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The Airmen's Stories - F/Lt. J Cunningham


John Cunningham was born at Addington, Croydon on 27th July 1917 and educated at Whitgift School. In 1935 he became an apprentice at the de Havilland Aircraft Company. He joined 604 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force in November 1935 and, after learning to fly, he was asked by de Havilland's to test light aircraft. He was soon appointed full-time assistant test pilot under Geoffrey de Havilland.

On 24th August 1939 he was called up and in September was made 'B' Flight Commander. His first three victories were achieved flying with Sgt. JR Phillipson. Flying a Blenheim they brought down a Ju88 on 19th November 1940. After re-equipping with a Beaufighter they shot down He111’s on 23rd December 1940 and 3rd January 1941.

Cunningham next teamed up with Sgt. CF Rawnsley and they were to become the best-known British night-fighting partnership of the war. During the night of 12/13th January they damaged a He111, on 15/16th February destroyed a He111, on 12/13th March damaged a Ju88 and a He111, on 3/4th April and 7/8th April destroyed He111’s, on the 9/10th April shot down a He111 and damaged one, on the 11/12th shot down a He111 and probably another and on the 15/16th shot down three He111’s.

As Cunningham's score mounted the story was spread that his success owed much to a large consumption of carrots, which were said to sharpen his eyesight, he was then known as "Cat's Eyes".
The story was meant to cover up the introduction of the new AI (Airborne Interception) radar. Cunningham later said "It would have been easier had the carrots worked. In fact, it was a long, hard grind and very frustrating. It was a struggle to continue flying on instruments at night”.



On 3/4th May 1941 and the 7/8th Cunningham and Rawnsley destroyed He111’s, on 31st May another He111, on 22/23rd August they shot down a He111 and damaged another and on 1/2nd September they shot down a Ju88.

Cunningham was awarded the DFC (gazetted 28th January 1941), the DSO (gazetted 8th August 1941) and a Bar to the DFC (gazetted 19th September 1941).

He was given command of 604 Squadron in August 1941. On 4th April 1942 Cunningham and Rawnsley damaged a He111 in a daylight engagement and destroyed another on 23rd May, also by day. The two men were rested in July 1942 and then posted to 81 Group to direct the work of night-fighter OTUs. Cunningham handed over command of 604 and was awarded a Bar to the DSO (gazetted 24th July 1942).

In January 1943 Cunningham was given command of 85 Squadron at Hunsdon and Rawnsley went with him as Navigation Leader. During the night of 13/14th June 1943 they shot down a Fw190 and on 23/24th August and 8/9th September two more.

The team's final success came in early 1944, with a Me410 destroyed during the night of 2/3rd January, a Ju188 damaged on 20/21st February and a Ju88 probably destroyed on the 23/24th.

Cunningham was posted in March 1944 to 11 Group Uxbridge as Group Captain Night Operations. He was awarded a second Bar to the DSO (gazetted 3rd March 1944) and released from the RAF in 1945 as a Group Captain. He immediately returned to de Havilland. In addition to his British awards, he received the Order of Patriotic War 1st Class (USSR) and the Silver Star (US) (gazetted 14th June 1946).

He rejoined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and commanded 604 Squadron from July 1946 until 1948.
Cunningham oversaw flight development of the company's Goblin turbojet engine. After the death in a crash of Geoffrey de Havilland, son of the company's founder Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, he became the company's chief test pilot. He also worked on the single-seat DH 108 swept-wing design and also the naval fighter Sea Vixen.

His main project however was the Comet and on 27th July 1949 he took the prototype on its 35-minute maiden flight. The Comet went into service with BOAC. There were some unexplained accidents on take-off but the aircraft enjoyed a good reputation until January 1954, when the first production Comet disintegrated at 35,000 feet off Elba killing all 35 aboard. On 8th April a similar break-up took place south of Naples over the volcanic island of Stromboli, all 21 on board were lost.

It was discovered after extensive testing that the aircraft had disintegrated due to the then little understood phenomenon of metal fatigue. Improvements were made but the Comets were excluded from passenger carrying while this went on, however Cunningham continued to fly early versions back to the UK for modification. In December 1955 he made a world tour in the new Comet III. President Eisenhower presented him with the Harmon Trophy, the highest American honour for services to aviation, in recognition of his contribution to jet transport.

De Havilland then became a division of Hawker Siddeley, Cunningham decided to stay on and was involved with testing and certifying that company’s Trident.

In 1975 he was piloting a DH125 executive jet, carrying a party of Chinese visitors, when both engines suffered a bird strike on take-off from Dunsfold. The aircraft came down off the end of the runway, collided with a car, killing its four passengers, before halting in a field where it caught fire.

Cunningham was able to resume flying after recovering from two crushed vertebrae. He retired in 1980 and died on 21st July 2002.

His portrait was made by Cuthbert Orde in 1940 and by Eric Kennington in 1941.



Orde                                                                 Kennington



In 2006 a plaque was unveiled at Whitgift School, Croydon, bearing the names of the eight 'old boys' who had served in the Battle of Britain

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