A sad fate for a brave man’s awards

In the USA, the Stolen Valor Act (which became law in 2006) ‘made it illegal for unauthorized persons to wear, buy, sell, barter, trade, or manufacture “any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the armed forces of the United States, or any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces”.‘  However, this isn’t the case in many other countries, where medals and other honors awarded to their citizens and members of their armed forces may be bought and sold freely.

This is about to happen to the medals of the late Group Captain John Cunningham, one of Britain’s foremost night fighter pilots during World War II and an award-winning test pilot in later years.  The Telegraph reports:

Medals and memorabilia belonging to celebrated World War Two night fighter ace John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham are expected to fetch up to £180,000 [about US $286,000] when they go under the hammer next month.

Cunningham rose to national prominence for his role shooting down marauding German planes in the Battle of Britain and destroyed at least 20 enemy aircraft over the course of the war.

His success was ascribed at the time to his healthy consumption of carrots, a story used to help boost the popularity of vegetables during wartime rationing. It also helped conceal the real reason for Cunningham’s hit rate – a top-secret new airborne radar system.

Cunningham relied on his re-trained air-gunner Jimmy Rawnsley to operate the system.

Describing the experience the pilot later said: “It would have been easier had the carrots worked. In fact, it was a long, hard grind and very frustrating. It was a struggle to continue flying on instruments at night.

“The essential was teamwork – not just between pilot and radar operator. A night fighter crew was at the top of a pyramid, ground control radar and searchlights at the base, and up there an aircraft with two chaps in it. Unless they were competent and compatible all that great effort was wasted.”

. . .

Among the lot being sold by auctioneers Spink in London on September 6 are his CBE, Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as various trophies, uniforms and aviation memorabilia.

It is expected to fetch between £140,000 and £180,000 in total.

Proceeds from the sale will go towards flying scholarships for young people while Spink is to donate its sales commission to the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust appeal, which helps to preserve building where Fighter Command had its HQ.

There’s more at the link.

I’d much rather the medals of so important a figure in British military aviation history were preserved in a museum or other place where he can be properly commemorated;  but at least the proceeds of the sale will go to good purposes.  I’m very familiar with Group Captain Cunningham’s wartime achievements, as I have in my library a well-thumbed copy of the book ‘Night Fighter‘ written by his radar operator, C. F. Rawnsley.  I recommend it very highly to students of military aviation history.



  1. June 29, 2012—- Unfortunately:

    In a plurality opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the United States Supreme Court today affirmed the Ninth Circuit holding the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional in United States v. Alvarez.

  2. Honestly, I hate to say this, but I think the 9th circuit was right here. Why should these medals, personal property of whoever owns them, be subject to laws barring their sale or trade? I could see upholding a ban on manufacture and even on false representation, but they're still personal property.

    Beyond that, I can't find a cite for it, but I seem to recall reading once that most relics and historical items that we have today that have lasted the generations have done so because they were in private collections. Apparently, when a country is occupied, one of the first things to be raided, destroyed or looted are the museums (which I believe we saw in Iraq recently as well).

  3. Seems like the Group Captain's descendants, literal or figurative, should be able to abide by his wishes for his commendations.

    Bans on false representation already exist. If Squeals are such a problem, strengthening those bans by some other means seems like a much more palatable choice than stripping this man's estate of $286,000 earned by his skill and bravery.

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