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A Sailor’s Odyssey

17 Mar 23

The career of Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope (1883-1963) provides the classic example of “the right man, in the right place, at the right time”. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet at a critical time, less than three months before the outbreak of the Second World War and commanded the fleet virtually until the defeat of Italy. Then after witnessing the surrender of the Italian Fleet on 11 September 1943, he was appointed First Sea Lord, responsible for the successful strategy and conduct of the Royal Navy for the rest of the war. This latest edition of the classic autobiography of ‘ABC’ (Andrew Browne Cunningham) has been reprinted with an introduction by Admiral Cunningham’s great nephew, the former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Jock Slater GCB LVO DL.

At over 700 pages, this lengthy autobiography is in fact two stories, the full story of one of our greatest fighting admirals, and secondly a detailed and fascinating 370 page account of the naval campaign in the Mediterranean, which is the core of the book. It provides a first hand, ‘centre stage’ insight into that desperate, heroic naval campaign, which played such a crucial role in finally turning the course of the war in the Allies’ favour.

Cunningham starts with grand strategy as DCNS, disagreeing with Allied war plans focussing on the Japanese threat. He stressed the importance of the Mediterranean theatre and claimed the way to defeat Italy would be to cut off and defeat the Italian Army in North Africa, coupled with naval attacks on the Italian ports and coast. Circumstances put him in command of the Mediterranean Fleet on 5 June 1939 and he wasted no time moving his depleted fleet from its vulnerable base in Malta to Alexandria. Tragically his first decisive and painful actions were to negate the French Fleet when Italy joined the war in June 1940. On 9 July he encountered the Italian battle fleet off Calabria, famously achieving a hit from his flagship, HMS Warspite at a range over 13 miles before the Italians escaped. His success was soon dwarfed by his masterstroke, crippling the Italian Fleet in its base at Taranto with Swordfish torpedo bombers on 11 November 1940. After a period of bitter and intensive operations protecting convoys to Malta, Tobruk and Greece against Axis aircraft and submarines he scored a great victory off Cape Matapan 27-29 March 1941, sinking three powerful 12,000 ton Italian heavy cruisers (his last action in command at sea). He then had to deal with a disastrous evacuation of troops from Crete under very heavy attack and continued bitter engagements. His problems continued with heavy losses including HM Ships Ark Royal, Barham, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant as he battled on through 1942 protecting vital Malta and Libyan convoys.

He left to join the mission to Washington to discuss and plan landings in North Africa (Operation TORCH). Then moving on to the invasion of Sicily (Operation HUSKY) but stated “…the landings in Sicily have been so often described that it is not my intention to write of them…”. Sicily was followed by Salerno (Operation AVALANCHE), he wrote “…no intention of trying to describe that complicated operation…” adding that the assault almost failed but was saved by naval bombardment and even the Germans attributed final success to the devasting effect of naval gunfire. With the serious illness of Admiral Pound, the First Sea Lord, Cunningham relieved him on 5 October 1943 and remained in post for the rest of the war overseeing strategy, the D-Day invasion (Operation OVERLORD) and the war in the Pacific.

He had an interesting style at times writing in an almost modest, deprecating style (“… no one was more surprised than me to win… to be awarded…I never set much store by titles… wishful of refusing…”.), which rather contrasted with his rather fearsome reputation as a forthright fighter.

The book has an excellent index, and some most useful notes on the War in the Mediterranean, by Captain Adair. Strangely, the book does not have a list of contents, nor text notes, and the 48 chapters have no headings (no indications of events, dates or locations) as in works of fiction, which this splendid book most certainly is not. Nevertheless, the book is well illustrated, with a good collection of 48 photographs and 16 clear maps. This fascinating, and very full autobiography is strongly recommended, particularly to students of naval history and the Second World War.