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Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope 1883-1963

Admiral Cunningham Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, August 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London
Admiral Cunningham Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, August 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London

The most famous British admiral during the Second World War Andrew B. Cunningham, or ABC as he was known in the navy, had a superb fighting record in the early war years and served as First Sea Lord between 1943 - 1946.

Entering the navy as a cadet aboard the training ship HMS Britannia in 1897, Cunningham fought in the Naval Brigade during the South African War of 1899-1902. He commanded a destroyer during the First World War and spent much of his time in destroyers in the inter-war period when he acquired a reputation as an expert ship-handler.

In the 1930s Cunningham served mostly in the Mediterranean and in June 1939 became Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, the navy's most prestigious fleet command. Bored by staff work, Cunningham had a Nelsonian instinct to close and destroy the enemy at every opportunity.

Cunningham's forces were substantially reinforced in mid 1940 after the fall of France and Italy's declaration of war and he successfully negotiated an agreement with Admiral Godfroy to demilitarise the French squadron in Alexandria harbour. Almost immediately Cunningham's offensive spirit was brought to bear on the enemy; at the Battle of Calabria on 9 July aboard his flagship Warspite Cunningham chased the Italian Fleet to within 40 kilometres of the Italian coast. He gave his enthusiastic backing to an aircraft attack against Taranto harbour in November when one Italian battleship was sunk and two seriously damaged. In March 1941 at the Battle of Cape Matapan Cunningham's battlefleet again pursued the Italians and sank three heavy cruisers in a memorable night time action.

The most difficult situation faced by Cunningham was the evacuation of troops from Greece and the island of Crete in the face of German invasions in April and May 1941. Without air cover Cunningham's fleet suffered serious losses but responded magnificently to his call that the 'Navy must not let the army down.' Out of 22,000 troops on Crete 16,500 were rescued but three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk and a further 15 major warships damaged.

In April 1942 Cunningham was appointed to head the naval staff mission to Washington and proved an ideal opposite number to the equally blunt American, Admiral Ernest King. Given command of the Allied Expeditionary Force in mid 1942 for the invasion of North Africa he successfully directed the November landings from his headquarters in Gibraltar and began a long friendship with General Eisenhower.

February 1943 saw Cunningham return to his post as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet. When Axis forces in North Africa were on the verge of surrender three months later he ordered that none should be allowed to escape; entirely in keeping with his fiery character he signalled the fleet 'Sink, burn and destroy: Let nothing pass'.

He oversaw the landings on the island of Sicily in July 1943 and in Italy in September which knocked Italy out of the war. On 10 September he was present at Malta to witness the surrender of the Italian fleet, ending a three year struggle for control of the Mediterranean.

On 16 October 1943 Cunningham succeeded Admiral Dudley Pound as First Sea Lord. As a member of the Chiefs of Staff committee Cunningham was responsible for overall strategic direction of the navy for the remainder of the war. He attended the major conferences at Cairo, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta and Postdam at which the Allies discussed future strategy including the invasion of Normandy and the deployment of a British fleet to the Pacific. Cunningham served as First Sea Lord until his retirement in 1946.

Further reading:

  • C. Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (London, 1991).
  • Admiral A.B. Cunningham, A Sailor's Odyssey (London, 1952)
  • J. Winton, Cunningham: The Greatest Admiral since Nelson (London, 1998)