Obituary: Lord Cheshire VC

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, 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links