John Cunningham's wartime nickname concealed a vital military secret—the invention of airborne radar.
- By Gavin Mortimer
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 19, 2010
(Page 2 of 2)
Cunningham opened fire and the Junkers 88 went down, the unfortunate crew the first victims in a new chapter of aerial warfare. In the ensuing months Cunningham’s tally increased, as did the Germans’ puzzlement as to why the RAF were suddenly having more success in night fighting. Luftwaffe aircrew were skeptical it had anything to do with carrots, but if it didn’t, then why were bombing missions to Britain becoming ever more hazardous?
At the start of 1941 the RAF refined their radar defence system still further, introducing a Ground Controlled Interception station on the south coast of England. Now RAF night-fighters could be guided to within three or four miles of German raiders by a ground controller, who then passed the target to the aircraft’s radar operator. The first such contact occurred on January 12, 1941, and again it was Cunningham who had the honour when his Beaufighter intercepted a Heinkel 111. Though his weapons jammed and the German escaped damaged but intact, Cunningham and his operator, Jimmy Rawnsley, had more luck in April when they shot down three Heinkels in one night.
At the war’s conclusion in 1945, the highly-decorated Cunningham was the RAF's top-scoring night fighter with 20 kills. He continued to fly in peacetime and in July 1949 made the maiden test flight in the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first passenger jet. Six years later President Eisenhower presented Cunningham with the Harmon Trophy, awarded annually to the world’s outstanding aviator.
Not long before his death in 2002, Cunningham was asked for the secret of his wartime success, and his answer had nothing to do with carrots: “The essential was teamwork, not just between pilot and radar operator,” he reflected. “A night fighter crew was at the top of a pyramid, ground control radar and searchlights at the base, and up there an aircraft with two chaps in it. Unless they were competent and compatible all that great effort was wasted.”