Obituary: Lord Cheshire VC

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The Independent Online
Leonard Cheshire led two separate careers one after the other. Either alone would have made him one of the most remarkable men of our time, writes Norman Moss.

As a bomber pilot his bravery and skill were outstanding in a service that did not lack for exemplars of both. He was rewarded with a VC, the only person to have earned it in the Second World War not for a single act of bravery, but for his behaviour over years, 'placing himself invariably in the forefront of the battle', as the citation said.

Later he founded and directed a network of 270 homes for the disabled and dying which span the world, a work that began almost by accident. In this later career he was sustained by a profound Roman Catholic faith, that came to him in his mid- thirties. He was also sustained during much of it by his marriage to a woman whose career is in many ways as remarkable as his, Sue Ryder, the founder of the Sue Ryder homes.

Cheshire had a slim athletic frame with heavy eyebrows and a ready smile that showed his two front teeth, and something of the clean-cut, boyish good looks that made him a WAAF favourite in wartime days. He was soft-spoken but could command respect and an extraordinary degree of admiration.

It would be misleading to say he was modest. He was not diffident, and he would talk about his accomplishments, but he talked about them as if they were something anyone might do. In many ways, he was a gift to a writer, for he would answer questions about anything: his wartime feats, his feelings about facing death in the air, his courtship with Sue Ryder, his religious faith. Yet paradoxically, the end product of all this revelation was a mystery: he left the impression, that many people sensed, of a man different from the rest of us in ways that cannot be fathomed.

After the war he started the scheme for communities of ex-servicemen. This collapsed, leaving him with a large empty house in Hampshire. A member of one of the communities came to him dying of cancer, and Cheshire took the man in and nursed him until he died. Then someone brought along his elderly wife who was ill and bedridden, and Cheshire nursed her also, bathing her and caring for her needs. He would recount this as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a man who had recently been the youngest group captain in the RAF to do. 'I didn't go looking for those people. They were on my path,' he explained.

After this he set about building a home for the disabled in Cornwall, enlisting help from local people. This led to other homes and the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, but Cheshire himself still led from the front. When the Foundation went international and set up its first home in India, at Dera Dun, he was at the site from the beginning, sleeping under a tree while a crippled man who was to become the first resident slept in the contractors' hut.

His latest scheme in which he had the co-operation of the UN Secretary-General was for a disaster relief fund in memory of those who died in the Second World War, to be financed partly by the sale of pens made from the metal of scrapped missiles.

When he first met Sue Ryder, with the idea that they might work together, he had no thought of marrying, and neither did she. But a strong attraction grew up quickly. The marriage was a happy one, and latterly they lived in a Sue Ryder home in Cavendish, Suffolk. They have a grown son and daughter.

Cheshire had no religious feelings during the war. His conversion to Catholicism came later, starting in the unlikely setting of a Mayfair bar.

A woman told him in the course of a conversation there that God was a real person, and, he said, 'There wasn't exactly a blinding light, but I suddenly knew she was right.'

He wrote a monograph on the Turin Shroud, and would go to a religious retreat regularly. He said he prayed constantly, saying a little prayer each time he answered the telephone for instance. 'It's a matter of being in touch with God, and trying to find his purpose.' And perhaps this was the unfathomable aspect of Leonard Cheshire, the dimension the rest of us could not see; whatever he was doing, he was trying to do it in the company of God.