Businesswoman Reaches for the Skies in Record Bid for Fighter Ace's Medals; PS395,000 PRICE PAID IN MEMORY OF BROTHER WHO DIED AT 47

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Byline: DARREN DEVINE darren.devine@walesonline.co.uk

A BUSINESSWOMAN has paid a record-breaking PS395,000 at auction to buy a heroic World War II fighter pilot's medal collection.

Melissa John outbid other collectors and overseas museums to get RAF night fighter ace John Cunningham's medals in memory of her late brother Christopher.

Cash from the sale will now go towards a PS13.4m project to build a museum and education centre at the RAF's wartime headquarters of Bentley Priory, in Harrow, London. Ms John's brother was a wellknown Cardiff estate agent who died suddenly at his home in the city suburb of Llandaff in 2008, aged just 47.

Both brother and sister were instilled with a great respect for military valour by their father Christopher Aubrey John, who was a major in the Royal Signals in World War II.

The previous record price for a medal haul of PS241,500 was set by former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft, when in 2001 he bought the collection belonging to Johnnie Johnson, Britain's greatest World War II fighter ace.

Ms John, from Cardiff, who has business interests in property and retail, said: "I was very relieved (to get the medals).

"The bidder before me said, 'This is getting very expensive'.

"And I wanted to shout out, 'Well stop bidding'."

Group Captain Cunningham's legendary accuracy as the highestscoring night fighter of World War II earned him the nickname Cat's Eyes - in total, he downed 20 German bombers over the English Channel.

Up to 19 of these were shot down at night and the flier even managed to take out one without firing a single shot - by diving down through cloud and forcing the enemy into the ground.

His unerring vision even inspired a memorable piece of wartime propaganda that saw the humble carrot credited with his ability to spy enemy aircraft through the darkness. But this was a ruse to prevent the Germans learning about the secret weapon behind Cunningham's successes - radar.

After the war, Cunningham went on to become a test pilot for the de Havilland Comet - the world's first passenger jet and broke records for speed and height.

As well as the medals, Cunningham's RAF log books were sold along with his flying helmet, jackets, trophies, tankards, certificates and photo albums.

Bentley Priory has earned a place in RAF folklore as the wartime pilots' spiritual home, because during the Battle of Britain all the orders came from the stately home command centre.

When Ms John first learned it was under threat, she donated PS40,000 to its restoration before organising the auction of medals that saw the "Cat's Eyes" collection go up for sale at Spink of London. …