John Cats Eyes Cunningham. The Aviation Legend

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'Cat's Eyes'



'Cat's Eyes'

Cunningham The Aviation Legend

John Golley

Airlife England

Copyright First



1999 John Golley

Published in the

Airlife Publishing

UK in



British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication


A catalogue record for this book is




from the

British Library

84037 059 9

All rights reserved.


part of this

book may be reproduced

transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or

mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the Publisher in writing. Edited by




Typeset by Phoenix Typesetting, Ilkley, West Yorkshire Printed by Biddies Ltd, Guildford and King's Lynn.

Airlife Publishing 101


Longden Road, Shrewsbury, SY3 9EB England

E-mail: [email protected]



Dedication This book is dedicated to the late Alastair Simpson, who founded Airlife Publishing Ltd. Over the years his books have made an invaluable contribution in recording the history and development of aviation and the personalities involved, in both war and peace.

Acknowledgements To Air Vice-Marshal Freddie Hurrell, who generated the project, and to Raymond Baxter who wrote the foreword. Both John Cunningham and I

Jimmy Rawnsley

are indebted to the late

(John's navigator)

and the

Bob Wright, who wrote Night Fighter. This excellent book, recently reprinted by Crecy Publishing Ltd, recorded John Cunningham's


partnership with Jimmy Rawnsley throughout their service with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. As John never kept a diary and is most economical with words, Jimmy's narrative proved invaluable in prompting John's recollections of the days when he became famous as 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham. special thanks to the writer John Maynard (ex de Havilland) for his support and help throughout. Maynard's potted biography, published in Aeroplane magazine, provided a concise framework of Cunningham's life. Furthermore, Maynard's recollections of life at Hatfield, and the impact of triumph and disaster on the community, added depth to the momentous events which took place. Test pilots John Wilson and Desmond Penrose, who flew with John, provided splendid back-up both from the cockpit and the lifestyle during their association with John Cunningham. Also, I would like to thank Roland 'Bee' Beamont (ex Chief Test Pilot of British Aerospace) andJohn Gibson (Test Pilot) for their help. Amongst others who contributed were Mick Oakey (Editor Aeroplane), Dennis Baldry (photographs), Ian Hamilton (computer work), and Chris Oldfield who got me there 'on time'. I would like to thank the Archivist of Whitgift School, F.H.G. Percy, and Mike Ramsden, who both provided particularly valuable


insights. I


particularly like to thank Peter Coles


his associates at

biography of John Cunningham. Previously, they handled my biography of the jet pioneer Sir Frank Whittle, and working with them is always a pleasure and a

Airlife for their expertise in creating this fine official

satisfying experience. Finally, the




support in recounting the John Cunningham

old friend and colleague Bill Gunston, whose technical expertise and highly professional editing needs no amplification! story

came from



same author

The Big Drop

Day of the Typhoon Hurricanes over Murmansk The

Whittle - The True Story (paperback, Genesis of the Jet)







Forget (Battle of Britain Play w.

Aircrew Unlimited





pilot has




spectacular and significant contribution

to the aviation history of his time than John It is

logical sense.

true that his date of birth

He was born




though not in the

into his time, learning to fly with the



Auxiliary Air Force in 1935 - perfect for an active operational career from the outbreak of the Second World War. So were a great many others. But few went on to become an 'ace', achieve the rank of Group Captain and win the DSO and 2 Bars, DFC and Bar and be awarded the

CBE. Cunningham, to his embarrassment, became a popular whose name appeared in headlines in the Press, which had honoured him with the colourful soubriquet of 'Cat's Eyes'. That he scored unprecedented success against the hated German night bombers during the darkest period of the War endeared him literally to the longIn fact John

national hero

That he owed his success not so much to his and still secret, airborne radar was neither here nor there. To disguise the facts, his optical discernment was attributed to, amongst other factors, eating raw carrots. As one whose only 'Below Average' rating in my Service Record was for Night Vision, I consumed raw carrots by the ton, but to no avail! Thus by 1945 John Cunningham had achieved the cliche status of 'a legend in his own lifetime'. So had other RAF wartime pilots of outstanding gallantry and success. But few of them went on to become leading test pilots at the very frontiers of development and challenge in the dawn of the jet- age. And only one was to go down in history as the world's first Certificated Captain of a commercial passenger jet aircraft. Even this was not enough. As Chief Test Pilot at de Havilland his qualities of leadership, which had blossomed during the War, inspired and guided the team which emerged from disaster to ultimate triumph. Furthermore, to this day, he is acknowledged by his peers to have been amongst the finest display pilots of large aircraft ever to perform at Farnborough and elsewhere. Can there be more? Indeed there is. His prowess as a communicator - he is among the most articulate men with whom I have ever conversed suffering British Public.

night- vision as to the new,


Foreword enabled him to become an extremely successful salesman for his company, while his diplomacy proved a match for even the most challenging of customers - the Chinese. One final tribute - and I will not spare your blushes, old friend - a more modest, charming and delightful man it has never been my privilege to meet. Your story is the stuff of greatness, and this book is a worthy telling of a noble


Raymond Baxter



Contents Introduction



Middle Wallop



Early Days and a Taste for Flying



Groundwork and Early Testing




Tense Peace, Phoney


The Magic Box










By Royal Command



Not Carrots but Cathodes



Duel of Champions






Back on Ops



The Mosquito





Summer 1943 New Enemy Tactics


Winding Down



Farewell Party








Back with the Family





From Sonic Bangs to Tragedy The Jet Revolution The Birth of the Comet


Empire Days



The Gathering Storm












Long Incubation


Chinese Episode - 1972-79



165 1




Contents 29 30

John Wilson Remembers The Reluctant Hero




209 218




Appendix 2


German Aircraft Destroyed by John Cunningham 1940-44 Flight-testing


219 220 222



Introduction growth from TheCentury remarkable phenomenon.

nothing of the aviation industry during the 20th is a Aviation has changed both the way we live and the world in which we live. It has shrunk the globe, and made possible journeys that our ancestors never even imagined. Two world wars during the first half of the Century made the sky a battleground, and command of the air became an essential ingredient towards achieving victory. These wars greatly accelerated the growth of the industry, and during the Second World War the emergence of jet aircraft symbolised a revolution in aviation which has no parallel in history. The conquest of the air both in war and peace attracted a special breed of men and women, whose lives became totally dedicated to flying. One such man is John Cunningham, whose flying career spanned 45 years, during which he became an aviation legend. Opening the door to gain insight into a legendary character is a fascinating business, particularly as John is a most reluctant hero whose natural charm and self-effacing manner make him exceedingly reticent about his achievements, and more willing to talk about those of his associates. He has never previously collaborated with an author to write his own story, which is both dramatic and inspiring. It was Air ViceMarshal Freddie Hurrell, formerly Director of Appeals at the RAF Benevolent Fund, who persuaded him that a biography was essential during his lifetime. Freddie pointed out that such a book would avoid inaccuracies that might occur from those who rewrite history, and that he owed it to the many people who supported and admired him.

During World War II the media branded him 'Cat's-eyes Cunningham' because of his famed exploits as a night-fighter pilot, together with his partner Jimmy Rawnsley who operated the 'Magic Box' (also called 'Magic Mirror' at the time) which guided them to intercept their targets. The miracle of airborne radar had arrived, and the Air Ministry's somewhat naive efforts to conceal its existence from the enemy are part of the story. This is set against a background of total blackout below, and night skies punctured with bursting shells and probing searchlights. 'Cat's-eyes'

Cunningham became xn

a household

name throughout


Middle Wallop in the day John Cunningham and radar-operator Jimmy Rawnsley had tested their radar equipment against a friendly aircraft as a target. This was to be Jimmy's first operational experi-


ence in the new Bristol Beaufighter equipped with the latest 'Magic Box'. Naturally he was keyed-up, and determined to position John close

enough behind an enemy bomber for John to see the glow from its engines. For him this was a personal challenge to prove that, having completed

his radar course,

he could master the technique.

The Battle of Britain had come and gone, but in its wake there still hung the threat of an imminent invasion. During the long dark autumn nights, the Germans had been launching major bombing offensives, coming over in their hundreds. They took off from the airfields across Northern France, such as Caen, Toul-Rozieres, Cambrai, Beaumont-le-Roger, and Norville. In early November 1940 they changed tactics by directing their attacks against Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and other Midlands cities. Previously they had made the short run across the Strait of Dover heading for the moonlit Thames estuary to concentrate on the giant conurbation of London. Targets in the Midlands and the North, however, involved a longer sea crossing, followed by a deep penetration into blacked-out and hostile England. Middle Wallop in Hampshire was perfectly positioned to enable the Beaufighters to make early contacts over the sea and the South Coast area. At first glance they appeared an unlikely pair to become a lethal team -John, a boyish-looking young man of 24 with blue eyes and fair hair and a slim but strong physique, while diminutive Jimmy, incredibly old at 37, was only five feet four inches (1.6 m) tall and weighed a mere seven and a half stone (47.6 kg). The freezing night air hit them as they walked out of the wooden hut towards their Beaufighter R-Robert parked on the north-east corner of the grass airfield. Usually the ground was wet and soggy, but on this night frost had made it hard and firm. There were beds in the hut on which to relax when they were on standby, and slit trenches to take cover from enemy attacks. The airfield had been bombed on several occasions, and had played a significant role by both day and night during the recent Battle of Britain. Arras, Achiet



'Cat's Eyes'


Behind them the ground rose steeply, climbing towards the old hill fortress of Danebury where the sentinels of ancient Britain and of the invading Romans had kept watch over the plain. The surrounding hills of the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, topped with clumps of trees, rolled

away in undulating curves across the horizon. John was highly conscious of the fact that the night-fighter operation still had to make its mark, and give German bomber crews something to think about when they took off. The previous night fighter, the Blenheim, had been incapable of doing the job required of it, and there had been numerous problems with its primitive radar system. On 15 November 1940, Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air, had written to Prime Minister Churchill that, The result of last night's battle was thoroughly unsatisfactory. Three hundred German aircraft converged on a previously known target. Round that target were five times as many guns per head of population as there are around London. One hundred British fighters were airborne. Yet the only German casualty is claimed neither by the fighters nor by the guns'. Now, in 1941, they had a much more powerful fighter and the latest airborne radar, AI (Air Interception) Mk IV, backed up by a new type of ground control radar station. John had been involved in night-fighter development since pre-war days, and it had been an uphill struggle with few indications of a major breakthrough. Instinctively he knew that this would not come suddenly, but now at last, they had the aircraft and the technical improvements to give them a chance of meeting the challenge. National and global publicity had been focused on the Battle of Britain, and made day-fighter pilots into heroes. Everybody wanted to climb into the skies and duel in the sun. Victory in this battle engendered a surge of confidence in the nation's ability to stand and fight alone. Little was said or heard about the Royal Air Force's night fighters. As the bombing attacks increased, the night skies were continually punctured by probing searchlights and bursting shells, but the defences seemed ineffective. There was no evidence that the British night fighters could shoot down any of the raiding bombers. On the night of 12 January, Beaufighter R-Robert from No 604 Auxiliary Squadron stood waiting for action. She looked a formidable machine, with two pugnacious 1,600 horsepower Bristol Hercules engines jutting ahead of a tough airframe housing the devastating forward-firing armament of four 20-mm Hispano cannons; later six machine-guns were added. The 'Beau' had the power, the speed, the radar and the field of vision from the cockpit which combined to make a classic night fighter. In his flying overalls and brown muffler, John pulled down his belly hatch and climbed up the integral ladder into the fuselage and then up the sloping floor to the cockpit in the nose. Jimmy's entrance was further it

Middle Wallop back, and he climbed in and wriggled into his seat where the 'Magic Box' was suspended from the low roof behind a Perspex dome. He sat with his back to John, facing the tail, and could look directly into the rubber

two cathode-ray tubes. With only a slight turn of his head, he could keep a visual watch over the tail. Having completed their checks, John taxied out ready for take-off. On that particular night for some reason they were to be controlled by the ground radar station at Tangmere, outside Chichester in Sussex, instead of their usual station at Sopley, near Bournemouth. The Tangmere Controller's call sign was 'Boffin', while John's was 'Blazer visor studying the



John opened up the engines, the Beaufighter gathered speed and Jimmy, as usual, tensed up. Despite the number of hours he had spent in the

he never could relax on


hand, never



trusted John's pilot skills

made no

difference to his tension. John, on the other allowed anything to interfere with his concentration.

implicitly, but


Jimmy's tension eased only

as the

ground dropped away.

After taking off, John climbed into cloud heading eastward, and at about 3,000 feet (914 m) they emerged into a clear moonlit sky. He called up the GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) station at Tangmere, and 'Boffin', the Controller, turned them south out over the Channel. As they crossed the coast the cloud suddenly stopped short like a broken iceberg over the chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. As the 'Beau' moved out across the silvered moonlit waters of the Channel, the cliffs retreated into

background haze. Suddenly the radio came to life. Boffin called, 'Hallo, Blazer Two Four, orbit orbit. There is a bandit coming in. Angels eleven' (1 1,000 feet). John immediately opened up the throttles as he responded 'OK, Boffin orbiting'. Over the intercom he said to Jimmy, 'I'm going up to fifteen. We'd better have a bit of height in hand'. The sleeve-valve engines took on a deeper booming as they climbed through the freezing sky. They now had some trade, and were in business, alert and standing by for instructions from Boffin. Soon the compass courses to direct them towards the target began to flow in: 'One five zero turn starboard on to two one zero turn port on to zero six zero Although Jimmy had his eyes on the cathode-ray tubes of his AI Mk IV 'Magic Box', he realised that they had been turned aside to allow the German bomber to pass. Now he could see that they were banking round in pursuit and heading back towards tht South Coast. In contrast to his utterly cool pilot, his adrenalin flowed as he was anxious to prove that he the











could successfully operate the





weapon' came the command from Boffin. This meant 'Switch on your radar', showing that they were closing in on their target. Hitherto this command had made some of the WAAFs (Women's 'Flash your



'Cat's Eyes'


Auxiliary Air Force) working the.GCI system blush a little. They blushed even more when they received the discouraging reply 'My weapon is bent', which was quite often the case with the notoriously unreliable


Mk III RAF night-fighters had been using.


adjusted his tuning control for about the twentieth time and reported to John saying, 'No joy yet'. John had the Beau at almost full power, closing on the enemy at well over 300 mph (483 km/h), and felt the bandit couldn't be very far ahead. Jimmy held his breath and watched

from an aerial target ahead) which would enable him to track his target. Suddenly he saw a bulge forming, and it gradually became a definite blip. He gave it a few more seconds and then, moistening his lips, found his voice: 'Contact at [a range of] 12,000 feet', he told John, 'Slightly port and well below'. From now on it was all up to him. He was determined not to lose 'sight' of the bandit and, if he got it right, to bring the Beau dead astern of the target. 'Check port', he said, meaning 'turn slightly to the left'. The blip moved across the display as John turned, and then centred again as John straightened out, having executed a neat side-step. The bandit was now dead ahead at a range of 10,000 feet (3 km), but slightly intently for a blip (the reflection


John could see that if they dived they would soon overshoot the target. Accordingly, while letting the nose fall below the horizon, he throttled back the engines and dropped the wheels to act as airbrakes. The Beau continued to close on the bandit, whilst descending at a controlled rate. Suddenly Jimmy realised

that the blip


drifting to the left again, so

He had been

concentrating so hard on manoeuvres that he had forgotten to keep an eye on their altitude, until John said, 'On course. I'm still losing height, by the way'. Jimmy confidently replied, 'OK, level out now. Range 8,000 dead ahead and

they executed another side-step. these








increase speed again'.

The Hercules engines stopped making popping noises and regained their booming asjohn opened the throttles. The range closed rapidly, but then Jimmy saw the blip again drifting away to the left. He said, 'Turn port ten degrees'. Range was now 5,000, and the blip was getting larger and

clearer, but then






starting drifting to the right.

said 'Turn starboard five degrees'.

He had


John acknowledged

things were going well, but he realised it would be a good idea to give John as complete a picture as possible of what was happening. 'Range three thousand. Throttle back a bit. It's dead ahead and slightly above'. He watched the blip coming down the vertical central trace as fifteen still ahead the range decreased. 'Range two thousand degrees above. Throttle right back. Range fifteen hundred ...'Jimmy began to be really worried that they would overshoot.









Middle Wallop one thousand 'Twelve hundred still ahead fifteen degrees above. Nine hundred .'John had cut the throttles right back, and the engines were again spluttering. Now really big, the blip sat at the bottom .





of the trace, indicating





back. 'Increase speed again







minimum range. For a frightening moment it slowly climbed the trace again, as the Beau fell

thirty degrees above'. At such every word of guidance, whilst straining his eyes to search the dark sky ahead. Suddenly John said 'OK, I can see it!' The blip started moving down again. The miracle had happened! At long last the system had worked! Jimmy continued to read off the range until the blip disappeared inside minimum range. John said 'It's all right, you can take a look now'. Close ahead but considerably higher was a dark shadow, blotting out the stars

close range John





It's still





to react instantly to

and silhouetted against the night sky. John climbed until they were some 300 feet (90 m) beneath the enemy. The shadow grew a tail, and a nose and engines formed a recognisable outline. 'What would you say it is?' John asked. Jimmy guessed it to be a Heinkel He 111: 'It's got the right sweep to the wings and the Heinie elliptical tail'.

For several minutes they flew below the enemy bomber, while John checked everything, switched the guns from SAFE to FIRE and adjusted the brilliance of his gunsight. Everything had gone deathly quiet, but even John was breathing a little more heavily. After what seemed an age but was probably only a few seconds John pulled back gently on the yoke and lifted the Beau until their fin was almost in the Heinkel's slipstream. There was no doubt about the enemy's identity. It had an almost perfectly streamlined fuselage sitting on a very broad wing, and at the back was an elliptical tail. Underneath was the 'bathtub' which would contain a gunner, who was clearly not paying attention. John pulled back slightly more. The black shape came down until it was at their own level, and the Beau rocked in the bomber's slipstream. His work done, Jimmy could spend all his time looking ahead to see what was happening - and to be ready to reload the cannon with massive 60-round drums from the racks on the side of the fuselage. Suddenly all Hell was let loose as John opened fire. The four Hispanos thudded and shook the entire aircraft, and Jimmy could see the cracks round the entrance hatches outlined in the bright light from the muzzle flames. The din was indescribable, and acrid cordite smoke began to fill

Then the noise stopped. The Heinkel just flew on. John said 'The guns have

the fuselage.

stopped'. Jimmy

checked and said 'The magazines aren't empty'. When John pressed the button again, the cannon fired, and Jimmy saw the flashes all over the Heinkel's starboard engine. Then the guns fell silent again. Still the

John bomber

'Cat's Eyes'


flew on, seemingly untroubled by by its hammering, oblivious m) astern in bright moonlight.

of the Beaufighter barely 100 yds (90

Though nothing could be done about the bright flames from the Hispano muzzles, RAF night fighters never used tracer ammunition, and most of their rounds were ball (solid) or AP (armour-piercing). However, about every fourth round there was an HE (high-explosive), so their impacts on the target could only be seen at night as tiny white flashes. John's second burst resulted in most of the flashes being on the target's starboard engine.

Jimmy discovered that the pneumatic firing system had failed. Desperately he looked for the cause, but suddenly the Beau went into a tight turn. John said 'Now the wretched man's shooting back at us'. Red tracer was curling back at them. At first it seemed to crawl away from the Heinkel, before suddenly whipping past over the Beau's starboard wing. Quickly John formated down-Moon from the Heinkel and watched, while Jimmy tried to the restore the guns' lost air pressure. He suddenly realised that that he was crouching like a boxer, trying to make himself a smaller target. By this time the Heinkel had slowed down and turned back for France, steadily losing height. It seemed amazing that it could still fly. Frustrated by the failure of the cannon air supply, at least John and Jimmy could take comfort from the fact that the enemy bomber had been prevented from reaching its target. But the real significance of the encounter lay in the fact that Jimmy had correctly guided his pilot to the point where he could open fire on an enemy aircraft. The system had been proved to work, and John and Jimmy had created a partnership which was to last to the

end of the War.

Early Days and a Taste for Flying over 190 mph, even though it had only a D.H. Gipsy Major engine of 140 hp. At the same time in 1935 that John joined D.H., a friend of the family who was an Auxiliary Air Force pilot, was about to retire from part-time service with No 604 Squadron, one of the three Auxiliary Air Force squadrons based at Hendon. He suggested that John might like to apply for the vacancy and learn to fly. John was naturally eager to qualify as a pilot, and he was thrilled at the idea of joining the squadron. The friend got him an interview with the Commanding Officer of 604 Squadron and, after a medical, he was accepted. This was to change the course of his life, and his career in the aviation industry. Now he would be taught to fly and join the elite band of Auxiliary pilots, who came from University Air Squadrons, the professions, business and commerce. But young John had not pursued a career in aviation with the sole objective of becoming a pilot. He had not been motivated, as had many others, by the flying VCs of the First World War, such as Captain Albert Ball, Billy Bishop, and McCudden. He didn't go to the cinema to become entranced by war in the air and its heroes. His obsession had been purely with aeroplanes, and he believed that the aviation industry had a great future, in which he wanted a role. He was now a member of a one-parent family and was very close to his mother, who was keen for him to join 604 Squadron because she regarded it as an opportunity not to be missed. For him it was something completely new and challenging. The squadron had previously been flying Westland Wapitis, but in 1935 it was being re-equipped with Hawker Demon two-seat fighter biplanes. They were adorned with the squadron's bold red and yellow markings. Most of the week-end flyers were several years older than John, and were a flamboyant fraternity of well-heeled characters. The CO, Squadron Leader Gabriel, first took John up in a Westland Wapiti, and later he did his training with Flight Lieutenant Hugh David, his flying instructor, on Avro 504Ns. John went

on 15 March 1936. and ran it for nearly a year, replacing it with an open two-seat Morris car from the 1920s, which he bought for £5 from a friend. He only managed short visits home, mostly late on Sunday and departing very early the next morning. Such an early start enabled him to get to Hatfield in about an hour, travelling from Croydon right through the centre of London and then via the upper Finchley Road, and on to the newly-built Barnet by-pass. His reading consisted mainly of studying technical papers and books. He and the other students would occasionally pile into a car to see a good film at the St. Albans solo


aircraft J8541

He had bought

cinema. 'Working morning, because

a motorcycle

life at




said, 'was

started at half-past eight'.

at 7.30.


gentlemen's hours in the The factory clocked on


'Cat's Eyes'


summer of 1936 he was awarded his RAF wings. 'They didn't a lot to me', he recalled. 'I had gone solo in March, and had done a lot of flying since then'. This was a rather cool and strange reaction, but In the


and character. He expressed no emotion achieving the coveted emblem. The vast majority of students regarded 'wings day' as a big event in their lives, when they wore their wings for the first time. For him it was a natural progression that he would 'put up' his wings, but his words revealed that he disliked anything ostentatious. In no way were they spoken in an arrogant manner, but as a statement of fact. He had been living in the flat adjoining the Hatfield factory for a year or more, when he was sent to do engine training in the old Stag Lane factory, at Edgware. This meant that he would have to start work at halfpast seven, and the journey from Hatfield would make life difficult. Accordingly, he managed to get a permanent room in the Officers' Mess on the aerodrome at Hendon, little over a mile from the factory. He still had to make an early start, but managed to get a pot of tea from the batman before leaving. Then it was a question of heading for the works' tea-and-buns trolley to satisfy the 'inner man'. Although John returned to Hatfield after completing his work on engines, he continued to live in the Mess, and never went back to the flat. In 1937 a partnership emerged between John Cunningham and Jimmy Rawnsley which was to last for eight action-packed years, and make them into national heroes as the most successful RAF night-fighter crew of World War II. It began when Jimmy became his air gunner, and commented that, 'What with John's blue eyes and his crinkly fair hair, his downy pink cheeks and slim, boyish figure, it was not altogether surprising that this young Pilot Officer should be nicknamed "Boy" by his fellow- officers. But the name did not stick. Young as he was, there was a certain quiet determination in his manner, and a steadfastness in the gaze of those blue eyes that soon made them think of him as more than entirely indicative of his style



just a boy'.

He was a

won the respect of the men who serviced the aircraft. Here who asked shrewd questions, and whose criticisms were

quickly pilot

always constructive. This young Pilot Officer was no flying-club weekender to be turned aside with smooth answers, or a bit of technical double-talk.

Jimmy Rawnsley was

at that

time an electrical engineer.


He was


(aircraft-hand, inally accepted to serve with No 604 as an general duties), and his work consisted of sweeping out hangars, cleaning oil trays and pushing aircraft around. He had to attend the aerodrome for two evenings a week to attend every week-end, and Town lectures. He'd been christened Cecil Frederick, but he had the foresight to realise that those names would not go down well with the lower ranks.



Groundwork and Early lation for the air


like Jimmy.


Otherwise they would have been

out of a job.

Few people could have been John Cunningham. His

better prepared to take an aircraft to


technical and test-flying background, combined with his RAF experience, enabled him to handle aircraft in a professional manner under the most difficult circumstances. Furthermore, he had the temperament to cope with the vagaries of war. He had even 'baled out', but one piece in the jigsaw of survival was quite beyond his control, and that was to have 'Lady Luck' flying with him! Sitting around and waiting for something to happen during their last few days at Hendon before war was declared was a frustrating business. From the aerodrome they could see an endless succession of trains steaming north, packed with children being evacuated from London. The Thirties' era was rapidly coming to a close, having kicked off in a depression - in 1932 there were some three million unemployed - and


finishing-up with a world war.

The decade had had


moments, with the

King abdicating, the burning of London's huge Crystal Palace, Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, children waving Union Jacks on Empire days, political upheaval, the Munich crisis and the finality of a war which seemed increasingly inevitable. It was a little over twenty years since the end of the First World War, and people during the decade had longed for stability and the 'good life'. The Thirties had a style of living in which magazines, comics, toys and games, radio, cinema, ballroom dancing, day trips, sport and entertainment were part of everyday life. Slimming became a craze for women, as did white shirts and dazzling teeth for men. Cigarette smoking symbolised glamour and style, with advertising slogans such as, 'Ten minutes to go and mine's a De Reszke Minor' - 'Craven A cigarettes will not affect your throat' and 'Players Please'. The motor-car market was expanding rapidly, with Ford 8s at £100 and Austin Sevens at £120; later in the decade driving tests were made compulsory, and Belisha-beacon pedestrian street crossings were installed. Aware of the growing shadow of war, the British people began making the best of life while they could. Dramatic changes were taking place in aviation during this period. The R.101 disaster in October 1930 had made people lose faith in airships. Gradually biplanes were giving way to monoplanes, and fabric to metal. Civil aviation was expanding, although technical progress was hampered because of lack of finance. Government policy strove to make civil aviation 'fly by itself. The public, however, were becoming more airminded, with air shows flourishing, records being broken, and the rapid growth of flying clubs. In 1936 war clouds began to gather, when Germany repudiated the Locarno Treaty, followed by the occupation and remilitarisation of the Rhineland, while Italian troops occupied Abyssinia. It became 25


'Cat's Eyes'


more pilots. myopic attiand implement an enormously expanded

increasingly obvious that urgent action was required to train




the Treasury dispensed with their pinch-penny and

and agreed to programme.




30 July 1936 the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve was formed

as part of the


Reservists trained as




civil flying

and many others were built as part of an expansion scheme. The Treasury agreed that volunteers should be paid a retaining fee of about £40, plus ten shillings (50p) per day flying pay. Arrangements were made for civilian flying schools to provide three months ab initio' (primary) training, while more advanced training at RAF Service Flying Training Schools was cut to six months. The civilian scheme proved to be a great success, indirectly bringing back into the Service many experienced instructors who had previously served with the Royal Air Force. clubs at airfields near large towns,




Tense Peace, Phoney



12 April 1937 a serving RAF officer became the first person ever to start up a turbojet engine. His name was Frank Whittle, and his invention, which has no parallel in history, was to change the face of aviation and affect the lives of almost every human being. Even though it was ignored for seven years, Whittle's invention was to give the country a lead of about three years in jet technology in the immediate post-war period. However, the birth of the turbojet came at a time



was so serious that the aviation industry was at Government. The Ministry was preoccupied with approved designs, the Shadow Factory scheme (assembly of standard aircraft at several different sites) and eight-gun fighter production. Modern monoplane metal bombers, such as the Blenheim, Whitley, Wellington and Hampden, were at the production stage, and bigger fourengined machines were about to fly. In early 1937 the Treasury more than doubled the Air Estimates, from



it revealed that he never regarded himself in anv uav as a salesman. Yet, he was a powerful piece on the chessboard of marketing. The Chinese made the point when thev insisted that he remained 'on stage". He had gained their confidence and goodwill through his pro-


fessionalism, diplomacy,

charm and

personality. So




banquet in honour of the Chairman Hooker, to such an of Rolls-Rovce was laid with knives and forks and not chopsticks! Throughout his long career John had accumulated various outside interests, which naturally concerned aviation. Thev formed a pattern of fullv occupied during his retirement. When his life, and were to keep he had rejoined D.H. he was invited to re-form his old Squadron Xo. m the post-war Roval Auxiliary Air Force. Then, m 1948, about a vear after he was appointed as Chief Test Pilot, he served as Deputv Lieutenant of the County of Middlesex, a post he was to hold for eighteen years, becoming the longest-serving Deputv. When Middlesex became part of the Greater London Council he became Deputv Lieutenant of the extent that the



retiring at the required age of 75.

The Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex was the pioneer aircraft manufacturer Sir Frederick Handley Page, who had appointed him. He was a good friend, and John admired him for his strength of character and his humour. John's particular responsibilitv was for the Territorial and parttime Services throughout the Countv. T never had a Deputv Lieutenant's uniform', he said. 'However. I remember seeing Princess Margaret off from Heathrow, as a favour to Sir Frederick. It was a cold daw and I was wearing my tweed overcoat.' He was made a Committee member of the Roval Aero Club shortlv after the War. 'I was a member of the Club", he explained, 'and became one of the youngest on the Committee, in companv with Lord Brabazon

and Whitnev Straight, DSOs and two DFCs as



greatlv admired.'

Having won three

and had become one of the youngest Group Captains in the RAF. he was naturally a target for aviation associations who wanted to enlist his help and support. He always responded bv doing whatever he could, and these activities formed an ongoing pattern during his working life. John, of course, had become a world figure, but he had kept his roots m the countryside around Harpenden. near Hatfield. He had a network of de Havilland colleagues and friends throughout the area. Thus, he was able to enjoy a social life and relax in the surroundings he loved. This was an important factor, bearing in mind his globe-trotting and the


a night-fighter pilot,

of test-flying.

However, bv courtesy

of the Chinese, he

three years in his job as Chief Test Pilot.


was able


to enjoy a further with a smile, that during

his last two years in China thev had produced an air-conditioner which had been installed in his room.

The Chinese Episode

- 1972-79

industry was undergoing further 1975 the Government introduced its Nationalisation Bill for the industry, and 1976 was the last Farnborough Show at which Hawker Siddeley names appeared, as the company became part of British Aerospace. The time was fast approaching when the British industry would consist of one large conglomerate, and the famous names reminiscent of the golden years in British aviation would disappear. John retired from British Aerospace in 1980.


this period, the British aircraft







John Wilson Remembers home, Lamer HisLamer Lane on

hidden behind shrubbery

corner off the outskirts of Wheathampstead. A small driveway to Lamer House passes the Lodge, and climbs gently up a slope before disappearing over the brow. Early morning rain had given way to broken cloud, while a late October Sun had painted blue patches here and there as the mild wind brushed away the lower layer of mist. At least the weather was improving, which was a good portent for meeting a man who had been a close friend ofJohn Cunningham for half a century. He stepped out of the Lodge - tall, slim and extremely upright for one who had recently celebrated his 75th birthday. He was casually dressed, with strong features, prominent ears and a high forehead. We sat at a long table in the conservatory, facing beautiful green countryside, with clumps of beech trees on the side of the hill picturesquely sheltering the elegant late Victorian-style house. It was apparent that, like John Cunningham, his friend John Wilson enjoyed the country life. Before we got down to reminiscing, he turned to the author and explained that whenjohn Cunningham and Geoffrey de Havilland baled out of their Moth Minor in 1939, John had landed about 300 yards from where we were sitting. He had been told thatJean Paterson (of the Carter Paterson parcels family who then lived close by) had dismounted from her horse and watched John take out his camera to photograph his parachute, which was spread out on the ground. She was a well-built girl and took a fancy to this dashing young airman, and John's contemporaries pulled his leg for many years, advising him to keep clear of that part of Hertfordshire - he never took riding lessons! Lodge,



met John


in 1948, shortly after

at a

Wing Commander


Air Vice-Marshal) Bird- Wilson had recommended him. Cunningham had been looking for another experimental test pilot to join him and Derry and Geoffrey Pike. Wilson had been carrying out Tropical Trials on the Meteor 4 in Singapore in 1947 with 'Birdy' - both of them were in the Air Fighting Development Squadron at the Central Fighter Establishment, West Raynham. In 1948 Wilson had been back to Singapore to do the Vampire 3 trials.


John Wilson Remembers




He admitted that Cunningham was a bit daunting at that meeting:


'and at that age and at that time, that was a big difference. As a young Flight Lieutenant, being interviewed by a famous Group Captain with a cluster of DSOs and DFCs did make me feel a little apprehensive, but he was very kind and I didn't have any problems in that sense. It was simply a matter of joining one day at


six years older






and test-flying the next!' Wilson mentioned that he had wanted to do development work because of his earlier Meteor 3 flying with 124 and 56 Squadrons, and interception evaluations at CFE. This led me to want to inquire into the whys and wherefores rather than be satisfied with production aircraft Hatfield

an established schedule' he said. He found Hatfield a wonderful and there was no difficulty in getting to know everyone. 'John Derry was married, but most of us were bachelors, and often met up in flats or pubs. John Cunningham's mother asked us to their house occasionally - she was a splendid person, and very like her son John in appearance, with the same facial bone structure, determination and charm. He was closer to his mother than to anyone else, and she had a great influence on him. At one time JC had a very attractive Norwegian girlfriend, and it was thought that she might be the one. But in the end she confronted him saying 'It's either me or your aeroplanes', and that was that!' Wilson recalled that they had tremendous fun competing with other testing to


during various Air Races, each flying his own Company's on a handicapped basis. These were great occasions away from Hatfield, during which each pilot faced a competitive challenge in the spirit of the D.H. tradition, pioneered by Sir Geoffrey during the early

test pilots



However, most of the D.H.

test pilots were unhappy about their Cunningham has previously mentioned that pay levels in were low in comparison to other industries, and John Wilson

salaries -



this point:

'One of the things

much were there

that bothered us


that John didn't




of an effort to improve our pay - for experimental test flying the risks

when flying beyond established limits, where was a much greater chance of things going wrong. Pensions were

fairly high, especially

pitiful: I still

get the magnificent


10 years of test flying at Hatfield!

John Cats Eyes Cunningham. The Aviation Legend

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