Leonard Cheshire PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 30 October 2008 15:01

Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire

Born: 7 September 1917, Chester, England

Died: 31 July 1992

Age: 74

Cause of death: Motor Neurone disease.

Notable because: Born into privilege, graduated from Oxford and went to War as a pilot, displaying exceptional ability and courage. Awarded the Victoria Cross. Was the official British observer in the support plane for the Nagasaki atom bomb drop.  After the war said...' I for one hold little brief for the future of civilization.' Went on to dedicate his life to helping others with great success. Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) said of Cheshire "the only true Christian I've ever met." An inspirational human being.

Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and Two Bars, DFC  was a highly decorated British RAF pilot during the Second World War. Among the honours he received as a bomber pilot is the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. After the war, he became a charity worker, setting up Leonard Cheshire Disability and other philanthropic organisations.

Leonard Cheshire was the son of Professor Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, DCL, LLD, FBA, a barrister, academic and influential writer on English law. He had one brother, Christopher Cheshire, who also became a wartime pilot. Cheshire was born in Chester but was brought up at his parents' home near Oxford. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Stowe School and Merton College, Oxford. While at Oxford, he was bet half a pint of beer that he could not walk to Paris. With no more than a few pennies and a pocket handkerchief he won his bet. He graduated in Jurisprudence in 1939.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Cheshire applied for a commission in the Royal Air Force and was initially posted in June 1940 to 102 Squadron, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers, from RAF Driffield. In November 1940, he was awarded the DSO for flying his badly-damaged bomber back to base.

In January 1941, he completed his tour of operations, but then volunteered straight away for a second tour. He was posted to No. 35 Squadron with the brand new Handley Page Halifax, and completed his second tour early in 1942, by now a Squadron Leader. August 1942 saw a return to operations as CO of No. 76 Squadron RAF. The squadron had recently suffered high losses operating the Halifax, and Cheshire immediately tackled the low morale of the unit by ordering an improvement in the performance of the squadron aircraft by removing the mid-upper and nose gun turrets along with exhaust covers and other weighty non-essential equipment. This allowed the bombers to fly higher and faster. Losses soon fell and morale rose accordingly. Cheshire became Station Officer Commanding RAF Marston Moor in March as the youngest Group Captain in the RAF, though the job was never to his liking and he pushed for a return to an operational command. These efforts paid off with a posting to succeed Wing Commander Guy Gibson as commander of the legendary 617 "Dambusters" Squadron in September 1943.http://www.bramfly.ca/images/0_index_fl_gr_art.jpg

While with 617, Cheshire helped pioneer a new method of marking enemy targets for Bomber Command's 5 Group, flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences, using first, the versatile Mosquito, then a "borrowed" P-51 Mustang fighter. This development work was the subject of some severe intraservice politics; Cheshire was encouraged by his 5 Group Commander Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, although the 8 Group Pathfinder AOC Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett saw this work as impinging on the responsibilities of his own command.

Cheshire was nearing the end of his fourth tour of duty in July 1944, having completed a total of 102 missions, when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only one of the 32 VC airmen to win the medal for an extended period of sustained courage and outstanding effort, rather than a single act of valour. His citation noted:

"In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he maintained a standard of outstanding personal achievement, his successful operations being the result of careful planning, brilliant execution and supreme contempt for danger – for example, on one occasion he flew his P-51 Mustang in slow "figures of eight" above a target obscured by low cloud, to act as a bomb-aiming mark for his squadron. Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader." It also noted a raid in which he had marked a target, flying a Mosquito at low level against "withering fire."

http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafcms/mediafiles/8A776027_1143_EC82_2E4A0BEF4187B31A.jpgCheshire was, in his day, both the youngest Group Captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated.

On his 103rd mission, he was the official British observer of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki flying in the support B-29 Big Stink. He did not witness the event as close up as anticipated due to the aircraft commander, James Hopkins' failure to link up with the other B-29s. Hopkins was meant to join with the others over Yakushima, but he circled at 39,000 ft instead of the agreed height of 30,000 ft. He tried to justify this by the need to keep the VIP passengers out of danger, but Cheshire thought that Hopkins was "overwrought."

”Many assumed that it was Nagasaki which emptied him. In fact, as he kept pointing out, it was the war as a whole. Like Britain herself, he had been fighting or training for fighting since 1939.” 

He was earlier quoted as saying: "...then I for one hold little brief for the future of civilization"

He left the RAF in 1946 and the time immediately after the war saw him start several new ventures. One of these was a community called VIP (standing for the Latin phrase Vade in Pacem - Go in Peace)which eventually settled in a house called Le Court in Hampshire which Cheshire bought from an aunt. VIP's aim was to provide an opportunity for ex-servicemen and women and their families to live together, each contributing to the community what they could, in order to help their transition back into civilian life. He hoped that training, prosperity and fulfillment would result from united effort and mutual support.He saw the community as one way of continuing to work towards world peace. But the idea did not prosper and the community came to an end in 1947. 

At the beginning of 1948, he heard about the case of Arthur Dykes, who had been one of Leonard's original 'VIP' community at Le Court, Hampshire and was suffering from cancer. Dykes asked Cheshire to give him some land to park a caravan until he recovered, but Cheshire discovered that Dykes was terminally ill and that this fact had been concealed from him. He told Dykes the real position and invited him to stay at Le Court.Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM

Cheshire learned nursing skills and was soon approached to take in a second patient, the 94-year-old bedridden wife of a man whose own frailness meant he could no longer care for her himself. She was followed by others, some coming to stay and others to help. Although Le Court had no financial support, and was financially perilous most of the time, money somehow always seemed to arrive in the nick of time to stave off disaster. By the time Arthur Dykes died in 1948, there were 24 people staying at Le Court.

In 1948, on Dykes's death, Cheshire, who had been a lapsed Christian, sat by his bed and picked up a book called One Lord One Faith about the Catholic Church. Soon afterwards, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church.

Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to supporting disabled people, combining this with lecturing on conflict resolution.

In 1948, he founded the charity now styled Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. It is now in the top 30 of UK charities.

Other organisations set up by Leonard Cheshire are:

  • The Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, set up by Leonard Cheshire and his wife Sue Ryder at the time of their marriage in 1959. It now mainly operates in two fields: the rehabilitation of disabled people, through Ryder-Cheshire Volunteers and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, through Target Tuberculosis.
  • The Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief

In 1953 he founded the Raphael Pilgrimage, to enable sick and disabled people to travel to Lourdes.

The Leonard Cheshire Disability & Inclusive Development Centre is a joint project by Leonard Cheshire Disability and University College London (originally set up in 1997 as the Leonard Cheshire Centre of Conflict Recovery).

On 15 July 1941, Cheshire married an American actress, Constance Binney, but this marriage was short-lived. Then, on 5 April 1959, in Bombay's Catholic Cathedral, he married Sue Ryder, also the founder of a charity; they had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire and lived in Cavendish, Suffolk.http://collections.iwm.org.uk/upload/img_400/cheshire.jpg

In 1950, he became one of the vice presidents of the Eagle Club, one of Britain's most popular juvenile publications of the 1950s.

He died of motor neurone disease on 31 July 1992.

In 1981, he was given the Order of Merit.

In 1991, he was given a life peerage as Baron Cheshire of Woodhall in the County of Lincolnshire, sitting as a cross-bencher.

Queen Elizabeth II paid personal tribute to him in her Christmas message to the Commonwealth in December 1992. In the 2002 BBC poll to find the 100 Greatest Britons, Cheshire attained position number 31. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Leonard Cheshire is acknowledged on the Roger Waters album The Wall - Live in Berlin. Former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters once described Cheshire as "the only true Christian I've ever met."

Last Updated on Friday, 24 September 2010 16:43
 

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