War hero who found God: Andrew Brown on the RAF bomber leader who became a candidate for sainthood and died on Friday at 74

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The Independent Online
THE LIFE of Lord Cheshire VC was one of the most remarkable religious stories of the century. As Gp Capt Leonard Cheshire he was an enormously successful bomber pilot in the Second World War, when he took part in the carpet bombing of German cities, which has since been attacked as immoral.

He was an official observer at the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. To the end of his life he defended the principle of Bomber Command's offensive against Germany, if not every operation in it.

Yet he is widely regarded as close to sainthood. After the war he founded the Cheshire Homes and became a devout Catholic who would say a prayer whenever he picked up a telephone. He argued that he wanted to belong to a church that had authority and the ability to forgive sins.

Lord Cheshire became convinced of the truth of Christianity as a result of a conversation with a girl he hardly knew during a drinking session in a Mayfair hotel in 1945.

Sceptical of the existence of God, he was persuaded by her argument that 'God is a person and you know it'.

His first experience of nursing, in 1948, which led to his conversion to Catholicism, arose from his experiences in the war. He told the journalist Alenka Laurence that 'in the war . . . I'd found great compassion. I don't see how you can walk away from a man who is dying and doesn't know what to do with his future.'

The man he nursed, Arthur Dykes, had been a resident in the community for ex-servicemen that Cheshire set up after the war, and was a lapsed Catholic who re- discovered his faith as death approached. Cheshire accepted the Church's claims on the night his friend died.

It was probably one of his early patients who gave him tuberculosis. He spent two years in the early Fifties in a sanatorium, studying scripture and theology. He organised the opening of two Cheshire homes from his sickbed.

A remarkable thing about Cheshire the candidate for sainthood is how similar he seems to have been to Cheshire the youngest group captain in the RAF: the nurse and the war hero had the same direct extrovert quality.

'The war gave me discipline, a sense of purpose,' he told Alenka Laurence. 'If you think of the promise our faith gives us, you really ought to let absolutely nothing stand in the way; everything that doesn't take you to your goal or give you strength and encouragement to get there . . . is a waste of time.'

In the RAF, he had blindfolded himself in the cockpit of his aircraft on the ground to familiarise himself with the positions of all the knobs and switches. This is recognisably the same determination that led him to turn up in India in 1955, ready to found a Cheshire home, with only pounds 100 in his pocket. He had founded six there within two years. There are now 270 around the world.

Sir David Goodall, a former High Commissioner in Delhi, who knew Cheshire in the later part of his life, said yesterday: 'I really believe that it was his faith that gave a particular quality to his compassion for the handicapped: he saw each individual person as a reflection of God and not as someone to be sorry for.

'We don't know if he was a saint, or even what a saint is. But he was very close to God.'

James Stanford, the director of the Cheshire Foundation, said: 'It is not profane, I think, to say he had the qualities of Jesus Christ in a large part. Does that sound ridiculous? But he had no problems at all in death. He had absolute comfort and solace in what lay ahead.'

(Photograph omitted)