The final flight of David Maltby and his crew, 14 September 1943

This photograph shows a detail from the official minutes of a meeting of the Air Officials Administration Conference which took place in the Air Ministry in London on the afternoon of 15 September 1943, about 15 hours after Lancaster JA981, piloted by Sqn Ldr David Maltby DSO DFC of 617 Squadron, had crashed into the North Sea. It is one of the three contemporary documents which each record that a collision had taken place between a 617 Squadron Lancaster and a Mosquito from 139 Squadron. (AIR 24/259, National Archives).

6,200 words/20 minute read

Back in 2008, in my book Breaking the Dams, I wrote an account of the last flight taken by David Maltby and his crew on the night of 14/15 September 1943. This RAF 617 Squadron crew was the same one which had flown on the Dams Raid in Lancaster ED906 AJ-J just four months earlier, when they were in the fifth aircraft to attack the Möhne Dam. They dropped the weapon which caused the dam’s final breach. For the September operation, targeted at the Dortmund-Ems canal, an extra air gunner, Wrt Off John Welch DFM, was added to the crew. The original account was based on my research at the National Archives in Kew and other sources, to which I was guided by Len Cairns (in whose debt I remain). This is an update of part of Chapter 9 of that book, with new information that has arisen since, in particular a previously unpublished navigator’s log kept by Sgt Wilfred Johnson, navigator in the 605 Squadron Mosquito piloted by Plt Off Arthur Woods, which was on attachment to 617 Squadron. The report was provided to me by Woods’s son, Allan, to whom I am very grateful for help.
I believe that the research indicates that there is a strong possibility that the fatal crash was caused by a collision between Maltby’s Lancaster and a Mosquito from 139 Squadron, returning to base after an attack on Berlin. 

In early September 1943, 617 Squadron began preparation for its new role as a specialist low-level bombing unit. The first task it was given was to deploy the biggest bomb the RAF had yet carried in an attempt to breach another German key industrial target, the Dortmund-Ems canal.

The bomb was a new 12,000 lb thin-cased weapon, essentially three 4,000 lb bombs bolted together, with a six-finned tail unit on the end. It was fitted with a delayed action fuse, so that the bomber which released it would be away from the dropping zone before the explosion. The bomb was so big that it needed special trolleys to move it from the store and took 35 minutes to be winched up into the Lancaster’s bomb bay. They were delivered to RAF Coningsby, the home of the squadron since 30 August.

The Dortmund-Ems canal stretches over 150 miles, linking the Ruhr valley to the sea. At Ladbergen, near Greven, just south of the junction with the Mittelland Canal, there is a raised section where aqueducts carry the canal over a culverted river. This had long been a favoured target and had been attacked several times without success. The plan was to drop the new bomb from very low height into the soft earth embankments of the raised waterways.

The plan* was drawn up in great detail by Air Cdre H V Satterly, the Senior Air Staff Officer at 5 Group, and the man who had drawn up the final orders for Operation Chastise. The eight Lancasters detailed for the operation were to be accompanied by six Mosquitoes, specially brought in from 418 and 605 Squadrons. Their role was to deal with searchlights, flak and any fighter opposition met along the way or over the target. The force was to be divided into two sections of four Lancasters and three Mosquitoes each, with the force leader commanding the first section and the deputy force leader commanding the second. The two sections would fly out by separate routes, maintaining formation if possible, crossing the English coast at 1,500 ft and then dropping to 100 ft over the North Sea. The deputy force leader would arrive first, and mark the area with three special parachute beacons dropped on an exact grid reference. If they didn’t work, incendiaries were to be used instead. When all the Lancasters had arrived at the target, they would come under the control of the force leader, who would attack first. They were expected to drop their bombs in turn at a precise point within 40 ft of the western bank of the canal. The bombing height was to be 150 ft above the ground, at a speed of 180 mph. Once a breach had been caused, the aircraft were to drop their remaining bombs on alternate banks of the canal 50 yards further north each time until all the bombs were used up. The bomb fuses gave a delay of between 26 and 90 seconds, which was supposed to leave sufficient time for aircraft to get clear. The force leader was therefore supposed to ensure that at least two minutes was left between each aircraft’s attack.
* AIR 14/2038, No 5 Group Operation Order No. B66 dated 10th September 1943. (National Archives).

The 12,000 lb bomb they were going to drop was designed to take advantage of the Lancaster’s bomb-carrying capacity. As with the Dams Raid, the Lancasters had to be specially modified for the operation, this time with special larger bomb-bay doors, making the bay big enough to hold the enormous weapon. In this case, however, the mid-upper turret that had been removed for the Dams Raid was still available. Because the canal was known to be heavily defended, it was decided to carry a full-time front gunner on this trip, so an extra gunner was brought in for each aircraft to ensure that all three gun positions were filled.

The six Mosquitoes arrived on 5 September. Nearly every day afterwards they practised on co-operation flights with the Lancasters, which were still being modified. When the modifications were complete the Lancasters were tested out and then used on low-level bombing tests at Wainfleet. On one of these trips, on 9 September, David Shannon flew the aircraft David Maltby had started using, JA981 with the identification code KC-J, with William Hatton, Antony Stone, Victor Hill and Harold Simmonds from the Maltby crew on board. Also along for the ride were two from the Mosquito detachment from 605 Squadron, pilot Sqn Ldr Gibb and navigator Plt Off Mills. JA981 was a new aircraft, and had only arrived at 617 Squadron on 3 September. This was the aircraft Maltby would pilot on the night of 14 September.

By now, the two Davids, Maltby and Shannon, were close friends. David Shannon had become engaged to Ann Fowler, a WAAF officer attached to 617 Squadron, and they were due to be married on Saturday 18 September. David Maltby was going to be best man.

The raid was important enough to be given its own code name, Operation Garlic, and was scheduled for Tuesday 14 September. That morning George Holden asked Harry Humphries to draw up the battle order. Holden was to lead the first section of four, with Les Knight, Ralf Allsebrook and Harold Wilson. David Maltby would lead the second group: David Shannon, Geoff Rice and Bill Divall. Six Mosquitoes would fly with each section, three each from 605 and 418 Squadrons. The 605 Squadron detachment were piloted by Sqn Ldr Gibb, Flg Off Mitchie and Plt Off Woods, those from 418 Squadron were in the hands of Flt Lt Lisson, Flg Off Scherf and Flg Off Rowlands. As deputy force leader, David Maltby was due to drop the special parachute beacons which would mark the target.

The weather was not good, but it was decided to take off anyway. A separate Mosquito designed for meteorological work had already been sent to the target area and was due to report back. If it found that the weather was bad over the canal, then commanders could call the strike force back.

There is no doubt that the 617 Squadron crews knew how difficult this operation was going to be. They hadn’t flown over Germany since the Dams Raid almost four months before and in the run-up to the operation and at the briefing it must have been obvious that they were being asked to take part in another raid which would demand the utmost levels of skill and crew co-operation. Once again, they were using a brand new weapon, never before dropped in anger and, once again, they would have to fly to their target and attack it at an almost suicidally low height.

We can’t be certain how the Maltby crew lined up, but it’s likely that Vic Hill stayed in his Dams Raid position of the front turret, while the extra gunner, John Welch, took the mid-upper position. The rest of them would have settled down in their normal positions: rear gunner Harold Simmonds, wireless operator Antony Stone, navigator Vivian Nicholson, flight engineer Bill Hatton and bomb aimer John Fort.

There is a discrepancy in the documents about the time of take-off. One says it was 2329, another 2340. They set course for their crossing point on the Dutch coast, south of Texel Island. Then came the news from the Mosquito on weather-spotting duty. The target was badly obscured by mist and fog. At 0038, a recall signal was sent from the operations room at 5 Group in Grantham. And then, just as or just after, the recall signal was received, disaster struck and, somehow, Maltby’s Lancaster went down in the sea.

Accounts of how this accident occurred vary. For many years, it has been thought that the only surviving direct witness statements were in the logbooks of the Shannon crew, flying in the same section in EE146.

Shannon CNV00001 lores

Shannon’s own entry reads in full:

Operations – Dortmund Emms [sic] Canal. 1 x 12,000. 4 incends. (90×4). 2 marker beacons. Recalled weather u/s. Jettisoned. S/L Maltby crashed in sea. All killed. Directed Air Sea Rescue launches which arrived in about 1 ½ hours. Circled 3 hours in touch with 5 Group.
Total flying time: 4.15
(Shannon logbook, photocopy in IWM collection)

It’s a very bald account of the death of a close friend. Now he needed a new best man for his wedding, and it was only four days away.

The accident is also recorded in at least two of the logbooks of Shannon’s crew, wireless operator Brian Goodale and bomb aimer Len Sumpter.

Goodale log Sept43 lores

Goodale’s entry reads:
Ops recalled. Carried out sea search for ‘J’ (S/L Maltby D.S.O. D.F.C. killed)
(Goodale logbook, Goodale family collection)

Sumpter log original41 lores

Sumpter’s account is even briefer:
Ops recalled. Circled S/Ldr Maltbys crash.
(Sumpter logbook, Sumpter family collection)

Neither of Shannon’s crew’s entries add any further information about the accident. However, another direct witness’s account has now been sent to me. This is from the navigation log kept by Sgt Wilfred Johnson, the navigator in Plt Off Woods’s Mosquito, HJ785 UP-T.

D-Ems14Sep

(Sgt Wilfred Johnson navigation log, Woods family collection)
The relevant section reads:

00.30 Formation told to return to base.
00.31 A/c (S/Ldr MALTBY) in flames dived into sea. Called “MAYDAY”.
‘G’ Fix obtained 53°04 N, 01°53 E over wreckage.
01.45 A.S.R. Launch and A/C on scene of accident.
01.50 Returning to BASE s/c 281 M.

Johnson would have written each entry onto his notepad as it happened and he definitely saw the aircraft ‘in flames’. Shannon’s logbook entry – obviously written after he had got back to base – is interesting for what it doesn’t say. For instance, there is no mention of turning or catching another aircraft’s slipstream. This would suggest that he did not see the crash directly, but surmised it afterwards. The question should also be asked of both about how much would either have been able to see directly at night in poor weather conditions? It is not known whether Johnson and his pilot Woods were debriefed by intelligence officers after they landed, but presumably they must have been. It should also be noted that Johnson recorded the arrival of a rescue aircraft, although there is no mention in official records of one being dispatched.

UP-T lores

Left, Sgt Wilfred Johnson and, right, Plt Off Arthur Woods, witnessed the crash of David Maltby’s Lancaster on 15 September 1943. (Pic: Woods family collection.)

Other official documents and other contemporary accounts tell a slightly different story, and have a number of significant variations. What was probably the next chronologically appears in the ‘operation summary’ section of the 617 Squadron Operation Record Book. This would have been written by the Squadron Adjutant, Harry Humphries. It reads:

617 Sqn ORB

… At approximately 0040 hrs, on the 15th, a recall message was sent to all aircraft, on account of unfavourable weather. The aircraft were then over the North Sea, and in turning to make the homeward journey the aircraft piloted by S/Ldr Maltby was seen to crash into the sea. Nothing definite is known of the cause of this accident, but it is possible that the aircraft struck the water. The crew was as follows: S/L D.J.H. Maltby D.S.O., D.F.C., Sgt. Hatton (F/E), F/Sgt. Nicholson D.F.M. (Nav.), F/Sgt. Stone (W/Optr.), F/O J. Fort D.F.C. (A/B), W/O Welch (M/G), F/Sgt. Hill (F/G) and Sgt. Simmonds (R/G). F/Lt Shannon circled over the spot for over two hours and directed the Air Sea Rescue service to the scene. The body of S/L Maltby was recovered, but no trace was found of the remainder of the crew.
AIR 27/2128, 617 Squadron Operations Record Book

Harry Humphries also wrote a more personal account in the unofficial notes he was making for his own reference. He was already planning to write a book about the squadron after the war, although circumstances meant that it wasn’t actually published until almost sixty years later. There are more than twenty pages of a draft in a loose-leaf folder in Lincolnshire County Council archives, and many more still in his family archive. The pages in the council archives are not dated but are known to have been written in September 1943. This is what he wrote:

Then came disaster of the first order. Our ever popular S/Ldr ‘Dave’ Maltby crashed into the sea, and his body was picked up by rescue launch a short time after. Of the other members of the crew there was no trace. F/Lt Shannon carried out sterling work here, and circled around over the scene of the accident for 2 ½ hours directing A.S.R.B. to the place. This was indeed a black day for us, and even though the boys tried hard not to show their feelings – there were very few smiles.
Harry Humphries, Manuscript Notes, Lincolnshire County Council Archives

These two pieces written by Humphries are important sources, because he recorded what was known at Coningsby that night. He notes both that rescue launches had arrived, and that one had recovered a body. In his 2003 book he goes a little further:

Within an hour we received news that our machines were returning to base because of unfavourable weather conditions and, worst of all, one of them had crashed into the sea off Cromer. All was confusion for some time. The Lancasters began to land at Coningsby and garbled reports on the ill-fated aircraft began to circulate.
Eventually the truth became apparent. Our own Dave Maltby had gone. By some wicked stroke of misfortune he had hit the sea and in spite of very good work by Brian Goodale, Shannon’s wireless operator, only one body, that of Dave Maltby himself, had been found by the Air Sea Rescue launch.
Harry Humphries, Living with Heroes, Erskine Press 2003, pp65-66

This account immediately begs the question: what could the “garbled reports” have said?

There are also other official accounts. Every unit of the RAF, from a squadron upwards, has its own Operations Record Book, which means that an incident like this was recorded in other places. The first of these is the record book for 617 Squadron’s station, RAF Coningsby. Its report differs slightly from the version found in the squadron’s record:

… Owing to weather conditions, the formations were recalled at 0030 hrs. Shortly after receiving the recall, the majority of a/c observed a terrific explosion on the sea. This is presumed to be S/Ldr Maltby who failed to return.
AIR 28/171, RAF Coningsby ORB.

The slight variations in times are probably not too significant, but what is interesting is that the account is curiously vague about who, other than Shannon, ‘observed’ the explosion. It is also the first document to mention an explosion. A week or two later a formal Accident Card was prepared by a small panel, or perhaps even just one officer. The panel would have considered the information sent in by the squadron in writing and then summarised its findings.

(55)JA891-b

Form 1180, accident card, JA981, September 1943. lancasterbombers.net (courtesy Dominic Howard)

This is transcribed below:
Time: 0045. Ops night. Recall to base.
A/c missing. Presumed hit sea. Invest[igators] consider the accident was due to the a/c hitting the sea after some obscure explosion and fire had occurred in the aircraft. It is possible that the pilot partially lost control in a turn when bomb doors were opened to jettison bombs. Explosion and fire may have been caused by bouncing on the water. None of the equipment likely to have exploded in the air.
Aoc cause obscure.
Aoc i/c [?Air Officer Commanding in charge?] only E/A [enemy aircraft/action] could have set bombs or incendiaries on fire in the air. NB Large bomb doors affect a/c’s stability when lowered.
[Conditions] Night, moon, dark.

There is another mention in the RAF Coningsby ORB. At the end of each month, the medical officer would write an appendix detailing important medical ‘events’ which had occurred in that time. Although he does not appear to have been directly involved in the incident, he saw fit to include it amongst the accounts of bomb store accidents and football injuries:

14.9.43. One aircraft from 617 Squadron reported to have crashed in the sea – S/Ldr. Maltby and crew. Body of S/Ldr. Maltby was recovered from the sea and taken to R.A.F. Coltishall. Death was due to multiple injuries.
AIR 28/171, RAF Coningsby ORB.

So we apparently have ten contemporary or near-contemporary accounts, four from witnesses who were in the air at the site of the crash.

It was these sources which formed the basis for the narrative in Paul Brickhill’s book The Dam Busters, published in 1951. He wrote:

They were an hour out, low over the North Sea, when the weather Mosquito found the target hidden under fog and radioed back. Group recalled the Lancasters and as the big aircraft turned for home weighed down by nearly 6 tons of bomb David Maltby seemed to hit someone’s slipstream; a wing flicked down, the nose dipped and before Maltby could correct it the wing-tip had caught the water and the Lancaster cartwheeled, dug her nose in and vanished in spray. Shannon swung out of formation and circled the spot, sending out radio fixes and staying until an air sea rescue flying boat touched down beneath. They waited up at Coningsby till the flying boat radioed that it had found nothing but oil slicks.
Maltby’s wife lived near the airfield, and in the morning Holden went over to break the news, dreading it because it had been an ideally happy marriage. Maltby was only twenty-one. The girl met him at the door and guessed his news from his face.
‘It was quick,’ said Holden, who did not know it was his own last day on earth. ‘He wouldn’t have known a thing.’
Too stunned to cry, the girl said, ‘I think we both expected it. He’s been waking up in the night lately shouting something about the bomb not coming off.’
Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans Brothers 1951, pp.117-8

We can guess that Brickhill must have derived this account from talking to David Shannon, and perhaps also wireless operator Brian Goodale, who between them directed the air sea rescue launches to the site while their aircraft circled above. Brickhill was a journalist, not a historian, and as usual, he relied on accounts from eyewitnesses recalled several years later without looking at any primary sources. (To be fair to him, it should be pointed out that many of these sources were still classified under the 30 year rule, and therefore did not become available until the 1970s.)

There are several inaccuracies in Brickhill’s account: Maltby was 23, not 21. The air sea rescue service sent two launches, not a flying boat, and one of the launches recovered Maltby’s body. There was no trace of the rest of the crew.

It is now that Len Cairns comes into the story. I had first heard his name in 2007 from the family of Vivian Nicholson, navigator in David Maltby’s crew. They had told me that Len had written to them about this final crash, and sent them some pages from the typescript of a book he was writing. When I got round to ringing him a few weeks later, he told me an astonishing story.

Simply put, there was a good chance that an errant Mosquito, flying low on a return from an attack on Berlin, crossed paths with the 617 Squadron section and collided with Maltby’s Lancaster. Most people had previously discounted this theory since the six Mosquitoes seconded to the mission from 418 and 605 Squadrons all returned safely. However, they all seem to have overlooked other material turned up by Len Cairns in the National Archives.

This backed up a claim that I had heard mentioned before, made by Maltby’s uncle, Aubrey Hatfeild, who had been an RFC pilot in the First World War. Sometime after the crash he told his sister Aileen, David Maltby’s mother, that his Lancaster had been struck by a Mosquito ‘which shouldn’t have been there’. Hatfeild was apparently adamant about this: it was not an error made by Maltby in turning the aircraft, or of hitting someone else’s slipstream. ‘He was too careful a pilot to have made an elementary error,’ he often told his own children. One of them, Mary Tapp, relayed this information to me when I started researching my book.

It’s not clear however where Aubrey Hatfeild may have got this information. But it does turn out that, away from Coningsby, there were contemporary reports that a collision had occurred.

The evidence for this is buried deep in the files held at the National Archives. The first clue is in the Operations Record Book for 278 Squadron. This was the Coastal Command squadron which was responsible for air sea rescue in the Norfolk coastal area. Based at RAF Coltishall, about eight miles north west of Norwich, it flew Ansons for general searches and a Walrus flying boat for picking up ditched aircrew. The Air Sea Rescue launches from 24 ASR at Gorleston, which were directed to the crash by David Shannon’s aircraft, were also administratively attached to the RAF Coltishall station. The 278 Squadron ORB records that an Anson was sent out at 0638 on the morning of 15 September from Coltishall to search for a Lancaster and Mosquito ‘reported to have collided’. The full entry reads:

AIR-27-1605 Sept43 crop

A/C ANSON No EG496

CREW
F/O SIMS, W F
F/Sgt HAMMOND, A
F/O DUNHILL, A
F/O RICHARDSON, K
W/O FRASER, R D

DUTY: Search position H.0374 for Lancaster and Mosquito reported to have collided.
TIME OF SEARCH: 06.38 – 07.56 hours.
Aircraft searched this position and found an oil patch approximately one mile long and 200 yards wide in which were small pieces of wreckage. Nothing further was seen and a ‘fix’ was transmitted to operations after which A/C returned to base.
AIR 27/1605, 278 Squadron ORB.

The squadron’s entry is corroborated by a similar entry in RAF Coltishall’s own Operations Record Book:

ORB CNV00002 lores

An Anson 278 Squadron was up 0638-0754 to search for wreckage of a Lancaster and a Mosquito which had collided during the night. A large oil patch one mile long and 200 yards wide was found approximately 53°05 N, 01°41 E, and though this was circled for 20 minutes, only small pieces of wreckage were seen. The Anson then returned to base in very bad weather.
AIR 28/168, RAF Coltishall ORB.

It’s worth noting here that on 15 September 1943, with summer time still in operation, 0638 would have been not long after first light. The accident happened at about 0040, in the dark and in bad weather conditions. So at some time in the night, somebody in a senior position at Coltishall had been told that the accident was caused by a collision and had been requested to make a search at dawn.

Later that day a report had reached London. Every afternoon a group of senior officers would convene in a meeting room at the Air Ministry to discuss technical and administrative matters concerning Bomber Command. It was called the Air Officers Administration Conference (usually abbreviated in the files as the AOAs Conference). They would note details of the numbers of squadrons available, the ferrying of aircraft to and from different stations and the mechanical and other problems that had occurred. But they also looked at the numbers of operations flown, the losses incurred and, particularly, since they were interested in ironing out any repeated mechanical failures, which might be the cause of crashes. That very day, probably within 15 hours of the incident occurring, they noted that there had indeed been a crash the night before. The minutes of the conference state, quite baldly:

AOAs CNV00003

Crashed:
1 Lancaster of 617 Squadron and 1 Mosquito of 139 Squadron are believed to have collided N.E. of Cromer. No survivors yet reported.
AIR 24/259, AOAs conference, No 258, 15 September 1943

Back in 2007, when Len Cairns read this extract out to me over the phone I could hardly believe it. ‘You mean that the other aircraft can actually be identified?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it can’, Len replied. It was one of a group of eight from 139 Squadron who had been despatched on a ‘nuisance raid’ over Berlin. One Mosquito, DZ598, had been recorded as ‘did not return’, as nothing had been heard from it after it took off from Wyton in Cambridgeshire at 1936 hours on 14 September. The pilot was Flt Lt M W Colledge and the navigator Flg Off G L Marshall.

The 139 Squadron records are not very informative. The RAF Wyton ORB gives a little more detail about the raid:

AIR-27-960 Sept43 crop 960px

This trip was made unusually difficult by heavy cumulonimbus, which caused several crews to return early and made the operation longer and more arduous for those who pressed on to the target.
F/L Colledge did not return; nothing was heard of him after take-off.
S/Ldr Braithwaite, F/O Mitchell and F/O Patient attacked Berlin in face of searchlights and moderate heavy flak.
S/Ldr Braithwaite received a Pasting from Brandenburg where he was coned for 10 minutes, and hit in eight places, though none serious.
Faced with the cumulonimbus, F/O Jackman attacked Emden and F/O Swan attacked Borkum Aerodrome, by D.R. Technique, with unobserved results.
F/Sgt Wilmott and F/Sgt Marshallsay returned early having iced up in cloud and decided that they could not get through.
AIR 27/960, RAF Wyton station ORB

The 139 Squadron ORB has a similar entry, with the added information about the weather in the North Sea: ‘severe thunderstorms and heavy Cu-nim [sic] with some icing was encountered near the Dutch Coast’.
AIR 28/963, 139 Squadron ORB

There is no further information about what happened to Flt Lt Colledge’s Mosquito. As nothing had been heard from him after take-off, and no wreckage was ever found, it has always been assumed that he was lost over the sea on the outward trip. Len Cairns’ theory is that his radio failed, but he decided to press on to Berlin regardless. On the way home, his aircraft collided with Maltby’s.

It’s certainly plausible. If Colledge had gone onto Berlin, he would have been coming back across the North Sea between 0030 and 0100, and his route from the northern end of Texel Island off the Dutch coast to landfall at Cromer would have intersected with the 617 Squadron Lancasters’ route, which was due to take them from Coningsby to landfall on the Dutch coast just north of Petten. Plotted out on a map, the intersection point is very close to where we know the accident occurred.

map1 Maltby final flight crop lores

Map showing the route B allocated to David Maltby’s section of four Lancasters from 617 Squadron and their Mosquito escorts. They were ordered to fly directly from Coningsby to landfall on the Dutch coast a little way south of Texel island. The 139 Squadron Mosquitoes tasked with attacking Berlin were allocated to the ‘Whitebait’ route, the return leg of which runs from the northern end of Texel island to landfall at Cromer. The two routes intersect very close to the the point where Maltby’s Lancaster crashed into the sea. (Artwork by Charles Foster).

Would Colledge have flown on to Berlin, even if his radio had failed? His background certainly suggests that he had the ‘press on’ attitude so beloved of senior RAF commanders. His full name was Maule William Colledge, and he was the elder of the two children of the distinguished throat surgeon Lionel Colledge. He had been in the RAF since the beginning of the war. He was known for his love of fast cars and flying, and once had a single seater plane at Brooklands aerodrome for his own use. His sister Cecilia also had an interesting career: she was a figure skater and competed in the 1932 Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, USA at the age of 11 years and four months. She remains the youngest ever British Olympian and went on to win a silver medal at the Winter Olympics, held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 1936, at the age of 15. She died in 2008. Little is known about the Mosquito’s other crew member, its navigator, Flg Off Geoffrey Marshall, who was 30 and came from Brighton.

So we have three separate statements that there was a collision between a Lancaster and a Mosquito, one of which mentions the squadrons involved. Another piece of evidence would surely be that of the ORB for the Air Sea Rescue unit which operated the launches. Maddeningly, this doesn’t appear to have been preserved. At the time, responsibility for Air Sea Rescue was in the process of being passed from the navy to the RAF, and all the RAF records start just a couple of weeks later, on 1 October 1943. There are very detailed records for individual search and rescue operations from that date onwards – but none from before.

This makes it very difficult to work out how information about a possible collision reached the Air Ministry and, indeed, what made someone there cite the squadron numbers at the AOAs Conference. Did they have some other evidence or, because there had been a report of a collision between a Mosquito and a Lancaster, and only one of each type had been lost on the night, did someone just assume that these were the aircraft and squadrons involved?

It should be said that the collision theory can only be supposition. There is absolutely no evidence that Colledge got as far as Berlin, and then decided to fly back at low level. If he did, without a working radio, he would have put himself in danger of being mistaken for a Luftwaffe intruder and being shot down. The ‘collision’ entries are from documents written up immediately after the incident, and may have arisen because reports of both a missing Lancaster and a missing Mosquito were misunderstood as a collision between the two by the dispatchers of the Anson search aircraft. It is even possible that the person who compiled the official Accident Card knew about this theory and discounted it when he wrote up the card a few days later.

Maule-Colledge

Maule Colledge, photographed by Bassano Ltd on 23 November 1936. National Portrait Gallery collection, number 104533. [Pic: NPG/Creative Commons 104533.]

Supposition it may be, but what is clear is that no one at 617 Squadron knew anything about a Mosquito being involved. Neither Shannon nor anyone from his crew ever said anything of the kind to John Sweetman, Robert Owen or others they spoke to over the years. However, they would not have denied, as Harry Humphries noted in his account, that there was a certain amount of confusion on the day. Also, it was dark and the weather conditions were poor. How much could they actually see? Nor was there much chance for further reflection on the circumstances of Maltby’s crash because the squadron suffered an even bigger disaster in the next 24 hours. The seven crews that returned safely to Coningsby in the early hours of 15 September flew back to the Dortmund Ems canal that night, with Mick Martin taking Maltby’s place. In very bad weather conditions they failed to damage the canal, and five aircraft were lost. Four complete crews and Les Knight, pilot of the fifth plane, were killed. (Knight’s crew baled out while Knight struggled to keep his damaged aircraft aloft. They all owe their lives to him.) George Holden, the squadron’s new CO, was one of the men lost that day, and in his crew were four of the men who had flown with Guy Gibson on the Dams Raid. It would be understandable that in these terrible circumstances that no one sought to find out more about Maltby’s crash, and relied on what they had been told.

There are some other mysteries about the night of 14/15 September. The RAF Coltishall account states that Maltby’s body was recovered and taken to RAF Coltishall. If this was the case, then Coltishall’s Medical Officer should have recorded this in his monthly appendix to his station’s ORB, since he was responsible for the station’s mortuary. Like his counterpart at Coningsby, the MO was a fairly assiduous record keeper. His September 1943 report contains accounts of a number of other incidents on the station, but there is nothing about Maltby. In fact it is likely that his body might never have reached Coltishall. According to Tony Overill, whose father served in 24 Air Sea Rescue, and who has himself written a history of the Unit, Crash Boats of Gorleston, bodies recovered at sea were taken to the civilian mortuary at Great Yarmouth, which was close to the harbour. He thinks that it would be very unlikely that it would then have been taken from there to Coltishall.

Also, it is not clear exactly how Maltby died. The MO at Coningsby states that the cause of death was ‘multiple injuries’. This would have been likely if there had been some sort of explosion on board. However, his widow Nina told her daughter Sue, many years later, that when she saw his body there was only a small bruise on his forehead, and no other obvious marks at all. This suggested to her that he had been knocked unconscious, and died from drowning.

As we have seen, and it is confirmed by Humphries, George Holden called over to see Nina in Woodhall Spa on the morning of Wednesday 15 September, to tell her what had happened. Paul Brickhill’s account of their conversation (see above), where he doesn’t even give her a name, may not be accurate, because it is difficult to see how he sourced it. It was, as he says pointedly, Holden’s own ‘last day on earth’.

Later that day in Devon, David’s parents, Ettrick and Aileen Maltby, got the news, probably by telephone from Nina or her family. Ettrick wrote a bald entry in his diary:

EGM diary 15-09-43 lores

15 September 1943: David, approx: 1 A.M. – we had the news at 3.30p.m.

This was written in a blunt, dark pencil. Then underneath, in a lighter pencil:

It was his 33rd op. trip – most of his big ones had been done in Lanc. 906, but this was 981.
813 hrs–20mins.

He can’t have known these details on the day of the crash, but he was right. As we have seen, David Maltby was flying in a new Lancaster, JA981. His Dams Raid aircraft, Lancaster ED906, call sign AJ-J, must have been a lucky plane as it survived the war and was eventually scrapped in 1947. Lancaster JA981 had only flown for 41 hours before it crashed. In 2006, when I first read this entry, I puzzled over how and when Ettrick had managed to get hold of the serial numbers of his aircraft, let alone the total number of hours he had flown in his RAF career. I later realised that he must have copied this information from his son’s logbook, and added it to his earlier diary entry.

By the time his parents were informed, David Maltby along with John Fort, William Hatton, Victor Hill, Vivian Nicholson, Harold Simmonds, Antony Stone and John Welch had all been dead for some 15 hours, and the telegrams were on the way. Four days later, Maltby was buried in the graveyard of St Andrew’s church in Wickhambreaux, Kent, the same church in which he had got married sixteen months before. The remainder of his crew, whose bodies were never recovered, were listed on the Runnymede war memorial, unveiled by the Queen in 1953.

Seventy-eight years later, we salute them all again.

Thanks to Allan Woods, Robert Owen, Dominic Howard and Len Cairns for help with this article.

Copyright © Charles Foster/Dambusters Blog 2021.

An earlier version of this piece was first published in my book Breaking the Dams (Pen and Sword, 2008).

Further information:
Aircrew Remembered page about Maule Colledge and Geoffrey Marshall

Original Shannon and Burpee negatives found in Times archive

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Back in January, Malcolm Peel kindly sent me a link to an interesting article in The Times which for a while was not behind a paywall. Sadly, it has now been removed from free-to-view, but if you have a subscription then you will still be able to see it.

The writer, Mark Barnes, has unearthed four original glass negatives and several prints in Times Newspapers photographic archives. These were some of a set of images taken by the photographer William “Billy” Field of several 106 Squadron crews on their return from a raid on Berlin. This was the operation in which Richard Dimbleby of the BBC flew in the squadron commanding officer Guy Gibson’s aircraft. They took off in the late afternoon of Saturday 16 January 1943, returning in the small hours of the Sunday. Some of the airmen are not wearing their flying gear in the photographs and it is daylight, which suggests that the shots were taken later the same day

I have written about these images before, because they appeared in the Daily Express on Tuesday 19 January 1943. However, it would seem that photographer Billy Field must have been actually working for the Sunday Times, as the glass negatives are marked as belonging to “Kemsley Newspapers”, the names of the wartime owners of this newspaper. Quite why the pictures appeared first in another newspaper remains a mystery. Indeed, Barnes doesn’t say whether they ever appeared in the Sunday Times.

According to Barnes, three of the negatives are in good or reasonable condition but the fourth, of Shannon and his crew and shown at the top of this article, was badly damaged. Barnes has digitally repaired the image.

In his article, Barnes correctly identifies the first five correctly: (L-R) Sgt Wallace Herbert (bomb aimer), Sgt Cyril “Joe” Chamberlain (flight engineer), Sgt Arnold Pemberton (wireless operator), Flg Off David Shannon (pilot) and Flg Off Douglas McCulloch (mid-upper gunner). However it is now believed that the sixth man is Sgt John William Donald (“Don”) Robin DFM RAAF, the rear gunner in “Jock” Cassels’ crew, and that the seventh man is Flg Off Frank (not Dave) Whalley, the navigator.

Here is the restored photograph of Lewis Burpee and his crew:

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Barnes correctly identifies these men who are (L-R): Sgt Gordon Brady (rear gunner), Sgt William (“Ginger”) Long (mid-upper gunner), Sgt Guy (“Johnny”) Pegler (flight engineer), Flt Sgt Lewis Burpee (pilot), Flt Sgt Edward Leavesley (wireless operator), and Sgt George Goodings (bomb aimer). Leavesley and Goodings both left the Burpee crew before it moved to 617 Squadron. This crew have simulated the “just finished an operation” look by wearing their flying boots and carrying various bits of kit. However, they aren’t in either the flying jackets or one piece suits in which they would probably have been dressed for a high level attack on Berlin on a cold January night.

Although the images have been seen before, I don’t believe that both the name of the photographer and the fact that the negatives still exist are well known, so we have Mark Barnes and his colleagues to thank for another small contribution to Dams Raid history.

Thanks to Malcolm Peel

The boys who bombed Berlin: Shannon and Burpee together in Express

express-spread-lores

Pic: Chamberlain family

I wrote last year about the selection of David Shannon’s Dams Raid crew, and how four men who had previously flown with him in 106 Squadron were transferred to 617 Squadron at the end of March 1943. These were flight engineer Cyril Chamberlain (known as Joe to his friends and family), wireless operator Arnold Pemberton, and air gunners Douglas McCulloch and Bernard Holmes. In the event, none of them ended up in Shannon’s crew and by the end of April 1943, they had been assigned to other duties.

Cyril Chamberlain’s family have now contacted me and sent me pages from his logbook and some other interesting material. Included was the press cutting seen above, from the Daily Express of 19 January 1943. Bomber Command had mounted two raids against Berlin on 16 Januaryand again on 17 January – the first two attacks on the German capital for 14 months. Part of the force on both nights had come from 106 Squadron, and two of its crews were singled out for mention in the press. By coincidence, both pilots and some of their crews would take part in the Dams Raid four months later.

David Shannon was one of the 12 106 Squadron pilots who captained crews on the first trip, on 16 January, and his crew was later photographed. The press cutting shwn above was annotated by Chamberlain some time after the war. On the left hand side of the cutting you can see the men he identified: bomb aimer Wallace Herbert, flight engineer Joe Chamberlain, wireless operator Arnold Pemberton, skipper David Shannon, mid upper gunner Mac Maccoulh [sic – should be McCulloch], rear gunner Dave Lilley, navigator Dave Whalley [sic – should be Frank Whalley].

I have not seen this picture before, so it is helpful to have so many of Shannon’s then crew identified. However, there is a mystery about the man named as the rear gunner, Dave Lilley. The rear gunner on Shannon’s 16 January 1943 trip to Berlin is identified in the squadron operations record book as Bernard Holmes, and this is confirmed by Holmes’s own logbook, which is in the possession of his son, Robert. Robert also says that the man in the picture is not his father. Furthermore, there is no trace of anyone called Lilley in the squadron operations record book at that time.

A possible explanation is that the photograph would not seem to have been taken immediately after the raid but on the following day, as the men are wearing battledress tunics rather than flying jackets or suits. So Holmes might not have been present when the call came for the crew to reassemble, and another man from another crew was called in to make up the seven. His name, however, is unlikely to have been David Lilley. [Update 2020: See comment by Clive Smith below. This man is now believed to be Sgt John William Donald (“Don”) Robin DFM RAAF, the rear gunner in “Jock” Cassels’ crew.]

This theory is supported by the fact that the crew on the right hand side of the cutting would appear to have been photographed while still in their flying kit.

This is the crew captained by the then Flt Sgt Lewis Burpee. Burpee flew as one of the nine 106 Squadron crews on the second sortie, on 17 January. Of the crew Chamberlain names only the pilot ‘P/O Burpee’ and the flight engineer ‘John Peglar’. These men have all been identified by Lewis Burpee himself on a print which is in the possession of his family. (See this post from June 2015.) They are, left to right: Gordon Brady (rear gunner), William (‘Ginger’) Long (mid upper gunner), Guy (‘Johnny’) Pegler (flight engineer), Lewis Burpee (pilot), Edward Leavesley (wireless operator), and George Goodings (bomb aimer). Leavesley and Goodings both left the Burpee crew before it moved to 617 Squadron.

There are only six men in this shot, which does not include Burpee’s navigator on the day. In fact, this was the squadron navigation leader, Flt Lt Norman Scrivener.

Thanks to the Chamberlain family for pictures.

David Shannon’s changing crew

Holmes1Plt Off Bernard Holmes, rear gunner in David Shannon’s crew in 106 Squadron. Holmes completed a full tour with Shannon, and was brought to 617 Squadron at Scampton in March 1943. Three weeks later, he was transferred out. Later in the war he joined 77 Squadron and flew on 13 further operations. [Pic: Robert Holmes]

At the end of February 1943, David Shannon finished his tour of operations in 106 Squadron with a trip to St Nazaire. This was the 36th sortie in a run which stretched back to June 1942, shortly after his 20th birthday. During his tour, he had generally flown with a core crew made up of Danny Walker, navigator, Wallace Herbert, bomb aimer, Arnold Pemberton, wireless operator, Douglas McCulloch, mid upper gunner and Bernard Holmes, rear gunner. Over the course of the tour Shannon flew with a number of different flight engineers and/or second pilots, but in the last few months Sgt Cyril Chamberlain became the regular flight engineer.
An enforced change happened in November 1942, when Danny Walker came to the end of his own tour. He was posted to No 22 OTU as an instructor and thereafter a number of different navigators filled in for him. These included the experienced Norman Scrivener and Winston Burnside, both of whom also navigated for Guy Gibson in this period.
Shannon’s last operation in 106 Squadron on 28 February appears to have coincided with the end of the tours of Herbert, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes. Under normal circumstances, the crew would have broken up and all would have been sent on instructional duties for a period of six months. Shannon, however, wanted to carry on flying and somehow arranged a transfer to 83 Squadron at RAF Wyton, a Pathfinder outfit. It was there that he got a telephone call from Gibson, asking him to join him at Scampton where he was forming a new squadron.
Chamberlain, Herbert, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes were apparently all still at Syerston, waiting for new postings. Consideration was obviously given to reconstituting Shannon’s 106 Squadron crew, since Chamberlain, Pemberton, McCulloch and Holmes were all transferred to the new 617 Squadron at Scampton on or about 25 March 1943. Herbert appears either not to have been asked or to have declined the offer. Also, Shannon’s old crew member Danny Walker was specifically sought out to fill the post of navigator, and was brought over to Scampton from No 22 OTU at Wellesbourne Mountford.
It is not clear exactly what happened next. Shannon undertook two testing flights on 28 and 31 March, but he only recorded the names of the other pilots with whom he flew (Flt Lt Dierkes on 28 March, Flt Lt John Hopgood on 31 March). His next flight wasn’t until 6 April, when he did a 5 hour cross country and bombing trip. This was repeated, over a different route, two days later on 8 April. On both of these flights, a five man crew is recorded. This consisted of Walker and McCulloch, both from his 106 Squadron days, two new names – bomb aimer Len Sumpter and flight engineer Robert Henderson, plus Larry Nichols, a wireless operator borrowed from Melvin Young’s crew.
After the war, Len Sumpter described how he and Henderson were recruited to the squadron. At that stage, he had completed 13 operations in 57 Squadron, based at Scampton. Then his pilot was grounded with ear trouble and the crew were broken up. He and his erstwhile crewmate Henderson knew that a new squadron was being formed in the next two hangars, and heard that Shannon was looking for a bomb aimer and a flight engineer, so they sought him out. “We looked him over and he looked us over – and that’s the way I got on to 617 Squadron.” (Max Arthur, Dambusters: A Landmark Oral History, Virgin 2008, p18.) No date is given for this “interview”, but it must have occurred sometime between 31 March and 6 April.
Sumpter goes on to say that the crew didn’t get their own wireless operator until the end of April. He didn’t know – or didn’t mention – that there were three members of Shannon’s old crew, including wireless operator Arnold Pemberton, kicking their heels on the ground.
On 11 April, Shannon’s logbook records the first flight of a new crew member, rear gunner Jack Buckley. He had been transferred from No 10 OTU, where he was working as an instructor. He was an experienced gunner and had been commissioned, having completed a full tour of operations with 75 (New Zealand) Squadron. Albert Garshowitz (misspelt as Gowshowitz) from Bill Astell’s crew was the borrowed wireless operator on this occasion.
Two days later, on 13 April, a complete squadron crew list was compiled, under the title “Order of Battle”. This is preserved in a file in the National Archives (AIR14/842). It shows Shannon’s crew as: Henderson, flight engineer, Walker, navigator, Sumpter, bomb aimer, McCulloch, mid upper gunner and Buckley, rear gunner. The position of wireless operator is left blank. Flg Off McCulloch is also listed as A Flight Gunnery Leader. Four names are listed as ‘spares’, amongst whom are the other three members of Shannon’s 106 Squadron crew: Pemberton, Holmes and Chamberlain.
Another two days later, on 15 April, Douglas McCulloch attended an Aircrew Selection Board. He must therefore have previously applied for remustering. However, he returned to the squadron and flew on more training flights with Shannon on 19 and 21 April. He was eventually posted to No 13 Initial Training Wing on 1 May.
On 17 April, Bernard Holmes and Arnold Pemberton’s time at 617 Squadron ended, with them both being recorded as being posted to No 19 OTU at Kinloss. There is no record of the destiny of Cyril Chamberlain. Holmes’s son Robert recalls that his father apparently told his wife at the time that he and Pemberton were bored and frustrated through not being kept busy, and asked for a transfer.
Eleven days later, on 24 April, another squadron crew list was published. The Shannon crew now shows two changes. The wireless operator position has been filled by Flg Off Goodale DFC and the mid upper gunner has the handwritten name of Sgt Jagger in a space which had been left blank by the typist. The A Flight gunnery leader is now shown as Flg Off Glinz (from Norman Barlow’s crew). There are no longer any names listed as spares (National Archives: AIR14/842). This date coincides with Goodale’s first appearance in Shannon’s logbook. It is notable that Brian Jagger’s name may appear here, but in fact he did not fly with Shannon until 4 May.
Both men came with a deal of experience. Brian Goodale had a completed full tour and was recruited from No 10 OTU, where Jack Buckley had also been an instructor. Brian Jagger came from 50 Squadron. He had previously flown with John Fraser and Ken Earnshaw, two Canadians in John Hopgood’s crew, and they may have been instrumental in getting him on board.
On this date, David Shannon’s Dams Raid crew was finally established, and they would fly together for the next few months. Quite why three members of his crew from 106 Squadron were earlier brought over to Scampton but never used remains a mystery.
Later in the war, after a spell as an instructor, Bernard Holmes returned to operations with 77 Squadron, and joined a crew skippered by Wg Cdr J D R Forbes, the squadron CO. He remained there until the end of hostilities. He had married his wife Margaret in 1940, and they had two sons, born after the war. The family emigrated to South Africa in 1952, and he died there in 1979.

Thanks to Robert Holmes, Clive Smith, Robert Owen and Nigel Favill for their help with this article.

Six Dambusters photographed for 1993 reunion

RH12 You mag spread lores

Pic: Ray Hepner

Among the many fascinating items in Ray Hepner’s collection of Dams Raid artifacts are a number of press cuttings from down the years. This great article from the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine is just one. It was taken sometime in early 1993, and appeared in the magazine on 9 May 1993, the week before the 50th anniversary of the Dams Raid.
The picture shows (left to right) Dudley Heal, Edward (“Johnnie”) Johnson, Jimmy Clay, David Shannon, Basil Feneron and George Chalmers lined up in front of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster at RAF Coningsby.
The caption to the picture doesn’t say this but the article which accompanies it does note the sad event which occurred between the photograph being taken and its publication a few weeks later: the death on 8 April 1993 of David Shannon, something which rather put a dampener on the anniversary events.
Time has marched on since then, and now all these gentlemen are no longer with us. But it is nice to see them all together in the autumn of their years, for one last time.

1942 picture shows Shannon and Walker in 106 Squadron

R5573 GroupPic: IWM

UPDATE 6 JANUARY 2018: [The original text of this blog appears below, for future reference.] Thanks to Clive Smith and others, as of this date eight of the 12 airmen in this photograph have now been identified. Numbered left to right they are:
1. Unknown
2. Unknown (possibly Sgt John Humphreys, engineer in Flt Lt Bill Whamond’s crew)
3. Flt Lt Richard ‘Mac’ McClelland RCAF, navigator in Flt Lt Bill Whamond’s crew
4. Flg Off Danny (Revie) Walker, navigator in Shannon crew
5. Unknown
6. Flt Sgt Bernard Holmes, rear gunner in Shannon crew
7. Flg Off Douglas McCulloch, mid upper gunner in Shannon crew
8. Unknown
9. Flt Lt David Shannon, pilot
10. Sgt Arnold Pemberton, wireless operator in Shannon crew
11. Flt Sgt Douglas Hamilton, pilot
12. Flt Sgt Dennis Woolley, navigator in Flt Sgt Douglas Hamilton’s crew

Blog reader Clive Smith has sent me this interesting picture, which he unearthed in the Imperial War Museum collection. It shows two crews from 106 Squadron, and was apparently taken at RAF Syerston on 23 October 1942, after a bombing operation to Genoa. Two men who went on to fly on the Dams Raid are easily recognisable – ninth from the left, Flg Off David Shannon and fourth from the left, his navigator, Plt Off Danny Walker.

On that day Shannon flew Lancaster W4256, code ZN-V, and the complete crew were listed as:

  • Flg Off D J Shannon – pilot
  • Sgt F A Forster – 2nd pilot
  • Plt Off D R Walker – navigator
  • Sgt W Herbert – bomb aimer
  • Sgt A P Pemberton – wireless operator
  • Flg Off D K McCullock – mid upper gunner
  • Flt Sgt B E Holmes – rear gunner

The aircraft shown in the picture is coded ZN-B. This was Lancaster R5573, and its crew on this operation was listed as:

  • Plt Off R A Wellington – pilot
  • Sgt T G Goodwin – flight engineer
  • Plt Off D W Bone – navigator
  • Flg Off V H Harley – bomb aimer
  • Sgt C R Webster – wireless operator
  • Sgt R B Hicks – mid upper gunner
  • Sgt A Naylor – rear gunner

It can’t of course be confirmed that this crew is from this particular aircraft, but it seems highly probable. It is also noticeable that there are only 12 people in the picture, while each crew was of course made up of seven. So two were either cropped off the final picture, or were otherwise engaged when it was taken.
If any reader can identify any of the other people in the picture, please leave a comment below or get in touch.

Dambuster of the Day No. 36: David Shannon

AWM D&AShannon UK2644

David and Ann Shannon, outside Buckingham Palace, March 1945. [Pic: AWM UK2644]

Flt Lt D J Shannon DFC
Pilot

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 John Shannon was born on 27 May 1922 at Unley Park, South Australia, the only child of Howard and Phoebe Shannon. His father was a farmer and also a member of the state assembly. His grandfather, John Shannon, had also been a member of the assembly, and also later a member of the Australian Senate. 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 – one 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 set about building a crew. (See this separate post for the full story on how the crew was formed.)

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 conditions 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.

The next day the operation was attempted again and even more disasters occurred, with five pilots and four complete crews lost. Shannon, Mick Martin and Geoff Rice were the only three pilots to survive. In appalling weather conditions, Shannon eventually dropped his bomb over the canal, and it exploded on the towpath.

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. Then in August 1944, with sixty-nine 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 numerous sorties.’

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 RAAF after the war and got a job with Shell Oil. He and Ann had one daughter. Although based in England, he travelled widely, but never piloted an aircraft again.

He died in London on 8 April 1993, shortly before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Dams Raid, an event which he had been actively involved in planning. Ann had died three years previously and in 1991 Shannon had remarried, to family friend Eyke Taylor. David and Ann Shannon 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.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951

Further information about David Shannon and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dams Raid: first hand accounts by David Shannon and Tony Burcher

These first hand accounts of the Dams Raid were posted on an Australian aviation art forum in 2008 by someone called Stephen Diver. They come from letters sent to the Diver family by David Shannon (pilot AJ-L) and Tony Burcher (rear gunner in AJ-M, piloted by John Hopgood). You will have to scroll down some way to read them all (and make sense of some pretty terrible typing and spelling!) but they make interesting reading.
Perhaps the most fascinating is Tony Burcher’s account of what his pilot John Hopgood said as he realised that his aircraft was badly damaged:

Then John said
“Right well what do you think?” Should we go on? I intend to go on because we have only got a few minutes left. We’ve come this far.
“There’s no good taking this thing back with us. The aircraft is completely manageable. I can handle it ok. Any objections?”
I remember hearing Charlie [Brennan] (who as F/E would have been standing right beside John at this time) interrupt him by saying
“Well what about your face? Its bleeding like..”
and John interrupting him mid word by saying
“just hold a handkerchief over it”.
So I imagine for the remainder of the raids time Charlie would have been standing next to John in an attempt to try and stem the bleeding and keep his eye sight clear.
I have no idea as to the nature of the wound and can only assume it to have been a head wound of some nature.
Based on Charlies reactions,and he was normally a calm chap, I can only assume Johns wounds to have been severe in nature. I think anyone else would have probably turned around at that point and headed for home but not John.
That was the type of man he was.

Sobering stuff.

[Hat tip Night Warrior on Lancaster Archive Forum]

David and Ann Shannon’s headstones

Although David Shannon was an Australian, he stayed on in England after the war, joining Shell as an executive. He spent some time in both Colombia and Kenya before returning to the UK. He died on 8 April 1993, shortly before the planned 50th anniversary reunion of those who took part in the Dams Raid.
Shannon’s romance with Ann Fowler, a WAAF officer serving with 617 Squadron, and their subsequent marriage is a recurring theme in Paul Brickhill’s book, The Dam Busters. Ann Shannon died a couple of years before her husband and they are both commemorated with stones in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels in Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire. The size of the stones would indicate that they were both probably cremated.
Shannon’s obituary in The Times can be read here.
Pictures kindly sent to me by reader Paul Hilton.

Clifton-hampden-Shannon1clifton-hampden-shannon2