Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire before and after D-Day
The boy who became RAF Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire grew up in a secure home without grinding poverty or fights between parents. Encouraged and cherished, he had what his biographer R. Morris called a “disciplined” life, the kind young children often respond to - they like regular dinner times and bedtimes and playtimes. Loving discipline seems to give them strength. It certainly didn't repress Cheshire's wild spirits.
Fast cars, reckless exploits
At Stowe, where his teachers included TH White, the author of The Once and Future King, Leonard was described as being determined, competitive, and "not very gifted”, aside from his skill on the tennis court. Athletic, with boyish good looks, he went on to Oxford where he became known for “fast cars, reckless exploits, fantastic extravagance”.
Nor was he forgotten at Stowe after he returned “as an old boy in a fast racing car and managed to drive unscathed through the cricket screen” (Mandarin). For awhile “he held the undergraduate record for the fastest return from Hyde Park Corner to Magdalen Bridge, in an Alfa Romeo”. Between outings he made a point of studying hard.
Something evil abroad
By 1936 he had joined the Oxford University air squadron. He was a competent flyer, but no one thought him brilliant. However, he was watching Hitler’s progress, and unlike many people of the time he had become aware “that something evil and dangerous was abroad” (The Times).
Cheshire believed that evil had to be opposed, and he accepted a permanent commission in the RAF. In June 1939, he was sent to flight training school, and in June 1940 he was posted to 102 squadron, Bomber Command. He was growing up fast.
It has been suggested that he chose Bomber Command because fewer young men did, and he thought it was a good place to make a name. Perhaps that is true. What Cheshire quickly learned from his New Zealand co-pilot, Frank ‘Lofty’ Long, was how to fly by night using instruments, and how to fly under heavy enemy fire. It would prove useful information.
RAF Wing Commander
Leonard began carrying out raids on Germany industry. “His rapport with his air crew and with his ground crew became legendary: one later commented that 'He could get me to do anything. He was once criticized for drinking with his crew in a saloon bar reserved for officers, but replied: 'If I am good enough to fight and fly with these men I am certainly good enough to drink with them'" (DNB).
He became famous for his skill, in one case bringing home his shot-up and burning aircraft and its crew after an attack on Germany by flying on faith and little else. He always volunteered for missions.
Men and women who know that life might end at any hour, and often did, tend to move fast. In Montreal to pick up a plane, Cheshire fell in love with screen actress Constance Binney, and they married, returning to England together. It was Constance who suggested that he keep a record of his experiences. Cheshire did, writing between operations, and published Bomber Pilot. The book sold out, and made him a public figure.
His targets were the most heavily defended in Europe, and he was under relentless enemy fire month after month, but he escaped without harm. He constantly tested plans of attack and made improvements to his aircraft. Due to his leadership he became the youngest group captain in the RAF. This, however, took him away from flying.
Cheshire insisted on returning. Reverting to the rank of wing commander, he took command of Guy Gibson’s 617 squadron and intensively trained his pilots to mark targets by diving and dropping marker flares from only a few hundred feet so Allied bombers could drop bombs from a safer altitude.
Flying a new single-seater Mustang, Cheshire marked V-weapons sites designed to send 600 tons of explosives raining on London every day. The sites were destroyed. He also played a leading role in ‘the RAF's greatest spoof operation’, which lured Nazi German fighter defences 150 miles away from Normandy on D-Day.
Cheshire received the Victoria Cross for "four years of sustained courage, and bombing sorties in the face of heavy ground reaction", and was praised for the "careful planning, brilliant execution and contempt for danger which has established for Wing Commander Cheshire a reputation second to none in Bomber Command".
Shortly afterwards Cheshire flew his 100th mission, and was grounded. He was attached to a mission in Washington, was sent to the Pacific, and became an observer of the attack on Nagasaki on 15 August 1945.
The key in our hearts
The experience was overwhelming. Cheshire could never forget seeing the destruction of an entire city and all its people. Invalided out of the RAF, his marriage over, his life became "an attempt to achieve the kind of peace to which the key exists only in men's hearts".
Learning that Arthur Dykes, an ex-serviceman he had known, was dying of cancer, Cheshire brought him to Le Court, a country house in Hampshire, and nursed him until he died. Then he wondered if there weren’t others, 'dying and unwanted' whom he could help. He decided he would not go out of his way to find them, "but would merely leave things to take their course. If they came my way, I would accept them" (Morris).
After Dykes came a woman of ninety-five, ill and alone. Le Court began to fill with "the disabled, the unwanted, the helpless". Four months after Dykes died, on Christmas Eve 1948, Cheshire became a Roman Catholic and dedicated his life to helping people.
Because of his war record, anything he did was news. He and his patients were living hand-to-mouth, but donations kept trickling in, and nurses began arriving to help. "Le Court became transformed into a real home, where human wrecks discarded by society were able to regain their self-respect" (The Times).
The central concept of the Cheshire movement “was not ‘how disabled is he?’ but, ‘with his disabilities what can he accomplish?’; and the answer was always surprisingly encouraging” (DNB).
The helpers included Cheshire's parents. By now Le Court was overflowing. Cheshire found an abandoned building, and thought it could become another home for the disabled. Again the project attracted donations and helpers. By 1955 there was a ‘family’ of six Cheshire homes in Britain. Each home was run as an independent entity under its own management, but was accountable to the Cheshire foundation. Cheshire was the active and guiding guardian spirit.
Marriage and family and mission
In the 1950s, Cheshire established new homes in the third world, and began working closely with Susan Ryder, who was carrying out charitable work among concentration camp survivors in Poland. Sue was once described as fiercely determined and having "a wistful charm" (Mandarin). A good companion for Leonard, then.
After working together on a joint mission, Leonard and Sue married. On their honeymoon they toured their projects. It would not be everyone's choice of a romantic interlude, but it suited them. They established a hospital at the foot of the Himalayas which they called Raphael, after the archangel of healing, as well as hospitals in Nepal, Tanzania, Australia and New Zealand. Later they raised a son and a daughter.
By 1992 there were 270 Cheshire homes in 49 countries. Some of them were residential; some provided care for the disabled. It's worth mentioning again that “All were locally run and financed, according to the Cheshire ethos; and disabled people were themselves represented on every level of the foundation's organization” (DNB). This kind of local, private, practical accountability, so different from the way government usually does things, is effective.
Leonard died in 1991. He had always believed that “If the cause is right, the means will be found somehow” (Morris). He remained enthusiastic about playing tennis and watching sports on television. It was his old teacher, TH White, who wryly but inadequately observed that he had “all the characteristics necessary for a saint - obstinacy, fanaticism, charm" (Morris).
Leonard Cheshire had faith, too, and love and hope.
This post has been republished.