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World War II: Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham

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World War II: Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham

Admiral of the Fleet Andrew B. Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Andrew Cunningham - Early Life & Career:

Andrew Browne Cunningham was born January 7, 1883, outside Dublin, Ireland. The son of anatomy professor Daniel Cunningham and his wife Elizabeth, the Cunningham's family was of Scottish extraction. Largely raised by his mother, he began schooling in Ireland before being sent to Scotland to attend the Edinburgh Academy. At the age of ten, he accepted his father's offer of pursuing a naval career and left Edinburgh to enter the Naval Preparatory School at Stubbington House. In 1897, Cunningham was accepted as a cadet in the Royal Navy and assigned to the training school aboard HMS Britannia at Dartmouth.

Highly interested in seamanship, he proved a strong student and graduated 10th in a class of 68 the following April. Ordered to HMS Doris as a midshipman, Cunningham traveled to the Cape of Good Hope. While there, the Second Boer War began ashore. Believing there to be opportunity for advancement on land, he transferred to the Naval Brigade and saw action in Pretoria and Diamond Hill. Returning to sea, Cunningham moved through several ships before commencing sub-lieutenant's courses at Portsmouth and Greenwich. Passing, he was promoted and assigned to HMS Implacable.

Andrew Cunningham - World War I:

Promoted to lieutenant in 1904, Cunningham passed through several peacetime postings before receiving his first command, HM Torpedo Boat #14 four years later. In 1911, Cunningham was placed in command of the destroyer HMS Scorpion. Aboard at the outbreak of World War I, he took part in the failed pursuit of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and cruiser SMS Breslau. Remaining in the Mediterranean, Scorpion participated in the early 1915 attack on the Dardanelles at the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign. For his performance, Cunningham was promoted to commander and received the Distinguished Service Order.

Over the next two years, Cunningham took part in routine patrol and convoy duty in the Mediterranean. Seeking action, he requested a transfer and returned to Britain in January 1918. Given command of HMS Termagent in Vice Admiral Roger Keyes' Dover Patrol, he performed well and earned a bar for his DSO. With the end of the war, Cunningham moved to HMS Seafire and in 1919 received orders to sail for the Baltic. Serving under Rear Admiral Walter Cowan, he worked to keep the sea lanes open to newly independent Estonia and Latvia. For this service he was awarded a second bar for his DSO.

Andrew Cunningham - Interwar Years:

Promoted to captain in 1920, Cunningham moved through a number of senior destroyer commands and later served as Fleet Captain and Chief of Staff to Cowan in the North America and West Indies Squadron. He also attended the Army Senior Officers' School and the Imperial Defense College. Upon completing the latter, he received his first major command, the battleship HMS Rodney. In September 1932, Cunningham was elevated to rear admiral and made Aide-de-Camp to King George V. Returning to the Mediterranean Fleet the following year, he oversaw its destroyers which relentlessly trained in ship handling.

Raised to vice admiral in 1936, he was made second in command of the Mediterranean Fleet and placed in charge of its battlecruisers. Highly regarded by the Admiralty, Cunningham received orders to return to Britain in 1938 to assume the post of Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Taking this position in December, he was knighted the following month. Performing well in London, Cunningham received his dream posting on June 6, 1939, when he was made commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. Hoisting his flag aboard HMS Warspite, he began planning for operations against the Italian Navy in case of war.

Andrew Cunningham - World War II:

With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Cunningham's primary focus became protecting the convoys that supplied British forces in Malta and Egypt. With the defeat of France in June 1940, Cunningham was forced to enter into tense negotiations with Admiral Rene-Emile Godfroy regarding the status of the French squadron at Alexandria. These talks were complicated when the French admiral learned of the British attack on Mers-el-Kebir. Through skillful diplomacy, Cunningham succeeded in convincing the French to allow their ships to be interned and their men repatriated.

Though his fleet had won several engagements against the Italians, Cunningham sought to dramatically alter the strategic situation and reduce the threat to Allied convoys. Working with the Admiralty, a daring plan was conceived which called for a nighttime air strike against the Italian fleet's anchorage at Taranto. Moving forward on November 11-12, 1940, Cunningham's fleet approached the Italian base and launched torpedo planes from HMS Illustrious. A success, the Taranto Raid sank one battleship and badly damaged two more. The raid was extensively studied by the Japanese when planning their attack on Pearl Harbor.

In late March 1941, under heavy pressure from Germany to halt the Allied convoys, the Italian fleet sortied under the command of Admiral Angelo Iachino. Informed of enemy movements by Ultra radio intercepts, Cunningham met the Italians and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan on March 27-29. In the battle, three Italian heavy cruisers were sunk and a battleship damaged in exchange for three British killed. That May, following the Allied defeat on Crete, Cunningham successfully rescued over 16,000 men from the island despite taking heavy losses from Axis aircraft.

Andrew Cunningham - Later War:

In April 1942, with the United States now in the war, Cunningham was appointed to the naval staff mission to Washington, DC and built a strong relationship with the Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet, Admiral Ernest King. As a result of these meetings, he was given command of the Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for the Operation Torch landings in North Africa late that fall. Promoted to admiral of the fleet, he returned to the Mediterranean Fleet in February 1943, and worked tirelessly to ensure that no Axis forces would escape from North Africa. With the conclusion of the campaign, he again served under Eisenhower in commanding the naval elements of the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and the landings in Italy that September. With the collapse of Italy, he was present at Malta on September 10 to witness the formal surrender of the Italian fleet.

Following the death of the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, Cunningham was appointed to the post on October 21. Returning to London, he served as a member of the Chiefs of Staff committee and provided overall strategic direction for the Royal Navy. In this role, Cunningham attended the major conferences at Cairo, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam during which plans for the invasion of Normandy and defeat of Japan were formulated. Cunningham remained First Sea Lord through the end of the war until his retirement in May 1946.

Andrew Cunningham - Later Life

For his wartime service, Cunningham was created Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope. Retiring to Bishop's Waltham in Hampshire, he lived in a house that he and his wife, Nona Byatt (m. 1929), had purchased before the war. During his retirement, he held several ceremonial titles including Lord High Steward at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Cunningham died at London on June 12, 1963, and was buried at sea off Portsmouth. A bust was unveiled in Trafalgar Square in London on April 2, 1967 by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in his honor.

Selected Sources

  • History of War: Admiral Andrew Cunningham
  • Royal Navy: Viscount Cunningham
  • Royal Navy Museum: Andrew Cunningham

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