The story is often told. Famous British night-fighter ace John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham was a very successful combat pilot, shooting down at least 20 enemy aircraft. Rather than admit to the existence of certain technological advances that gave him and his colleagues the edge, it was put about that eating carrots gave him the ability to see the enemy in the pitch black. It was a win-win situation: the Germans could be kept in the dark (pun intended!) about the secret radio direction finding kit (later known as radar) that helped night-fighter pilots ‘home in’ on their targets, and it would boost the consumption of cheap, healthy home-grown vegetables by kids eager to emulate their heroes on the rationed home front.
Wherever possible, carrots were used as an alternative snack - carrots instead of fruit, carrots instead of lollies, carrots instead of sweets. And Dr Carrot – the character the Ministry of Food invented as a chum for Potato Pete - was brought in to encourage Britain’s carrot crusade (there was 100,000 tons to shift!) and perpetuate the myth that they help you see in the dark!
During the Blitz in late 1940 and early 1941, Cunningham and his radar operator ‘Jimmy’ Rawnsley made a perfect team. Rawnsley worked the on-board radar, and directed his pilot towards the target, where Cunningham’s skills (described by one interviewer as an ability to ‘think in three dimensions … He thought out his strategy just like a chess match’) could be brought to bear. Hmmm, not a carrot in sight! Sorry, Dr Carrot!
Cunningham’s success was actually based not on vast quantities of everyone’s favourite orange root vegetable, but on the scientific brilliance of some often-forgotten boffins and good old-fashioned team work - as well as the cool courage and skill of Cunningham, his crewmates and their colleagues. As he admitted himself: ‘A 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.’
Cunningham, who hated his wartime nickname, later said ‘It would have been easier had the carrots worked.’