Barnes Wallis says he got his bouncing bomb idea from Nelson
And George Lucas may well have got his idea for the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars from this account of a 1943 RAF operation against the Möhne dams in Germany... the briefing of the crew; the pilots having to fly through a valley whilst evading enemy fire; the ground staff waiting anxiously for news; the need to drop a bomb at a certain distance from the target; an initial failure before ultimate success. But back to Barnes and his bouncing bombs. Did he really nick the idea from Horatio Nelson bouncing cannonballs off the sea and into enemy ships?
Unfortunately, there seems to be no direct reference in British naval history to the Vice Admiral engaging in ducks and drakes with cannonballs, with most sources suggesting that he preferred much closer engagement with enemy ships. What Nelson did do, however, was to make sure that his gun crews, rather like a Formula 1 pit crew, practised and then practised some more. With HMS Victory’s gunners able to fire each of its 104 guns every 90 seconds, perhaps the Royal Navy’s greatest advantage was the ability of its ships to sustain such a rapid rate of fire.
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But if Wallis didn’t get his idea from Nelson in particular, a passage in his real-life writings indicates that he did still draw inspiration from the navy. Wallis wrote that ‘ricochet gunfire was known as early as the 16th century and was used in naval gunnery in the 17th and 18th centuries to extend the effective range.’ Cannonballs would indeed bounce if fired from a low trajectory and with the right sea conditions.
The problem was that the poor roll stability of naval ships made it impossible to consistently achieve the effect. Because of this, gunners were advised to fire their cannons on rising waves. By doing this, even if their aim was off, there was a good chance that the cannonball would plough through the enemy ship’s mast and rigging. Firing as the ship fell with the waves could easily result in the cannonball ‘plugging’ harmlessly into the sea.
So bouncing cannonballs were a real, if hard to achieve, phenomenon. A phenomenon which proved to be a smash hit for both Barnes Wallis and the Nazis.
Everything about Nelson at www.aboutnelson.co.uk
The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth has an interactive ‘Trafalgar!’ exhibition, putting you on the gundeck of HMS Victory www.royalnavalmuseum.org