7 September 1917 – 31 July 1992
“Leonard Cheshire was born in 1917, the son of a barrister and legal jurist. Educated at Stowe and Oxford, even as a young man he was decisive and determined; on one occasion he took a bet that he could not walk from Oxford to Paris with nothing more than the money in his pocket (he won the bet. The stakes – half a pint of beer) and on another, whilst visiting Germany in 1936 he attended one of Hitler’s rallies and flat refused to give the Nazi salute much to the annoyance of his hosts.
He joined the RAF in 1937 and was posted to 102 Squadron in April 1940, flying the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bomber. He learned rapidly, and by June was in command of his own aircraft and crew. In November of that year, Cheshire received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for a mission over Cologne during which he was temporarily blinded by flak but still managed to prevent his damaged and burning aircraft crashing, deliver his bomb load on target, and return to base. Appropriately the plane’s codename was ‘N for Nuts’.
He was transferred to 35 Squadron in January 1941 where by August, in a busy few months, he was promoted to Squadron Leader, won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), was promoted again to Flight Lieutenant, flew to Canada, met actress Constance Binney in New York and married her, and returned to England to resume bombing operations.
After this, Leonard spent almost a year as a flight instructor before being promoted to Acting Wing Commander and given command of 76 Squadron flying Halifax bombers. As commander he was ordered not to fly missions ‘unless absolutely necessary’ but he found it ‘absolutely necessary’ more often than not, often flying with new and inexperienced crews to give them the benefit of his experience. He also made several modifications to the Halifax to make the plane faster and more manoeuvrable, which reduced causalities and greatly increased morale in the squadron.
Completing three tours made Leonard ineligible for further combat missions, but this did not sit well with him. Promoted to Group Captain (and the youngest group Captain in the history of the RAF) he was returned to training and command duties, but constantly pushed to be allowed to operational flying. Eventually in September 1943 he succeeded in receiving a demotion to Squadron Commander and was posted to the RAF Elite – 617 Squadron, the Dambusters.
617 were noted for flying dangerous, low-level, close formation precision-bombing missions, which suited his adventurous nature and he practised fast, low level flying in a Mosquito night-fighter and a P-51 Mustang borrowed from the Americans. After honing his skills, he took part in major raids against industrial heartlands in Germany and occupied France and attacks on V1 and V2 launch sites and the V3 ‘Vengeance’ guns in Northern France using bunker-busting ‘Tallboy’ bombs. In one raid on a factory in Limoges, Leonard insisted on making dummy runs at a height of twenty feet over the building to give the French workers time to evacuate before destroying it – the RAF later received a thank you message from the workers for this considerate warning.
Eventually the RAF stopped him flying. On the 7th of July 1944, Leonard Cheshire flew his 100th and last mission, destroying the V1 and V2 storage site at St Leu d’Esserant, and upon his return he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation read:
“Wing Commander Cheshire led his squadron personally on every occasion, always undertaking the most dangerous and difficult task of marking the target alone from a low level in the face of strong defences. Wing Commander Cheshire’s cold and calculated acceptance of risks is exemplified by his conduct… Wing Commander Cheshire has now completed a total of 100 missions. In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he has maintained a record of outstanding personal achievement, placing himself invariably in the forefront of the battle….the careful planning, brilliant execution and contempt for danger has established for Wing Commander Cheshire a reputation second to none in Bomber Command.”
In 1925, Leonard’s headmaster wrote on his school report that he was “not terribly good at anything”. How wrong he was.” (David Wade)
1 August 1992:
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, air-force officer and charity pioneer, born Chester 7 September 1917, served Bomber Command 1940-45, 102 Squadron 1940, DSO 1940 (and two Bars 1941), 35 Squadron 1941, DFC 1941, CO 76 Squadron 1942, RAF Station Marston Moor 1943, CO 617 Squadron (Dambusters) 1943, attached Eastern Air Command South-East Asia 1944, British Joint Staff Mission Washington 1945, official British observer of dropping of Atomic Bomb on Nagasaki 1945, Chairman World War Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief 1989-92, VC 1944, OM 1981, created 1991 Baron Cheshire, books include Bomber Pilot 1943, Pilgrimage to the Shroud 1956, The Face of Victory 1961, The Hidden World 1981, The Light of Many Suns 1985, married Constance Binney (deceased), 1959 Susan Ryder (who was created 1979 Baroness Ryder of Warsaw; one son, one daughter), died Cavendish Suffolk 31 July 1992.
LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable. A war hero and pioneer of the Cheshire Homes for sick people that bear his name, he had the priceless gift of appearing ordinary while accomplishing quite extraordinary achievements in war and peace.
Cheshire was the son of the eminent Oxford lawyer Professor Geoffrey Cheshire; but neither at Stowe nor at Oxford did he prove a particularly bright or industrious student. In an extrovert generation, he was the most extrovert. Intentionally or unintentionally, he always seemed to attract the headlines (he held the record from Hyde Park Corner to Magdalen Bridge in an Alfa Romeo, for which he could not pay). Ironically, in view of his later life he avowedly modelled himself, on Leslie Charteris’s ‘The Saint’.
But he did join the Oxford University Air Squadron and became a competent though not brilliant pilot. And, unusually among his contemporaries, he foresaw the coming of the Second World War. In the summer of 1939 he took a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force and was posted to Hullavington to complete his training (typically, when still not fully trained, he volunteered for the Russo-Finnish War) Perhaps to his disappointment, he was posted to Bomber Command.
Here came the transfer from the world of fantasy to hard reality; and there was none harder than Bomber Command. Within a year he had been awarded his first DSO, for bringing home a holed and burning Whitley. Thereafter his operational record went from strength to strength. He demonstrated unique qualities of stamina, survival, expertise and leadership. He needed not only these but also luck, as he was the first to admit, constantly surviving the most intense anti-aircraft and fighter opposition over the war’s most heavily defended targets, often at very low level where he personally developed the Mosquito marking techniques. And not only the Mosquito; on one occasion, suspecting that the fast single-seater Mustang could be a useful addition to Bomber Command’s armoury, he made his first flight in the aircraft one afternoon and flew a deep-penetration sortie in it the same night.
He could not bear to be out of the action. To take command of the elite 617 (Dambusters) Squadron he accepted demotion from Group Captain. He led every sortie while in command and pioneered a number of special bombing and marking techniques, which produced an unequalled record of success for his squadron. Their spoof operation, TAXABLE, to simulate an invasion of the Pas de Calais, demanded minute accuracy of flying over a long period and completely fulfilled its purpose of deceiving the enemy.
He was awarded the DFC, two bars to the DSO and, after completing the unique total of 100 missions, the Victoria Cross. Of this award perhaps it only needs to be said that, unlike some others, it was never questioned or criticised by any of his contemporaries or comrades.
In August 1945 he was selected as the only British Service observer of the atom bombing of Nagasaki. Naturally it had a profound effect on him. But it is not true that it convinced him that he must dedicate the rest of his life to suffering humanity.
This was to come later, after he had been struck with tuberculosis and underwent 18 months hospitalisation and much major surgery at Midhurst. At the same time he was converted to the Roman Catholic faith, to which he remained a most ardent devotee.
Having been invalided from the RAF in 1946 he embarked on several ambitious but unsuccessful ventures in community welfare. After the failure of the last of these he was left with one large empty house, Le Court, at Liss in Hampshire, and a mountain of debts. He agreed to accept into that house an incurable patient from a local hospital. This was to be the start, involuntary and unplanned, of the Cheshire Homes. By this year they numbered, together with Family Support Services, some 270 in 48 countries, caring for thousands of physically or mentally handicapped people. He allowed no qualification of background, age, religion, race or speciality of handicap. The doors of Cheshire Homes are open to anyone who is unable to make his way in society without assistance.
Cheshire’s part in the development of this remarkable activity was both practical and inspirational. He showed notable powers of leadership and of skilful delegation, and the ability to persuade others to exert themselves almost as much as he did. Of warm and friendly personality, he was always quietly spoken but with a most compelling presence and an almost hypnotic gaze. His almost schoolboyish sense of humour never deserted him. He had become, as his achievements grew, almost pathologically modest and for many years refused all titles, only finally accepting the OM (after declining a CH) because it was in the Queen’s gift – he was always an ardent royalist. He accepted a peerage last year.
He married, briefly in war-time, the American actress Constance Binney. Later he married Sue Ryder, now Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, with whom he shared a lasting and profound dedication to the care of humanity.
Not only Britain but the whole world needs more men like Leonard Cheshire. He will be profoundly missed but his memory and his work will live on.
On 22 May 1948, former RAF pilot Leonard Cheshire took a dying man, who had nowhere else to go, into his home.
With no money, Leonard nursed the man himself in his home of Le Court in Hampshire. They became friends and this act of kindness prompted more people to go to Leonard for help. People were keen to share a home with others and support each other.
By the summer of 1949, his home had 24 residents with complex needs, illnesses and impairments. As awareness of Leonard’s work spread he started to receive referrals.
New NHS hospitals struggled to cope with waiting lists of people needing urgent care. Disabled people were at the bottom of the list of NHS priorities at the time. People were often left to manage on their own, or to rely on others to help them get through each day.
As Le Court became established, people started to champion the need for similar homes in their communities. Interest in these services was not limited to the UK. International communities also sought these services. The establishment of Leonard Cheshire as a charity had begun.
By 1955, there were five homes in the UK. The first overseas project began outside Mumbai, India.
The 1960s saw rapid expansion. By 1970 there were:
By the 1970s, we were established as a pioneering provider of care services. We began to diversify and a trial for care in the community was launched in the UK south coast.
Disabled Britain on Film is the latest free release by the British Film Institute (BFI) on the BFI Player and it includes three historic films made by the Le Court Film Unit and Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.
As well as on the BFI Player, disabled film maker Brian Line’s musical documentary Maybe Today can be viewed on the Rewind website. In this film, Brian tells a story of how disability can occur to a person and follows the efforts of the fundraising residents at Le Court Cheshire Home to build a new wing enabling them to have more modern accommodation. It includes footage of Brian taking part in a sponsored hitchhike, a folk soundtrack with songs composed by resident David Martin and volunteer Michael Cairns and performed by local band Scarlet Lace.
The film makes clear that residents led the way in not only fundraising but designing the home; resident Ms. Iris Chant chaired the building committee which considered all fixtures and fittings down to adapted taps, light fittings, the correct heights for sinks and intercom.
The other two films concentrate on Group Captain Cheshire’s humanitarian work and were made in conjunction with Hollywood film director David Lean and fleet street photographer Norman Potter. Norman’s photographs were used, interspersed with filmed footage of people living in Cheshire Homes alongside David’s interviewing skills.
Whilst some of the terms used by Leonard Cheshire in a Hidden World are not used today, he attempts to demystify different types of disability and shows footage of real life experiences of disabled people. This film is of its time but is an interesting snapshot of how disability was viewed in the 1970s and gives an idea of what Leonard was trying to achieve through his work – to support disabled people to live the lives of their own choosing.
Chance Encounter sees David interview Leonard about how they met in 1950s India and the work carried out by Leonard Cheshire and wife Sue Ryder at Raphael in the foothills of the Himalayas. Raphael was the place where both humanitarians joined forces and it held a special place in their hearts. They made a final pilgrimage there in 1992 when Leonard received his diagnosis of Motor Neurone disease. This journey was documented by Anglia TV and David Puttnam in the film ‘Indian Summer’.
British officer served with pilot with 102 Sqdn, RAF in GB, 1940-1941; served with 35 Sqdn, RAF in GB, 1941; commanded 617 Sqdn, RAF in GB, 1943-1944; served as official British observer during dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, 8/1945 (Reel 1)
British officer served with pilot with 102 Sqdn, No 4 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 6/1940-1/1941; served with 35 Sqdn, No 4 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 4/1941-2/1942; commanded 617 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 9/1943-7/1944 including award of Victoria Cross, 7/1944; served as official British observer aboard Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Big Stink’ during dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, 9/8/1945
REEL 1 Aspects of enlistment and training with RAF in GB, 1939-1940: background to joining RAF, 7/10/1939; reaction to outbreak of Second World War, 9/1940; flying training with Oxford University Air Squadron; allocation to Bomber Command. Aspects of operations as pilot with 102 Sqdn, No 4 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 6/1940-1/1941: posting to squadron at RAF Driffield, 6/1940; flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley; problems faced by Bomber Command during Battle of France, 5/1940-6/1940; German Air Force attack on RAF Driffield, 8/1940; damage to his aircraft over Cologne, Germany. Aspects of operations as pilot with 35 Sqdn, No 4 Group, RAF in GB, 4/1941-1/1942: flying Handley Page Halifax Mk I; opinion of quality of German Air Force; need for professional attitude; cultivation of relations with ground staff; feeling of national unity during Second World War; countering stall in Handley Page Halifax; redesign of Handley Page Halifax Mk II tailplane; question of need for Pathfinder Force.
REEL 2 Continues: Recollections of operations commanding 617 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 9/1943-7/1944: background to taking command of squadron, 9/1943; threat from German V3 Rocket; discussion of question of height of attack; testing of low level marking techniques during attacks on French targets and Munich, Germany, 24/4/1944-25/4/1944; character of squadron; memories of Barnes Wallis, Ralph Cochrane, Harold ‘Micky’ Martin and Les Munro; contribution of New Zealand and Australian contingents in squadron; memories of David Shannon. Recollections of period as official British observer aboard Boeing B-29 Superfortress ‘Big Stink’ during dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, 9/8/1945: technical problems with bomb; diversion of mission from Kokura to Nagasaki; sight of nuclear explosion.
REEL 3 Continues: shape of explosive cloud; reaction to explosion of bomb; justification for bomber offensive against Germany; attitude to use of nuclear weapons; attitude to warfare; question of deterrence; opinion of Japanese lack of knowledge of their role during Second World War; prior recollection of outcome of Bomber Command raid on Mailly-le-Camp, France, 3/5/1944-4/5/1944.