John Cunningham (RAF officer)

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John Cunningham
John Cunningham CBE - Famous Grouse DH Moth Rally 1979.jpg
Nickname(s) Cat's Eyes
Born 27 July 1917
Died 21 July 2002 (aged 84)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Rank UK-Air-OF5 infobox.svg Group Captain
Unit No. 604 Squadron RAF
No. 85 Squadron RAF

World War II:

Awards Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order & & two Bars
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar

Group Captain John "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham CBE DSO** DFC* (27 July 1917 – 21 July 2002), was a British Royal Air Force night fighter ace during World War II and a test pilot, both before and after the war. He was credited with 20 kills, of which 19 were claimed at night.[1]

Early life[edit]

Cunningham was born in Croydon in South London, the son of the company secretary of the Dunlop Rubber Company. He first flew at a young age, while attending preparatory school at Sleaford. He was subsequently a pupil at Whitgift School, a public school in Croydon. After leaving school, he joined de Havilland Aircraft in 1935 as an apprentice. In the same year he also joined Royal Auxiliary Air Force and became a member of No. 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron; he made his first solo flight in 1936.

Cunningham subsequently became a junior test pilot with de Havilland, working with light aircraft alongside Geoffrey de Havilland, the company founder's son.[2]

World War 2[edit]

John Cunningham by Cuthbert Orde. As one of the best Allied fighter pilots, he was chosen to sit for one of Orde's iconic charcoal portraits

At the outbreak of World War II, Cunningham joined the Royal Air Force. Flying first Blenheims and then the powerful Bristol Beaufighter with No. 604 Squadron RAF.

Cunningham's first "kill" came on 19 November 1940 when, over the coast of Sussex, he shot down a Junkers Ju 88. He then downed two Heinkel 111 bombers and was awarded the DFC with bar.

By the end of the Blitz in May 1941 he had become the most famous night fighter pilot, successfully claiming 14 night raiders using airborne interception – the aircraft version of what later became known as radar. Most of his victories were achieved with Squadron Leader Jimmy Rawnsley as his radar operator, who later wrote the book Night Fighter detailing their exploits.

On 8 April 1942 he destroyed two bombers during the same sortie and a week later claimed three more kills which earned his first DSO.

Following the downing of his sixteenth kill in July 1942, Cunningham received the second bar award to the DSO. Whilst a Wing Commander with No. 85 Squadron RAF flying a Mosquito he claimed his twentieth and last wartime kill which earned him his third DSO in March 1944.

Cunningham's nickname of Cat's Eyes came from British propaganda explanations to cover up the use of airborne interception. It was claimed a special group of British pilots ate carrots for many years to develop superior night vision. Cunningham himself, a self-effacing and modest individual, detested this nickname.[3]

Later serving as Commanding Officer of No. 85 Squadron RAF in 1943–44 flying Mosquitoes, Cunningham survived the war as a Group Captain with 20 claims.


Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot after the war. In 1946, he succeeded Geoffrey de Havilland Jr as chief test pilot following the latter's death whilst test-flying the DH.108 Swallow over the Thames estuary. He went on to test the de Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner which first flew in 1949. He also test flew the re-built Comet 3 and 4 in the late 1950s and the de Havilland (later Hawker Siddeley) Trident in 1962. He continued test flying Tridents, with another milestone being the first flight of the Trident 3 in 1969.

Cunningham had one serious accident whilst flying. On 20 November 1975 at Dunsfold Aerodrome, Surrey, a flock of birds was ingested by the engines on his HS-125 aircraft just after takeoff. The aircraft crashed and left the perimeter of the airfield where it collided with a car carrying six passengers who were killed. No-one died on board the HS-125. He remained chief test pilot at Hawker Siddeley (Hatfield) until 1978 when British Aerospace was formed. He was awarded the Segrave Trophy in 1978.

The autobiography of his most frequent airborne interception operator C.F. (Jimmy) Rawnsley, Night Fighter (co-authored by Robert Wright, published by Ballantine Books in 1957), includes vivid descriptions of several of Cunningham's battles and incidental biographical information about him.

In 2003 Cunningham was honoured with having a street named after him,[4] Cunningham Avenue is one of the main residential streets which make up Salisbury Village, a new development currently being built on the former de Havilland site in Hatfield. The former Addington Hotel, a pub in New Addington in Surrey, near Biggin Hill aerodrome, was named The Cunningham in his honour. Cunningham pulled the first pint at the renaming ceremony.

Since 2004 the Air Squadron, a UK flying club, has administered the John Cunningham Flying Scholarships, funded in part by his estate.

Medals and awards[edit]

Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png DSO with 2Bars.png UK DFC w bar BAR.svg 39-45 Star w BoB clasp BAR.svg

Air Crew Europe BAR.svg Defence Medal BAR.svg Air Efficiency Award ribbon.png Silver Star ribbon.svg

Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png Order of the British Empire (CBE) 1963 Order of the British Empire (OBE) 1951
DSO with 2Bars.png Distinguished Service Order (DSO) 1941 with Bars 1942 & 1944
UK DFC w bar BAR.svg Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) 1941 with Bar 1941
39-45 Star w BoB clasp BAR.svg War Medal 1939–1945 with Battle of Britain Clasp
Air Crew Europe BAR.svg Air Crew Europe Star
Defence Medal BAR.svg Defence Medal with bronze oak leaf
Air Efficiency Award ribbon.png Air Efficiency Award
Silver Star ribbon.svg Silver Star

Cunningham also received the Order of the Patriotic War from the Soviet Union.

Sale of medals[edit]

Following Cunningham's death in 2002 his service medals and flying memorabilia was passed to the de Havilland Aircraft Company Trust. The medals were subsequently sold to raise funds for the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust Appeal for £384,000 on 7 September 2012[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Group Capt John 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham". The Daily Telegraph. 23 July 2002. Retrieved 10 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Fountain, Nigel (29 July 2002). "Obituary: John Cunningham". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 August 2013. 
  3. ^ "How 'Cat's Eyes' helped change the world". BBC. 23 July 2002. Retrieved 25 July 2008. 
  4. ^ Cunningham Avenue
  5. ^ "Medals awarded to World War II air ace who downed at least 20 German bombers in night-time raids sell for record £384,000". The Daily Mail. 7 September 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2013. 


  • Golley, John. John "Cat's-Eyes" Cunningham: The Aviation Legend. Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK: Airlife Publishing Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84037-059-9.