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Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham and His Appointment as First Sea Lord

'The greatest admiral since Nelson'

When Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord, resigned for reasons of health shortly after the Quadrant Conference, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s first choice for Pound’s successor was Vice Adm. Sir Bruce Fraser, Commander in Chief, Home Fleet. Fraser declined. “I have the confidence of my fleet,” Fraser said, “but Cunningham has the confidence of the whole navy.” “Cunningham” was Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham – nicknamed “ABC” – the Royal Navy’s most successful admiral since Horatio Nelson.

“It was indeed fortunate that Winston did not decide to appoint Fraser as First Sea Lord, he had not a quarter of the ability of Andrew Cunningham.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           —Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, Sept. 22, 1943, diary entry addendum

Short, broad shouldered, with bright blue eyes startlingly framed by red eyelids, Cunningham entered the Royal Navy in 1897. By the end of World War I, he had distinguished himself as an aggressive commander with the rank of captain. In the interwar years he spent only one short (and unhappy) period at the Admiralty as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff. In truth, Cunningham was a fighting admiral; something the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean, was ironically unable to be when war broke out in 1939.

Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham

At the outbreak of World War II, Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham was serving as the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean. Imperial War Museum photo

With Germany then the only Axis belligerent, the Eastern Mediterranean was a tense but relatively quiet theater. The opening months of the war saw his fleet shrink as ships were reassigned to more active commands. When Italy declared war against the Allies and France defeated in June 1940, the Mediterranean theater abruptly took center stage. Strangely, Cunningham’s first battles were with everyone but the Axis.

Initially the looming question in the Mediterranean was the fate of the French Fleet, the world’s fourth largest. Churchill issued orders to Cunningham and Adm. Sir James Somerville in Gibraltar to prevent – either through diplomacy or force – the French fleets at Alexandria and Mers-el-Kébir from falling into Axis hands. At Mers-el-Kébir Somerville’s negotiations collapsed, resulting in French ships sunk, lives lost, and national fury in France.

Finally able to turn his attention to the real enemy, Cunningham acted. Cunningham’s success over the Regina Marina in the Battle of Taranto, the historic first carrier aircraft attack on enemy warships (and, ominously, a guide for the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor), and the Battle of Cape Matapan, were instrumental in causing the Italian naval command to shift to a Fabian strategy of a fleet-in-being.

At Alexandria, the result was different. To the astonishment of his staff, Cunningham displayed a heretofore unsuspected ability – that of high diplomacy. Ignoring bullying directives from London, he convinced the French admiral to peacefully scuttle his ships and repatriated French sailors wishing to return home. Capt. Royer Dick, Cunningham’s Deputy Chief of Staff, later wrote, “ABC’s moral courage and width of view over this period is the moment when one first realized his qualities of greatness. Of course we knew him as a fine dashing leader, but his handling of the French problem was masterly and one wonders how many others would have the breadth of mind, let alone the moral ‘guts,’ to disregard his instructions. That was truly Nelsonic.”

Cunningham’s next battle was with the Admiralty. Facing a major crisis in the Atlantic and fearing that the balance of power had shifted to Italy’s Regina Marina, Cunningham was ordered to prepare to abandon the eastern Mediterranean. Calling the move “a major disaster,” Cunningham stressed Malta’s strategic importance and his confidence in both keeping Malta supplied and the Regina Marina at bay. The Admiralty relented.

Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham

The Emir Mansur, son of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, with Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander in Chief Mediterranean, and Capt. Barry, the captain, on the quarterdeck of Cunningham’s flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, during the Emir’s visit to the fleet at Alexandria. Two of the battleship’s twin 15-inch gun turrets and its superstructure can be seen in the background. Note the crew lined up for inspection around the edge of the deck. Despite his reputation as a fighting admiral, Cunningham showed diplomatic skills during his time in the Mediterranean. Imperial War Museum photo

Finally able to turn his attention to the real enemy, Cunningham acted. Cunningham’s success over the Regina Marina in the Battle of Taranto, the historic first carrier aircraft attack on enemy warships (and, ominously, a guide for the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor), and the Battle of Cape Matapan, were instrumental in causing the Italian naval command to shift to a Fabian strategy of a fleet-in-being.

Taranto and Matapan were rare high points during a period more known for its lows. The Malta supply convoys suffered horrendous losses, as did the fleets responsible for evacuating the British Army from Greece and, particularly, Crete, where the Italian commando force Decima Mas scored a significant victory at Suda Bay.

“The staunchest of campaigners when it came to supporting a policy agreed to amongst ourselves, no matter what inclement winds might be brought to bear on it.”

Worse was Decima Mas’ successful raid at Alexandria, which tipped the naval balance of power in the Axis’ favor. Fortunately, Cunningham weathered that crisis, because Germany refused to supply fuel to the Italian Navy.

Cunningham became First Sea Lord on Oct. 4, 1943. He would come under criticism for not being as aggressive in the IGS conference room as he was on the warship deck. There is some merit in that criticism.

Adm. Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham

King George VI, accompanied by Adm. Sir Bertram Ramsay and the First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, touring the beaches at Normandy in a DUKW amphibious vehicle, June 16, 1944. Imperial War Museum photo

But Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, famous for his savage critiques of colleagues and political leaders, was singularly effusive with his praise of the admiral. In an addendum to his Oct. 21, 1943, diary entry he wrote, “I found him first and foremost one of the most attractive of friends, secondly a charming associate to work with, and finally the staunchest of campaigners when it came to supporting a policy agreed to amongst ourselves, no matter what inclement winds might be brought to bear on it.”

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...