Barnes Wallis in the Novels of Nevil Shute

The Influence of Barnes Wallis in the Works of Nevil Shute

David Vaughan

I will begin by making a series of statements about an important British aeronautical engineer.  This man was born the second son in the family some years before World War I.  He did not serve in World War I, although he wanted to, and an older brother did.  Early in his life, he developed a lifelong love of ships and sailing.  He began his aeronautical career by designing and building airships before designing aircraft.  He developed, early in his career, a distrust of the governmental establishment or, in the words of a biographer, “suspicion of those who had the influence without the professional knowledge to use it [that influence] sensibly.”  He thought that the British government’s response to the airship development program in the 1920s was shortsighted and ill-conceived.  One final fact: his name was “Neville.”

If I tell you that the man to whom these statements refer is not Nevil Shute Norway, to whom these statements could easily refer, but is in fact Barnes Neville Wallis, you may begin to see why I have chosen to briefly discuss the life and achievements of Barnes Wallis, to suggest how this man exerted an important influence on Nevil Shute, and finally to suggest some ways in which Nevil Shute acknowledged this influence in his writings.

Early Life and Character of Barnes Wallis

Barnes Wallis was born in Ripley, Derbyshire, England, in 1887.  His father was a doctor who was unable to earn the living that his wife would have preferred.  Before he was able to establish a practice he contracted polio and essentially became a semi-invalid for the remainder of his life, with the result that the Wallis household was perennially short-handed of money.  Wallis’ parents were devoutly religious.  As a result, Wallis therefore developed a stronger than normal sense of the frailty and sinfulness of human life, a belief he carried with him throughout his life.

Wallis left school at the age of sixteen, when he began work in a shipyard.  In 1913 he began working at Vickers Ltd, specializing in the design of early airships.  When World War I started he attempted to enter military service but was directed to remain working with Vickers in the effort to build a number of British airships, in a response to the airship threat from Germany.  After the war ended, Wallis began work on the R-80, built using traditional airship construction design.  However, Wallis was able to initiate a number of streamlining aspects that increased the performance of the airship.  The R-80, which flew in 1920, was seen as the most successful British airship built to that time.

When he was thirty-five years old, he voiced the idea of marriage to his seventeen year old cousin, Molly Bloxham.  At that time Wallis was a shy man who stood six feet tall; he was thin, and his hair had already turned grey.  Upon learning of the proposal, Molly Bloxham’s father called Wallis into his study and informed him that he should stay away from Molly because he was old enough to be her father (Morpurgo 106-7).  The relationship continued however, and “under her teasing he began to realise his almost entire lack of humour” (109).  His shyness resulted in his preference for writing letters over speaking (115), and he wrote frequently to Molly while he was waiting for the final decision about the establishment of the Airship Guaranty Company, the organization that would eventually build the R-100.

As if to compensate for his innate shyness and reticence, Wallis developed a strong sense of self-reliance combined with self-denial.  By 1923, (when he would have been 36 years old), Wallis had joined a military unit in peacetime:

Reveling in the hardness of camp life, his pride in his own resistance to exhaustion, his enthusiasm for testing himself against foul weather, . . .  [he] had reached a level some would call masochism.  Undoubtedly Wallis was then, and was to remain for some years, close to the boundary-line where deliberately invoked discipline becomes aberration, so that from time to time aftersight catches in his correspondence glimpses of a hideous possibility; had it not been for the entirely sane influence of Molly this masochism could have taken over and might have become for Wallis what Lawrence’s homosexuality was for him.  (Morpurgo 117-118).

Wallis developed a sense of enthusiastic commitment to his engineering projects, especially when he thought they would result in benefits to society as a whole (as he did in the case of the airship project) or to the well-being of the people who flew in his designs (especially in the structures that featured his geodesic designs).

Largely as a result of the R-80’s success, Vickers and Wallis were given the contract to build the R-100 in 1924.  Although Vickers had been awarded the contract, there were many difficulties and disagreements between Vickers and the government while construction was being initiated, and for a time it appeared that the contract would be cancelled or not fully funded.  During periods of slack time, Wallis undertook a public relations campaign to raise the public consciousness about the value of airships as a safe form of public transport.  It was very likely this public speaking activity that provided the basis for the information contained in the R-100 booklet that appeared at this time.  In the closing pages of this booklet we can see evidence of the writer’s concern that the government does not fully appreciate the value of airships and would be making a mistake by not proceeding with an airship-building program.  In considering the possibility of temporarily disbanding the airship workmen, the writer states “the public and Parliament must not blame the technicians and pioneers” if the results of a “short-sighted policy” result in additional costs to bring the airship program to fruition (p. 23).  The language of these passages is reminiscent of some of the comments Nevil Shute later made in Slide Rule, but are more likely the ideas of Wallis (the author of this booklet is not identified).

The R-100 was the first airship to use what came to be known as the geodetic design, and Wallis and Shute were heavily involved in stress calculations to determine the structural integrity of the airframe.  Wallis was using this design on an airship for the first time and had to ensure that the stress calculations were accurate.  (I have described this design and its impact on Shute’s later literary efforts elsewhere, and will not discuss it here.)  The R-100 was launched successfully, flying from England to Toronto, Canada, and back in 1930.  When the government-sponsored airship, the R-101, crashed in France in October of that year, the British airship program was cancelled and both Wallis and Shute were forced to find other means of work.  Wallis stayed with Vickers and began work on bomber aircraft, utilizing his geodetic design; the best-known product of this design was the Vickers Wellesley bomber.

As World War II approached, Wallis once again attempted to join the military service but was not successful.  His work at Vickers was considered the most important contribution he could make to the war effort.  Wallis’ most significant work was as a designer of aircraft and weapons.  He worked primarily on his Wellesley bomber and its successors, including the Vickers Warwick, which he subjected to rigorous structural testing.  Best remembered today for his design of the “dam-buster” bombs dropped on the German Mohne, Eder, and Sorpe dams in 1943 by 617 Squadron, Wallis actually developed many other special weapons—or weapons detecting—systems, including a system to detect and set off underwater mines.  After the war Wallis led aeronautical research and development at the British Aircraft Corporation.  He continued to develop innovative aircraft designs, including a swing-wing supersonic airliner.  Wallis was eventually knighted for his contributions to the British aerospace industry.  He died in 1979.

Working Relationship between Wallis and Shute

Nevil Shute may have known Barnes Wallis before he became associated with the R-100, but at any rate, he came to know him very well when he joined the Vickers airship team in 1924.  The first mention Nevil Shute provides of his initial association with Barnes Wallis contains no particular hint of excitement about his association with the man: “In aviation at that time there were opportunities on every side for those who had the wit to take them, and Mr. B. N. Wallis, who was then a designer of rigid airships for Vickers Ltd, was gathering together a staff for the design of a very large airship to be known as the R100” (Slide Rule 53).  Shute makes it sound as if he decided to go with Vickers almost on a whim, and that the name of Barnes Wallis meant little or nothing to him at the time.

But Shute’s ultimate opinion of Wallis could not be clearer.  Later in Slide Rule he says “To my mind [Barnes] Wallis was the greatest engineer in England at that time [1930] and for twenty years afterwards.  It was an education and a privilege to work under him, and I count myself lucky to have done so” (79).  Shute worked with Barnes Wallis continuously from 1924 until 1930.  During that time Shute was responsible for stress calculation on the R-100, a task he took seriously, and the positive results of which he was later very proud (as he indicates in Slide Rule).  Finally, after experiencing some frustrations with the dynamic Dennis Bourney, just as the airship project was moving to completion, Wallis announced his intention to leave the R-100 project, and Shute was promoted to Wallis’ position as Chief Engineer, a promotion that must have had Wallis’ blessing.  Shute admits that Wallis had done most of the work when he left Vickers.

Later, Shute established his own aircraft company from 1933 until 1938, Airspeed Ltd, which successfully developed a number of aircraft, the Airspeed Oxford being the best-known as a result of its use as a trainer for bombing aircraft during the war.  Although there was no direct professional connection between the two men during these years, Shute certainly would have known of Wallis’ work at Vickers.  By the time the war started, Shute had left Airspeed Ltd and was starting his career as a full-time writer.  Prior to the onset of hostilities, he felt the need to serve in the war and volunteered to enter military service, as Wallis had done.  In his case, however, he was successful in his goal of entering the service but he was quickly detailed to one of the British Admiralty’s special operations branches, where he worked on the development of special weapons and defenses against weapons.

Gerald Pawle has given a detailed description of the operation of the organization, the Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development, or DMWD, in his book, The Secret War, for which Shute wrote the foreword.  Although initially unhappy at the prospect of working for what he thought of as a non-essential staff organization, Shute apparently did his job with determination and efficiency, and made several useful contributions to the work of the unit.  Barnes Wallis never worked directly for the DMWD, but it was instrumental in the success of his most famous wartime project, the development of the “dam-buster” bombs.  Wallis was called in to visit DMWD late in 1942 in connection with a special project involving the generation of smoke screens.  At the time, Wallis was working on the basic concept of his “dam-buster” bomb but could find no one in higher authority to take an interest in his “dam-buster” bomb project.  Interest in the project by DMWD led to a series of DMWD-sponsored preliminary tests, the results of which brought Wallis’ project to the attention of the Admiralty.  It is interesting that Shute mentions him by name in his Foreword to The Secret War, for Wallis’ participation in the DMWD was incidental, and Pawle devotes only one page in a 300-page book to Wallis’ activities.

Beginning in 1924 and continuing up until after the end of World War II, Shute had a personal and professional relationship with Barnes Wallis, a relationship that must have impressed Shute quite profoundly.  This is evident as we look at some of the characters and plot episodes in the novels that Shute wrote during this time.  This influence is especially evident in Landfall and No Highway.


Landfall describes the efforts of RAF pilot Jerry Chambers to clear himself of the charge that he and his crew accidentally sank a British submarine while on coastal patrol, which he eventually does with help of his girl friend, Mona Stevens.  Jerry is initially flying an Anson on coastal patrol duties when he sees what he believes is a German submarine and he successfully sinks it.  When he lands he learns that a British submarine has disappeared in that same area, and the evidence suggests (incorrectly, as it turns out) that it was Chambers’ aircraft that sank the submarine.  Chambers is temporarily reassigned to fly Wellingtons with an operational unit and then to an experimental unit.  He volunteers to fly on an especially risky test mission involving an electronic detection mechanism that has been designed by a brilliant engineer who worries a great deal about the possibility that the test pilot could be killed while testing the very sensitive device.

The flight tests involve flying a Wellington bomber towards a variety of naval ships to determine how their metal construction will influence the electrical currents in the detecting devices on board the aircraft.  Wartime urgency requires the tests to be done as quickly as possible, but if the tests proceed too quickly there is a danger that the pilot will be killed.  The whole purpose of the project is not completely clear.  It seems as if the purpose of the device is to drop some kind of bomb that will strike naval ships at their most vulnerable spot, though the purpose of the device is never stated explicitly.  We can assume that Shute was intentionally trying to confuse or mislead any wartime readers about the device.  Shute’s character talks about the test frequency being “modulated by the direction of the ship relative to the meridian” (127) and the requirement “to have a bursting charge to free the satellites” (128)

In the novel, the scientist who develops the electronic device, Dr. Legge, has a major role, appearing frequently in the last half of the novel.  Dr. Legge is portrayed as a professor of physics who had worked in the seclusion of a Cambridge University laboratory for fifteen years researching the device that the necessities of war had turned into a weapon (129).  I believe that Dr. Legge bears many striking similarities to Barnes Wallis.  Wallis was not a Cambridge University professor, but he had a methodical mind and was a strong believer in testing and modeling before undertaking major projects.  This is Shute’s initial description of Dr. Legge:  “He was a grey-haired, serious man of fifty, dressed in a dark grey suit.  He was not yet at home in the naval atmosphere to which his work had led him.  He did not understand their processes of thought, and he was ill at ease [in the company of the naval captain who is in charge of the project]” (127).  At the time indicated in the novel Wallis would have been just over 50 years of age.  And Wallis’ experiences in trying to seek approval for his various projects would have taught him that the minds of the naval officers in the Admiralty worked much differently than his.

Shute puts some care as well into his description of Professor Legge at work upon his calculations:

One shaded light flooded the big table at which the man was working, littered with sheets of paper, files, and books.  A little black calculating machine stood upon the table at one side of him, an open attaché case was on his other hand.  Only the scratching of his pen and the hissing of the stove broke the long silence.  The man was working quietly and methodically, covering sheet after sheet with close rows of figures, pausing now and then to tot up columns on the calculating machine. (134)

This scene could well remind us of Nevil Shute at work on the calculations for the R-100, as he described it in Slide Rule.  But we should remember that Barnes Wallis would have been involved in the same activity as Chief Engineer of the R-100.

Legge is especially concerned about the safety of the pilot during the test and is unhappy that he has to conduct his scientific calculations in such a short period of time.  In the novel, Shute relates that Professor Legge had covered about half the ground that would have been necessary to ensure safety for the enterprise.  “Now the trials were upon him, and he could do no more…..  He tortured himself with the thought that he could have worked harder, got through more, if he had not been lazy.  His laziness might mean the death of this young man [Jerry Chambers]…..  It was incredible that these officers did not seem to realize the risk of absolute disaster staring them in the face” (153-156).

When the aircraft eventually explodes on a test run, Legge, who had been watching the trial run on board a naval vessel, “stood white and sick, gripping the rail before him with both hands.  He had seen a boy killed before his eyes [he believes], a boy that he had known, talked to, consulted with, a young man that he had admired for his lighthearted courage” (190).  (However, Jerry Chambers survives, badly burned and hurt, and refuses medical aid until he has the opportunity to relay to Professor Legge vital information about the success of the experiment.)  These personal characteristics of concern for the lives and welfare of the men who flew test flights was typical of Wallis.

But the connection of Barnes Wallis with this novel is more substantial than the similarity of his character with that of Professor Legge.  In fact, the real device upon which Shute was basing his fictional example was an underwater mine-detecting device designed by Wallis, who had developed a similar mechanism at the request of the Admiralty.  Wallis was asked in late 1939 if it would be possible to mount some kind of mine-destroying apparatus on an aircraft.  According to the account provided by Wallis’ biographer,

The idea of an electric coil fitted below a Wellington to detonate [underwater] mines seemed to have possibilities. . . .  During this research Wallis foresaw the possibility that the coil-carrying ‘plane might be damaged by the explosions of the mines it detonated.  Experiments showed that when a mine exploded at ten fathoms depth the bubble did not reach the surface for 1 and ½ seconds, by which time the Wellington would be a hundred yards away.  (Morpurgo, 220-221)

The first test flight took place just before Christmas of 1939; Vickers test pilot Mutt Summers was the pilot, and Wallis himself flew as a crew member.  One month later specially configured Wellingtons were sweeping mines at a height of 40 feet above the water.  Between January and May of that year they accounted for one-eighth of all mines detonated or swept (Morpurgo, 221).  Shute has taken both the idea and the character of Barnes Wallis and made them essential aspects of the novel.   Shute does this as well in No Highway.

No Highway 

No Highway is primarily the story of Mr. Theodore Honey, the homely and eccentric research scientist in the Structural Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough.  Secondarily, the story is about Honey’s supervisor, Dennis Scottt, newly appointed in his supervisory position, and of the relationship that develops between the two men.  The story is also about the women who gather around these two men, but especially about Mr. Honey.  These women include his daughter Elspeth, the concerned movie star, Monica Teasdale, and the sensitive airline stewardess, Marjorie Corder.  The main issue that brings the two men together is Honey’s prediction that the tail-plane component of a newly developed commercial aircraft, the Reindeer, will fail at the unusually low airframe time of 1440 hours.  Scott becomes convinced that there is some merit to Honey’s theory, especially after he realizes that one of the Reindeer aircraft has crashed in Canada with nearly the number of airframe hours that Honey had predicted.  However, the higher authorities hesitate to take the necessary precautions (by limiting the flying time of the aircraft) primarily as a result of Honey’s unusual theories, his peculiar personality, and his disturbing actions (especially when he lowers the gear on an aircraft at a Canadian airport while it is on the ground, thus wrecking it).

The character of Mr. Honey shares a number of characteristics—at least to some degree—with those of Barnes Wallis.  I am not suggesting that Wallis shared Honey’s strange religious beliefs or his anti-social habits.  But there are marked resemblances.  Before I make my case for the Wallis/Honey relationship, however, I have to discuss one other individual who has been suggested as the inspiration for No Highway: Sir Alfred Pugsley.

In his study of the writings of Nevil Shute, Julian Smith suggests that Sir Alfred Pugsley plays a key role in the genesis of the novel:

But the chief inspiration for No Highway came from a man very much like the author himself: Sir Alfred Pugsley, a few years younger than Shute, had been one of the engineers on the ill-fated R.101, and he had been in contact with Shute from 1926 onward.  As head of the structural department at Farnborough (the same department headed by No Highway’s narrator) from 1941 to 1945, Pugsley had done original work on metal fatigue in military aircraft.  Out of Shute’s visit to Pugsley late in the war came the technical center for the novel and a professional role in which to insert a fictional character.  (Smith, 75)

It is not clear, in reading this passage, which professional role Smith had in mind for which fictional character.  To further confuse the issue, Smith brings up the name of another research scientist, P. B. Walker: “In March, 1949, about six months after No Highway was published, P. B. Walker, Sir Alfred Pugsley’s successor at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and thus Dennis Scott’s real-life counterpart, delivered a paper entitled “Fatigue of Aircraft Structures” before the Royal Aeronautical Society” (75).

While this information is useful, it is hard to sort out exactly what Smith might be getting at.  He says that Walker is “Dennis Scott’s real-life counterpart.”  On a strictly logical basis, this can hardly be true.  First of all, Scott is a fictional character; no real person can have a basis in a fictional character.  But even if we grant its metaphorical truth, Walker assumed the position six months after the novel was published!  So there can be no possible connection there, even if Walker did read a paper about aircraft structures, as Dennis Scott does in the novel.

However, it may be that Smith is suggesting that Pugsley is the real-life counterpart of Dennis Scott.  This would make more sense, as Pugsley was head of the Structural and Engineering Department at Farnborough during a five-year period preceding the publication of the novel.  However, he had worked at the RAE since 1931 prior to assuming position as head, and thus would not have been in the position of coming new to the job, as Dennis Scott does.  While he was there Pugsley worked on “aeroplane wing-flutter, which at that time was a genuine source of concern to aircraft designers,” according to Pugsley’s obituary in the Times of London.  Wing flutter, wing twisting, aileron instability, and aerodynamic loading were aspects of aeronautical design that occupied the attention of numerous research scientists and engineers, in and out of the RAE, during the period.  So it is an unlikely comparison to Pugsley with Dennis Scott, and Pugsley’s background and personality are even less like that of Theodore Honey than Dennis Scott; Pugsley was well-respected and came from a fairly privileged background, with few if any eccentricities.

As Smith points out, Pugsley had been a member of the design and analysis team that built the main structure of the R-101, and as we know well from Slide Rule, there was very little communication between the two airship teams.  It is unlikely that Shute would select Pugsley as a model for either of the two main characters in No Highway, even so unpleasant a character as Theodore Honey.  All that Smith means, probably, is that, in the case of No Highway, life can imitate art, with unusual results.  Shortly after the events described, the British passenger aircraft, the Comet, suffered a series of devastating accidents caused  by structural failure due to the stresses of aircraft pressurization.

Theodore Honey is one of the most unusual and eccentric characters to appear in Shute’s novels.  Even at the first reading, we can all recall his seemingly excessive devotion to his noisy scientific research, his social awkwardness, and his strange and deep interest in unusual and exotic aspects of religious beliefs.  Yet this character shares a surprising number of qualities with Barnes Wallis.  In the first place, as we have seen, Wallis was totally devoted to his aeronautical research work.  Although passionately devoted to aeronautical design, he never learned how to fly; for all we know, Honey’s flight to Canada is the first flight he has taken.  Like Wallis, Honey passionately believes in theoretical research.  Like Wallis, Honey cares little for social activities, and continues his research interests (although in other areas) at home.  Like Wallis, Honey needs the support of his supervisors to gain acceptance of his theories (however, unlike Wallis, Honey does not really care whether his theories are accepted or not.  He cares only insomuch as acceptance of his theories will vindicate his work).

Honey is not the same kind of person as Professor Legge of Landfall.  Legge is called out of his academic work because of his expertise, while Honey prefers to hide within the research structure of the RAE.  While Legge thinks first of the safety of the test pilot, Jerry Chambers, Honey has to be reminded of the fact that his theories (and actions) have saved lives.  A comparison can be made here to Wallis’ response when he heard of the loss of the R-101, according to Morpurgo’s account:

That R.101 could not be a success he had always known and in the long years of criticism founded upon calm calculation he had known too that disaster was possible, even probable, but until now he had never opened his mind to the human mathematics of tragedy.  (183)

Like Professor Legge, he is supported and guided by the thoughtful concern of a loving and caring woman; where Legge has his wife, Honey has Marjorie, his future wife, whom he marries because she reminds him so much of his first wife, killed in the war.

Similarities between Wallis and Honey have also been noted by a contributor to the Nevil Shute Foundation web site, Andy Burgess.  In his review of Morpurgo’s biography of Barnes Wallis, Burgess says the following (I quote at some length because of the perspicacity of Burgess’ comments):

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. Prendergast [the Chief Designer of Rutland Aircraft, another No Highway character].  Clearly I am not suggesting that Wallis was the blueprint for Wallis 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 specialized in the use of light alloys in airships and aircraft (Honey’s specialty 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 moral weaknesses, particularly his boss on the R100, Denniston 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).  (Burgess, A Review of Barnes Wallis).

Although the evidence suggests that the personal qualities of Barnes Wallis are strikingly similar to those of the character of Theodore Honey, it would be reassuring if we could find any linkage between the research work of Wallis and Honey.  Fortunately, I believe I can supply some evidence for this.

In the opening chapter of The Dam Busters, the popular account of the work of Barnes Wallis and the members of 617 Squadron in destroying the Moehne and Eder dams along the Ruhr River in Germany during World War II, Paul Brickhill says that in the late summer of 1939, when the German army invaded Poland, Wallis “was designing the proposed successor [to the Wellington bomber], the Warwick.  At this time he was on the design of the Warwick’s tailplane, which was being troublesome” (Brickhill 12).

The Warwick was a larger and more powerful version of the Vickers Wellington and was designed to carry greater bomb loads farther than the venerable Wellington, the first models of which had already been in service for a year.  However, the Warwick needed more powerful engines than were then available, and development lagged for a number of reasons.  When the first production model flew early in 1942, “the flight tests revealed that the Warwick had serious handling problems, with directional instability being the most serious problem.”  When more powerful engines became available (the Bristol Centaurus engines), the resulting modifications “also created a very dangerous rudder overbalance problem, which at one time resulted in the grounding of all aircraft.”  Subsequent modifications in the rudder and the addition of a dorsal fin “cured the rudder overbalance problem, but reduced control authority” with the result that “the minimum speed for single-engined flight became unacceptably high” (“Fighting the U-boats”).  (Both the Wellington and the Warwick were twin-engine aircraft.)

This episode is not discussed in Morpurgo’s book, and as a matter of fact the Warwick is mentioned very little there, but the reason for Wallis’ concern is evident.  The Warwick was essentially a larger version of Wallis’ initial Wellington airframe, and it featured essentially the same tail plane design.  Wallis would have realized that a larger and heavier aircraft, with more powerful engines and a different center of gravity from the Wellington, would require a significant adjustment to the tailplane.  According to Brickhill’s account, Wallis recognized this problem as early as 1939 and must have continued to work on the problem throughout most of the war years.  But as the details above indicate, the problem was never satisfactorily resolved.  (The Warwick was used relatively little by the RAF, mostly in Coastal Command and not as a bomber.)

It is interesting to note in closing that only in No Highway did Shute see fit to provide the standard kind of disclaimer warning the reader not to confuse real people with fictional characters: “This book is a work of fiction.  None of the characters are drawn from real persons” (269).  Why would he have made such a statement unless he was worried that such a correlation could be made?

Thus, I hope that I have shown that in No Highway, as in Landfall, the Wallis character in the novel shares professional activities as well as personal qualities with the Wallis the man and engineer.


It now remains to answer this question: why should Shute have thought that it was so important to include characters based in part on the personality and work of Barnes Wallis in two of his novels related to flying?  One answer is obvious: he knew the man well and appreciated what Wallis may have taught him about airship and aircraft design.   But this answer is not totally satisfactory.  In both novels the Wallis character lacks some essential quality that would make him more humanly complete.  This is clearly the case with Theodore Honey, who is sadly lacking in socialization skills, as a modern analyst might put it.  But even Professor Legge (we never do learn his first name) is mentally off balance, a condition caused by his hurried interaction with the senior military officers with whom he has to work, as well as his own anxiety about the accuracy of his mathematical calculations.  Their scientific research activities define both men; if it were not for the loving concern of the women who are their wives, they would be seriously off-balance.  Yet without their scientific drive, their single-minded immersion in their work, society would suffer.  Theodore Honey’s tail-plane banging research eventually saves civilian lives, and Professor Legge’s device contributes significantly to the war effort.

Both Legge and Honey work, in their insular and specialized way, to benefit the larger society of which they are a part.  Both men find themselves at the center of a small but crucial crisis in which they do their best to provide the best results possible, using the tools they know best, their scientific research abilities.  Barnes Wallis, Professor Legge, and Theodore Honey all demonstrated a wide variety of conflicting qualities in their personal behaviors, but they worked to the best of their abilities to ensure that the aeronautical structures for which they found themselves responsible all served the needs of their society reliably and productively.


Works Cited: 

Brickhill, Paul.  The Dam Busters.  Pan, 1954.  (Orig publ. Evans, 1951)

Burgess, Andy.  A Review of Barnes Wallis, by J. E. Morpurgo.  Nevil Shute Foundation web site.

Morpurgo, J. E.  Barnes Wallis: A Biography.  Longman, 1972.

Norway, Nevil Shute.  No Highway.  Heinemann, 1948.

Norway, Nevil Shute.  Landfall.  Heinemann, 1940.

Pawle, Gerald.  Secret Weapons of World War II.  Ballantine, 1967.  (Orig. publ. William Sloane, 1957).

R-100, Howden.

Smith, Julian.  Nevil Shute: A Biography.  Paper Tiger, 2002.  First published by Twayne Publishers, 1976.