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A brilliant British tactician, Andrew Cunningham almost lost an aircraft carrier, Malta and control of the Mediterranean in a single dive-bomb attack.

Just past noon on January 10, 1941, German Air Marshal Hermann Göring’s Mediterranean debut, its Junkers Luftwaffe made its Ju-87 dive bombers screaming off the high board from 12,000 feet and falling all the way to 800 feet for bombs away. The Stukas bore down on Illustrious, the Royal Navy’s lone carrier in the Mediterranean, as it steamed toward Malta with an essential resupply convoy. They dived in synchronized waves of three from different heights and bearings, dividing and confusing the ships’ anti-aircraft fire. They fell at angles of 60 to 90 degrees—actually vertical—first dropping 250-kilo fragmentation bombs intended to knock out the anti-aircraft guns, especially the quad-barreled “pom-poms.” These were followed by 500-kilo armor-piercing bombs with delayed fuses, to penetrate the flight deck and rupture the carrier from the inside out.

“We opened up with every AA gun we had as one by one the Stukas peeled off into their dives, concentrating almost the whole venom of their attack upon the Illustrious,’’ said Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, who watched and fought from the bridge of his battleship Warspite. “At times she became almost completely hidden in a forest of great bomb splashes.”

There were 43 Stukas in all. About a dozen targeted the battleships Warspite and Valiant, which flanked Illustrious. Warspite was hit by one bomb that didn’t explode. “One of the staff officers who watched it hurtling over the bridge from astern told me it looked about the size of the wardroom sofa,” said Cunningham.

“One was too interested in this new form of dive-bombing attack really to be frightened, and there was no doubt we were watching complete experts,” he wrote in his memoir. “We could not but admire the skill and precision of it all.”

But the convoy, under Cunningham’s command, was grossly and tragically unprepared for the Luftwaffe’s attack. Four Fairey Fulmar fighter planes from Illustrious’ complement of 15 had been on defensive patrol, but five minutes before the Stukas blipped across the radar at a distance of 28 miles, the Fulmars had gone off in pursuit of two Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79 torpedo bombers, which had been sent in early as decoys. Illustrious would launch four more Fulmars and three Swordfish torpedo bomber biplanes—affectionately called “Stringbags” for their fabric and wire construction—but not before the Stukas arrived unchallenged.

Lieutenant Charles Lamb, a fresh hero of Illustrious’ surprise night attack in November 1940 that crippled the Italian fleet at Taranto, was already airborne in his Stringbag, on antisubmarine patrol ahead of the Malta-bound convoy. “From the moment I opened the throttle and climbed to starboard, I was amongst Stukas, traveling at lightning speed,” he wrote in his classic memoir War in a Stringbag:

Their flying was very skilled, and they pressed home their attacks with no thought for their own safety. The difference between the Germans’ methods and those of the Italians could never have been demonstrated more clearly. They had only one bomb per aircraft, so they had to come right down to deliver it personally. Since it was enormous—it weighed 500 kilograms—their determination not to waste their one big egg was understandable.

A strange aircraft came into view, flying from port to starboard, right in front of me, across the flight deck. Its huge swastika was painted red on the starboard side of the grey fuselage. It dipped as though in salute and dropped an enormous great bomb right down the after lift well, which was still gaping.

The first shot was a lucky one, the bomb bouncing off bulkheads like a silver pinball and falling into the jackpot hole.

By the flames which shot out of the hole in the deck, I realized that it had rolled off the lift and exploded in the hangar. Then the lift itself burst out of the deck, all 300 tons of it, and shot a few feet into the air and sank back into the lift well on its side, like a giant wedge-shaped hunk of cheese.

The Luftwaffe scored seven direct hits on Illustrious in just 61⁄2 minutes. Fragmentation bombs wiped out its after pom-poms and their gunners, as intended. One bomb pierced its 4-inchthick armored flight deck, generating a second explosion in the hangar, which stored about 50,000 gallons of aviation fuel. A damaged Stuka crashed onto the flight deck like a kamikaze.

“After the first attack, few of the ship’s decks were recognizable,” said Lamb, “and below the flight deck there was just a gaping shell with dead bodies plastered against the bulkheads wherever one looked. Worse things were happening in the hangar, some of them indescribable. Men lying with their brains spilling onto the deck were commonplace. From my cockpit, ahead of the ship, I thought that I could imagine what it must have been like; but nobody could visualize that horror unless they had listened to firsthand descriptions as I had to do, weeks afterwards, to let the poor devils get it off their chests.”

“In a few minutes the whole situation had changed,” wrote Cunningham. “At one blow the fleet had been deprived of its fighter aircraft, and its command of the Mediterranean was threatened by a weapon far more efficient and dangerous than any against which we had fought before. The efforts of the Regia Aeronautica were almost as nothing compared with those of these deadly Stukas of the Luftwaffe.”

The near-destruction of HMS Illustrious, which threatened to tip the balance of power in the Mediterranean in favor of the Axis powers, was the low point in the career of Cunningham, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest naval commander since Lord Horatio Nelson. His victories at sea during World War II, as commander in chief of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, have become legendary: the Battles of Calabria, Taranto and Cape Matapan, the invasion of Sicily. He even earned respect for the evacuation of Crete, a now-in operation forced upon him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which the navy lost three cruisers and six destroyers, but saved 16,500 men. Justifying that mission—the navy must not let the army down—the admiral famously said, “It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”

Cunningham also served as Allied naval commander during Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, the campaign that brought the United States into the war across the Atlantic. He and General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, worked together famously, sharing a regard for combat efficiency. Wrote Eisenhower in his diary: “Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham. He remains in my opinion at the top of my subordinates in absolute selflessness, energy, devotion to duty, knowledge of his task and in understanding of the requirements of allied operations. My opinions as to his superior qualifications have never wavered for a second.”

Cunningham was all but destined to become an admiral. In 1892 young Andrew, a Scot born in Ireland, was living with two aunts in Scotland so he could attend Edinburgh Academy. One day he received a telegram from his father, an anatomy professor at Trinity College in Dublin.

Would you like to go into the Navy?

Nine-year-old Andrew replied:

Yes, I should like to be an admiral.

Nicknamed “Cutts” or “ABC” by his men, Cunningham was generally irascible and some- times short-tempered. He demanded performance without error or hesitation and was thus regarded with a mix of fear and respect. The admiral drove a car as if he were a Grand Prix driver like the legendary Tazio Nuvolari, renowned at the time for racing at the ragged edge and crashing as often as he won. And Cutts was not above flicking butterballs across a banquet table with his spoon.

As a child, Cunningham was encouraged to learn German, because his father considered it the language of science. Only German governesses served at the Cunningham house, so the boy and his four siblings learned the language from the time they entered the nursery.

Cunningham was barely 14, in his first year as a navy man on the training ship HMS Britannia, when he was dubbed “Meat Face” for his amateur pugilism—bloody, bare-fisted brawls staged in a stone quarry. He went to sea as a midshipman cadet at 15, transported to his first duty in South Africa on a steamer, where he won the ship’s chess tournament, defeating none other than Cecil Rhodes, the British industrialist and founder of the Rhodes Scholarship. Turns out the brawler also had brains.

As a young destroyer commander in World War I, Cunningham was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and went on to earn a reputation as a master shiphandler in the interwar period. Serving mostly in the Mediterranean in the 1930s, the admiral was eventually named commander in chief of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1939.With the outbreak of World War II, he soon drew Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attention.

Churchill shared Cunningham’s belief that the island of Malta was a linchpin in the war. For his part, the admiral respected Churchill’s intelligence and ability to persuade the British people to the side of necessity—“the great man,” Cunningham called him. But he didn’t think much of Churchill’s impatience, tone (“ungracious and hasty”) or decision-making process. Cunningham is quite restrained in his criticism of the prime minister in his 1951 autobiography A Sailor’s Odyssey (just as Churchill is restrained in his criticism of others in his own memoirs), but his personal diary shows how he really felt. A recurring complaint appeared in an entry made on June 5, 1944: “He really is an incorrigible optimist.” Seven months later he finished the thought. “How he works in such complete ignorance & disregard for facts beats me.

“The trouble is the PM can never give way gracefully,” he later added. “He must always be right & if forced to give way, gets vindictive & tries by almost any means to get his own back.”

The admiral resented Churchill’s micromanagement and insistence on receiving labor-intensive reports he may well have read but often disregarded. Cunningham believed delay was the only result. “What a drag on the wheel of war this man is,” he said. “Everything is centralised in him, with consequent indecision & waste of time before anything can be done.”

He was similarly vexed when Churchill asked King George VI to make Cunningham a baron, a title the admiral finally accepted in order to recognize the sailors who served under him in the Mediterranean. “I fear it is just what I don’t want,” he wrote in his diary. “I have not the cash to sustain the dignity….I care not for these titles, but I suppose for the good of the navy one must take it.”

The honor came with a diplomatic assignment. He was told that the first sea lord, Admiral Dudley Pound, wanted him in Washington to deal with the difficult and all-powerful secretary of the Navy and commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral Ernest King. Among all his missions, Cunningham chafed over just this one: a desk job in Washington for about four months in 1942, a time he believed he was needed most in the Mediterranean. But Cunningham’s writings also suggest that Churchill had an ulterior motive. By offering insultingly low pay for the Washington assignment, the admiral reasoned that Churchill was hoping Cunningham would refuse. The prime minister would then assign him command of the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow, replacing Admiral Jack Tovey, who was opposed to the sacrificial Arctic convoys Churchill was using to appease Stalin. With this move, Churchill could keep his warrior Cunningham without overruling Pound, and in the bargain ridding himself of an admiral who resisted him—although it’s questionable whether Cunningham would have accepted the Arctic convoys either.

Fortunately for the Allies, Cunningham was recalled to the Mediterranean to command the fleet during Operation Torch. Cunningham had met Eisenhower in Washington that summer, and their mutual admiration led to the admiral’s commanding role; Ike’s chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, approached Cunningham about the job.

While primarily a no-nonsense fighting man, Cunningham understood and practiced public diplomacy, particularly when dealing with world leaders, both military and political. He understood men and their motivations, which likely explains his popularity on the many ships he commanded. The admiral might have loved a scrap, as he put it, but not an unnecessary one, and he didn’t shoot from the hip, or the lip— except in his diary, which didn’t become public until after his death in 1963. He didn’t even begin to keep a journal until 1944, but after the war ended, he really cut loose in the diary. On July 23, 1945, during meetings of the Big Three in Berlin, he wrote:

PM said the U.S. did not want the Russians to come in against Japan. PM now most optimistic & placing great faith in the new bomb. He now thinks it a good thing that the Russians should know about & may make them a little more humble. [Clement] Attlee [soon to be PM] has written what appears to be a damned silly letter to the PM saying we ought not oppose a great country like Russia having bases anywhere she wants them. What an ass!! Attended a banquet at PM’s house. Mostly a military affair….[Fleet Admiral William] Leahy [FDR’s chief of staff] got very bottled & [Admiral] King very mellow, fell on my neck & besought me to call him Ernie!!…RAF band played very nicely & made an interlude to the nonsense being talked….Truman looked & talked like a successful small grocer. The PM was not at his best.

It is fair to ask how Cunningham, a consummate warrior, diplomat and naval strategist, could have failed to anticipate the Luftwaffe’s threat to his fleet and its ability to safeguard Malta. But if the bombing of the aircraft carrier Illustrious was a blunder, it was a shared blunder. The admiral’s real mistake, in the end, may have been listening to Chief Air Marshal Arthur Tedder.

Malta was under siege and blockade by the Axis, so intense that Allied convoys to the islands were suicide runs. Luftwaffe bombers and fighters, submarine wolfpacks and big Italian warships ruled much of the Mediterranean. That did not deter the admiral. “We never gave a thought to the strength of the Italian fleet,” he said. “We were perfectly confident that the fleet we had at Alexandria could deal with them if they chose to give battle.”

Just before Christmas 1940, Cunningham had fought his way to Malta aboard the battleship Warspite, escorting a small convoy carrying food and ammunition to the besieged island, which hadn’t been supplied since May. Writing about his “touchingly overwhelming” reception, Cunningham recalled, “I had difficulty in preventing myself from being carried around.”

But a more concerted German effort to strangle Malta was underway. Thousands of Luftwaffe personnel were headed south through Italy on trains, showered with candy and fruit at each stop. Italy’s Comando Supremo had invited the Luftwaffe to Sicily to obliterate Malta. So Air Marshal Göring had eagerly begun moving the cream of the Luftwaffe, X Fliegerkorps, down from Norway. Warplanes arrived by the dozens in daily flights, and by January 8 there were 96 German bombers on Sicily—Junkers Ju-88s, Ju-87s and Heinkel He-111s—with hundreds more on the way, along with squadrons of Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters. Stuka pilots practiced dive-bombing a floating mock-up of the carrier Illustrious, with its 620- by-95-foot flight deck.

Concerned about the Luftwaffe, Captain Denis Boyd and Admiral Lumley Lyster, aboard Illustrious as Fleet Air Arm commander, had repeatedly advised Cunningham it would be better if Illustrious kept its distance from the convoy while still providing air cover. But Cunningham wanted the carrier within sight as a morale booster. Regardless, mere distance wouldn’t have saved Illustrious. It was the enemy’s clear target and couldn’t have escaped the range of the Stukas. If there was a mistake, it was taking the ship into the narrow Strait of Sicily in the first place.

Cunningham knew the Luftwaffe had moved onto Sicily, but Tedder had assured him British fighters could easily handle the Stukas. “Our fighter pilots weep for joy when they see them,” the chief air marshal had boasted. While it is true a Spitfire could handle a Stuka one-on-one, four Fulmars struggling to get airborne against 43 Stukas in coordinated dives wasn’t what either Tedder or Cunningham had in mind. So on the day of the Luftwaffe’s bombing attack, the admiral could only watch from his flagship Warspite as the German planes brutally bombed and nearly sank the allimportant aircraft carrier whose flight deck of Fulmars and Swordfish might have made the difference in which side controlled the Mediterranean. It was an attack for which the convoy should have been prepared, or which should have been avoided entirely.

Following the attack, Captain Boyd steered his carrier with the engines and three screws, as its rudder had been smashed. Illustrious listed toward Malta for the next nine hours, still afire, its burned and wounded men trapped and screaming belowdecks. The ship was attacked again by 15 or 20 more Stukas in the afternoon, but the bombers were Regia Aeronautica and not Luftwaffe and thus easier to fight off, with the help of Warspite and Valiant.

Illustrious reached Malta just after nightfall, towed in by tugboats, its hotspots glowing orange in the dark. “Wherever one looked, there were the signs of violent death in an open space of twisted disorder,” said Lamb.

One hundred twenty-six bodies and assorted body parts were sewn up in canvas bags and buried at sea by a minesweeper the next day, a Sunday. The funeral service was a hurried job, and not enough weight was put in the bags. Many remained afloat, so the ship circled them at speed to sink them with its wake. Some resurfaced, only to wash up days later, a grim tide against Malta’s limestone cliffs.

The Luftwaffe blitzed Malta on January 16 in an unsuccessful attempt to sink Illustrious in the harbor. Finally, under the full moon of January 23, after nearly two weeks of around-the-clock emergency repairs, Illustrious sneaked away from Malta for extensive refitting at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia, as the Portsmouth naval yards in Britain were too exposed. Radio Berlin claimed the British carrier was at the bottom of French Creek, but Illustrious returned to service in mid-1942, later participating in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 and of Okinawa in 1945.

The Luftwaffe continued bombing Malta; the real siege had only just begun and would continue with relentless aerial attacks on the supply convoys and on the islands. Cunningham went on, after Operation Torch, to become admiral of the fleet, then first sea lord of the admiralty and chief of naval staff.


For further reading, Sam Moses recommends A Sailor’s Odyssey: The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, by Andrew Browne Cunningham.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here