David and Ann Shannon, outside Buckingham Palace, March 1945. [Pic: AWM UK2644]
Flt Lt D J Shannon DFC
Lancaster serial number: ED929/G
Call sign: AJ-L
First wave. First aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately but no breach caused. Aircraft returned safely.
David Shannon was born on 27 May 1922 at Unley Park, South Australia. His father was a farmer and also an MP in the state parliament. Shannon worked briefly in insurance after leaving school but joined the RAAF shortly after his 18th birthday. He had toyed with the idea of joining the navy, but was put off by the longer queue at the recruiting office. He began training as a pilot in March 1941. A year later, he was in England and by July 1942 he had been posted to 106 Squadron at Coningsby.
Shannon arrived with an excellent training record – 0ne instructor thought him the best student he had ever had – but because his squadron CO, Guy Gibson, was on sick leave it took a few weeks for them to become acquainted. Many of the pilots who flew with Gibson were frightened of him but the boyish-looking Shannon was not, and the two flew together on several operations in that first month. Nominally Shannon was 2nd pilot, but on long flights they would sometimes swap seats.
By August, he was flying with a crew of his own and by February 1943 he had completed a tour of 36 operations. On one, to Turin, his load of incendiaries caught fire in the bomb bay and had to be rapidly jettisoned, resulting in the ‘largest forest fire ever seen in Italy’. He was awarded the DFC in January 1943 for ‘attacks on industrial targets in enemy territory’.
At the end of his tour, he had been posted to 83 Squadron in 8 Group to begin training as a Pathfinder. But Gibson had by then been asked to form a special new squadron and he was quick to track his old comrade down. Shannon agreed to join him, and consulted his crew, but only Danny Walker, his navigator, decided to come along.
It’s at this point in the story that Paul Brickhill brings Shannon into his narrative in the book, The Dam Busters. He tells us about the ‘baby faced’ Australian who was growing a moustache to make himself look older but who had a scorching tongue in the air when he felt like it. And he brings to the fore the romantic interlude in the intense training and drinking sessions of the next few weeks caused by Shannon falling for the ‘dark, slim’ WAAF officer, Ann Fowler. On the evening of 16 May 1943, it is she who notices, with a ‘woman’s wit’, that the aircrew are eating eggs for their evening meal, and therefore deduces that they are going on an operation, rather than yet another training flight.
Indeed they were. A few hours later that evening, at 2147, Shannon took off from Scampton bound for the Möhne Dam, flying alongside Melvin Young and David Maltby. When they arrived, he spent 30 minutes or more circling over the woods beyond the dam waiting his turn to make a bombing run. He was beginning to line up for an attack when it was realised that Maltby’s mine had caused the final breach. Elated by the sight, the three bombers which had yet to drop their mines set off for the nearby Eder Dam, accompanied by Gibson and Young.
When they arrived, they quickly realised that it was an even more difficult target than the Möhne. The lake is smaller and set in a deep valley, meaning that there is a much shorter approach which starts with a very tricky steep dive.
Shannon was the first to attack, and made three or four passes without releasing his mine. It was very difficult to get down to the right height after the dive and turn. Gibson told Maudslay to try, and he found it just as hard, so Shannon had another go. Two more dummy runs followed until, at last, he got the angle and speed right and dropped his mine. It bounced twice, hit the dam wall and exploded sending up a huge waterspout. At the briefing afterwards his effort is reported as ‘no result was seen’ but Shannon in fact felt that he had made a small breach.
Maudslay followed but something went wrong. His mine was released too late, hit the parapet and exploded. Although his aircraft was beyond the dam by the time this occurred, it may have been damaged, since his progress home was slower than would be expected and he was shot down near Emmerich.
It was now down to Les Knight, with the last mine on board. Shannon advised him on the direction and speed and then, on the second attempt, with the radio switched off so that he could concentrate, Knight made a perfect run, the bomb bounced three times and caused a large breach in the dam.
Shannon sped back to Scampton, landing less than an hour after Maltby and Martin. The party that followed went on through the night and into the afternoon of the next day. According to Brickhill, it was then that Shannon asked Ann Fowler to marry him and she agreed – but only on the condition that he shaved off his moustache.
More parties followed, the biggest being Shannon’s 21st birthday, which was the day the King and Queen visited the station and the decorations were announced. Like all the successful officer pilots, Shannon was awarded the DSO. The King congratulated him on his coming of age, and told him he should celebrate.
A date was set for the wedding – Saturday 18 September. David Maltby was to be the best man, as the first choice, Gibson, was away in Canada. On the Monday before, Maltby and Shannon set off in a section of four aircraft bound for a raid on the Dortmund Ems canal. At about 0030 the raid was aborted because weather condidtions over the target were too poor. Somehow, turning, Maltby crashed into the sea. Perhaps he was flying too low, perhaps there was an explosion aboard, perhaps he collided with an errant Mosquito returning from a different raid. Whatever caused it, Shannon didn’t see but, hoping that there might be survivors, he stayed above the spot for three hours, sending radio fixes until an ASR launch arrived. Maltby’s body and some wreckage was all that was found. The next day the operation was attempted again and even more disasters occurred, with five pilots and four complete crews lost.
In the autumn, Leonard Cheshire took command of the squadron, and Shannon became one of the flight commanders. He took part in many operations in the next year, using Wallis’s giant Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs until in August 1944, with 69 operations under his belt, he was removed from active operations and transferred to a long range transport squadron. By then he had received a Bar to the DSO for ‘courage of high order on sumerous sorties.’
Shannon left the RAF after the war and got a job with Shell Oil. Although based in England, he travelled widely. He died in 1993, shortly before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Dams Raid, an event which he had been actively involved in planning. Ann died three years previously and they are remembered by a pair of plaques in Clifton Hampden churchyard in Oxfordshire.
More about Shannon online:
Australian War Memorial : Fifty Australians
Obituary in The Times
Entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography
Survived war. Deceased.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951