b. 07/09/1917 Chester. d. 31/07/1992 Cavendish, Suffolk.
Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire (1917-1992) was born on 7th September 1917 in Chester, the son of Dr Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, DCL, LLD, FBA, a barrister, academic and influential writer on English law. He had one brother, Christopher Cheshire, also a wartime pilot. He was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford and Stowe before joining Merton College, Oxford University to study for a career in law, with a secondary interest in languages. Whilst at Chatham House, Stowe, Cheshire became friends with two future VCs in John Niels Randle and “Jock” Anderson.
Entering Oxford University in October 1936, Cheshire soon adapted to life as an undergraduate, enjoying fast cars, drinking, women and any dangerous escapade. In 1937, a new interest came into his life – flying. He joined the University Air Squadron; having his first flight under Flight Lieutenant Whitworth at Abingdon on 5th February 1937 in an Avro Tutor, and finally went solo on 8th June. Completing his training, he was commissioned in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 16th November 1937 and resumed his studies.
Mobilised at the outbreak of war, he reported to No 9 FTS, Hullavington in October 1939 for further service training and received his RAF “wings” on 15th December. With promotion to Flying Officer on 7th April 1940, he underwent final operational training at 10 OTU, Abingdon and Jurby, and on 6th June 1940 arrived at Driffield, Yorkshire and his first unit, 102 Squadron equipped with Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers.
His first sortie came three days later as second pilot to Pilot Officer Long DFC, and he soon realised his massive responsibility. For the next five months he gained valuable experience flying from Driffield, Aldergrove and Linton-on-Ouse on bombing raids on Germany, targetting Berlin, Kiel, Essen, Duisburg, Bremen and Cologne. On the night of 12th/13th November 1940, piloting Whitley P5005, “N-Nuts”, his objective was an oil refinery at Wesseling, near Cologne. Due to bad cloud he chose an different target of railway yards. Despite heavy flak damage, he released the bombs, and managed to guide the savaged bomber for the next five hours homewards into an 80mph nose wind.
Cheshire was awarded the DSO for his coolness under fire. In January 1941 he completed his first tour of operations, but immediately volunteered for a second, and was posted to 35 Squadron. They began operations on 11th – 12th March 1941. On 7th March 1941, he was awarded the DFC; while the following month received a Bar to his DSO for “outstanding leadership and skill on operations.” His promotion to Flight Lieutenant came soon after, and he was detached for ferry work to the USA and Canada. Promoted to Squadron Leader on 15th October, he completed his second tour, and on 22nd January 1942 was posted to No 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) at Marston Moor as an instructor. Despite his duties, he still flew four operational missions, including the first of “Butch” Harris’s famous 1,000-bomber raids.
In August 1942 he started his third tour as commanding officer of 76 Squadron, another Halifax bomber unit from mid-September 1942. Having been awarded a second Bar to his DSO, and now holding the rank of Wing Commander, Leonard Cheshire was by then one of the most decorated pilots of Bomber Command. Yet, when on leave in civilan clothes in Oxford that summer he was accosted by an old lady who presented him with a white feather for cowardice for not doing his duty! Cheshire was speechless.
Cheshire was then appointed Station Commander at Marston Moor on 1st April 1943, with the rank of Group Captain – at 25, the youngest man in the RAF to hold such a position. He hated the role and soon returned to operational flying in command of 617 Squadron, a unit already publicized for his “Dambusters” raid led by Guy Gibson VC, DSO, DFC. Cheshire was ordered to train them on high level bombing techniques, while he preferred low level attacks. Cheshire tested his theory perfectly during the attack on the Gnome-Rhone factory at Limoges on 8th/9th February 1944.
Three days after D-Day, he personally led a mission designed to knock out the Saumur railway tunnel and thus block Germany’s main rail supply line from the south to Normandy. They totally destroyed the target. On 14th June, Cheshire again led 617 in a daylight raid against E-Boat pens at Le Havre. From the end of June to September 1944, RAF Bomber Command had a new target – the V2 guided missile. On 6th July 1944, he flew his 100th operational sortie of the war – an attack on a missile site at Marquise. He was told he was to be rested from operations and also recommended for the VC. This was swiftly approved and he was gazetted on 8th September 1944. Two days later, he left for India posted to Eastern Air Command HQ at Calcutta; but by the end of the war had been moved to USA, where he joined the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, to study tactics. He was selected as British observer for the second atom bomb raid against Japan and in late July flew to Guam for this mission. On 9th August 1945 he was in the third B-29 to fly to Nagasaki, where he witnessed the effects of the bomb. At the end of 1945, he was diagnosed with pyscho-neurosis and was discharged from the RAF in January 1946.
In 1948, after several unsuccessful ventures, he pioneered the first Cheshire Foundation Home for the incurably sick; an organisation which became an international establishment. In August 1952 he entered Midhurst Sanitorium, having been diagnosed with TB, but was discharged nearly three years later, and returned to the Foundation.
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. They went on to have a son and a daughter. In later life he continued to build the Cheshire Homes for sick people. In 1981 he was awarded the Order of Merit, and in 1991 was created Baron Cheshire. He also wrote several books such as Bomber Pilot in 1943 and The Face of Victory in 1961. Leonard died on 31st July 1992 in Cavendish, Suffolk and was buried in Cavendish Churchyard.
His medal group including the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and two bars, Distinguished Flying Cross, 1939-1945 Star, Aircrew Europe Star with Atlantic clasp, Burma Star, Defence Medal, 1939-1945 War Medal, 1953 Coronation Medal, and 1977 Silver Jubilee Medal, were bequeathed to the Imperial War Museum and is now part of the Ashcroft Gallery at the Museum in Lambeth. Also the amphitheatre at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire is named after him.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CAVENDISH CHURCHYARD, CAVENDISH, SUFFOLK.
Leonard Cheshire's medals including VC and DSO on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington