Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC OM DSO and two bars DFC

Best known for his work for disabled people, Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and Two Bars, DFC sadly died 31 July 1992. He was Born 7 September 1917 In Chester, and was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Stowe School and Merton College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he became friends with John Niel Randle. On one occasion at Oxford he was bet half a pint of beer that he could not walk to Paris with no more than a few pennies in his pocket; he won his bet. He stayed in Germany in 1936 with a family in Potsdam and whilst there, witnessed an Adolf Hitler rally. Cheshire caused great offence by pointedly refusing to give the Nazi salute. Cheshire graduated jurisprudence in 1939.

Having learnt basic piloting skills with the Oxford University Air Squadron he joined the RAF following the outbreak of the Second World War. He was initially posted in June 1940 to 102 Squadron, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers, from RAF Driffield. In November 1940, Cheshire was awarded the DSO for flying his badly damaged bomber back to base. In January 1941, Cheshire completed his tour of operations, but then volunteered immediately for a second tour. He was posted to 35 Squadron with the brand new Handley Page Halifax and completed his second tour early in 1942, by then, 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.

Many Halifax bombers did not return and there were reports the Halifax was unstable in a “corkscrew” which was the manoeuvre used by bomber pilots to escape night fighters. So The test pilot Capt. Eric Brown DSC, flying uncrewed except for an accompanying flight engineer, undertook risky tests to establish the cause. The fault was in the Halfax’s rudder design and Cheshire became enraged when Handley Page at first declined to make modifications. During his time as the Commanding Officer of 76 Squadron at RAF Linton, Cheshire took the trouble to recognise and learn the name of every single man on the base. He was determined to increase the efficiency of his squadron and improve the chances of survival of its crews, to this end he constantly lectured crews on the skills needed to achieve those aims. The crews knew he was devoted to their interests and when, on an operation to Nuremberg, they were told to cross the French Coast at 2,000 ft (the most dangerous height for light flak). Cheshire simply refused, stating they would fly at 200 ft or 20,000 ft. Typically, Cheshire inspired great loyalty and respect among 76 Squadron.

In 1943, Cheshire published an account of his first tour of operations in his book, Bomber Pilot which tells of his posting to RAF Driffield and the story of flying his badly damaged bomber (“N for Nuts”) back to base. In the book, Cheshire fails to mention being awarded theDSO for this, but does describe the bravery of a badly burnt member of his crew.Cheshire became Station Commander RAF Marston Moor in March 1943, as the youngest Group Captain in the RAF, although the job was never to his liking and he pushed for a return to an operational command. These efforts paid off with a posting as commander of the legendary 617 “Dambusters” Squadron in September 1943. 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 de Havilland Mosquito, then a North American Mustang fighter.On the morning before a planned raid by 617 squadron to Siracourt, a crated Mustang turned up at Woodhall Spa, it was a gift for Cheshire from his admirers in the U.S. 8th Air Force. Cheshire had the aircraft assembled and the engine tested as he was determined to test the possibilities of the fighter as a marker aircraft. He took off, in what was his first flight in the aircraft, and caught up with 617′s Lancasters before they reached the target. Cheshire then proceeded to accurately mark the target (a V-1 storage depot) for the heavies which landed three Tallboys on it. He then flew back and landed the Mustang in the dark.

This development work in target marking 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 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. Itlso noted a raid in which he had marked a target, flying a Mosquito at low level against “withering fire”.

When Cheshire went to Buckingham Palace to receive his VC from King George VI, he was accompanied by Norman Jackson who was also due to receive his award on that day. Cheshire insisted that despite the difference in rank (Group Captain and Warrant Officer), they should approach the King together. Jackson remembers that Cheshire said to the King, “This chap stuck his neck out more than I did – he should get his VC first!” The King had to keep to protocol, but Jackson commented he would “never forget what Cheshire said.” Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest Group Captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated. In his book, Bomber Command (2010), Sir Max Hastings states “Cheshire was a legend in Bomber Command, a remarkable man with an almost mystical air about him, as if he somehow inhabited a different planet from those about him, but without affectation or pretension”. Cheshire would always fly on the most dangerous operations, he never took the easy option of just flying on the less risky ops to France, a habit which caused some COs to be referred to derisively as “François” by their men. Cheshire had no crew but would fly as “Second Dickey”, with the new and nervous to give them confidence. Cheshire had strong feelings on any crew displaying LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre, a euphemism for cowardice) when subject to the combat stress of Bomber Command’s sorties (many of which had loss rates of 5% or more). Thus Cheshire transferred LMF cases out of his squadron almost instantaneously (like every other RAF squadron did at the time) This was also because he argued that a man who thought he was doomed would collapse or bail out when his aircraft was hit, whereas Cheshire thought if he could survive the initial shock of finding his aircraft damaged, he had more of a chance of survival. On his 103rd mission, Cheshire was the official British observer of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki.His vantage point was in the support B-29 Big Stink. After serving as the British observer on theNagasaki nuclear attack he resigned from the Air Force. However During the Second World War he became a highly decorated British RAF pilot. Among the honours Cheshire received as a pilot is the Victoria Cross. He was the youngest Group Captain in the RAF and one of the most highly decorated pilots of the War, .

After the war, Cheshire lived with his wife Joan at the “VIP (for Vade in Pacem – Go in Peace) Colony” he established for veterans and war widows at Gumley Hall, Bedford Gardens – one of several new ventures he started after leaving the RAF in 1946. Joan followed him to Le Court, near Petersfield,Hampshire (a mansion which Cheshire had bought from his aunt) where, with three children of her own, Joan took charge of the nursery. Cheshire and Joan Botting subsequently investigated many religions, from Seventh Day Adventist to Methodist to “High Anglo-Catholic” – but none of them provided the answers they were looking for. Cheshire’s aim in establishing the VIP Colony 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. The community, however, did not prosper and the project came to an end in 1947.Atthe beginning of 1948, Cheshire heard about the case of Arthur Dykes, who had been one of Cheshire’s original “VIP” community at Le Court, 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 diagnosis was concealed from him. He told Dykes the real position and invited him to stay at Le Court. Cheshire learned nursing skills and was soon approached to take in a second patient, the 94-year-old bedridden wife of a man who had just been taken off to hospital after suffering a stroke. She was followed by others, some coming to stay and others to help. Although Le Court had no financial support, and his situation was financially perilous most of the time, money somehow always seemed to arrive in the nick of time to stave off disaster.

Dykes died in August 1948. After completing the arrangements for his funeral, Cheshire idly picked up a book a friend had sent him. It was One Lord, One Faith by Vernon Johnson, a former High Anglican clergyman who, against every cherished instinct and prejudice, had converted to Roman Catholicism because, as he put it, “I could not resist the claim of the Catholic Church to be the one true Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ to guard and teach the truth. Joan Botting had converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses.On Christmas Eve, 1948, Cheshire was received into the Catholic Church. The next day, Joan Botting and her children, Mavis, Gary and Elizabeth, moved out of Le Court for good. At the beginning of 1949, eight patients were staying at Le Court.Six months later, there were 28. Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to supporting disabled people, combining this with lecturing on conflict resolution.

In 1948, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. It is now one of the top 30 British 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. this deals with the rehabilitation of disabled people, through ENRYCH and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, through Target Tuberculosis. In 1953, Cheshire founded the Raphael Pilgrimage in order 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.  In 1991 he was created Baron Cheshire  in recognition of his charitable work and Cheshire also founded the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, for whom the Roger Waters concert “The Wall – Live in Berlin” was held. Cheshire opened this concert by blowing a Second World War whistle. Cheshire was also concerned about future remembrance and was influential in the concept of the National Memorial Arboretum, founded by David Childs. However his legacy lives on And The amphitheatre at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Cheshire.

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