DAVID SHANNON was the last of that hand-picked band of nine pilots who flew with Guy Gibson in the first wave of the attack on the Mohne and Eder dams, on 16-17 May 1943.
He was circling above the Mohne awaiting Gibson's call to drop the sixth mine against the obstinate dam wall, when it gave way, unleashing a deluge which to the leader 'looked like stirred porridge in the moonlight'. Carrying one of only three remaining mines, Shannon headed for the Eder, where he made four passes before he could pull his Lancaster out of a dive between the steep surrounding hills at the required height of 60 feet for releasing the 'bouncing bomb'. 'I felt as though I was flying into the face of a cliff,' he said later. He pulled the aircraft into a steep climb and put on his landing lights to clear the dam's parapet. When a 1,000ft geyser of water subsided, however, the dam was still intact, even though Shannon felt certain that he had cracked the wall.
The next attack, Sqn Ldr H. Maudslay's, was misjudged and his Lancaster is believed to have been blown up by its own mine hitting the parapet. Shannon was vindicated in the next few minutes, for his fellow Australian, Les Knight, dived and his mine converted the underwater crack into a vast breach. 'It was as though a giant's hand had punched a hole through cardboard,' Gibson wrote.
'It was all theory; we didn't know until we got there whether Barnes Wallis's theories would work,' Shannon said just before his death. 'He had done all the calculations to move those dam walls but it was the water itself which did most of the damage. My mine had destroyed the waterproofing of the dam and Knight's created a bow-wave which carried it away.'
Born in South Australia, the son and grandson of state politicians, Shannon joined the Royal Australian Air Force on his 18th birthday and arrived in Bomber Command as a Commonwealth Air Training Scheme graduate in November 1941. He was seconded to Gibson's crew in 106 Squadron at Syerston after the perfectionist bomber leader had stormed into the Wing Commander's office asking for 'a pilot-officer with brains' who could act as his second-pilot cum flight engineer.
They flew together on five missions, 'almost on the deck' - Shannon helping to familiarise Gibson with the Lancaster bomber - and when the latter was given the task of forming 617 Squadron in March 1943 for a 'special, low-level job,' Shannon was one of the first two pilots he asked for. The other, Flt Lt JV 'Hoppy' Hopgood, was a close friend and just before they climbed into their aircraft on the warm evening of 16 May he told Shannon, 'It will be a tough one tonight, Dave; I doubt whether I'll be coming back.' Shannon watched his pal's plane explode in a fireball over the Mohne at 12.30am.
He was one of 54 comrades who failed to return to Scampton that night. More were to be lost before the summer of 1943 was past, including most of the names on the guest list for Shannon's wedding to Section Officer Ann Fowler, the WAAF to whom he had proposed at 'the biggest party of all time' in the Scampton mess, the night after the raid.
Shannon was presented to the King and Queen when they visited the base on his 21st birthday and he is believed to have cited royal authority when reprimanded for a riotous celebration of his coming-of-age, his Distinguished Service Order and engagement. He stayed with No 617 until July 1944, earning a bar to his DSO while flying in a Mosquito as deputy to Leonard Cheshire on a low-level attack on Munich.
His last raid with the Dambusters was on a V1 flying-bomb store in the Pas de Calais. His two fellow flight commanders on that mission, the New Zealander Les Munro and Flt Lt JC McCarthy, the American who had unsuccesfully bombed the Sorpe dam, will meet up again during this summer's 50th anniversary celebrations of the Dams Raid, which include a cruise up the Rhine to place a wreath on Gibson's grave in Steebergen, Holland. (There are 20 surviving Dambusters worldwide, many in poor health from the rigours of the bomber offensive, and one destitute. Shannon was working enthusiastically for the charity side of the anniversary until the day before his death.)
Shannon survived three tours of duty, twice winning the DFC as well as the DSO, a remarkable record of combat flying in an arm that throughout the war took 55,000 casualties - and he deliberately dropped rank to squadron leader to continue.
After the war he was an executive with Royal Dutch Shell, flying on overseas postings. Turning briefly to breeding Welsh mountain ponies, he moved back into an oil executive's role with Trafalgar House Group until his retirement in 1984.
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