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Busting the dam of engineering indifference

British patriotism is an odd thing. Public voices constantly do down the UK’s engineering capabilities but announce a royal wedding and out comes the bunting.

And if there’s one thing still guaranteed to get people fired up it’s the Second World War. So perhaps a new documentary recreating the Dam Busters’ bouncing bomb will be just the thing to help turn more people on to engineering.

Barnes Wallis’s invention of a bomb that would bounce on water and explode at exactly the right depth to blow up German dams was a feat of ingenuity, immortalised in the famous film. But we know little of how he actually did it as few of his calculations and designs have survived.

Windfall Films and Cambridge University lecturer Dr Hugh Hunt set out to follow in Wallis’s footsteps, building a scale version of the Möhne Dam — one of the dams destroyed in the famous raid — in Canada, and devising their own bomb replica in a matter of months before using a vintage DC4 airliner to deliver the payload with incredible accuracy.


The replica bouncing bomb takes shape in the team’s workshop

‘We had to work out the exact size of the bomb then design it so it was strong enough to bounce on water,’ says Hunt, whose usual research focuses more on vibrations in wind turbines and devising geoengineering solutions.

‘Then we had to design a rig to carry the bomb and allow it to spin a balanced way to stop it vibrating. We had the same problems as Barnes Wallis in that at first the bomb kept cracking on impact.’


Bombs away!

It wasn’t an exact recreation: the 30ft-high dam section was built at one third the scale of the original and the Canadian aviation authorities wouldn’t allow the team to carry an actual bomb in the air so explosives had to be pre-placed under the water.

But watching the drop sequence is thrilling and conveys a sense of what an enormous challenge it must have been to manually perform the kind of calculations that today are done automatically by computerised guided missile systems.


Success! The replica Mohne Dam ruptures as the bomb triggers the pre-placed explosives

Hunt hopes the programme will help more people to see the fun and the real applications behind science and engineering, that maths isn’t just about what you learn in the classroom but that you also need practical skills to bring it to life.

‘We’ve got a big job in the UK to build-up a technical curiosity in our kids and adults,’ he says. ‘Television these days is pretty non-technical and the idea that you might start to even put equations on TV is miles off.

‘But the idea that behind the scenes there are calculations is the subliminal message that comes across clearly in this programme.’

The show also highlights that Wallis had the courage of his convictions to scale up his models and be confident that they would work in real life, adds Hunt.

‘These days we wouldn’t have that kind of confidence. Certainly in the civilian world we’d build up to it very gently and do lots of testing. He didn’t have the luxury of doing that but he believed in it, and it’s absolutely extraordinary that he did and he was right.’

As The Engineer has said before on this blog, the profile of UK engineering would benefit hugely from some well-placed, exciting and intelligent TV coverage. And according to the Windfall producer, Tom Cook, mainstream broadcasters are showing more of an interest.

‘I wouldn’t say it’s that difficult selling engineering programmes, it’s definitely something people want,’ he says. ‘It just depends on getting the right approach and this one sold because it’s someone actually doing something as approached to just talking about it.’

If we’re lucky, more programme makers will bring that formula to the screen (although we’ll probably still be stuck with royal wedding repeats for the next few months at least).

Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb will be shown on Channel 4 on Monday 2 May at 8pm.

Excerpt from the Channel 4 documentary, Building the Bouncing Bomb

Readers' comments (17)

  • Just to say, thank you for drawing my attention to this. I will definitely be tuned in! And I totally agree about bringing the maths and engineering to life.

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  • I agree totally that we ned to be proud of engineering the world, as is our heritage and making it appealing to the wider audience is essential. Give it to the schools to show. How about a whole series?

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  • Great stuff; the alarm clock is set. Wallis is one of my personal heroes, and I applaud this. While I am happy to work in the defence industry, I suspect we'd benefit by seeing some non-military developments that the UK had a big hand in.

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  • This is a good move for UK Engineering. I'm an ex pat and the thing I really enjoy in mainland Europe is the respect for Engineers missing in the UK. This respect is brought on by the fact that not everyone can label himself 'Engineer'

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  • Thanks for opportunity to see the programme.

    Contemporary colleagues of mine at Imperial will no doubt remember the patriotic enthusiasm Barnes Wallis presented when he kept us captivated for a couple of hours with talks of his bouncing bombs, swing wing aircraft (and the US sub optimised versions of that) and a fleet of cargo submarines to link the empire which would sell dried ice at teh end of the journey - a fore runner of carbon capture & sequestration in the 1970s!
    An engineering British Bulldog who must have turned in his grave on seeing how designing and making things was demoted almost to obscurity under the obsession of the monopoly game world of the so called financial "industry"!

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  • Why must engineering look back and science look forward? Things built in the past are down to engineers, anything new seems to the domain of scientists. Scientists put a man on the moon not engineers is the popular view. However, everyone (?) knows that Brunel was an engineer. A structural masterpiece is designed by an architect unless it happens to be a wobbly bridge - bring on the engineer....

    If we want to enthuse the current generation to take up engineering then we need to look forward. Supersonic flight, men in space, high speed trains, huge airliners, the internet, GPS, mobile communications all created by engineers, and taken for granted. If we want to get engineers out of the dark seize the present, don't look to the past.

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  • Just why aren't we putting equations up on the television? I really wish that the "meeja" would stop patronising the British public and broadcast something they can get their teeth into. It needn't all be high level stuff of course but why not try to find a balance? I agree that we should be looking forward but, let's face it, there's nothing quite so much fun as finding new and interesting ways to blow something up (even if, as in this case, its retracing illustrious footsteps)!

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  • Many readers may not know of a story connected with the Bouncing Bomb. Barnes Wallis required the use of an aircraft to conduct some early experiments and asked Bomber Harris for the use of a Wellington Bomber. Harris asked him why he should loan him one, Barnes replied, "I did design it"

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  • It's in the film, if we remember correctly!

  • Interesting material, I've been curious about the calculations involved ever since seeing the movie.

    How about letting us Yanks see the videos? When I try to play them, I get a message informing me that the uploader has not made the video available in my country.

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  • Hi Doug, I worked on the show, and although the virals aren't visible in the US, the documentary will go out in America on PBS Nova later in the year, so you'll be able to watch it then I hope!

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