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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
How 'Cat's Eyes' helped change the world
John Cunningham and cadets in July 2000
John Cunningham meeting Air Training corps cadets
WWII fighter pilot John Cunningham, the first man to shoot down an enemy plane using radar, has died aged 84. His nickname masked a world-changing innovation.

During the dark days of 1941, when the UK stood alone against the aerial onslaught of Nazi Germany's Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force provided hope and heroes to a population starved of both.

The carrot myth
• First radar system was produced in 1935 by Sir Robert Watson-Watt

• By 1939, UK had radar stations all round south coast

• In 1940, John Cunningham was the first pilot to down an enemy using radar

• To cover-up the radar from the Germans, pilots were praised for being able to see in the dark

• The government said it was because they ate carrots, rich in Vitamin A.

For background on the Battle of Britain, click here

While pilots like Jonnie Johnson and "Sailor" Malan ruled the sky during the day, at night Group Captain John Cunningham reigned supreme, harrying the Luftwaffe bomber formations which were blitzing UK cities.

Indeed, Cunningham became the leading RAF night fighter pilot of World War II, chalking up 20 kills, and numerous decorations, in an often hair-raising series of sorties.

A modest man, John Cunningham was fêted like a film star. Nicknamed Cats' Eyes - a sobriquet he never liked - his exceptional skill on the nocturnal battlefield was put down to eating carrots to improve his night vision.

This romantic, if rather naïve, explanation for his success, masked the reality. British scientists had secretly developed a sophisticated and formidable airborne radar system which allowed its pilots to home in on Luftwaffe bomber streams, often with devastating consequences.

John Cunningham with Vera Lynn
Cat's Eyes with the Force's Sweetheart, Vera Lynn
Born in 1917, John Cunningham was schooled in Croydon. At 18 he was apprenticed to the De Havilland aircraft company, and joined the Auxiliary Air Force.

He became a test pilot shortly before the war, but was called up in August 1939.

Flying Blenheims, Beaufighters - and later Mosquitoes - he and his observer/air gunner, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Rawnsley, had an almost unbroken record of success against German bombers at night.

Film producer Brian Marshall, whose Rapid Pictures recently interviewed Group Captain Cunningham for the film Boffins, Beams and Bombs, says: "He was part of a new generation of pilots, working closely with controllers on the ground to attack Luftwaffe formations.

"Cunningham was able to think in three dimensions, an extremely useful ability when flying at night. He thought out his strategy just like a chess match. He was a shy and unassuming man who didn't like the limelight."


Cunningham won the Distinguished Service Order and two bars and the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. In 1944, now a Group Captain, he was put in charge of night operations against the V-1 flying bombs.

After the war, Cunningham returned to De Havilland, and was made chief test pilot after Geoffrey De Havilland was killed in a crash.

He broke the world altitude record in a Vampire fighter-bomber in 1948, and in July 1949 made the maiden test flight in the Comet, the first passenger jet.

Later he helped to investigate a series of Comet crashes, eventually attributed to metal fatigue. He made a round-the-world trip in a Comet in 1955, and in 1962 flew the first Trident airline.


In 1975 Cunningham was taking off from Dunsfold in an HS 125 when a flock of birds was sucked into the engines. He brought the plane down, but it ploughed across a road and killed the wife of a fellow pilot and five schoolgirls.

Cunningham was able to think in three dimensions, an extremely useful ability when flying at night.

Brian Marshall
It was his first and only crash and, he said, the worst moment of his flying career.

He retired in 1980, and that year was awarded the Air League Founders' Medal as the outstanding test pilot of the post-war years.

John Cunningham was a slight, matter-of-fact man, totally unlike the popular idea of a fighter pilot. But, with his country in peril, his aerial exploits raised the morale of a whole people.

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Your comments:

As a student pilot I am totally in awe of people such as John Cunningham who could not rely on technology and spearheaded new innovations by risking their lives. Mr Cunninghams' success as a pilot is testimony to his remarkable talents
John, England

The heroes of this world are not those who go looking for fame and glory. They become heroes because they belive in what they are doing is for the greater good of man kind. John Cunningham was such a man. His courage and bravery has been the inspiration to many a young person.
Chris H, England

I hope more film makers like Brian Marshall capture the years of our war heros on film. I watched Band of Brothers - we should have many more series like this but relecting British movements in WWII. I believe these programs help us all appreciate at what cost we obtained our freedom and our lives. This being the tribute to our grandfathers who fought for us all.
Nigel Mainstone, UK

I am much saddened by this news. I knew John Cunningham as President of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum at London Colney, Herts. He had been involved in the museum from the beginning. He was always a delightful person to talk to, and even with minimal contact, recognised me at each meeting. He was also a doyen of the de Havilland Moth Club, attending every one of their annual gatherings at Woburn, as he was able.
Tony Keenan, England

The BAe Systems Nimrod in RAF service, now and into the future with newer versions which evolved from the Comet, are and will be his memorial.
Ray Marsh, Australia

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