Admiral of the Fleet John Henry Dacres Cunningham, GCB, MVO (1885-1962)
Admiral Cunningham was born in Demerara, British Guiana, on 13th April 1885. After his parents died in a sailing accident he returned to England and was brought up by relatives in the Lake District. John Cunningham attended Stubbington House School and was a cadet at HMS Britannia where he passed out in 1901. He was judged to have been a boy of great intellect but with few social skills and consequently made few friends.
His first service was as a midshipman on the cruiser HMS Gibraltar at the time of the South African War (1899-1902). Cunningham returned home in 1904 as a sub-lieutenant where he excelled in his qualifying examinations for lieutenant and was consequently promoted in October 1905.
Cunningham qualified at the navigation school and was appointed as assistant navigator on the cruiser HMS Illustrious. In the next three years he graduated to navigator and served on HMS Hebe, Indefatigable and Iphigenia. He took the first-class ship course in 1910 and was offered an instructors position at the navigation school. In the same year he married a cousin Dorothy Hannay with whom he had two sons, John, and Richard who was killed in the Submarine Service in 1941.
When war broke out in 1914 he went back to sea as navigator on HMS Berwick and in the following year survived the sinking of the Russell after it struck a mine in the Mediterranean. He served in a number of other navigation appointments and while in the Mediterranean was promoted to commander as navigator on board HMS Lion. In 1922 he became commander of the navigation school, and a year later he was appointed master of the fleet in the Queen Elizabeth.
Promoted to captain in 1924 he served on the staff of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich before becoming Deputy Director of Plans at Admiralty House. He later commanded the cruiser HMS Adventure followed by the appointment of Director of Plans in Whitehall 1930-32. He then returned to the sea taking command of the battleships HMS Resolution and became flag captain to Admiral Sir William Fisher. He was appointed ADC to the King in 1935 and later offered the post of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, and from 1937 assumed responsibility for administering the Fleet Air Arm upon its transfer to the Admiralty from the Royal Air Force.
Just before the outbreak of war in 1939 Cunningham was promoted to vice-admiral and took command of the 1st Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean. The squadron later returned to reinforce the home fleet. During the ill-fated Norwegian campaign of 1940 he successfully led a mixed force to the port of Namsos to evacuate 5,700 allied troops of ‘Mauriceforce’. Cunningham also led another assignment to rescue King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olaf, and other members of the Norwegian royal family. While under strict instructions not to break radio silence there is controversy over whether he received a distress call from aircraft carrier HMS Glorious which was under heavy attack and, if the message was received, why he chose not respond.
In September 1940 he was appointed joint commander of Operation Menace, an attempt to establish a base in Senegal, which ended in failure. Cunningham was knighted in the New Year’s honours and was appointed 4th Sea Lord in charge of naval supplies and transport. He remained in this position until June 1943 where he was sent to the Eastern Mediterranean as Commander-in-Chief (C in C) Levant, as acting admiral. In August he was promoted to admiral and later took the role as C in C of the merged Mediterranean commands.
In May 1946 John Cunningham returned home to relieve Admiral Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope as 1st Sea Lord. This took place at a time of substantial budget cuts and disarmament and sharp divisions existed within the chiefs of staff committee resulting in a difficult working environment. John Cunningham retired from the Royal Navy in September 1948. After leaving the Navy he spent ten years as chairman of the Iraq Petroleum Company and retired in 1958. He died in Middlesex Hospital on 13th December 1962.
Murfett, Malcolm H.. "Cunningham, Sir John Henry Dacres (1885–1962)."
In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online edition., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2008. (Accessed February 12, 2009).
"CUNNINGHAM, Adm. of the Fleet Sir John Henry Dacres." In Who Was Who. London: A & C Black, 1920–2008. Online edition., Oxford: OUP, 2007.