Group Captain Lord Cheshire, VC, OM, DSO and two bars, DFC1 was a remarkable man. He followed Guy Gibson in command of the legendary 617 'Dambusters' squadron, Royal Air Force, and flew many dangerous missions during World War II. He was the most decorated bomber pilot in the RAF, having flown over 100 missions over enemy territory, yet he was afraid of heights. He was one of the few people in the world to see a nuclear device dropped in anger, yet his name is primarily associated with conflict resolution and charity work.
The War Hero
Cheshire was born in Chester, Cheshire, UK in 1917, and led (by all accounts) a less than responsible life before the start of the Second World War. But his character was transformed when he joined the RAF; and he was to become highly praised as both a pilot and a leader. Promoted in 1943, at the age of 25, he was the youngest Group Captain in the service. He often placed himself in great danger to ensure that missions could be carried out; on one notable occasion flying his aircraft in slow figures-of-eight to act as a bomb-aiming mark for his squadron.
Probably his most remarkable mission was as the official British observer at the dropping of the Nagasaki atomic bomb in 1945, an event which profoundly changed his view of war.
The Peacetime Hero
On his return to England, Cheshire left the RAF and had no real idea what to do next; but in 1948, he heard that an acquaintance, Arthur Dykes, was terminally ill. Dykes asked Cheshire for a bit of land on which to park a caravan until he was on his feet again; it was apparent that nobody had told him that he was dying. Cheshire couldn't maintain the deception and told Dykes the truth. To Cheshire's astonishment Dykes was much relieved. 'Thank you Len for letting me know,' he said, 'It's not knowing that is the worst of all.' Cheshire invited Arthur Dykes to live with him in a house, Le Court in Hampshire, which he had bought from his aunt.
As Cheshire cared for Dykes he learned basic nursing and became a frequent helper at the local hospital. It was from here that his second 'guest' came, the 94-year-old bedridden wife of a man whose own frailness meant he could no longer care for her himself. Other people heard of Le Court and arrived - some to help, some to stay. The place had no visible means of support, but somehow the money always seemed to arrive. By the time Arthur Dykes died in 1948, there were 24 people staying at Le Court: there was no going back. On Dykes's death, Cheshire sat by his bed and picked up the Bible2. Soon afterwards he converted to the Catholic faith.
The Cheshire Homes started from this foundation. It is now an international organization caring for the terminally ill and the disabled. In 1959, Cheshire married Sue Ryder, formerly of the Special Operations Executive, and famous for her work in Poland with concentration camp survivors.
Cheshire worked tirelessly for his charity, until his death on 31 July, 1992, from motor neurone disease, aged 74. There cannot be many men who have received their country's highest award for wartime bravery, but who are remembered primarily for humanitarian service.
On the death of her husband, Sue Ryder became president of the Cheshire Foundation, which now runs over 200 facilities in over 50 countries, in addition to her role as leader of her own charity The Sue Ryder Foundation. Baroness Ryder died in November 2000, aged 77.
The Leonard Cheshire Foundation is alive and thriving, and would probably appreciate some of your money.