John Cunningham (RAF officer)
CBE DSO** DFC*
|Born||27 July 1917|
|Died||21 July 2002 (aged 84)|
|Service/branch||Royal Air Force|
|Unit||No. 604 Squadron RAF
No. 85 Squadron RAF
|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.
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.
World War 2
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.
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, 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
|Order of the British Empire (CBE) 1963||Order of the British Empire (OBE) 1951|
|Distinguished Service Order (DSO) 1941||with Bars 1942 & 1944|
|Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) 1941||with Bar 1941|
|War Medal 1939–1945||with Battle of Britain Clasp|
|Air Crew Europe Star|
|Defence Medal||with bronze oak leaf|
|Air Efficiency Award|
Cunningham also received the Order of the Patriotic War from the Soviet Union.
Sale of medals
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
- Branse Burbridge – Top-scoring British night fighter ace.
- Bob Braham – another British night fighter ace.
- Jimmy Rawnsley – John Cunninghams's navigator/radar operator.
- "Group Capt John 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham". The Daily Telegraph. 23 July 2002. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
- Fountain, Nigel (29 July 2002). "Obituary: John Cunningham". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 August 2013.
- "How 'Cat's Eyes' helped change the world". BBC. 23 July 2002. Retrieved 25 July 2008.
- Cunningham Avenue
- "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.