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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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 General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...