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John Cunningham



Group Captain

John Cunningham - Biography

I joined No 604 County of Middlesex Squadron Auxiliary Air Force based at Hendon as a Pilot Officer in 1935.

I was taught to fly at Hendon in the Avro 504N and gained my wings in 1936. On completion of 50 hours flying in the Avro 504 I was given dual instruction in the Hawker Hart before flying the Hawker Demon – the 2- seater day and night fighter with which the squadron was equipped.

604 Squadron was mobilised at the time of the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938 and we moved to our war station at North Weald in our Demons. After the crisis was over we returned to Hendon and in late 1938 were reequipped with the Blenheim I Fighter. 604 Squadron was mobilised again on August 23rd 1939 and moved to North Weald at the end of August 1939.

The Squadron’s role as day convoy escort and night fighter was unrewarding with the Blenheim which was completely useless as a night fighter, not having any radar.

In the beginning of September 1940, now based at Middle Wallop, we received our first Beaufighter and in November 1940 with our new equipment and an effective, if unreliable radar, together with my radar operator, I achieved the Squadron’s first success during a night combat.

From November 1940 the numbers of night combats increased slowly until April 1941 when the Squadron’s now rapidly-growing successes confirmed that it led the way in the struggle to achieve success at night interception with radar.

The Squadron’s successes at night rapidly increased in 1941 and I was appointed to Command 604 Squadron in August 1941 as a Wing Commander. I completed my first operational tour at the end of July 1942 having destroyed 15 aircraft at night and one by day.

Together with my pre-war air gunner and radar operator for most of my combats, Jimmy Rawnsley, we were posted to H.Q. 81 Group-the Fighter Command Group responsible for the operational training units and in January 1943 I was posted to command No 85 Squadron equipped with Mosquitoes.

In May 1943 we moved from Hunsdon to West Mailing and with the Mosquito’s greater speed than the Beaufighter were able to intercept and shoot down Fw190’s at night.

On completion of my second tour of operations in March 1944, together with Jimmy Rawnsley as Squadron Leader, I was promoted to Group Captain and posted to HQ 11 Group to look after night operations to look after the 11 Group radar operators. My total score of aircraft destroyed at the end of the war was 19 by night and one by day.

I flew the following aircraft in combat: Blenheim I and IV, Beaufighter, Mosquito. The Beaufighter was the first aircraft that made night fighting possible with it’s 4 x 20 mm cannons and a radar set. It was a very fine war machine with air-cooled engines but by 1943 it lacked the speed necessary to catch the enemy bombers.

The Mosquito had the high performance, guns and radar necessary for a night fighter from 1942 onwards. It was a delight to fly and inevitably became my favourite.

604 Squadron always meant a lot to me. It was disbanded in 1945 in France however I had the honour of reforming the Squadron at Hendon in 1946 as a single-seater Fighter Squadron with Spitfires.

I was demobilised as a Group Captain in November 1945 and returned to the De Havilland Aircraft Co. at Hatfield becoming Chief Test Pilot in 1946. I retired from British Aerospace in 1980.

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