Surrey’s Battle of Britain heroes: John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham

PUBLISHED: 08:09 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 09:40 12 May 2020

John Cunningham with his carrots

John Cunningham with his carrots

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This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. In this new series, Malcolm Triggs remembers some of the Surrey heroes who kept this country safe from invasion in the summer of 1940

While 'fake news' is considered a recent phenomenon, a look back at the events of the Second World War shows that spin and deception were very much part of the government's armoury in the 1940s.

For Surrey airman John Cunningham, who fought in the Battle of Britain with No 604 Squadron, his later achievements as a night fighter ace were attributed by the Air Ministry to his exceptional night vision, aided by a diet of Vitamin A-rich carrots.

The tale was so comprehensively told that his nickname - 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham - became one of the best known in the RAF, while for generations of post-war children, eating carrots would forever be associated with seeing in the dark.

The truth, though, had little to do with diet and everything to do with technology and the need to keep that technology secret from the Luftwaffe.

John Cunningham in uniformJohn Cunningham in uniform

Cunningham, born in Castlemaine Avenue, South Croydon on July 27, 1917, was an exceptional pilot whose success with radio observer Sergeant Cecil Rawnsley made them one of the best-known night-fighting partnerships of the war - but it had nothing to do with carrots.

In fact their impressive record was due, at least in part, to the success of the RAF's recently introduced airborne radar, which was more advanced than anything the Germans had to offer.

Allowing Cunningham to be interviewed was an attempt by the Air Ministry to boost morale as the blitz was beginning. Taking that opportunity to deflect attention from the RAF's 'secret weapon' by extolling the virtues of Vitamin A made it doubly useful.

Cunningham had joined No 604 Squadron in November 1935 and after working as a test pilot for the de Havilland aircraft company and further trials work for the RAF, he rejoined the squadron on July 8, 1940, two days before the start of the Battle of Britain.

His night-fighting success was to earn him the DFC and bar and the DSO and two bars - along with one of the most unusual nicknames of the war. He left the RAF as a Group Captain and was later made OBE and then CBE.

Cunningham, who is remembered on a plaque in Whitgift School, had a reputation for disliking his nickname, but at a Battle of Britain Memorial Trust gathering shortly before he died in July 2002, he posed for the photograph shown here and, when asked about the name, is said to have responded: "It was mostly down to the technology."

Churchill's Few are remembered at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne in Kent. For more information see battleofbritainmemorial.org

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