Group Captain Leonard Cheshire was a decorated pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II and a generous philanthropist. He received the Victoria Cross from the British and Commonwealth forces. He served as RAF’s youngest group captain and was one of the highest decorated war pilots. Captain Cheshire retired from the military after observing the nuclear attack on Nagasaki. He founded the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity hospice and devoted his later years to conflict resolution.
Family and Education
Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire OM, VC, DSO & Two Bars, DFC, was born in Chester, Cheshire, England on September 7, 1917. He grew up in his parent’s home near Oxford. His father was Professor Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, DCL, LLD, FBA, an academic, writer, and lawyer. He attended Dragon School in Oxford then Stowe School in Buckinghamshire then Oxford University, and Merton College in Oxford. In 1939, he graduated with his Jurisprudence degree.
Service in the Royal Air ForceOn November 16, 1937, Leonard Cheshire received his commission to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a pilot officer. His commission became permanent on October 7, 1939. He then went to RAF Hullavington, now Hullavington Airfield, to begin training. On April 7, 1940, he was promoted to a flying officer and in June he joined the 102 Squadron at RAF Driffield. They flew Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers. Captain Leonards was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in November 1940 when he flew his damaged plane back to the base.
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire flew over 100 missions during his service and became one of the most distinguished RAF pilots during the Second World War.
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire finished his tour in January 1941 and immediately volunteered for another. In March 1941, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).Then on April 7, 1941, he was promoted to flight lieutenant. Cheshire finished his second service 1942 as a temporary squadron leader for the new Handley Page Halifax in 35 Squadron.On March 1, 1942, he was fully promoted to squadron leader. In August 1942, Leonard Cheshire began a third tour after his promotion. He led his group of men through many successful missions before being promoted to a station commander and group captain in March 1943. He received a bar to his DSO on April 20, 1943.
The 617 Dambusters Squadron
On March 21, 1943, the 617 Squadron was formed under the command of Whig Commander Guy Gibson. Group Captain Leonard Cheshire relinquished his rank to join the 617 Squadron’s operational tour and on September 39, they promoted him to Wing Commander. He pioneered the method of extremely low flying to mark enemy targets. At the Le Havre harbor in June 1944, Leonard Cheshire marked a target without cloud cover and in broad daylight. By flying far below the light batteries’ range he avoided almost being destroyed by the relentless barrage and successfully released his bombs to destroy his target. He volunteered for a fourth tour and in April 1944 he attacked a heavily defended target in Munich. Under constant fire and battling poor weather, Wing Commander Cheshire successfully bombed the target and returned to base despite his aircraft’s extensive damage.
Receiving the Victoria Cross and Nagasaki
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire participated in 100 military missions during four years of fighting. On September 8, 1944, he was awarded the Victoria’s Cross for “outstanding personal achievement.” He received his VC at Buckingham Palace from King George VI with Norman Jackson, a warrant officer. Cheshire was the only British officer selected in August 1945 to witness the Nagasaki bombing. This greatly impacted him and, after contracting tuberculosis that caused forced him into the hospital for 18 months, he converted to Roman Catholicism and retired from the Royal Air Force in 1946. After several failed business ventures, Cheshire was left with one large house in Le Court, Liss, Hampshire.
Leonard Cheshire Disability
Leonard Cheshire established the charity now known as Leonard Cheshire Disability in 1948 to help disabled war veterans and other disabled people worldwide. He cared for eight patients initially in early 1949 in his giant house in Le Court. By the middle of the year, the house held 28 patients. He spent his remaining years assisting the disabled and giving lectures on peaceful conflict resolution. He and his wife, Baroness Ryder, founded the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation in 1959 to treat tuberculosis and help rehabilitate the disabled.
Personal Life and Death
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire and Baroness Ryder were both born-again Catholics who shared a mutual dedication to humanitarian assistance that helped many people until their individual deaths.
Leonard Cheshire married Constance Binney, an actress from the United States, on July 15, 1941. The marriage lasted 10 years and produced no children. They divorced in January 1951. On April 5, 1959, Cheshire married Sue Ryder, Baroness of Warsaw and a humanitarian, in the Roman Catholic Church of Bombay. The couple lived in Cavendish, Suffolk and produced two children named Jeromy and Elizabeth. He died in Cavendish on July 31, 1992, from motor neuron disease.
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