Flight Lieutenant Wallace Cunningham D.F.C.
Flight Lieutenant Wallace Cunningham D.F.C.
Born: December 4th 1916, Glasgow, Scotland. Died: October 4th 2011 Age 94.
Cunningham joined No 19 Squadron just before the opening phase of the Battle of Britain. The initial weeks were quiet, but by mid-August the squadron, flying from Duxford, was heavily involved in the fighting.
On August 16th Cunningham destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 110 near Clacton.
On September 7th the Duxford Wing of three squadrons flew its first offensive patrol under the leadership of Douglas Bader.
The controversial “Big Wing” took off in the late afternoon to head towards London.
A large force of enemy bombers, with their fighter escort, was intercepted and Cunningham shot down a Heinkel 111 bomber over Ramsgate and damaged a second.
His next success came two days later when the Big Wing scrambled in the afternoon. After attacking a bomber force, Cunningham found a stray Messerschmitt Bf 109, which he shot down.
September 15th saw the most intensive fighting and the turning point of the Battle, with all fighter squadrons in the south of England scrambled.
Cunningham shared in the destruction of a Bf 110 and destroyed a second fighter over the Thames Estuary.
Before the battle was over at the end of October, he shared in the destruction of two more enemy aircraft.
In October he was awarded the D.F.C. for “great personal gallantry and splendid skill in action”.
Wallace Cunningham, known as Jock during his time in the R.A.F. was born in Glasgow on December 4 1916.
He studied Engineering part-time at the Royal Technical College (later to become the University of Strathclyde) and joined the R.A.F.V.R. in 1938, learning to fly at Prestwick. When war was declared he was commissioned.
After the Battle of Britain, Cunningham remained with No 19 as a flight commander.
In July 1941 he damaged a Bf 109 but on August 28th, while escorting a force of Blenheim bombers, he was shot down by flak near Rotterdam and taken prisoner.
Cunningham was initially sent to Oflag XC at Lubeck before joining a large R.A.F. contingent at Oflag VIB at Warburg.
He was soon involved in escape activities.
The tunnelling fraternity he joined was almost ready to break out when its efforts were discovered.
Within weeks he was on the digging team of another tunnel and was one of 35 PoW’s selected for the escape. But when the tunnel broke the surface on April 18th 1942 it was well short of the intended spot. Only five prisoners were able to escape before the tunnel was discovered next morning.
Later in the year Cunningham was transferred to Stalag Luft III.
Boredom was the main feature of prison and Cunningham used his considerable talent to make a series of cartoon sketches of camp life, many used after the war to illustrate a book on PoW’s.
Among the inmates of the camps there was a huge array of talent, not least among academics who organised official courses of instruction and education classes. Cunningham took advantage of these opportunities and studied Engineering.
While in Stalag Luft III he sat, and failed, the examination for the Institute of Electrical Engineers, his excuse being that he was distracted by the noise of guns from the Eastern front as the Russians came closer.
At the end of January 1945, the camp was evacuated and the PoW’s were forced to march westwards in atrocious winter weather.
In late April, British forces liberated the prisoners and Cunningham was flown back to England. He was released from the R.A.F. in 1946.
He worked as a technical sales director for Winget, which specialised in heavy, mobile cement and concrete mixers for the construction industry.
The company was run by George Dixon, a management visionary and social thinker who made Cunningham his personal assistant and worldwide trouble-shooter.
After a few years Cunningham returned to Glasgow to become chief engineer at John Dalglish and Sons. There he designed machines which were at the cutting edge of engineering, based on the new science of polymer chemistry.
He travelled the world seeking sales opportunities and providing high-level technical support for the new machinery.
The firm was taken over by Proctor and Schwartz, an American company, and Cunningham became a vice-president, working for the company until his retirement.
He remained with the firm for some years in a consulting capacity and continued to travel the world.
He and his wife threw themselves into bridge and bowls and Cunningham became vice-president and then president of his bowling club.
In his eighties he visited various universities and R.A.F. bases giving talks to students and pilots.
With his wit and rich fund of anecdotes about his experiences as a R.A.F. pilot and a PoW, he was a popular speaker.
Wallace Cunningham died on October 4th 2011. He married Mary “Molly” Anderson in August 1945. She died in 1998 and he is survived by their daughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.