Christened as Andrew Browne Cunningham, perhaps inevitably he was known affectionately as ‘ABC to his subordinates, not that many would have dared address him as such. His early career was typical of that of many British naval officers, graduating from the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Between the two world wars, he also suffered the inconvenience and insecurity of being ‘rested’ on half pay, even as a rear admiral. This was an old British naval tradition in peacetime for officers of the rank of rear admiral and below whenever there were more senior officers than posts, and one that did not end until the Second World War.
Andrew Cunningham was born at Rathmines, County Dublin, Ireland, on 7 January 1883 to Scottish parents. He was sent to Edinburgh Academy. The family had no maritime connections and Cunningham only had a vague interest in the sea, but he decided that he would like to join the Royal Navy and was sent to a Naval Preparatory School, Stubbington House, which specialized in sending pupils through the Dartmouth entrance examinations, in which he showed a particular ability for mathematics. Dartmouth at the time was organized and run much as a boarding school, which meant that parents had to pay fees.
At Dartmouth, Cunningham’s introduction to the Royal Navy was as a cadet aboard the hulked training ship HMS Britannia in 1897, where one of his classmates was the future Admiral of the Fleet James Fownes Somerville. He passed out 10th in April 1898, with first-class marks for mathematics and seamanship.
He joined HMS Doris as a midshipman in 1899 and was in South Africa at the start of the Second Boer War. By February 1900, he had transferred into the Naval Brigade ashore looking for action, which he saw at Pretoria and Diamond Hill. He returned to sea, still as a midshipman in Hannibal in December 1901, before joining the protected cruiser HMS Diadem the following year, during which he also took sub-lieutenant courses at Portsmouth and Greenwich. In 1903, he was a sub lieutenant in the battleship Implacable in the Mediterranean, but after six months he was transferred to Locust to serve as second-in-command. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1904, and in 1908 was awarded his first command, HM Torpedo Boat No. 14.
Cunningham’s career spanned the end of the old Victorian navy with ships that, as Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher put it, ‘could neither fight nor run away’, and the twentieth-century navy in which the submarine and the aeroplane achieved overwhelming importance. He was a young officer when the all-big-gun battleship emerged, and took some time to appreciate the importance of air power, although he was to use this very effectively. He proved himself to be an outstanding commanding officer at sea during the First World War, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with two bars.
In 1911 he was given command of the destroyer Scorpion, which he commanded throughout the war. In 1914, his ship was involved in the shadowing of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and cruiser SMS Breslau, which were chased across the Mediterranean, but which passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople. Cunningham stayed on in the Mediterranean and, in 1915, Scorpion was involved in the attack on the Dardanelles. Cunningham was promoted to commander and awarded his first DSO. In late 1916, he was engaged in convoy protection, a duty he regarded as mundane, probably because he had no contact with German U-boats during this time, later stating that: ‘The immunity of my convoys, was probably due to sheer luck.’ When Scorpion paid off on 21 January 1918, he had been aboard the ship for the unusually long period of seven years. He was transferred to Vice Admiral Roger Keyes’ Dover Patrol in April 1918.
Post-war, Cunningham commanded another S-class destroyer, the Seafire, on duty in the Baltic. The British Government had recognized Latvia’s independence after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Throughout several potentially problematic encounters with German forces trying to undermine the Latvian independence movement, according to his flag officer, Vice Admiral Cowan, Cunningham exhibited ‘good self control and judgement’, and ‘Commander Cunningham … has proved himself an officer of exceptional valour and unerring resolution.’
Afterwards, Cunningham was awarded a second bar to his DSO and promoted to Captain in 1920. On his return from the Baltic in 1922, he was appointed Captain of the British Sixth Destroyer Flotilla. Further commands followed including the destroyer base, Lochinvar, at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth in 1926. Later, Cunningham became Flag Captain and Chief Staff Officer to Cowan while serving on the North America and West Indies Station. The late 1920s found Cunningham back in the UK participating in courses at the Army’s Senior Officers’ School at Sheerness, as well as spending a year at the Imperial Defence College. Afterwards, Cunningham was given command of the battleship Rodney. Eighteen months later, he was appointed Commodore of Pembroke, the Royal Naval barracks at Chatham.
In September 1932, Cunningham was promoted to rear admiral and became Aide-de-Camp to King George V, before being appointed Rear Admiral (Destroyers) in the Mediterranean in December 1933. He hoisted his flag in the flight cruiser Coventry and used this time to practise fleet handling. There were also fleet exercises in the Atlantic Ocean where he learnt the skills of night actions that would prove their value at Matapan.
On his promotion to vice admiral in July 1936, further active employment seemed remote. However, a year later, due to the illness of Sir Geoffrey Blake, Cunningham assumed the combined appointment of commander of the British Battlecruiser Squadron and second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, with Hood as his flagship. He retained command until September 1938, when he was appointed to the Admiralty as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, although he did not actually take up this post until December 1938. He accepted this shore job with reluctance since he loathed administration, but the Board of Admiralty’s high regard for him was evident. During a six-month illness of Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, the then First Sea Lord, he deputized for Backhouse on the Committee of Imperial Defence and on the Admiralty Board.
The outbreak of war found Cunningham as an acting admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, which he regarded as ‘the finest in the Royal Navy’. It was clear that the Mediterranean theatre would be crucial during the war, with the ‘Med’, in British naval slang, being part of the route from the British Isles to India, the Middle East and Australia. Italy’s expansive plans in North Africa were clear from the Abyssinian crisis onwards and the close relationship between her Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the German Führer, Adolph Hitler, was all too obvious. The two countries had also sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Italy was geographically positioned to cut the Mediterranean in half and also posed a threat to the Royal Navy’s main base in the Mediterranean, Malta. All in all, everyone was surprised when the Italians did not declare war in September 1939.
The Mediterranean Fleet was one of the plum commands in the Royal Navy, second only to what was, at different times, termed as the Grand Fleet, Atlantic Fleet and, in 1939, the Home Fleet. It had a base at Gibraltar as well as at Malta, while Alexandria in Egypt was shared by the British Mediterranean Fleet and the French Marine Nationale, but Egypt was run almost as a British colony or protectorate, and the country’s navy even had a British admiral in command.
Despite the importance of his command and of the three bases, there was no fighter defence for Gibraltar or Malta at the outbreak of war, while Cunningham had just one aircraft carrier in 1939, the converted flight battlecruiser HMS Glorious, which was called to home waters for operations off Norway in spring 1940. The even older Eagle, a converted battleship, was recalled from the Indian Ocean as a replacement. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean was outgunned by the Italian Navy, which had six battleships against the Royal Navy’s three. It took the French Mediterranean Squadron to redress the balance.
The Fall of France
When Italy finally entered the war in June 1940, shortly before the fall of France, it was simply a matter of good luck for Cunningham that the Italians did not move swiftly to seize Malta. The island was bombed from the morning after the declaration of war, but not shelled by Italian battleships and cruisers, and no attempt was made to land troops. The Royal Navy possessed the ability to inflict serious damage on the Italian Navy and did so, especially at the Battle of Cape Matapan and at Taranto.
The fall of France had created an unexpected problem for the Royal Navy. The ships of their erstwhile ally were scattered at a number of ports, in the Atlantic from Portsmouth and Plymouth in the UK to Dakar in West Africa, and in the Mediterranean from Casablanca in French Morocco, Mers-el-Kebir and Oran in Algeria, to Alexandria in North Africa. While the Royal Navy was reluctant to take action against the French, the attitude of the new Vichy French Government was an unknown quantity, although it was known to include pro-Axis elements. It was important that the ships should not fall into German hands and it was the ships at Alexandria that posed yet another problem for Cunningham.
Cunningham had every sympathy with his French counterpart, Vice Admiral Godfroy, who was under orders from his Admiralty to sail, but was trying to confirm that the order was authentic. While de Gaulle was already in the United Kingdom intent on establishing the Free French forces, this move was not universally accepted by all French émigrés, and at this early stage of the war, with so few personnel available to de Gaulle, and the future policies of the Vichy regime not known, few were inclined to commit themselves. After all, the Germans had not occupied the whole of France, and they did not wish to be classed as traitors.
Naturally, most of the personnel involved wished to return home. Darlan had issued orders that ships were to be scuttled if there was a risk of them being seized by the Germans, but it was also clear that they were not to be handed to the British either. Cunningham later recalled:
Though I had no doubts of the good faith of Vice Admiral Godfroy, it was impossible for the British fleet in Alexandria to go to sea for operations against the enemy leaving behind in harbour fully efficient units of the French Navy. Immediately we were out of sight they might … go back to France, where there was no assurance that they would not fall into German or Italian hands and be used against us.
Admiralty pressure on Cunningham to act decisively and quickly was considerable. It says much for his character that he refused to be hurried into taking action that could further affect Anglo-French naval relations.
Cunningham knew that his only alternatives were to intern the ships or risk unnecessary bloodshed on both sides by sinking them. After initially appearing to accept internment with the repatriation of most of his ships’ companies, while the vessels would be relieved of their fuel and the warheads taken off their torpedoes, the Vichy Government’s orders to sail forced Godfroy to change his mind. He instructed his ships to raise steam – a process that would take up to eight hours. Cunningham was alerted and, going on deck, saw not only that the ships were raising steam, but that their guns had been uncovered and they were ready for action, with the real possibility of a close-range gun battle in Alexandria harbour. The British warships immediately did the same, removing the tompions (muzzle covers) from their guns.
Cunningham immediately ordered his commanding officers to visit the French, while the flagship signalled each French warship in turn advising them of the British Government’s offer of repatriation if the warships were put out of use. The visitors to the French warships were not unwelcome, but in many cases the decision was taken out of their hands as French ratings held meetings on deck, while the French commanding officers visited Godfroy on his lag-ship, Dusquesne. Later, Godfroy asked to see Cunningham and they agreed that all fuel oil was to be discharged from the French ships, their guns were to be disabled, and some 70 per cent of their crews were to be landed and eventually repatriated.
No attempt was made to press the French ships into the Royal Navy. Leaving small crews behind meant that the ships were maintained ready for the day of liberation.
By 7 July, the French fleet no longer presented a threat, allowing the British to leave Alexandria without any concern over possible French action to seize the port or the Suez Canal. Cunningham had shown considerable skill and diplomacy in a difficult situation – in modern terminology he had defused the situation.