Obituary: John Fairful Cunningham, Atlantic Convoy veteran, 89

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An Atlantic Convoy veteran and bank manager has died at the age of 89.

Born in Morningside, John Fairful Cunningham later lived in Ellersley Road, where his father was chauffeur to the Crawford family, and was educated at Roseburn Primary and George Heriot’s. Leaving school at 15, he fulfilled a long-held ambition to complete a Merchant Navy Cadet course at Leith Nautical College and in August 1942 signed up with the Hain Steam Company.

His first ship was the SS Trefusis, which joined the Atlantic Convoy at Loch Ewe and sailed to America with 30 other vessels to load up with phosphates. His next, rather more eventful Atlantic convoy, XK-2, was heading for Freetown in Sierra Leone, to collect iron ore, when it was hit by a hurricane, encountering waves twice the height of houses.

It was after leaving Gibraltar, on the return journey, that the ship was torpedoed on March 5, 1943. Young Cunningham was the last man off before the Trefusis sank within 30 minutes of the attack. About 90 survivors spent the following seven days aboard the converted trawler escort that rescued them before landing at Londonderry.

His next ship was the SS Empire Cato, by this time under the control of the army for use in beachhead landings. Loaded with troops of the 1st Canadian Division for the invasion of Sicily, the convoy set sail from the Clyde. After passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, three ships were sunk by torpedoes but this time everyone on board survived and, after another large contingent joined the convoy, the invasion of Sicily began.

After discharging the troops and equipment they headed back to Algiers, where a neighbouring ship caught fire and exploded with the loss of hundreds of soldiers. From there, loaded with petrol and shells, it was on to Phillipsville to collect 1st Army troops bound for Salerno – and another encounter with the enemy.

From there he sailed to Uruguay and Argentina, returning to Glasgow via North Africa before joining the Empire General, loaded with shells, bailey bridges and petrol, bound for Ancona, on the Italian Adriatic coast, where they dodged German E-boats.

He left the Merchant Navy in 1947 and joined the Bank of Scotland, sitting his banking exams and later working on relief duty in various different branches before being based at Penicuik and then at Piershill, as the manager, where he stayed until retiring. His subsequent job with the Commonwealth Institute in Edinburgh was, he said, the best job he ever had.

Latterly his decreasing mobility left him housebound at home in Corstorphine but an annual pleasure was watching the flypast of military aircraft from the Edinburgh Tattoo. Fittingly, his own four war medals are held in Edinburgh Castle. Predeceased by his wife Ada, whom he married in 1953, he is survived by their children Fiona, Peter and Andrew and extended family.