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, unusally 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 acepted 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.