Andrew Browne Cunningham was born on 7th January 1883 at Rathmines, County Dublin. His father, Professor John David Cunningham, who held at that time the post of Professor of Anatomy at Trinity College Dublin, and his mother Elizabeth Cumming Browne, were both of Scottish ancestry. Neither family had a naval pedigree both grandfathers having been clergymen.During his education, which took place at Edinburgh, the young Cunningham developed an interest in boats and the sea and soon decided to pursue a career in the Royal Navy. He joined H.M.S. Britannia as a naval cadet on 15th January 1897 and had as a term-mate another who was to achieve the highest naval rank and serve as a flag officer aboard Hood James Somerville.
On leaving Britannia Cunningham's first posting was to the Cape of Good Hope aboard the cruisers Fox and Doris. In 1900 Cunningham saw action at Pretoria and Diamond Hill as part of the Naval Brigade formed to support British forces in the Boer War. Whilst there he rubbed shoulders with Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener and Kitchener's ADC Walter Cowan who was another to reach flag rank and serve in Hood.
In December 1900 he returned to England and served in the Channel until his promotion to Sub-Lieutenant on 14th March 1903. Posted to the battleship Implacable in the Mediterranean, he felt very much out of place as a junior officer on a large ship so applied for a post aboard the destroyer Locust. He found this position much more to his liking with day to day responsibility for issues such as discipline, cleanliness and welfare. Thus began the love of destroyers that was to be with him throughout his career.
On leaving Locust Cunningham was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in March 1904. There followed postings to the cruiser Scylla and afterwards Suffolk in the Mediterranean. Returning to Edinburgh in 1908, Cunningham had expected a posting to a large ship but was delighted to be offered his first command HM Torpedo Boat 14, quickly followed by the destroyers Vulture and Roebuck and, in December 1910, H.M.S. Scorpion one of the new Beagle class destroyers. Thus began a long, happy and distinguished association with the ship that was to take him through World War One and bring the first of his DSOs.
Early days in Scorpion included the Spithead naval review in 1911 that stood out in Cunningham's mind as the zenith of British naval power with twenty-six miles of ships including 42 battleships and 68 destroyers. In 1913 the period in home waters came to an end with Scorpion posted to the Mediterranean. The early part of the war saw the chase of the Goeben and then, in 1915, came the Dardanelles Campaign. Scorpion's role included, at various times, escorting bombarding ships, covering minesweeping trawlers and, later on, acting as minesweeper herself. Cunningham was to witness the loss of battleships to mines and the landing and evacuation of troops all of which left impressions on his mind which were to be recalled during the next war. On 14 March 1916 he was awarded the DSO for his service in the Dardanelles.
When Scorpion returned home in 1918, Cunningham briefly commander H.M.S. Ophelia a destroyer attached to the Grand Fleet at Scapa. The experience merely served to enhance his second love the Mediterranean. On leaving Ophelia he was posted to the Dover Patrol in Command of Termagent and came to the attention of Vice-Admiral Roger Keyes, the commanding Officer. Cunningham's reputation as an expert ship-handler led Keyes to select him to command Swiftsure in an operation to attempt to block Ostend. Sadly the operation was called off three days before it was due to take place. In February 1919 Cunningham received a bar to his DSO for his work with the Dover Patrol.
During 1919 Cunningham was again in command of a destroyer H.M.S. Seafire which he took to the Baltic. Further details can be found in the biography of Rear-Admiral Sir Walter Cowan who was in overall command of the British naval forces. Cunningham took a leading role and was awarded a second bar to his DSO.
His return to Edinburgh was followed by the news that he had been promoted to Captain. After a period supervising the destruction of the German fortifications on Heligoland, he was appointed Captain of the 6th Destroyer flotilla, stationed near his home in Scotland.
The association with Sir Walter Cowan, now Vice-Admiral, was renewed in 1926, when Cunningham accepted a post as his flag Captain of the North America and West Indies station. Much of the work involved visits and "showing the flag". Although Cunningham always struggled with large formal receptions, he seems to have enjoyed this period of his life especially the visit to Canada.
The late 1920s found Cunningham back in the UK participating in courses at the Army Senior Officers' School at Sheerness as well as the Imperial Defence College. Late in 1929 came his first command of a big ship H.M.S. Rodney. Following 12 months in Rodney there was a spell as Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks Chatham. His appointment as Rear Admiral was confirmed on 24 September 1932 and was immediately followed by a period on half pay. However, on 1st January 1934 the period of inactivity was brought to an end by the post he would have chosen above all others Rear-Admiral (Destroyers) in the Mediterranean. Having hoisted his flag in the light cruiser Coventry, Cunningham used his time to perfect the fleet handling for which he was to achieve fame in the Second World War. There were fleet exercises in the Atlantic in which he learnt the skills and values of night actions that he would also use to great effect in years to come.
July 1936 saw further promotion to Vice-Admiral and, 12 months later, came his association with H.M.S. Hood when he hoisted his flag as Vice-Admiral Commanding Battlecruiser Squadron taking over from Sir Geoffrey Blake who had been taken ill. Cunningham's time with Hood (which is described over 11 pages in his memoirs) was again spent in the Mediterranean. After his long days in small ships Cunningham considered his accommodation aboard Hood to be almost palatial even surpassing his previous big ship experience on Rodney. August 1937 saw the fleet sail to the Greek Islands and Dalmatian coast on another, flag showing exercise. Cunningham was accompanied by his Commander in Chief Sir Dudley Pound, who was to serve as First Sea Lord for most of the war. The 1938 fleet exercise saw Cunninghams pitched against the "enemy" in the form of his old friend James Somerville both of whom learnt lessons about handling a carrier as part of the fleet. Before he left his post in August 1938, Cunningham hosted a diner-party aboard Hood for commanders of visiting Italian warships including Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare under the Italian Admiral Riccardi. Cunningham would face all three in more testing times during the war.
His return to the UK was to be as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff a prospect he did not relish as he always preferred to serve at sea rather than at the Admiralty. The appointment was, however, a short one as Pound was soon to return as First Sea Lord. Cunningham, who was knighted early in 1939, was chosen as successor to Pound as Commander in Chief Mediterranean. He hoisted his flag in Warspite on 6th June 1939.
This short biography can only touch on ABC's wartime experiences. Anyone wishing to delve further should consult one of the books listed in the reference section at the end.
The main threat to British sea power would come from the Italians and 'ABC', as he was by now known throughout the fleet, was determined that whenever Italy chose to start hostilities the fleet would be ready to react. Surprisingly, however, the first challenge came from the French. After the fall of France, Britain needed to ensure French warships did not pass into enemy hands. Stationed at the time at Alexandria, ABC entered into delicate negotiations with the French Admiral Godfroy to ensure his warships posed no threat. Just as an agreement seemed imminent Godfroy heard of the British action against the French at Mers el Kebir and, for a while, ABC feared a battle between French and British warships in the confines of Alexandria harbour. However, things ended well after ABC put the negotiations on a more personal level and had British ships appeal to their French opposite numbers.
The next action came on 9th July 1940 when ABC's fleet encountered the Italians off the coast of Calabria. The action reached its climax when Warspite scored a hit on Giulio Cesare at a distance of almost 13 miles a record for naval gunnery.
On 11th November 1940 came one of ABC's most famous triumphs the attack by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish on the Italian Fleet whilst it was at anchor at Taranto. Seen by many as the blueprint for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour 12 months later, the Swordfish flew off H.M.S. Illustrious at almost 9 o'clock in the evening. The attack was a brilliant success with 3 Italian battleships and a cruiser put out of action.
The New Year of 1941 saw ABC's promotion to full Admiral and then, in March, came another famous victory, this time at Cape Matapan. The engagement began when the British fleet located Italian heavy ships off the West Coast of Crete. The Italians, preferring not to engage, turned for home but were pursued by British aircraft from the carrier Formidable and bases in Crete. The battleship Vittorio Veneto was hit and, in a later attack, the cruiser Pola disabled. Pola and the two cruisers Zara and Fiume, detached from the main force to assist her, were traced by the British forces during the night and all were sunk.
The early successes of 1941 were soon to be followed by heavy setbacks with the evacuation of allied troops from Greece and then Crete. ABC was determined during these operations that the navy should support the withdrawal of the Army to the extreme extent of its ability. Many ships were lost but ABC's resolve secured the Army's faith in the Navy's ability and commitment to support them in their hour of need. It was to pay dividends later in the war.
The end of 1941 saw further disasters with the battleship Barham lost and battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant damaged by Italian submarine and human torpedo attacks. Convoys to supply Malta and the support and supply the 8th Army in North Africa were a constant strain and commitment.
March of 1942 brought news that ABC was to leave the Mediterranean and take up post in Washington, D.C. as the First Sea Lord's representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee. After a short break in the UK, ABC left for the United States on 23rd June 1942. Staff work never having been to his liking, he was relieved when an opportunity arose for him to be the Naval Commander for the forthcoming Operation Torch the Allied landings in North Africa. The planning for the operation, much of which took place at Gibraltar, also led to the cementing of a life long friendship with American General Dwight D. 'Ike' Eisenhower Supreme Commander of the operation. Following the success of Torch, ABC attended the Casablanca conference at which the decision was taken that Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, would follow Allied victory in North Africa. On 21st January 1943 Cunningham was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and February saw him reappointed to his old post of Commander in Chief, Mediterranean. Planning for Husky found him again in close liaison with Ike. On Husky's D-day both spent anxious hours at Malta as the weather had been poor. Much to their relief the decision to go was vindicated as reports of early success started to come in.
In September of 1943 came one of the most pleasing moments when the Italian fleet was led by his old flagship Warspite to surrender at Malta. ABC had occasion to send to the Admiralty the signal "Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that the Italian Battlefleet now lies at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta." The celebrations were short lived as soon came news that Sir Dudley Pound was ill and no longer fit for duty. ABC was recalled to replace him. He left his beloved Mediterranean for what he knew would be the last time and took up post as First Sea Lord on 16th October 1943.
As First Sea Lord, Cunningham had the guiding hand in all naval operations during the later part of the war. Never entirely at home in a non sea-faring post, he appreciated the support he received from the other two Chiefs of Staff (Alan Brooke (CIGS) and Charles Portal (CAS)) and, although he had had many differences of opinion with Churchill particularly in the early days of the war he had always had a great respect for the Prime Minister's courage and tenacity. During his period as First Sea Lord, the respect they had for one another matured. ABC attended all the major conferences towards the end of the war Cairo, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam. The New Year's Honours list of 1945 brought (at Churchill's suggestion) the Order of the Thistle. Although this award seems to have touched him more than any, ABC saw it as another accolade for the Navy rather than anything due to his own efforts.
A year later in January 1946 he became a Viscount and June of that year saw his departure from the Admiralty after almost 50 years service. Retirement was spent enjoying his garden and the company of his wife, Nona, at the Palace House, Bishops Waltham. In 1951 he published his memoirs "A Sailor's Odyssey", the ultimate reference work for any student of his life.
Andrew Cunningham died suddenly following a meeting at the Admiralty on 12th June 1963. He was buried at sea off the Nab Tower, Portsmouth from H.M.S. Hampshire.
Sources and References:
Cunningham, Admiral of the Fleet AB: A Sailors Odyssey (Hutchinson, 1951)
Pack, SWC: Cunningham the Commander (Batsford, 1974)
Pack, SWC: The Battle of Matapan (Batsford, 1961)
Warner, O: Cunningham of Hyndhope: Admiral of the Fleet (John Murray, 1967)
Winton, J: Cunningham: The Greatest Admiral since Nelson
A more in-depth list of titles can be found in the bibliography of John Winton's excellent book.