Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and 2 Bars, DFC (7 September 1917?31 July 1992) was a British RAF pilot during the Second World War who received the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. After the war he became a charity worker, setting up “Cheshire Homes” for the disabled. His final battle was his courageous struggle with the debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease.
Leonard Cheshire was the son of Professor Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, DCL, LLD, FBA, a barrister, academic and influential writer on English law. Cheshire was born in Chester but was brought up at his parents’ home near Oxford. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Stowe School and Merton College, Oxford. He graduated in Jurisprudence in 1939.
After the outbreak of the World War II, Cheshire applied for a commission in the Royal Air Force and was initially posted to 102 Squadron. He became Wing Commander of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, and followed Wing Commander Guy Gibson as commander of the legendary 617 Dambusters Squadron. Cheshire was nearing the end of his fourth tour of duty in July 1944, having completed a total of 100 missions, when awarded the VC.
Cheshire had pioneered a new method of marking enemy targets, flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences. In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he maintained a standard of outstanding personal achievement, his successful operations being the result of careful planning, brilliant execution and supreme contempt for danger – for example, on one occasion he flew his P-51 Mustang in slow figures of 8 above a target obscured by low cloud, to act as a bomb-aiming mark for his squadron. Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader.
Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest Group Captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated. His notable wartime record makes his subsequent career all the more remarkable.
Change Of Direction
On his 101st mission, he was official British observer of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki from The Great Artiste, an event which profoundly changed him. On his return from the mission he left the RAF and went home to his house, Le Court in Hampshire.
While deciding what he should do with the rest of his life he heard about the case of Arthur Dykes, who had formerly served under him and was suffering from cancer. Dykes asked Cheshire to give him some land to park a caravan until he recovered, but Cheshire discovered that Dykes was terminally ill and that this fact had been concealed from him. He told Dykes the real position and invited him to stay at Le Court.
Cheshire learned nursing skills and was soon approached to take in a second patient, the 94-year-old bedridden wife of a man whose own frailness meant he could no longer care for her himself. She was followed by others, some coming to stay and others to help. Although Le Court had no financial support, and was financially perilous most of the time, money somehow always seemed to arrive in the nick of time to stave off disaster. By the time Arthur Dykes died in 1948, there were 24 people staying at Le Court.
On Dykes’s death, Cheshire, a lapsed Christian but one whose faith had been stirring for a while, sat by his bed and picked up the Bible. Soon afterwards he converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to working for the disabled and terminally ill, combining this with lecturing on conflict resolution.
In 1948 he founded the Leonard Cheshire Foundation charity, now styled “Leonard Cheshire”, which continues his work. It provides support at home, or runs homes, for disabled people throughout the world. It is described on its factsheet as “the UK?s leading voluntary sector provider of support services for disabled people”
Private Life and Recognitions
On 15 July 1941 Cheshire married an American actress, Constance Binney, but this marriage was short-lived. Then, on 5 April 1959, in Mumbai’s Catholic Cathedral, he married Sue Ryder, also the founder of a charity. From this marriage he had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire.
In 1991 he was given a life peerage, sitting as a cross-bencher. He lived through his final illness (Motor Neurone Disease) with exemplary spiritual fortitude. Queen Elizabeth II paid personal tribute to him in her Christmas message to the Commonwealth in December 1992. In the 2002 BBC poll to find the 100 Greatest Britons, Cheshire attained position 31. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum (London, England).
British VCs of World War 2 (John Laffin, 1997)
•Cheshire : The biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM (Richard Morris, 2000)
•Cheshire, V.C. (R. Bradon, 1954)
•The Dam Busters (Paul Brickhill, 1983)
•Monuments To Courage (David Harvey, 1999)
•No Passing Glory (Andrew Boyle)
•The Register of the Victoria Cross (This England, 1997)
•Crossing the Finishing Line ? Last Thoughts of Leonard Cheshire VC, ed. Reginald C. Fuller (London 1998).
•The Times, 28 Oct 1978, Obituary: Professor G.C. Cheshire?Influential writer on the law