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Shannon, David John (1922–1993)

by Mark Lax and Brian Wimborne

This article was published online in 2017

David John Shannon (1922–1993), air force officer and company executive, was born on 27 May 1922 at Unley Park, South Australia, son of Howard Huntley Shannon, auctioneer and later (1933–68) a member of the South Australian parliament, and his wife Phoebe Madeline, née Watson. His grandfather, John Wallace Shannon, had also served in the South Australian parliament (1896–1902) and was later a Liberal and then Nationalist member of the Australian Senate (1914–20). David was educated at Unley High School where he completed his Leaving certificate.

Standing five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall, of youthful appearance with fair complexion and grey eyes, Shannon worked as a clerk with the Western Assurance Co. before joining the Royal Australian Air Force on 4 January 1941 as an aircrew trainee under the Empire Air Training Scheme. He graduated as a bomber pilot in September at the RAAF Station, Pearce, Western Australia, and was commissioned before being posted to England in October to serve with No. 106 Squadron, Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Flying a Lancaster, he was regarded as a gifted pilot. Between June 1942 and February 1943 he flew thirty-six sorties over Nazi-occupied Europe, surviving at least four flak hits. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (London Gazette, 12 January 1943, 269).

Invited by the commanding officer of No. 106 Squadron, Guy Gibson, to transfer with him to a new unit formed for a secret, low-level operation, he readily accepted. It was Shannon’s posting to No. 617 Squadron, RAF, in March 1943 that would make his name as an exceptional airman. He always said he was a ‘low-level fanatic’ (AWM AWM65). The squadron became known as the ’Dam Busters’ after a night raid on five dams in the heart of the German industrial Ruhr district on 16–17 May 1943. Shannon flew in the first wave, which had the primary task of attacking the Möhne and Eder dams.  Other aircraft having breached the Möhne, he flew a further 60 miles (100 km) to the Eder.  After making several unsuccessful circuits, he scored a direct hit but the wall held until a bomb from a second aircraft collapsed it. ‘My mine had destroyed the waterproofing of the dam,’ he said later, ‘and the second aircraft created a bow-wave which carried it away’ (Crossland 18). He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on the day after his twenty-first birthday (London Gazette, 28 May 1943, 2362). The raid was a great morale booster, although fifty-three aircrew died and its value to the war effort was subsequently questioned.

No. 617 Squadron participated in further special raids. On the night of 15–16 September 1943, Shannon was flying one of eight aircraft ordered to bomb the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a major transportation waterway. The weather was exceptionally bad and Shannon had trouble finding the target. Although five aircraft were shot down, he eventually attacked while under enemy fire, damaging the canal. Awarded a Bar to his DFC (London Gazette, 12 November 1943, 4972), he was promoted to flight lieutenant a week later. On 21 September 1943, at the parish church of St Mark, North Audley Street, London, he had married Ann Somerset Fowler (d. 1990), an officer with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Shannon was known for his sharp tongue and insistence that his subordinates maintain the highest professional standards. Throughout 1943 and much of 1944, he continued operational flying against targets in France and Germany. In September he was awarded a bar to his DSO (London Gazette 1944, 4441). He had flown sixty-nine operations, more than twice that normally required for a tour. Shortly afterwards he was rested from bombing raids and posted to No. 511 Squadron to fly transport Liberators. Promoted to squadron leader on 1 January 1945, he transferred to No. 246 Squadron in March for further transport flying duties. Shannon was demobilised in Britain on 15 December 1945.

In 1946 he joined Shell Petroleum Co. Ltd as a general trainee. For the next sixteen years he worked on oil drilling operations in Borneo, Kenya, Tanganyika (Tanzania), Venezuela, Suez, Colombia and Uganda, rising within the company to the position of refinery coordinator, Shell Co. of East Africa Ltd. On 23 September 1961 he retired to a farm in Suffolk where he raised poultry, beef cattle, and pedigree Welsh ponies. In September 1968 he returned to the oil industry, becoming assistant to the managing director of Offshore Marine Ltd, part of the Trafalgar House Group. He conducted offshore surveys in Canada, Australia, and the Far East, and became managing director of the company in November 1973. In 1978 he transferred to Geoprosco Overseas Ltd, taking over as managing director. He retired on 30 September 1984.

On 19 July 1991 at the register office, Camberwell, London, Shannon married Eyke Barbara Joan Taylor (née Wilson), a painter. Survived by her and a daughter from his first marriage, he died on 8 April 1993 at Denmark Hill, London, a few weeks before the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the Dam Buster airmen. From the mid-1980s Shannon had been chairman of the 617 Squadron Aircrew Association. He was buried beside his first wife at St Michael and All Angels Church, Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire. His portrait by Sir William Dargie is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, as are his medals, uniform, and log book. A street in Glenelg North, South Australia, is named in his honour and a memorial to Shannon and two other South Australians who took part in the Dam Buster mission was unveiled in Adelaide in 2008. The actor Ronald Wilson played the part of Shannon in the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, based on the book by Paul Brickhill.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM65, 4634
  • Brickhill, Paul. The Dam Busters. London: Evans Brothers Limited, 1955
  • Burgess, Colin. Australia’s Dambusters. Loftus: Australian Military History Publications, 2003
  • Crossland, John. ‘Obituary: David Shannon.’ The Independent (London) 10 May 1993, 18
  • King, Nikki. Personal communication
  • London Gazette 12 January 1943, 269
  • London Gazette 28 May 1943, 2362
  • London Gazette 12 November 1943, 4972
  • London Gazette 26 September 1944, 4441
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Shannon, David John
  • Times (London). ‘Obituaries. David Shannon.’ 16 April 1993, 19

Citation details

Mark Lax and Brian Wimborne, 'Shannon, David John (1922–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shannon-david-john-18085/text29662, published online 2017, accessed online 17 October 2019.

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