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Leonard Cheshire

Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire, ca. 1945
Born 7 September 1917(1917-09-07)
Chester, England
Died 31 July 1992 (aged 74)
Occupation Aviator, author, spokesperson, humanitarian
Known for VC winner, humanitarian
Spouse(s) Constance Binney
Sue Ryder
Children Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire

Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and Two Bars, DFC (7 September 1917 – 31 July 1992) 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 the Leonard Cheshire Disability as well as other philanthropic organisations.


Early life

Leonard Cheshire was the son of Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, DCL, LLD, FBA, a barrister, academic and influential writer on English law. He had one brother, Christopher Cheshire, also 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. He went to stay in Germany in 1936 with a family in Potsdam.

Military career

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 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.

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 tells the story of flying his badly-damaged bomber ("N for Nuts") back to base. In the book he fails to mention being awarded the DSO for this, but does describe the bravery of a badly burnt member of his crew.

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.

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.[1]

It also noted a raid in which he had marked a target, flying a Mosquito at low level against "withering fire".

One of Cheshire's missions was to use new using 5,400 kilograms (12,000 lb) "Tallboy" deep-penetration bombs to destroy V3 long-range cannons located in underground bunkers near Mimoyecques in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. These were powerful guns able to fire a 500 lb shell into London every minute. They were protected by a concrete layer. The raid was planned so the bombs hit the ground next to the concrete to destroy the guns from underneath. Although considered successful at the time, later evaluations confirmed that the raids were largely ineffectual.[2]

Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest Group Captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated.

Change of direction

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 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."[3] He was earlier quoted as saying: "...then I for one hold little brief for the future of civilization".[4]

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, meaning 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.[5]

At the beginning of 1948, he heard about the case of Arthur Dykes, who had been one of Cheshire'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 he had concealed this fact 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 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' 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.

Charitable life

In 1948, he founded the charity now styled Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. It is now one of the top 30 British charities. [6]

Other organisations set up by Leonard Cheshire are:

  • The Ryder-Cheshire Foundation,[7] 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 [8] and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, through Target Tuberculosis.[9]

In 1953 Chesire founded the Raphael Pilgrimage in order to enable sick and disabled people to travel to Lourdes.[10]

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).[11]

He founded the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, a UK charity in whose benefit the Roger Waters concert The Wall - Live in Berlin was held. Cheshire opened this concert by blowing a Second World War whistle.

Leonard Cheshire was concerned about future remembrance and was influential in the concept of the National Memorial Arboretum, founded by David Childs. The amphitheatre at the Arboretum is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Cheshire.

Private life

On 15 July 1941, Cheshire married the American actress, Constance Binney, but this marriage was short-lived and childless. On 5 April 1959, in Bombay's Roman Catholic Cathedral, he married Sue Ryder, also a Roman Catholic convert and humanitarian. They had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire, and lived in Cavendish, Suffolk.


He died of motor neurone disease on 31 July 1992, aged 74.

Honours and tributes


  • 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."
  • There is a house at Xavier College, a leading private school in Melbourne, Australia, named after Cheshire. St Ignatius College, a private school in Sydney, Australia, also has a house named after Cheshire.


  1. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36693, p. 4175, 5 September 1944.
  2. ^ Braddon, 1954, p. 129.
  3. ^ Morris, 2000, p. 225.
  4. ^ BBC scrapbook 1945, Fontana, 463 016 FDL
  5. ^ Cheshire, 1981, p. 16.
  6. ^ Charities Direct
  7. ^ Charity Commission for England and Wales: Charity Number 285746
  8. ^ Registered Charity No. 1088623 Ryder-Cheshire Volunteers
  9. ^ Registered Charity No. 1098752 Target Tuberculosis
  10. ^ Registered Charity No. 1098328 Raphael Pilgrimage Charity
  11. ^ Development Centre website


  • Boyle, Andrew. No Passing Glory: The Full and Authentic Biography of Group Captain Cheshire, V.C., D.S.O, D.F.C. . London: Fontana Books, 1955.
  • Braddon, Russell. Cheshire, V.C. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 1954.
  • Brickhill, Paul. The Dam Busters. London: Pan Books, 1983. ISBN 0-33028-083-X.
  • Cheshire, Leonard. Leonard Cheshire V.C. Bomber Pilot. St. Albans, Herts, UK: Mayflower, 1975 (reprint of 1943 edition). ISBN 0-583-12541-7.
  • Cheshire, Leonard. Leonard Cheshire: The Hidden World. London: Collins, 1981. ISBN 0-00626-479-4.
  • Fuller, Reginald C., ed. Crossing the Finishing Line – Last Thoughts of Leonard Cheshire VC. London, 1998.
  • Harvey, David. Monuments to Courage. Uckfield, East Sussex, UK: Naval & Military Press Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84342-356-1.
  • Laffin, John. British Vcs of World War 2: A Study in Heroism. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997, ISBN 0-7509-1026-7.
  • Morris, Richard. Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM. London: Viking Press, 2000. ISBN 0-670-86736-7.
  • The Register of the Victoria Cross London: This England, 1997. ISBN 0-90632-427-0.
  • The Times, 28 October 1978, Obituary for Prof. G.C. Cheshire

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
H B Martin
Officer Commanding No. 617 Squadron
November 1943 – July 1944
Succeeded by
J B Tait


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