, loved what I was doing and quite looking forward to a career in serving the public. We had to provide the catering for an evening engagement at Effingham Village Hall, where the guest speaker was to be Dr. Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb.

By this stage he was 76, an erudite engaging personality who was also an excellent speaker. When the tables were cleared, coffee drunk, all equipment being washed in the kitchens, my role was over the for evening, so could have just sat waiting for all to dry, replace into travelling boxes, then into the vehicles, and just sit around chatting. But having seen the film ‘The Dam Busters,’ I was fascinated by our speaker, so asked Mr. Sale if I may stand at the back and listen. I suspect that he was surprised that a youth such as I would want to learn anything at all, of course being under the impression that I knew everything, so granted his permission. I was then joined by my catering colleagues, who decided not to be bored, but entertained.

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Don’t ask me to recount the talk, that’s not going to happen, but I do remember that he went into some technical detail that went straight over my head. This was the first talk I had ever heard in a public place, and it was revelatory. His presentation style was practised, he obviously knew what he was talking about, and his audience wanted to learn. He was a walking, living hero from WW2, accessible in our room, bringing alive an incident that was still the story of heroes. For those unfamiliar, Dr. Barnes Wallis thought of the theory to fly aircraft over hostile Germany to three different adjacent dams, release bombs that would bounce over the water, ultimately destroying the dam’s wall. The release of water would cripple munition factories, creating civil turmoil and fear.

The principle is fine, the reality was very different. 1943 Germany was heavily defended, the targets were in the Ruhr valley, the prospect of all planes returning was nil. Heavy casualties anticipated, a mission for volunteers, preferably single men. Dr. Wallis was assistant chief designer at Vickers aircraft factory, knew the principle of skimming round stones on water, thought it would work with larger bombs against a military target. Without going into unnecessary detail, after trials it was decided that it was possible, and 133 aircrew in 19 aircraft took off. With a fatality rate of 40%, only eighty returned. Only eleven planes made it back.

Many crew were awarded medals, received in a Buckingham Palace ceremony from the King. The movie The Dam Busters was made in 1955 with Richard Todd playing Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the 24 year old officer in charge. My evening lecture occurred only twenty years after the raid, so Dr. Wallis’s memory would have still been fresh, his recollections perfect. It was a mesmerising talk, one I feel privileged to have heard. He lived in the area, was an unassuming man who lived quietly, so I suspect that actually giving a talk in this way would have been out of the ordinary.

He was awarded a Knighthood, also the Albert Medal, and the Royal Medal. Dr. Wallis was an inventor of other ideas. One was RHA R100, a plane so big it matched the size of an ocean liner. Another was nuclear submarines. He also did pioneering work on the de-icing of trawlers.

He died in 1979, is buried in the local churchyard. A true English genius who came to the fore when his country needed him in time of conflict.