To Benito Mussolini, the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum, ‘Our Sea’ — a term borrowed from the Romans, but reinvented by Italy’s fascist dictator to mean something akin to Hitler’s concept of Lebensraum, or ‘Living Space’. And on 10 June 1940 — the date on which Mussolini declared war on the Allies — both the Sea and the land surrounding it looked ripe for the taking.
Il Duce (‘the Leader’) had hesitated initially to enter the war, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. But now he believed the opportune moment had arrived to implement his so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ — the formal alliance he had signed with Hitler the previous year, linking the two countries politically and militarily. The astonishing German blitzkrieg in the West, and the resulting evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk, had left France on its knees, while Britain was also facing its darkest hour. Two weeks later — on 22 June — France would be forced to sign an armistice. It seemed as if the war was nearly over, and that Mussolini would soon take his place at the victor’s table.
With France out of the equation, the Royal Navy found itself outnumbered in the Mediterranean as it was forced to confront the new threat of Mussolini’s large battle fleet alone. The region was crucial to the Allied war effort — not least because of the access it provided for vital resources (including oil) arriving via the Suez Canal. With its strong position in the centre, Italy was well-placed not only to disrupt vulnerable British supply routes from its bases in Sicily, the south, and Libya, but also to pursue Mussolini’s expansionist ambitions in North Africa. And with the Royal Air Force detained at home to defend against the threat of an imminent German invasion, it was left to the Royal Navy to take the offensive to the Italians at sea.
Fortunately, as we shall see, Britain had as the commander-in-chief of its Mediterranean Fleet perhaps its most gifted admiral since Nelson — a man with ‘a jawline like a battleship’s bow’, according to one biographer — who earned the unstinting respect and loyalty of his captains, and whose leadership would prove decisive at a time when Britain’s resources were stretched to the limit.
For our special this issue, Graham Goodlad analyses the achievements of Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, universally known to his peers as ‘ABC’. In the first part, he looks at Cunningham’s life and career, while in the second he offers a detailed commentary on the battle that is widely regarded as his masterpiece — when he inflicted a serious defeat on the Italian fleet at Cape Matapan, off the southern coast of Greece.
Master of the Mediterranean
For more than a century after the death of Nelson in 1805, Britain produced few truly first-rate naval leaders. There were innovative organisers, such as Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher, architect of the early 20th-century Dreadnought revolution in battleship design, and a handful of capable if sometimes flawed commanders, such as Jellicoe and Beatty, who fought the German navy to a draw at Jutland in 1916. But none possessed the combination of tactical skill, aggression, and inspirational leadership that is required for decisive victory at sea.
A notable exception to this unexceptional record is the career of Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, universally known to his peers as ‘ABC’. As commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean for much of the Second World War, he played a central part in the defeat of the Axis powers. The region was critical for the outcome of the war, with its proximity to vital oil resources and imperial communications through the Suez Canal.
At the start of the war, the Royal Navy was outnumbered by the forces of Mussolini’s Italy, which joined the conflict in June 1940. The advantage that Britain possessed, with forces in Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria, at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, was countered by Italy’s strong position in the centre. From bases in Sicily, southern Italy, and Libya, it was able to threaten Britain’s vulnerable supply routes to North Africa. Nazi Germany’s intervention the following year to assist its fascist partner in Greece and the Balkans would make this a hard-fought struggle, whose result was far from predetermined.
For Admiral Cunningham, there was to be no single moment of overwhelming victory, no mid-20th-century equivalent of Trafalgar. Nor was this likely, given the new factors of air power and submarine warfare, which by the 1940s presented unique challenges to surface fleets. Instead, this was a continuous battle whose fortunes surged back and forth, the issue frequently in doubt. Cunningham’s doggedness and skill as a commander made a crucial contribution to the ultimate resolution of the Mediterranean war.
Captain to admiral
Andrew Cunningham did not come from a seafaring family, and it was an unexpected suggestion of his father, a university professor, that prompted him to join the Royal Navy. His aptitude for seamanship and potential for leadership were evident in a variety of roles. In his late teens, he saw action onshore in the Anglo-Boer War with an artillery brigade. He served on several destroyers, including seven years in command of Scorpion, a period which included the greater part of the First World War. He took part in the ill-fated 1915 Dardanelles expedition, and after the Armistice spent time in the Baltic, carrying out operations in support of Latvia’s struggle for independence.
Cunningham’s was a steady rather than a spectacular rise. After a period in charge of a destroyer flotilla, in 1929 he took command of the battleship Rodney. He was promoted rear-admiral two years later, just short of his 50th birthday. Cunningham’s long apprenticeship was an excellent preparation for wartime command. His extensive experience with destroyers served him well, developing a lively self-confidence and a willingness to act independently. He enjoyed being closer to the action in charge of a smaller ship, saying that ‘the skipper of a destroyer gets soaked to the skin on the bridge just the same as any sailor’, whereas the commander of a battleship ‘walks dry-skinned from his luxurious cabin where he has been sitting aloof from all goings on’.
Further experience of fleet-handling in the Mediterranean brought Cunningham appointment as second-in-command in 1937, with Hood as his flagship. After a brief and uncongenial spell on the Admiralty staff in London, he was a natural choice to take over the Mediterranean fleet when his predecessor, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, was appointed First Sea Lord in June 1939.
In many ways, Cunningham was an old- fashioned commander-in-chief, a man of action who was most at ease when at sea. He turned down suggestions that he base himself in Cairo, alongside the army and air chiefs, instead preferring to lead from his flagship Warspite. He showed little interest or aptitude for desk-bound administration. Technological change was another blind spot – he was slow to grasp the importance of air power, although once persuaded of its potential, he learned how to make use of it.
There were powerful reasons why one of Cunningham’s colleagues, Admiral Sir William James, wrote that ‘ABC was a gift from the Gods to us at that moment in history’. By the outbreak of war, he had spent a quarter of his career in the Mediterranean, and he knew its topography and people better than any other serving officer. He was a demanding, even a bullying superior, with a natural air of authority, leavened with an earthy sense of humour. Historian Correlli Barnett noted his uncompromising appearance, describing him as having ‘a jawline like a battleship’s bow’. There were many parallels with Nelson. Cunningham was quick to size up a situation, issuing concise orders and delegating responsibility to those who earned his trust. He earned the unstinting respect and loyalty of his captains.
Cunningham’s approach to warfare was straightforward and direct. He scorned the more rule-bound, bureaucratic approach of his predecessor Dudley Pound, telling a staff officer to put away his tactical instruction books: ‘We’re at war, we ought to know what to do by now.’ The aim at all times was to seek out and destroy Axis shipping. On one occasion, he ordered the sinking of an Italian torpedo boat that posed no threat to the British fleet, on the grounds that the enemy must never think it safe to leave harbour: ‘Go on, send the destroyers and sink the poor inoffensive bugger!’
In spite of his reputation as a blunt-spoken seadog, Cunningham had unexpected reserves of diplomacy when it counted. In July 1940, he came under strong pressure from London to neutralise or sink the French fleet at Alexandria, to prevent it from being used against British ships after the surrender of France. Patient personal negotiations with Cunningham’s opposite number, Admiral Godfroy, resulted in the squadron’s peaceful demilitarisation. This contrasted with the drastic action taken at Oran, in Algeria, where the Royal Navy attacked French ships rather than see them fall into German hands, causing lasting antagonism with Britain’s former ally.
Although often dismissed as an ineffective opponent, Italy proved more than a minor irritant to the British. Its planes were able to attack convoys plying the route from Gibraltar to Malta and from there to Alexandria – the vital maritime lifeline on which the British depended. The Italians also protected their own supply lines running from Italy to Libya. Just a month after they declared war, Warspite landed a 15-inch shell on the battleship Giulio Cesare, but without inflicting terminal damage. This indecisive engagement, the Battle of Calabria, was the first to combine elements of air and sea power. The aircraft carrier Eagle launched torpedo-plane strikes, while land-based Italian bombers attempted high-level bombing with largely ineffective results.
From September 1940, the arrival of the aircraft carrier Illustrious, the battleship Valiant, and other ships began to turn the balance of resources in Britain’s favour. The carrier’s appearance made possible the most dramatic action of Cunningham’s career: an airborne raid on the Italian naval base of Taranto. Nestling in the heel of the peninsula, and home to the fascist battleship fleet, this shallow-water harbour was a key target for the Royal Navy.
The idea was not new – it had been considered in 1935, when the Italian invasion of Abyssinia had first raised tensions between the two leading Mediterranean powers. But it was Cunningham’s decision that turned the idea into reality. He created a diversion involving two naval convoys to mask the operation. The chosen instrument of this daring and meticulously planned operation was a biplane, antiquated in appearance yet remarkably effective: the Fairey Swordfish (see box above). The aircraft took off from Illustrious in two waves at nightfall on 11 November 1940, at a distance of 170 miles from Taranto.
The first group of 12 planes carried a mix of torpedoes, bombs, and flares. Arriving over the harbour at 2300, the lead aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the target and attacked the oil storage depot. The others dropped bombs on shipping in the inner harbour, while the torpedo-carrying planes concentrated on the battleships. The second wave of nine Swordfish, similarly armed with bombs and torpedoes, deployed the same tactics.
Pilot Charles Lamb vividly recalled the action in his memoir War in a Stringbag: ‘Into that inferno, one hour apart, two waves of Swordfish, painted a dull bluey-grey for camouflage, danced a weaving arabesque of death and destruction with their torpedoes, flying into the harbour only a few feet above sea level – so low that one or two of them actually touched the water with their wheels as they sped through the harbour entrance.’ The fliers had to do so because a higher-altitude approach might have damaged the torpedo’s mechanism as it hit the water. It was a remarkable feat of flying, the pilots dodging the steel hawsers of barrage balloons amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire from the harbour.
‘Operation Judgement’ was a striking achievement by a relatively small number of underpowered aircraft, attacking a well-defended base. Cunningham stated that in six-and-a-half hours, 21 biplanes inflicted more damage on Italy’s forces than the German fleet had suffered in the whole of the daylight action at Jutland.
In what Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano described as ‘a black day’, the Fleet Air Arm had demonstrated the potential of torpedo-equipped aircraft, a lesson noted by the Japanese in their preparations for Pearl Harbor, a year later. The Swordfish had put one Italian battleship, Littorio, out of action and damaged two more, the Conte di Cavour and Caio Diulio, along with a destroyer and a heavy cruiser. A number of seaplanes and their hangars were also destroyed. This was achieved for the loss of just two Swordfish.
It was not a knockout blow. A number of the bombs failed to detonate, and a second attack, planned for the following day, was abandoned due to bad weather. Two of the battleships were later repaired. But the action disrupted the Italian fleet, causing it to withdraw to other ports. It also raised British spirits at a time when little progress was being made in other theatres of war.
The Fairey Swordfish
Introduced in 1936, the Swordfish looked like a survival from the First World War. It was a two-seater biplane, with an open cockpit and metal fuselage partly covered in fabric. Its single 690hp Bristol Pegasus engine gave it a maximum speed of 138mph, and it could carry either a torpedo, slung underneath, or a bomb load of 1,500lbs. Yet, despite its anachronistic appearance, its slowness was a source of strength, making it hard for faster enemy fighters to hit. Known affectionately as the ‘Stringbag’ for its ability to carry a cluster of weapons, the Swordfish was remarkably manoeuvrable and reliable. It served throughout the war in different capacities, including minelaying and anti- submarine warfare. Apart from Taranto (see main text), the Swordfish’s best-known role was in May 1941, when its torpedoes crippled the rudders of the battleship Bismarck, leaving it prey to Royal Navy surface ships. A static example can be seen at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset, which also has an excellent exhibition about Taranto.
The tide turned strongly against the Royal Navy with the intervention of Nazi Germany’s air force. In the course of January 1941, more than 300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe’s anti-shipping unit arrived in Sicily. These were mainly Ju 88s – Germany’s most versatile combat aircraft – and Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, escorted by highly effective Me 109 fighters.
The Navy first experienced this formidable new fighting force on 10 January, when Cunningham’s ships, escorting a convoy to Malta, were ambushed in daylight. Illustrious was badly damaged and, but for its armoured flight deck, would almost certainly have been sunk. Cunningham realised that the arrival of the Stukas was a genuine game-changer. He later recalled his reluctant admiration for the skill and precision of the enemy pilots, as they formed in a large circle over the fleet, peeling off one by one to swoop down. ‘The attacks were pressed home to point-blank range, and as they pulled out of their dives some of them were seen to fly along the flight-deck of the Illustrious, below the level of her funnel.’ The following day, the cruiser Southampton was set ablaze in a further attack and had to be scuttled.
This was a major blow, but two months later, in what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, Cunningham inflicted a serious defeat on the Italian fleet at Cape Matapan, off Greece. This important engagement is examined in detail in the accompanying article (see p.40). In April-May 1941, however, Cunningham found himself managing two vital but also depressing and utterly draining operations – the evacuation of 50,000 Allied troops from Greece, followed by a further 16,500 soldiers from Crete in the face of the German invasion. This was achieved at tremendous cost, with continuous air attacks depleting the fleet by half.
Cunningham was adamant that the Army must be able to rely on the Senior Service to take it to war and, when necessary, to rescue it. He resisted siren voices from headquarters in Cairo, which recommended that Britain cut its losses and leave the Cretan garrison to surrender. In his most famous phrase, Cunningham told his colleagues that although ‘it will take three years to build a new fleet… it will take 300 years to build a new tradition’.
The terrible toll taken on his ships, and the exhaustion of their crews, impressed on Cunningham the vital importance of air cover. In a letter to Dudley Pound, he stated baldly that ‘no anti-aircraft fire will deal with the simultaneous attacks of 10-20 aircraft’ and lamented his inability to inflict significant retaliation on the enemy. Late in the day, he secured the support of an RAF naval cooperation group.
This did not end the catalogue of reverses. In November 1941, U-boats sank the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and battleship Barham. Cunningham witnessed the ‘horrible and awe-inspiring spectacle’ as the Barham, hit by three torpedoes, rolled over and sank, emitting a dull rumble as one its magazines exploded. It disappeared within minutes, leaving ‘nothing but a bubbling, oily-looking patch on the calm surface of the sea, dotted with wreckage and the heads of swimmers.’ This was followed by a daring raid on Alexandria harbour by Italian human torpedoes, which put the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant out of action. These desperate months brought home the vulnerability of large surface ships in a new age of warfare.
Victory in the Mediterranean
Cunningham was diverted from the Mediterranean theatre for a few months in 1942 to head the British Admiralty delegation to Washington. For a leader who always wanted to be in the front line, this was a frustrating interlude, yet it enabled him to demonstrate his worth to Britain’s new American allies. It won for him a much more satisfying appointment as naval commander under Eisenhower, who had been charged with the planning and execution of Operation Torch in November 1942. This was the Anglo-American invasion of French-held Morocco and Algeria, a hazardous undertaking with large numbers of ships and aircraft launched against a hostile shore. The plan was to land forces that would then move rapidly east to take on the Germans in Tunisia.
The success of the invasion owed a great deal to Cunningham. He complemented the less-experienced Eisenhower, being described approvingly by the latter as ‘the Nelsonian type of admiral’ who ‘thought always in terms of attack’. The two men worked on the plans together in a command centre, deep in a tunnel underneath Gibraltar. Although the ground troops were largely American, Britain supplied the transport ships and their naval escorts. The Navy sank Vichy French vessels that attempted to intervene, and shielded the landings from possible counter-attacks launched from Italy.
Early in 1943, Cunningham resumed his Mediterranean command in time to take part in the final extinction of the Axis forces in North Africa. Once the final breakthrough on land had begun, he mobilised all available ships off the Tunisian coast to ensure that there would be no Dunkirk-style evacuation of the Afrika Korps. Signalling the start of Operation Retribution on 8 May, he ordered: ‘Sink, burn, and destroy. Let nothing pass.’ A few days later, enemy resistance was at an end, with a quarter of a million prisoners and their equipment in Allied hands.
Cunningham’s last major contribution to victory in the Mediterranean was his part in planning the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Operation Husky offered the Allies an opportunity to gain a foothold in Western Europe, at a time when there was no realistic possibility of a landing in France. Based now in Malta, ABC’s role was to coordinate a vast fleet of more than 2,500 ships, charged with moving 160,000 troops, their vehicles, and their equipment.
Allied forces made landfall on Sicily in face of minimal resistance, but it was a different story when they crossed to the mainland. The collapsing fascist regime was succeeded by much tougher German resistance in southern Italy. At Salerno, south of Naples, the landings were met by concentrated fire from Panzers, machine-guns, and mobile 88mm artillery. The situation was turned around after Cunningham deployed ships, including Valiant and Warspite, to bombard the defenders. The relentless naval gunfire continued despite German counter-attacks using radio-guided bombs, two of which damaged Warspite. Allied troops managed to win control of the beaches so that vital reinforcements and supplies could be brought ashore for the push northwards.
First Sea Lord and after
ABC was the natural choice to succeed Dudley Pound when the latter was forced to resign after a stroke in October 1943, dying soon afterwards. Shortly before he returned to London, Cunningham had the pleasure of seeing the Italian fleet surrender at Malta. It was a fitting close to his active career at sea. Captain Boyd of HMS Illustrious had once declared that, after Italy claimed the Mediterranean as ‘Our Sea’, the Royal Navy would change it to ‘Cunningham’s Pond’. By the time he left his command, this had become a reality.
Cunningham’s time as First Sea Lord was generally successful, although without doubt he was much less at ease in Whitehall than at sea. He worked well with the other chiefs of staff, and fended off Churchill’s less promising attempts to intervene in operational matters. With the exception of Admiral Ernest King, the prickly US chief of naval operations, his dealings with American commanders were harmonious. He helped to develop plans for the final naval assault on Japan, and was active in countering the threat posed by Germany’s surface ships and U-boat fleet.
Despite all this, the worst years of the war were behind him when Cunningham took over from Pound. The Royal Navy’s scope for independent action was also starting to be constrained by an inexorable shift in the balance of power in favour of the USA. The British fleet that emerged from the Second World War was to be subjected to significant budget cuts. Cunningham’s retirement in 1946 came at an opportune moment for someone whose career had begun in a very different context, half a century earlier.
ABC’s claim to greatness as a commander rests mainly on the three years during which he was the leading naval figure in the Mediterranean theatre. His instinctive grasp of the wider strategic picture, his natural aggression, strong nerves, and shrewd judgement made him indispensable at a time when Britain’s resources were stretched to the limit. Cunningham’s bluff manner masked a capacity to work with allies, on whose cooperation success increasingly depended. Although he did not chart an unerring path to victory, he provided the leadership that eventually won through. •
Michael Simpson (2004) A Life of Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Cunningham: a twentieth-century naval leader (Frank Cass).
John Winton (1998) Cunningham: the greatest admiral since Nelson (John Murray).
Read the second part of Graham Goodlad’s detailed commentary on the battle that is widely regarded as Cunningham’s masterpiece, here.
Timeline: Admiral Cunningham
Born in Dublin
Joined the Royal Navy
Commanded the destroyer HMS Scorpion
Led destroyers supporting Latvian independence in action in the Baltic
Second in command, Mediterranean fleet, aboard HMS Hood
Commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean
Attack on the Italian fleet at Battle of Taranto
Battle of Cape Matapan
Naval commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, covering landings in North Africa
Reappointed commander- in-chief, Mediterranean
First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff
Died in London