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Cunningham, Andrew Browne, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhopefree


Cunningham, Andrew Browne, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhopefree

  • Michael Simpson

Andrew Browne Cunningham, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1883–1963)

by Yousuf Karsh, 1943

© Karsh / Camera Press, London; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Cunningham, Andrew Browne, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1883–1963), naval officer, was born at 42 Grosvenor Square, Rathmines, Dublin, on 7 January 1883, the third of the five children of Daniel John Cunningham (1850–1909), then a professor of anatomy at Trinity College, Dublin, and his wife, Elizabeth Cumming (d. 1926), daughter of the Revd Andrew Browne of Beith, Ayrshire. A brother was General Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham (1887–1983). Cunningham's ancestry was wholly Scottish and he always thought of himself as a Scot, though he spent but little time there, even after his father had taken up the chair of anatomy in Edinburgh. After early schooling in Dublin he was at Edinburgh Academy, aged ten, when his father asked him if he would like to join the navy. 'Yes,' he replied, 'I should like to be an admiral', though he had no more than a vague interest in ships and the sea (Cunningham, 13). After three years at Stubbington House, Hampshire, which specialized in preparing boys for the Royal Navy, he entered the training ship Britannia in January 1897, passing out tenth of sixty-five cadets in May 1898, with first-class passes in mathematics and seamanship.

Apprenticeship to high command, 1898–1939

Cunningham, who had an early reputation for belligerence and boldness, sought and obtained a posting to the Cape station and shortly after his arrival contrived to join a naval artillery brigade in the South African War. He saw little action but learned much about self-reliance, leadership, and initiative. Following promotion to sub-lieutenant in 1903 he was appointed to the destroyer Locust, and began a thirty-year association with destroyers. Promoted lieutenant in 1904, he secured his first command, torpedo boat no. 14, in 1908 but his reputation as a first-class ship handler and man of action was made in the destroyer Scorpion, to which he was appointed in 1911 and in which he served until 1918. Destroyer commands offered great scope for individual flair and responsibility and demanded determination and vigour.

Cunningham, who spent more than a third of his career in the Mediterranean, served with distinction in the Dardanelles campaign, being promoted commander in 1915 and appointed DSO in 1916. His judgement, fearlessness, resolution, and devotion to exacting standards were noted by his seniors, who remarked on his unquenchable zeal. He was audacious and successful in his support of the forces ashore and learned much about both combined operations and the nature of the eastern Mediterranean. His quest for action took him to the Dover patrol early in 1918, in command of Termagant, though he had few opportunities to close with the enemy. Nevertheless, he earned a bar to his DSO and in March 1920 a second bar for his service in the Baltic under Rear-Admiral Walter Cowan, an aggressive and extremely demanding flag officer whom Cunningham regarded as a mentor. Cunningham in Seafire led a division of destroyers helping to uphold the newly won independence of the Baltic republics and in tense and dangerous situations exhibited his characteristic decisiveness, courage, and matchless energy. Shortly after his return he was promoted captain at the age of thirty-seven. As a captain (D), he refined the torpedo and anti-submarine tactics of his flotillas. When Cowan was appointed commander-in-chief, North America and West Indies, in 1926, he requested Cunningham as his flag captain and chief of staff; Cunningham commanded successively the light cruisers Calcutta and Despatch.

In 1929 Cunningham was sent to the Imperial Defence College. Profiting from the broadening of his education in diplomacy, current affairs, and inter-service co-operation, he regarded it as an excellent preparation for high command. Appointed to the new battleship Rodney in command in December 1929, he married, on the 21st of that month, Nona Christine Byatt (1889–1978), a daughter of Horace Byatt, a headmaster of Midhurst, Sussex; the marriage was extremely happy but there were no children. After serving as commodore of Chatham barracks, Cunningham was promoted rear-admiral in September 1932 and, following two more senior officers' courses, achieved his heart's desire—appointment as rear-admiral (D) in the Mediterranean Fleet (January 1934–April 1936). He was also appointed CB in 1934.

The commander-in-chief, Mediterranean, was the redoubtable Admiral Sir William Fisher, an officer of great intellect, tireless dedication, and outstanding ability as a fleet commander. Cunningham's own distinguished tenure of the same command owed much to Fisher's brilliant example. Cunningham drove the flotillas extremely hard, developing night fighting skills, precision in ship handling, independent initiative and judgement, and the most exacting standards. Though a severe and eagle-eyed taskmaster, he endeared himself to his captains, who had absolute confidence in his leadership, born of unparalleled experience in destroyers and in the Mediterranean. His relief was his Britannia term-mate, Rear-Admiral James Somerville, but Cunningham was soon serving in the Mediterranean again. Promoted vice-admiral in July 1936, a year later he was called upon to succeed Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake, who had become ill, as vice-admiral commanding, battle-cruiser squadron, and second-in-command, Mediterranean Fleet, to Admiral Sir Dudley Pound.

In October 1938 Cunningham began his first spell of duty in the Admiralty, as deputy chief of naval staff, charged with feverish preparations for war. He deputized on occasion for the terminally ill first sea lord, Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, whose retirement in spring 1939 brought Pound to the Admiralty, leading to Cunningham's appointment in command of the Mediterranean Fleet. Appointed KCB in January 1939, he was promoted acting admiral on 1 June 1939, when he assumed command.

Commander-in-chief, Mediterranean, 1939–1942

Long recognized as an outstanding officer, Cunningham possessed abundant self-confidence, apparently inexhaustible energy, the ability to grasp situations quickly and to issue prompt, unequivocal orders, and the capacity to inspire unquestioning loyalty and unstinting effort. ABC, as he was known, was a difficult man to serve, his fierce blue eyes heralding a man of moderate height with a ruddy complexion, with a fearsome roar, at times irascible and impatient, always exacting in his standards and demanding service from his staff to the point of exhaustion. Like many such martinets and hard-driving leaders, he respected those who stood up to him. Cunningham drove himself as hard as he did his subordinates and rewarded their loyalty and service with firm support and sound advice in their future careers. Many became longstanding friends and recalled that the apparently forbidding and formidable ABC was quick to forgive and that the belligerent, even bullying, demeanour would often vanish in a twinkle of his eyes, to be replaced by a bawdy humour and a teasing manner.

Cunningham was deeply solicitous of the welfare of those who served under him and not infrequently tender and sympathetic to the point of soft-heartedness. Though he was almost as disparaging of staff officers as he was of gunnery specialists, he was rare among admirals of his day in delegating responsibility to his staff, sometimes to a frightening extent. Cunningham did not enjoy the intellectual capacity of Sir William Fisher, and he was not a student of war as was the commander-in-chief, Middle East, General Wavell, nor did he possess the many-sided technical genius of Somerville or Mountbatten. He did not indulge in introspection, though he was not unreflective, and he never wasted words, though when he spoke he did so with vigour, cogency, and conciseness. He had undoubtedly gained much of practical value from his several senior officers' courses, even more from serving under Cowan and Fisher, and he had a clear appreciation of strategic realities and priorities, as well as a genuine commitment to close co-operation with the army and air force.

Cunningham's fitness for high command was derived in part from his shrewd distillation of an exceptional amount of sea time, most of it in independent commands imposing an almost constant exposure to problem solving, and the examples set by distinguished superiors, together with an instinctive genius for the handling of ships, both singly and in the mass, and for the conduct of war at sea. By 1939 he possessed exceptional skill as a fleet commander, a sublime tactical acumen, a clinical precision in the exercise of command, and an unrivalled knowledge of the Mediterranean in all its moods and quarters. Cunningham was not a noted student of naval history but he was fully alive to his Nelsonian inheritance as Britain's naval commander in the middle sea. His prescription for the exercise of sea power was exactly the same as that of the victor of Trafalgar: the primary function of a fleet was to seek out and destroy its enemy, and the bolder the methods the better. Like Nelson he believed in keeping war at sea simple and direct; he encouraged, indeed expected, his captains to exercise their own initiative within the strategic canvas which he embroidered with clear, easily comprehended broad principles.

When Cunningham took command of the Mediterranean station it did not enjoy a high priority in the provision of resources, as the probable immediate threats appeared to come from Germany and Japan; the government hoped to appease Mussolini and hold Italy to a firm if surly neutrality. Though there were tangible if limited arrangements for co-operation with the French navy, Cunningham felt grave concern at the neglected state of naval defences in the Mediterranean. The historic base, Malta, was regarded as indefensible in the face of Italian bombing and in wartime the fleet would have to fall back on Alexandria, equally bereft of air defences and vulnerable to Italian attacks from Libya; moreover, Alexandria lacked adequate dockyard resources. The fleet could expect little assistance from the RAF, as it was grossly over-stretched and could supply little in the way of fighter cover or reconnaissance. As the army was equally weak, the fleet offered the only means of offensive action. However, the Fleet Air Arm was short of carriers and aircraft, none of which were up to date, and offered limited scouting strength, no fighter cover, and a puny strike force capable only of slowing enemy heavy ships—if it could hit them. When Mussolini began to make obvious preparations to join the war in spring 1940 Cunningham's fleet was reinforced and he devised a strategy that was aggressive without being reckless. Confident of holding the eastern Mediterranean and hoping that the French would protect the western basin, he proposed sweeps in the central portion to test the Italian fleet's readiness to fight and the capacity of Mussolini's air force to deny the traditional exercise of sea power. Pound displayed absolute confidence in Cunningham and the two developed a full and frank correspondence.

Italy's entrance into the war on 10 June 1940 was accompanied by the collapse of France. Churchill's decision to commit Britain (and the Commonwealth) to a full-scale war in the Mediterranean led to an ultimatum to the French navy to align itself with the Royal Navy or suffer effective demilitarization. A French squadron at Alexandria, under Vice-Admiral Godfroy, was persuaded to disarm its vessels but only after delicate negotiations carried on in a rapidly changing context which threatened to bring about a gunfight in the harbour. Cunningham conducted the talks with Godfroy in a firm but skilful manner, displaying a patience rarely ascribed to him, as well as a diplomatic finesse of consummate subtlety. In the light of tragic confrontations with the French elsewhere Cunningham's achievement was outstanding.

Cunningham continued to challenge the Italian fleet to a duel and on 9 July, while each fleet was covering convoys in the central Mediterranean, they exchanged fire off Calabria. Enjoying good reconnaissance and splendid intelligence, Cunningham attempted to cut off the Italians from their bases, using the carrier Eagle's Swordfish to slow down his faster opponents. No torpedoes struck home and the clash between the heavy ships was brief and conducted at long range. After Cunningham's flagship, the Warspite, hit the Italian flagship, Giulio Cesare, at a distance of 13 miles, the enemy turned for home, making smoke and launching heavy land-based bombing attacks on the British forces, though without result. The Italians outpaced Cunningham, who declined to fall into a submarine and mine trap and returned to base. The British claimed a lasting moral ascendancy over the Italian navy but the enemy, who lacked a comparable battle squadron at that time, made a sensible decision to retire.

Over the next six months Cunningham and Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, commanding force H at Gibraltar, steadily restored British control of the Mediterranean, allowing reinforcements of ships and aircraft to reach the eastern Mediterranean and Malta and permitting the running of convoys to the Middle East. Apart from the bold and capable exercise of sea power by the two outstanding British admirals, the poor state of Italian equipment and training, and Italy's shortage of oil and other resources, the British supremacy was made possible by the presence of modern carriers equipped with fighters, Ark Royal, with force H, and Illustrious, which joined Cunningham in September 1940. Fleet fighters eliminated enemy shadowers and nullified Italian high level bombing attacks.

It was by the exercise of carrier striking power, however, that the Mediterranean Fleet gained its principal victory in this period. The concept of a carrier air strike against the Italian fleet at Taranto had originated in 1935, at the time of the Abyssinian crisis. On 11 November 1940 Illustrious launched twenty-one Swordfish at night and 160 miles from Taranto. The attack, planned meticulously and executed bravely, disabled three of Italy's six battleships for the loss of two aircraft. It represented the Fleet Air Arm's greatest ever triumph and enabled Cunningham to carry the war to the enemy fleet, which would not come to him. The operation was one of several carried out in the same voyage; convoys were escorted and a successful raid conducted on shipping in the Adriatic. Cunningham, always conscious of the severe pressure on his slender resources, was adept at making optimum use of his forces.

Wavell's spectacularly successful desert offensive of December 1940, aided by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore's carefully directed air support and a naval inshore squadron, gave the British crucial airfields on the southern flank of the convoy route to Malta, though it imposed on the navy the crippling burden of maintaining Tobruk throughout an eight-month siege. These triumphs exhibited the interdependence of the military, air, and naval campaigns in the Mediterranean, a fact of which the three commanders-in-chief were well aware; Cunningham, Longmore, and Wavell drove the chariot of war in complete harmony. In January 1941 Cunningham was confirmed in the rank of admiral and in March appointed GCB.

The days of triumph were short-lived, for Italy's early disasters prompted German intervention, initially with a Luftwaffe force specializing in anti-ship operations. On 10–11 January 1941 Cunningham's forces, escorting a convoy from the west to Malta, were surprised by dive-bombers which sank the cruiser Southampton and crippled Illustrious. For the remainder of the war German air power was to be the Royal Navy's most formidable opponent in the middle sea. The co-ordination of the enemy's air forces and Italian naval forces was far from perfect, however, and when the Italian fleet sortied against British convoys to Greece in March 1941 it failed to receive adequate air reconnaissance and fighter cover. The British had also broken enemy codes and the resulting Ultra information enabled Cunningham to intercept the enemy off Cape Matapan on 28–9 March. Air strikes from the new carrier, Formidable, first saved Cunningham's scouting cruisers from annihilation and then severely damaged the Italian flagship, Vittorio Veneto. She was able to regain enough speed to escape but a third torpedo strike crippled the heavy cruiser Pola. Cunningham boldly decided to risk a fleet encounter at night, relying on British skill at night fighting, honed in the Mediterranean in the 1930s, supported by radar and the confidence engendered by previous skirmishes with Italian ships. His battle squadron came upon Pola's sisters, Zara and Fiume, sent to escort the cripple home, guns trained innocently fore and aft, and in a few minutes blew them out of the water; Pola and two destroyers were dispatched by light forces. The victory was literally a signal success for the British, thanks to their intelligence breakthrough, but it owed much to the persistence of the Fleet Air Arm, the high level of training of the surface forces, and pre-eminently to the qualities of leadership exhibited by the commander-in-chief. Cunningham, who displayed an intuitive grasp of the developing situation, coolly weighed the odds for and against a night action, with its evident hazards and uncertain rewards. He conveyed his aggressive, determined, and confident manner to his subordinates, handled his fleet with decisiveness and, for the most part, gave orders of admirable brevity and precision. Matapan confirmed his reputation as the outstanding seaman of the war and effectively scuttled Italian fleet operations of any substance and seriousness.

Once again, however, the victor's laurels were turned quickly into wreaths of another kind. In April 1941 allied forces evacuated Greece in the face of the Luftwaffe and the Panzers, enduring severe bombing on their return to Egypt. Less than a month later Cunningham was compelled to rescue allied forces from Crete. These two evacuations were carried out by allied warships and merchantmen in the face of overwhelming axis air power, to which the RAF and Fleet Air Arm could make virtually no reply. Though the bulk of the troops were carried safely to Egypt, warships and troopships suffered severe losses and damage, with several thousand seamen and soldiers killed. Cunningham remained at Alexandria to co-ordinate the operations of his scattered forces, their ships' companies exhausted by continuous voyaging from the beginning of the year, the hazards of negotiating strange harbours at night and the incessant air attacks. He yearned to be at sea with them, sharing their dangers and discomforts, and was well aware that the strain was becoming unendurable—yet he was determined that the navy should not let the army down, uttering his most famous remark, generally reported as 'It takes the Navy three years to build a ship but three hundred years to build a tradition' (Pack, 177). After the evacuation of Crete at the end of May 1941 Cunningham's fleet was reduced by a half. Crucially, it lacked a carrier, as Formidable had been sent, foolishly, to attack airfields on Rhodes with scarcely a handful of planes and had been put out of action for eight months. The absence of a carrier and the limited support available from shore-based aircraft led Cunningham to demand and obtain an RAF naval co-operation group, analagous to Coastal Command. After Crete, Cunningham was forced on to the defensive, save for an effective contribution to the army's conquest of Vichy Syria and Lebanon. The loss of Libya to Rommel, coupled with the expulsion from Crete, made the supply of Malta a major headache.

The catalogue of naval disasters in the Mediterranean continued to the end of 1941 with the sinking of Ark Royal and one of Cunningham's battleships, Barham, by newly arrived German U-boats and, finally and decisively for the Mediterranean Fleet's line-of-battle, the crippling in December of Queen Elizabeth and Valiant by Italian human torpedoes, which attacked the battleships in Alexandria harbour. Cunningham himself acknowledged a measure of the responsibility for this last catastrophe; he was essentially a seagoing admiral and, while vocal about the air defence deficiencies of Alexandria, he seems to have neglected defence against this form of attack, despite the Italians' deserved reputation for skill and bravery in this field. As the war against Japan had opened disastrously with the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, Cunningham was left to struggle on with a handful of small cruisers and overworked destroyers. He was fortunate in acquiring another doughty and resourceful Nelsonian admiral, Philip Vian, who in December 1941 and again in March 1942 fought off superior Italian forces while conducting convoys to Malta. The island's future hung in the balance as the axis air attacks redoubled in an effort to neutralize the base and terminate its air, surface, and submarine threats to the Libyan convoys. Cunningham could only pray for the island's safe deliverance for on 3 April 1942 he hauled down his flag prior to taking up the headship of the British Admiralty delegation in Washington. Cunningham, who became a baronet in January that year, had been the outstanding British commander of the war thus far, a fearless leader whose presence with the fleet inspired and reassured his men; in harbour he constantly visited ships, hospitals, and shore stations. His departure was kept secret—a testimony to his reputation among his enemies and an acknowledgement that there was no adequate replacement.

The British Admiralty delegation, Washington, 1942

The United States' entry into the war in December 1941 made a detailed joint strategy, the exchange of technical data, and the assurance of a steady supply of American equipment matters of urgency. A combined chiefs of staff had been established and Admiral Ernest J. King, who had a reputation for being awkward to almost everyone, had become the United States chief of naval operations. Pound felt that Cunningham, who was as tough and determined as King, was the right man to head the British Admiralty delegation (BAD) at that critical stage of the war. Though Cunningham arrived home early in April, it was not until late June that he reached Washington, Churchill having made persistent attempts to appoint him to the Home Fleet. In Washington there was precious little for him to do: the vast BAD organization was already running smoothly and was concerned chiefly with routine matters. Cunningham was there to bring his broadside to bear on King should the latter fail to co-operate as wholeheartedly as the British wished. King was somewhat uncommunicative, often a reluctant co-operator, and frequently extremely rude; given Cunningham's redoubtable reputation for standing no nonsense, some heated confrontations were inevitable. It says much for Cunningham's patience, skill, and robust character that he generally gained what was required from King. More important, he impressed American civilian and military leaders as a man of integrity, resolution, clarity of thought, and keen strategic insight, with the capacity for thinking and commanding on a grand scale.

Allied amphibious operations in the Mediterranean, 1942–1943

Cunningham, a confirmed advocate of dealing with the Mediterranean situation first, was influential in swinging the opinion of the American high command behind operation Torch, the Anglo-American landings in French north Africa. His evident willingness to co-operate with the Americans, his great prestige as a Mediterranean commander, and the trust he engendered led to an American proposal to appoint him naval commander under General Eisenhower, the allied supreme commander. Cunningham, though not seeking the post, was nevertheless delighted to return to the front line; liaison and administrative work in Washington and the endless socializing quickly made him fret for life at sea. Torch was an ambitious, difficult, and highly uncertain operation. It was the first major allied offensive, it had to be launched from main bases thousands of miles away, it required vast forces of merchantmen, landing craft, and escorting warships and aircraft, and it was likely to meet opposition from the Vichy French. Many thousands of sailors and soldiers had to be trained hastily in landing operations and the planning had to be compressed into a few weeks in summer 1942.

When the operation was launched in November 1942 it proved highly successful, despite fierce resistance by the French and inevitable shortcomings in the co-ordination and training of the various services. In part, the triumph was due to good fortune in the shape of fine weather and a baffled and unusually sluggish enemy, and it owed much to Eisenhower's determination to make Anglo-American co-operation work all down the line, as well as to the painstaking planning of Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay and his team. Nevertheless, Cunningham played a key role, for he acted as Eisenhower's alter ego, imparting to the untried American staff officer his own robust confidence and formidable will and setting an example to other subordinates of utter loyalty to the commander-in-chief. Cunningham kept a firm grip on naval operations from Casablanca to Tunis and though he regretted the failure to land as close to Tunis as possible, he urged his forces forward to capture more ports and to harry enemy shipping, finally ensuring that few of the considerable axis army in Tunisia escaped. To his distaste, much of his time was occupied in political discussions with French leaders. Initial Vichy hostility was halted by Admiral Darlan, who effectively switched sides from collaboration with the axis to intimate co-operation with the allies. Darlan's deal with Eisenhower, which brought about an early cease-fire, was unpopular with allied public opinion but the arrangement was stoutly supported by Cunningham as a crucial measure enabling the allies to turn their attention to the axis.

The north African campaign took far longer than had been envisaged, due chiefly to the allies' failure to accept Cunningham's advice to land as far east as Bizerte. However, in late January 1943 Churchill, Roosevelt, and their staffs met at Casablanca to plan the next western offensive. There being no realistic prospect of invading north-western Europe in 1943, it was decided to invade Sicily, as it would enable the Mediterranean route to the East to be reopened and would provide airfields from which southern Germany could be bombed; the conquest of Sicily might also bring about the fall of Mussolini. Planning operation Husky, however, proved to be a nightmare, as the senior commanders could not agree on landing places. Once again, plans had to be redrafted at a very late stage, though Cunningham himself was convinced that any one of the plans would have been successful. He had a somewhat fraught relationship with Ramsay, who was once again the chief planner; it is possible that Cunningham, who had become commander-in-chief, Mediterranean, for a second time in January 1943, and also an admiral of the fleet, felt jealous at having such an able, senior and semi-independent admiral in his bailiwick. He was suspicious of Ramsay's good relations with generals Alexander and Montgomery, for Cunningham disparaged Alexander and disliked Montgomery's arrogance and mischief-making. However, Cunningham's long Mediterranean experience paid good dividends.

Setting up his headquarters in Malta, Cunningham took charge of an armada of 3000 vessels, the largest to date. Rough seas presented a late hazard but also a bonus in that they lulled the defenders into believing that the operation could not take place on the night of 10 July. Once again, Cunningham's nerve held firm and his subordinates derived confidence from the knowledge that the master was at the helm. Calmer weather, meticulous organization, and better trained and more experienced crews enabled the landing to take place against minimal opposition. Once Sicily was cleared of the enemy in late August, it seemed logical to seize the opportunity of Mussolini's fall and Italian overtures for an armistice to invade the mainland to seize further airfields in the toe of Italy and incite Italians to rise up against their German occupiers. Landings near Reggio and at Taranto were virtually trouble-free but the major assault at Salerno, south of Naples, almost ended in disaster as a fierce German riposte pushed the allied troops back to the beaches; the situation was saved by lavish use of air power and by Cunningham's prompt provision of capital ships for bombardment, with telling effect. Cunningham took justifiable pleasure in watching the Italian battle fleet drop anchor at Malta, making his most famous signal: 'Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian Battle Fleet lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta' (Cunningham, 565). It was, fittingly, almost the last act of his seagoing career.

First sea lord, 1943–1946

In October 1943 Cunningham succeeded the dying Pound but his succession was by no means automatic. Churchill, with whom Cunningham had frequently crossed swords, foresaw exasperating conflicts. He believed Cunningham was unsuited to staff work and was also less receptive to modern technology than the premier's choice, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, commander-in-chief, Home Fleet. Indeed, Fraser was offered the post but, recognizing that Cunningham enjoyed the navy's support, declined. Cunningham's appointment satisfied public opinion and also the Americans, among whom he commanded considerable respect. Cunningham approached his new post with some trepidation. Not only was he congenitally unfitted for shorebound administration, he also doubted his ability to hold his own intellectually with the other chiefs of staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Marshal of the RAF Sir Charles Portal. Fortunately they welcomed him warmly and the trio constituted an effective and generally harmonious team, united in their stand against the prime minister's frequently madcap strategy. Moreover, Cunningham was an effective and experienced delegator and avoided the clogging detail which had often ensnared his predecessor. He was already well known to the American joint chiefs of staff so that in meetings of the combined chiefs of staff he knew how to conduct his business, even with the prickly King. He and the American chief of naval operations had a somewhat strained relationship, despite their mutual respect. Cunningham displayed a fisherman's cunning in playing the prime minister, exhibiting a patience and tactical skill largely unglimpsed in previous appointments, and resisted Churchillian attempts to interfere in the direction of operations and flag appointments. Cunningham was fortunate also that the worst of the war at sea was over.

Nevertheless, there were still major decisions to be made, principally on the deployment of a British fleet against Japan, which led to a running battle between the prime minister and the chiefs of staff lasting almost a year. Churchill wanted to recover lost colonies but Cunningham, supported by Brooke and Portal, pointed out that the way to end the Far Eastern conflict speedily and economically was to attack Japan's homeland. This direct strategy, fighting alongside America's great task forces, was designed to give Britain a more substantial voice in the Pacific peace settlement and post-war oriental commerce. Cunningham triumphed through persistence and Fraser led the British Pacific Fleet in the final assault on Japan in the spring and summer of 1945. Cunningham had also to ensure destruction of Germany's remaining major surface units and to devise emergency measures to cope with a recrudescence of the U-boat threat in early 1945. He stood firmly behind Ramsay as the latter planned the landings in Normandy in June 1944. Perhaps the most serious problem facing the navy at this time was the acute shortage of manpower, just when it had to find thousands of landing craft and air crews, man new construction, provide personnel for the Pacific Fleet, and maintain long-running commitments in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Cunningham acted vigorously to prune older ships and shore stations but the problem remained intractable.

For the most part Cunningham enjoyed good relations with station commanders, some of whom (A. U. Willis in the Mediterranean, Arthur Power in the East Indies, Bernard Rawlings and Philip Vian in the Pacific) were his protégés, but he encountered difficulties with Fraser both in the Home Fleet and in the Pacific. Fraser upheld the autonomy of a fleet commander, while Cunningham asserted the Admiralty's right to direct maritime strategy; both could be obstinate. Mountbatten, at that time supreme allied commander, south-east Asia, also irritated Cunningham by his intrigue, pretensions, and attempts to purloin ships destined for the Pacific. Cunningham also supported his commander-in-chief, Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir James Somerville, in a dispute with Mountbatten over control of the Eastern Fleet. Cunningham turned to Somerville in autumn 1944, when it seemed necessary to send to Washington as head of BAD an admiral experienced in sea and air warfare (especially in the East), with high technical skills, a warm personality, shrewd judgement, and resolution. King had become more unbearable and less co-operative but Somerville, the most effective head of BAD, skilfully employed a blend of bluntness, salty humour, and an engaging manner to extract the required resources.

After Japan surrendered in August 1945 Cunningham faced an unpalatable end to his naval career. He had become first sea lord just as Columbia wrested Neptune's trident from Britannia and any prospect of restoring parity was shattered by the nation's virtual bankruptcy. However, like most British leaders Cunningham believed that Britain should continue to play a great power role and he also hoped, somewhat naïvely, for an integrated imperial defence policy. He was quick, too, to sense a growing threat from the Soviet Union. Cunningham was little interested in technology and was unable to fathom the full significance of electronic developments but he did ensure that captured German scientists and their equipment formed part of a strong Admiralty research and development programme. He was conservative in terms of ship design and conditions on board ship but he yielded to post-war social and economic pressures by agreeing to the reform of officer entry and service pay. Moreover, the years of struggle against axis air power in the Mediterranean and Fleet Air Arm triumphs at Taranto and Matapan had made him a vigorous advocate of naval aviation and he did much to raise the Fleet Air Arm's profile within the navy, especially within the Admiralty itself. The Admiralty was persuaded to retain the Women's Royal Naval Service after the war. A firm advocate of inter-service co-operation, he insisted on a strong amphibious capability and sought to make the Royal Marines the core of future combined operations.

However, running down the navy to a shadow of its wartime self was hardly a congenial occupation for one who had entered the mighty Victorian navy. In June 1946, following heart trouble, he stepped down in favour of his chosen successor, Admiral Sir John Cunningham (no relation), then commander-in-chief, Mediterranean. Andrew Cunningham had adapted quickly and effectively to the demands of Whitehall life, revealing unsuspected patience and a talent for handling awkward personalities with subtlety and firmness. He gave free rein to subordinates, leaving himself clear to deal with the major strategic and policy issues. His term of office was less fraught and demanding than that of Pound but he employed his considerable authority, unparalleled seagoing experience, high standing with the Americans, shrewd judgement, crisp decision making and clear strategic insight to maintain the Royal Navy's interests in a war increasingly dominated by other arms and the new superpowers.

A great seaman: epilogue and epitaph, 1946–1963

Cunningham, created Baron Cunningham of Hyndhope in 1945 and Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope in 1946, refused the governor-generalship of Australia on health grounds. He continued to speak for the navy in public and, occasionally, in the House of Lords. He was prevailed upon to write his autobiography, A Sailor's Odyssey (1951). He had proudly renewed his Scottish connections by becoming a knight of the Thistle in 1945, and served as lord high commissioner to the Church of Scotland in 1950 and 1952. Otherwise raising geese and gardening at his home at Bishop's Waltham in Hampshire and fishing in Scottish rivers were his principal activities. He remained vigorous and active to the end, dying suddenly, on the way to St Thomas's Hospital, on 12 June 1963, aged eighty, after attending the House of Lords. He was buried at sea off Portsmouth six days later and his most visible monument is a bust in Trafalgar Square, London.

By common consent Cunningham ranks with the greatest of British admirals and there are many parallels between his approach to high command and that of Nelson. Both had an intuitive grasp of the significance of sea power for the British Empire and made much of the Royal Navy's traditions of invincibility, unmatched seamanship, and burning desire to engage the enemy more closely. Like Nelson, Cunningham set down a spare, simple doctrine of sea warfare based on calculated aggressiveness. ABC was a relatively modest man and considerably more able intellectually than he affected to be. His undoubted greatness lay in his single-minded dedication to professional excellence, an early exposure to the problems and possibilities of independent command, a clear mind, a strong nerve, and formidable physical courage. He possessed the priceless capacity for instantly sizing up a situation and issuing crisply concise, unambiguous orders which displayed a profound, intuitive grasp of a problem and its solution. He distilled with shrewdness his experience of courses and commands and the examples set by his seniors but his principal asset was an immense instinctive gift for war at sea.


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  • d. cert.
  • J. Winton, Cunningham (1998)
  • O. Warner, Cunningham of Hyndhope: admiral of the fleet (1967)


  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 52557–52584
  • CAC Cam., papers and letters
  • NMM, papers
  • TNA: PRO, admiralty and war cabinet papers
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir James Somerville
  • IWM, letters to Sir Gerald Dickens
  • King's Lond., corresp. with Sir Gerald Dickens; corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
  • NL Scot., letters to Principal George and Professor Douglas Duncan



  • IWM SA, oral history interview


  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1932, NPG
  • R. Langmaid, oils, 1942, NMM
  • photograph, 1942, Hult. Arch.
  • British Official Photograph, group portraits, photographs, 1943, Hult. Arch.
  • H. Carr, oils, 1943, IWM
  • Y. Karsh, photograph, 1943, NPG [see illus.]
  • D. S. Ewart, oils, 1944, Gov. Art Coll.
  • M. Bone, group portrait, chalk drawing, 1945 (Presenting White Ensign to Dean at St Giles Cathedral), IWM
  • J. Esten, photograph, 1945, Hult. Arch.
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1945, NPG
  • J. Worsley, oils?, 1945, IWM
  • group portrait, photograph, 1945, Hult. Arch.
  • O. Birley, oils, 1947, Royal Naval College, Greenwich
  • O. Birley, oils, 1947, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth
  • O. Birley, oils, 1947, IWM
  • F. Belsky, bust, Trafalgar Square, London
  • photographs, IWM

Wealth at Death

£15,310 16s.: probate, 7 Oct 1963, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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