From The BBC Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
How 'Cat's Eyes' helped change the world
WWII fighter pilot John Cunningham, the first man to shoot down an enemy plane
using radar, has died aged 84. His nickname masked a world-changing innovation.
During the dark days of 1941, when the UK stood alone against the aerial
onslaught of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force provided hope and
heroes to a population starved of both.
While pilots like Jonnie Johnson and "Sailor" Malan ruled the sky during the
day, at night Group Captain John Cunningham reigned supreme, harrying the
Luftwaffe bomber formations which were blitzing UK cities.
Indeed, Cunningham became the leading RAF night fighter pilot of World War II,
chalking up 20 kills, and numerous decorations, in an often hair-raising series
A modest man, John Cunningham was fêted like a film star. Nicknamed Cats' Eyes -
a sobriquet he never liked - his exceptional skill on the nocturnal battlefield
was put down to eating carrots to improve his night vision.
This romantic, if rather naïve, explanation for his success, masked the reality.
British scientists had secretly developed a sophisticated and formidable
airborne radar system which allowed its pilots to home in on Luftwaffe bomber
streams, often with devastating consequences.
Born in 1917, John Cunningham was schooled in Croydon. At 18 he was apprenticed
to the De Havilland aircraft company, and joined the Auxiliary Air Force.
He became a test pilot shortly before the war, but was called up in August 1939.
Flying Blenheims, Beaufighters - and later Mosquitoes - he and his observer/air
gunner, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Rawnsley, had an almost unbroken record of
success against German bombers at night.
Film producer Brian Marshall, whose Rapid Pictures recently interviewed Group
Captain Cunningham for the film Boffins, Beams and Bombs, says: "He was part of
a new generation of pilots, working closely with controllers on the ground to
attack Luftwaffe formations.
"Cunningham was able to think in three dimensions, an extremely useful ability
when flying at night. He thought out his strategy just like a chess match. He
was a shy and unassuming man who didn't like the limelight."
More here. Daily Mail
Cunningham won the Distinguished Service Order and two bars and the
Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. In 1944, now a Group Captain, he was put in
charge of night operations against the V-1 flying bombs.
After the war, Cunningham returned to De Havilland, and was made chief test
pilot after Geoffrey De Havilland was killed in a crash.He broke the world altitude record in a Vampire fighter-bomber in 1948, and in
July 1949 made the maiden test flight in the Comet, the first passenger jet.
Later he helped to investigate a series of Comet crashes, eventually attributed
to metal fatigue. He made a round-the-world trip in a Comet in 1955, and in 1962
flew the first Trident airline.
In 1975 Cunningham was taking off from Dunsfold in an HS 125 when a flock of
birds was sucked into the engines. He brought the plane down, but it ploughed
across a road and killed the wife of a fellow pilot and five schoolgirls.
It was his first and only crash and, he said, the worst moment of his flying
He retired in 1980, and that year was awarded the Air League Founders' Medal as
the outstanding test pilot of the post-war years.
John Cunningham was a slight, matter-of-fact man, totally unlike the popular
idea of a fighter pilot. But, with his country in peril, his aerial exploits
raised the morale of a whole people.
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