On this blog we've recently covered the Scotsman who was Constable of France. We've also covered the Scotsman who commanded the biggest British army ever fielded. Today's Who's Who is the Scotsman who led the Royal Navy to victory in the Second World War.
Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham (or ABC) could often be an impatient martinet, and he certainly demanded nothing less than the best from his men; but as demanding as he was, he was always fair and rewarded hard work and loyalty. He was brave and intelligent with nerves of steel. He was a brilliant tactician, strategist and seaman, and could be counted on to make instant decisions. In short he was just the sort of naval officer Nelson would have approved of. The principle he always followed, the same as Nelson, was that the primary function of a Royal Navy fleet was to seek out and destroy the enemy.
Throughout his career Cunningham was well respected by his superiors, his peers and his subordinates and by the time he took command of the Royal Navy as First Sea Lord in 1943 he had been a fighting sailor for over forty five years and knew just what it took to lead the Royal Navy to victory.
His parents were Scottish and he considered himself a Scot but apart from some schooling in Edinburgh at the Academy and fishing trips during his leave, and retirement, he actually spent very little of his life in Scotland. He was born in Dublin on 7th January 1883 and as a boy he decided he wanted to grow up to be an admiral. When he turned fourteen he passed out from the Royal Navy's officer training ship HMS "Britannia" at Dartmouth and over the next forty years he steadily rose through the ranks and served in many places.
It would be impossible to put Cunningham’s career before the Second World War on a blog post so I’ll give the briefest of summaries. By 1939 he had earned the Distinguished Service Order and two bars for his bravery and leadership. He had served in Destroyers, Motor Torpedo Boats, Cruisers and Battleships. He had seen peacetime service in the Mediterranean and war at Gallipoli, the North Sea and the Baltic. He had fought alongside the army in South Africa, and had taken a very active part in the landings at Gallipoli.
He had become an expert on anti-torpedo boat and anti-submarine warfare and had attended the Imperial Defence College. The IDC took the risings stars of all three armed services who were expected to go on to be the generals, admirals and air marshals of the future and taught them how to work together in combined operations. He had also been lucky to work under two dynamic Admirals (Admiral Walter Cowan and Sir William Fisher) who were as driven as he was, and from them he learned much about commanding Royal Navy fleets.
In 1934 he had achieved his boyhood dream of becoming an admiral when he took command of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean destroyer flotillas and it was in the Med he spent most of the next five years. He had a short spell at the Admiralty during the desperate times in 1938 and 1939 preparing for war, and in spring 1939 he returned to Malta to take command as Commander-in-chief Mediterranean Fleet.
He was often starved of resources and ships but he was an aggressive commander who took the battle to the Italians. He oversaw the Royal Navy Fleet-Air-Arm’s very successful attack on the Italian navy at Taranto. He was also in command at Cape Matapan in 1941 when a daring night battle effectively finished off the Italian Navy.
Up until early 1942 the Second World War was mostly a series of reverses for the British and Cunningham was often faced with sending his ships into perilous situations. There were many ships and men lost during the evacuations of Greece and Crete and many more sending convoys to Malta and Tobruk. He even lost ships to Italian frogmen in Alexandria’s harbour. The losses at Crete especially troubled Cunningham but his attitude was summed up by his quote "It takes the Navy three years to build a new ship. It will take three hundred years to build a new tradition". Whatever else happened the Navy was not going to abandon the army. They lost three cruisers and six destroyers but saved 16,500 soldiers.
In 1942 he was recalled from Alexandria and sent to Washington to help the US navy prepare for a world war. His time there led to him forming a good relationship with Eisenhower and in turn led him to being made the Allied naval commander in charge of the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November 1942. Eisenhower recorded in his diary that Cunningham "...remains in my opinion at the top of my subordinates in absolute selflessness, energy, devotion to duty, knowledge of his task, and in understanding of the requirements of allied operations. My opinions as to his superior qualifications have never wavered for a second." He followed 'Torch' by commanding all allied naval forces for the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Cunningham was now in charge of 3,000 vessels.
With Sicily captured Italy soon capitulated and Cunningham was able to signal the admiralty “‘Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian Battle Fleet lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta”. It was to be Cunningham’s last signal as a fleet admiral.
The First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound was dying and a replacement was needed. Churchill didn’t want Cunningham; he didn’t think he had the patience or diplomacy for the top job. Churchill was wrong. Cunningham had shown at the surrender of a French fleet at Alexandria in 1940, and in his time in Washington in 1942 that he could be diplomatic, persuasive and patient. In October 1943 Cunningham left the Mediterranean to take on a political role in charge of the whole Royal Navy.
Cunningham’s main role now was trying to manage the expectations of his prime minister, his allies and his fleet commanders around the world. At the same time he had to ensure his ships still protected the convoys in the Atlantic, North Sea and Pacific, and on top of that they must support the army in Europe and Burma. It was a juggling act which Cunningham took in his stride.
By 1945 he was in charge of over 850,000 sailors, 900 major warships and thousands of small vessels; twice the size of the Navy in the First World War. He may have been in the Navy for forty five years but as a commander he was not stuck in the past. He had pushed for the expansion of the Fleet Air Arm and the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and was also committed to making the Royal Marines Commandos the strike-force for any future combined operations.
The end of the war saw him granted honours like the other senior British commanders. His first title was Baron Cunningham of Hyndhope, of Kirkhope in the County of Selkirk, in 1945. He was also made a Knight of the Thistle, a rare and great honour for a Scot.
The World War had bankrupted Britain and the Royal Navy was to take the brunt of the cuts needed in her armed forces. It was a bitter pill for the old sailor. When Cunningham had joined the Royal Navy in 1897 it was a pre-dreadnaught Victorian navy and Britannia still ruled the waves. By 1945 the battleship was obsolete and the United States had the biggest navy in the world.
In June 1946 Cunningham chose to stand down from his position as head of the Royal Navy. He was suffering from heart problems and was not relishing his new role of running down his beloved Navy. He also chose to turn down the offer of the governor-generalship of Australia; his three years in charge of the Royal Navy had taken its toll. Shortly after his retirement he was elevated in the peerage to Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope. He didn’t give up on public duties completely, and he took up his position in the House of Lords to make sure he still had a say on Navy matters.
Unlike Haig he didn’t retire to Scotland and he stayed near the Navy’s home of Portsmouth, but in the summers of 1950 and 1952 he was given the appointment of Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland.
He died in 1963 at the age of eighty. A great warrior like Cunningham could have been buried at Westminster Abbey but he had salt in his blood and was buried at sea off Portsmouth.
Trafalgar Square in London is dominated by Nelson, but on the wall behind his column are the busts of the Royal Navy’s greatest twentieth century admirals. Beatty and Jellico of Jutland fame are there. There was only one man worthy of a plinth in Nelson's shadow for the Second World War: Scotland’s greatest sailor - Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope.