Remembering Admiral Cunningham — The Great Insubordinate
Andrew Cunningham (1883–1963) was a legendary admiral of the Royal Navy. A bust of Admiral Cunningham is permanently displayed in Trafalgar Square in London.
Cunningham is most famous for his role in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. With Italy as Germany’s ally, the Axis powers might well have expected to be able to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Cunningham, however, with only sparse resources, helped mastermind a daring strategy for the Royal Navy to dominate the Mediterranean. It was a hard-fought battle, but through incredible daring and guile, the British gained and maintained the upper hand, resulting in the first major land-defeat of the Germans in the war.
The British Army’s Desert Rats had been fighting backwards and forwards with the famous Afrika Korps commanded by the Desert Fox himself — the greatly admired (by all sides) Erwin Rommel. Rommel was a brilliant tactician. His Panzer forces and tactics were far superior to those of the British. His men were superb soldiers — who, interestingly, appear to have engaged in (almost) none of the barbarous behaviour common among their countrymen in other battle zones.
Ultimately, however, they were defeated in the decisive battle of El Alamein by the British forces under Montgomery — the first major land defeat inflicted on the Nazi war machine. Their defeat was due to one primary factor — the Royal Navy. The Afrika Korps remained superior forces in many ways, but Montgomery’s supplies got through, whilst Rommel’s did not — they were lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, thanks to the superb seamanship, tactics and strategy of the Royal Navy under Admiral Cunningham.
Perhaps the most decisive blow in the Mediterranean was inflicted by the famous raid at Taranto. In one of the most daring, audacious and successful raids in history, Cunningham used seemingly outdated Swordfish biplanes, equipped with torpedoes and launched at night from the aircraft carrier Illustrious, to cripple the Italian Fleet at anchor in their fortress port of Taranto.
The Swordfish planes flew through a hail of gunfire and delivered their torpedoes with inhuman accuracy in the blackness of night using little more than steely determination and nerves of ice. One night, a handful of dated biplanes and some incredibly skilful and daring pilots and the powerful Italian navy was dealt a massive blow that would dramatically reduce its confidence and influence for the rest of the war.
This incredible raid was, in fact, to change the course of the entire war, not just the war in the Mediterranean. The Japanese were so impressed by the raid that they used it as a model for their attack on Pearl Harbor and thus brought the huge industrial might of the United States into the war.
The Japanese were not as accurate as their Royal Navy counterparts, but, with far greater resources at hand, produced a tactically successful raid. The Japanese raid, however, was a strategic disaster, picking a fight they could never win, whilst the British raid was a strategic masterstroke, as well as a stunning tactical success.
Admiral Cunningham, himself, however, is perhaps most famous for something he said during one of the major setbacks of the Mediterranean campaign. This setback came when the Germans launched a massive and daring airborne invasion of the Island of Crete. This raid was a groundbreaking manoeuvre at the time and remains one of the biggest and most successful airborne invasions in history.
As the Germans took control of the island (and took control of the airport, enabling them to fly in many more troops), an attempt was made to rescue the thousands of British troops who were stationed there. Cunningham’s ships attempted the evacuation whilst under massive attack from the German air force — the Luftwaffe. Cunningham’s valuable ships, however, were being sunk. In fact, during the battle of Crete, he lost three cruisers and six destroyers and fifteen other major warships were damaged.
Amidst pressure to call off the evacuation efforts, however, Cunningham refused and simply issued these momentous words:
“It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”
In other words, regardless of the number of ships that he would lose, it was against the fine principles and great traditions of the Royal Navy to abandon the army to be captured by the Germans and he point-blank refused to do it. Quite extraordinary!
In many ways, the lost ships were worth more to the war effort than the men who might have been captured by the Germans, but this was not the point. This was about something far bigger than merely winning or losing the biggest and most important war in all of human history. To have abandoned the army to their fate would have undermined everything that he and the Royal Navy stood for. Three hundred years of naval tradition would be lost in the race to win a poxy world war — and he wasn’t about to let that happen. 16,500 men were successfully rescued from Crete.
What Cunningham said serves as a reminder of a very good point of principle: In your race to win a war, don’t sacrifice the very principles you are fighting for — because then, even when you win, you lose. We would do well to remember this principle today. Too often, the fight against terrorism is used as an excuse for allowing our governments to undermine important freedoms.
What Cunningham was saying was, ‘If we go down, we go down with our principles and values intact.’ It was recognition, even in the heat of battle and in the face of heavy losses, that we were not just fighting to win, but we were fighting for something — fighting for the traditions, values and freedoms that we held dear and which the Nazi regime was trying desperately to take away — not just from us, but from the whole world.
As demonstrated by the Crete incident, Cunningham was, in some ways, an insubordinate character. And the Royal Navy’s impressively successful history is testament to the importance of a culture that accepts and even encourages a certain amount of insubordination.
It is true that armies and navies and air forces need discipline. You can’t have every soldier and sailor going off to do their own thing — so they are all drilled extensively in following orders. You do need people to follow orders and thus help avoid chaos and defeat. But, armed forces also need insubordinate characters. They need people to question how things are done, so as to avoid the disasters that take place when orders are followed without question.
In a lot of countries, Cunningham would have been fired, possibly prosecuted and possibly even shot. To be in the top division, however, armed forces need a culture that understands the extremely important role of insubordination in a successful organisation.
Britain is not the world power it used to be, but, to this day, no navy in the world can outmatch the history and traditions of the Royal Navy. Those traditions and values were at stake during the Second World War — but, thankfully, they were in the extraordinarily safe hands of the legendary Admiral Cunningham.