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The Baron Cheshire
Group Captain Leondard Cheshire c. 1943
Born (1917-09-07)7 September 1917
Died 31 July 1992(1992-07-31) (aged 74)
Place of birth Chester, Cheshire
Place of death Cavendish, Suffolk
Buried at Cavendish Churchyard
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1940-1946
Rank Group Captain
Unit No. 102 Squadron RAF
No. 35 Squadron RAF
Commands held No. 76 Squadron RAF
RAF Marston Moor
No. 617 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Victoria Cross
Member of the Order of Merit
Distinguished Service Order & Two Bars
Distinguished Flying Cross
Mentioned in Dispatches
Relations Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire (father)
Constance Binney
Sue Ryder
Other work Humanitarian

Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC, OM, DSO & Two Bars, DFC (7 September 1917 – 31 July 1992) was a highly decorated British RAF pilot during the Second World War.

Among the honours Cheshire received as a pilot is 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. He was the youngest Group Captain in the RAF and one of the most highly decorated pilots of the War but after serving as the British observer on the Nagasaki nuclear attack he resigned from the Air Force. He founded a hospice which grew into the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and he became known for his work in conflict resolution; he was created Baron Cheshire in 1991 in recognition of his charitable work.[1]

Early life

Cheshire's home in Chester, where a blue plaque marks the house in which he lived.

Leonard Cheshire was the son of 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. Cheshire was born in Chester, but was brought up at his parents' home near Oxford. Cheshire was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, Stowe School and Merton College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he became friends with John Niel Randle. On one occasion at Oxford he was bet half a pint of beer that he could not walk to Paris with no more than a few pennies in his pocket, he won his bet.[2] He went to stay in Germany in 1936 with a family in Potsdam and whilst there, witnessed an Adolf Hitler rally. Cheshire caused great offence by pointedly refusing to give the Nazi salute.[2] Cheshire graduated in jurisprudence in 1939.

Military career

After learning basic piloting skills with the Oxford University Air Squadron, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Cheshire joined the RAF as a Pilot Officer. He was initially posted in June 1940 to 102 Squadron, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bombers, from RAF Driffield. In November 1940, Cheshire was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for flying his badly damaged bomber back to base.

In January 1941, Cheshire completed his tour of operations, but then volunteered immediately for a second tour. He was posted to No. 35 Squadron with the brand new Handley Page Halifax and completed his second tour early in 1942, by then, a squadron leader. August 1942 saw a return to operations as CO of No. 76 Squadron RAF. The squadron had recently suffered high losses operating the Halifax, and Cheshire immediately tackled the low morale of the unit by ordering an improvement in the performance of the squadron aircraft by removing the mid-upper and nose gun turrets along with exhaust covers and other weighty non-essential equipment. This allowed the bombers to fly higher and faster. Losses soon fell and morale rose accordingly. Cheshire was amongst the first to note there was very low return rate of Halifax bombers on three engines; furthermore, there were reports the Halifax was unstable in a “corkscrew” which was the manoeuvre used by bomber pilots to escape night fighters. The test pilot Captain Eric Brown, flying uncrewed except for an accompanying flight engineer, undertook risky tests to establish the cause and were told a representative of Bomber Command would fly with them.[3] Brown remembers "We couldn't believe it, it was Cheshire! We were astonished to say the least. I asked him not to touch (the controls) and to his ever lasting credit he never commented at all, he just sat in the second pilot's seat and raised his eye brows at what we were doing!" The fault was in the Halfax's rudder design and Cheshire became enraged when Handley Page at first declined to make modifications so as not to disrupt production.[4]

During his time as the Commanding Officer of No. 76 Squadron at RAF Linton, Cheshire took the trouble to recognise and learn the name of every single man on the base. He was determined to increase the efficiency of his squadron and improve the chances of survival of its crews, to this end he constantly lectured crews on the skills needed to achieve those aims. The crews knew he was devoted to their interests and when, on an operation to Nuremberg, they were told to cross the French Coast at 2,000 ft (the most dangerous height for light flak). Cheshire simply refused, stating they would fly at 200 ft or 20,000 ft. Typically, Cheshire inspired such loyalty and respect that the ground crews of 76 Squadron were proud to chorus “We are Cheshire cats!”.[5]

In 1943, Cheshire published an account of his first tour of operations in his book, Bomber Pilot which tells of his posting to RAF Driffield and the story of flying his badly damaged bomber ("N for Nuts") back to base. In the book, Cheshire fails to mention being awarded the DSO for this, but does describe the bravery of a badly burnt member of his crew.

No. 617 Squadron

Cheshire became Station Commander RAF Marston Moor in March 1943, as the youngest group captain in the RAF, although the job was never to his liking, and he pushed for a return to an operational command. These efforts paid off with a posting as commander of the legendary 617 "Dambusters" Squadron in September 1943. While with 617, Cheshire helped pioneer a new method of marking enemy targets for Bomber Command's 5 Group, flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences, using first, the versatile de Havilland Mosquito, then a North American Mustang fighter.

On the morning before a planned raid by 617 squadron to Siracourt, a crated Mustang turned up at Woodhall Spa, it was a gift for Cheshire from his admirers in the U.S. 8th Air Force. Cheshire had the aircraft assembled and the engine tested as he was determined to test the possibilities of the fighter as a marker aircraft. He took off, in what was his first flight in the aircraft, and caught up with 617's Lancasters before they reached the target. Cheshire then proceeded to accurately mark the target (a V-1 storage depot) for the heavies which landed three Tallboys on it. He then flew back and landed the Mustang in the dark.[6]

This development work in target marking was the subject of some severe intraservice politics; Cheshire was encouraged by his 5 Group Commander Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, although the 8 Group Pathfinder AOC Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett saw this work as impinging on the responsibilities of his own command.

Victoria Cross

Cheshire was nearing the end of his fourth tour of duty in July 1944, having completed a total of 102 missions, when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only one of the 32 VC airmen to win the medal for an extended period of sustained courage and outstanding effort, rather than a single act of valour. His citation noted:

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 Mustang in slow 'figures of eight' 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.[7]

It also noted a raid in which he had marked a target, flying a Mosquito at low level against "withering fire".

When Cheshire went to Buckingham Palace to receive his VC from King George VI, he was accompanied by Norman Jackson who was also due to receive his award on that day. Cheshire insisted that despite the difference in rank (Group Captain and Warrant Officer), they should approach the King together. Jackson remembers that Cheshire said to the King, "This chap stuck his neck out more than I did - he should get his VC first!" The King had to keep to protocol, but Jackson commented he would "never forget what Cheshire said."[8]

Later operations

A portrait of Chesire in 1945

One of Cheshire's missions was to use new 5,400 kilograms (12,000 lb) "Tallboy" deep-penetration bombs to destroy V3 long-range cannons located in underground bunkers near Mimoyecques in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. These were powerful guns able to fire a 500 lb shell into London every minute. They were protected by a concrete layer. The raid was planned so the bombs hit the ground next to the concrete to destroy the guns from underneath. Although considered successful at the time, later evaluations confirmed that the raids were largely ineffectual.[9]

Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest group captain in the service and, following his VC, the most decorated.[10] In his book, Bomber Command (2010), Sir Max Hastings states "Cheshire was a legend in Bomber Command, a remarkable man with an almost mystical air about him, as if he somehow inhabited a different planet from those about him, but without affectation or pretension". Cheshire would always fly on the most dangerous operations, he never took the easy option of just flying on the less risky ops to France, a habit which caused some COs to be referred to derisively as "François" by their men. Cheshire had no crew but would fly as "Second Dickey", with the new and nervous to give them confidence.

Cheshire had strong feelings on any crew displaying LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre, a euphemism for cowardice) when subject to the combat stress of Bomber Command's sorties (many of which had loss rates of 5% or more). Even as a brilliant and sympathetic leader, he wrote “I was ruthless with LMF, I had to be. We were airmen not psychiatrists. Of course we had concern for any individual whose internal tensions meant that he could no longer go on but there was a worry that one really frightened man could affect others around him. There was no time to be as compassionate as I would like to have been.” Thus Cheshire transferred LMF cases out of his squadron almost instantaneously (like every other RAF squadron did at the time).[11] This was also because he argued that a man who thought he was doomed would collapse or bail out when his aircraft was hit, whereas Cheshire thought if he could survive the initial shock of finding his aircraft damaged, he had more of a chance of survival.[12]

On his 103rd mission, Cheshire was the official British observer of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki.[13] His vantage point was in the support B-29 Big Stink. He did not witness the event as close up as anticipated due to aircraft commander James Hopkins' failure to link up with the other B-29s. Hopkins was meant to join with the others over Yakushima, but he circled at 39,000 ft instead of the agreed height of 30,000 ft. He tried to justify this by the need to keep the VIP passengers out of danger, but Cheshire thought that Hopkins was "overwrought".

"Many assumed that it was Nagasaki which emptied him; as Cheshire kept pointing out, however, it was the war as a whole. Like Britain herself, he had been fighting or training for fighting since 1939."[14] He was earlier quoted as saying: "... then I for one hold little brief for the future of civilization".[15]


Cheshire had been brought up a Christian in the Church of England, but had lapsed. In 1945, in the Vanity Fair club in Mayfair, he joined a conversation about religion. "It was absurd," he said, "to imagine that God existed, except as a convenient figure of speech. Man had invented God to explain the voice of conscience, but it was doubtful whether right or wrong existed outside the human mind. They were words affixed like labels to customs and laws which man had also invented to keep social order." To Cheshire's surprise, as he sat back, "pleased with his worldly wisdom," he was roundly rebuked for "talking such rot" by a woman friend, Clare Gilbertson, who "was one of the last persons on earth he would have credited with" religious convictions.[16] Gilbertson had been invited along by her friend Joan Botting, a war-widowed schoolteacher who was at that time pregnant with Cheshire's child. After the war, Joan lived with Cheshire at the "VIP (for Vade in Pacem - Go in Peace) Colony" he established for veterans and war widows at Gumley Hall, Bedford Gardens - one of several new ventures he started after leaving the RAF in 1946. Joan followed him to Le Court, near Petersfield, Hampshire (a mansion which Cheshire had bought from his aunt) where, with three children of her own, Joan took charge of the nursery.[17] Cheshire and Joan Botting subsequently investigated many religions, from Seventh Day Adventist to Methodist to "High Anglo-Catholic" - but none of them provided the answers they were looking for.[18] Cheshire's aim in establishing the VIP Colony was to provide an opportunity for ex-servicemen and women and their families to live together, each contributing to the community what they could, in order to help their transition back into civilian life. He hoped that training, prosperity and fulfillment would result from united effort and mutual support. He saw the community as one way of continuing to work towards world peace. The community, however, did not prosper and the project came to an end in 1947.[19] At the beginning of 1948, Cheshire heard about the case of Arthur Dykes, who had been one of Cheshire's original "VIP" community at Le Court, 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 diagnosis was 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 who had just been taken off to hospital after suffering a stroke. She was followed by others, some coming to stay and others to help. Although Le Court had no financial support, and his situation was financially perilous most of the time, money somehow always seemed to arrive in the nick of time to stave off disaster.Dykes died in August 1948. After completing the arrangements for his funeral, Cheshire idly picked up a book a friend had sent him. It was One Lord, One Faith by Vernon Johnson, a former High Anglican clergyman who, against every cherished instinct and prejudice, had converted to Roman Catholicism because, as he put it, "I could not resist the claim of the Catholic Church to be the one true Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ to guard and teach the truth ... She alone possesses the authority and unity necessary for such a Divine vocation."[20] In the meantime, Joan Botting had converted to Jehovah's Witnesses. On Christmas Eve, 1948, Cheshire was received into the Catholic Church. The next day, Joan Botting and her children, Mavis, Gary and Elizabeth, moved out of Le Court for good.[21]

At the beginning of 1949, eight patients were staying at Le Court.[22] Six months later, there were 28.[23] Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to supporting disabled people, combining this with lecturing on conflict resolution.[24]

Charitable life

In 1948, Cheshire founded the charity now styled Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. It is now one of the top 30 British charities.[25]

Other organisations set up by Leonard Cheshire are:

  • The Ryder-Cheshire Foundation,[26] set up by Leonard Cheshire and his wife Sue Ryder at the time of their marriage in 1959. It now mainly operates in two fields: the rehabilitation of disabled people, through ENRYCH [27] and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, through Target Tuberculosis.[28]

In 1953, Cheshire founded the Raphael Pilgrimage in order to enable sick and disabled people to travel to Lourdes.[29]

The Leonard Cheshire Disability & Inclusive Development Centre is a joint project by Leonard Cheshire Disability and University College London (originally set up in 1997 as the Leonard Cheshire Centre of Conflict Recovery).[30]

Cheshire founded the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, a UK charity in whose benefit the Roger Waters concert The Wall - Live in Berlin was held. Cheshire opened this concert by blowing a Second World War whistle.

Cheshire was also concerned about future remembrance and was influential in the concept of the National Memorial Arboretum, founded by David Childs. The amphitheatre at the Arboretum is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Cheshire.

Private life

On 15 July 1941, Cheshire married the American actress Constance Binney (21 years his senior), but the marriage was short-lived and childless. However, commencing on VE Day 1945, he and RAF widow Joan Botting (née Turner) had an affair which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Merle Elizabeth, on 8 January 1946. At that time, he was still married to Binney. Botting, who already had two children by her deceased husband, Norman Botting, a Dam Buster, continued to live with Cheshire at Gumley Hall and later at Le Court until he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1948. During that time, he remained married to (although estranged from) Constance Binney, their divorce being ratified in January 1951.[31]

On 5 April 1959, in Bombay's Roman Catholic Cathedral, he married Sue Ryder, also a Roman Catholic convert and humanitarian. He and Baroness Ryder were one of the few couples to both hold titles in their own right. They had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire, and lived in Cavendish, Suffolk.


Cheshire, aged 74, died of motor neurone disease on 31 July 1992.

Honours and tributes

Cheshire's medal group on display at the Imperial War Museum.

UK Victoria Cross ribbon bar.svg Victoria Cross (VC) July 1944
Galó de l'Orde del Mèrit (UK).png Member of the Order of Merit (OM) 1981[13]
DSO with 2Bars.png Companion of the Distinguished Service Order and Two Bars (DSO & 2 Bars)
United Kingdom Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon.svg Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)
39-45 Star BAR.svg 1939–45 Star
Air Crew Europe BAR.svg Air Crew Europe Star With 1 clasp Atlantic
Burma Star BAR.svg Burma Star
Defence Medal BAR.svg Defence Medal
War Medal 39-45 BAR MID.png War Medal 1939–1945 with Palm for Mentioned in Dispatches
UK Queen EII Coronation Medal ribbon.svg Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953)
Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal ribbon.png Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977)
  • Cheshire was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1960 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in central London.
  • In 1991, Cheshire was given a life peerage as Baron Cheshire of Woodhall in the County of Lincolnshire,[13] sitting as a cross-bencher.
  • Queen Elizabeth II paid personal tribute to him in her Royal Christmas Message in December 1992. In the 2002 British Broadcasting poll to find the 100 Greatest Britons, Cheshire attained position number 31. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.
  • A house at Xavier College, a leading private school in Melbourne, Australia, is named after Cheshire. St Ignatius College, a private school in Sydney, Australia, also has a house named after Cheshire.
  • Leonard Cheshire is acknowledged on the Roger Waters album The Wall - Live in Berlin. Former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters once described Cheshire as "the only true Christian I've ever met."

Publications by Leonard Cheshire

  • Bomber Pilot. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1943; St. Albans, Herts, UK: Mayflower, 1975. ISBN 0-583-12541-7; London: Goodall Publications ISBN 0-907579-10-8
  • The Holy Face: An Account of the Oldest Photograph in the World (16-page pamphlet). Newport, Monmouthshire, UK: R. H. Johns, 1954.
  • Pilgrimage to the Shroud. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1956.
  • The Story of the Holy Shroud. Associated Television Ltd: ATV Library, 1957. Text of broadcast.
  • The Face of Victory. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1961.
  • Death (22-page pamphlet). London: Catholic Truth Society, 1978.
  • The Hidden World: An Autobiography and Reflections by the Founder of the Leonard Cheshire Homes. London: Collins, 1981. ISBN 0-00-626479-4.
  • The Light of Many Suns: The Meaning of the Bomb. London: Methuen, 1985. ISBN 0-413-59240-5
  • Where Is God in All This? (Interview by Alenka Lawrence). Slough, Berks, UK: St Paul Publications, 1991. ISBN 0-85439-380-3
  • Crossing the Finishing Line: Last Thoughts of Leonard Cheshire VC (Edited by Reginald C. Fuller). London: St. Pauls, 1998. ISBN 0-85439-527-X.



  1. "Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire". 1991. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Iveson and Milton 2009, p. 30.
  3. Iveson and Milton 2009, p. 219.
  4. Hastings 2010, p. 275.
  5. Hastings 2010, pp. 273–275.
  6. Otter 1996, p. 298.
  7. "No. 36693". 5 September 1944. 
  8. Iveson and Milton 2009, p. 230.
  9. Braddon 1954, p. 129.
  10. Lawrence, Alenka. "Introduction" to Cheshire 1991, pp. 10–11.
  11. Iveson and Milton 2009, p. 143.
  12. Hastings 2010, p. 280.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "Lord Cheshire, World War II Hero Who Founded Homes for Sick, 74," The New York Times. August 2, 1992.
  14. Morris 2000, p. 225.
  15. BBC scrapbook 1945, Fontana, 463 016 FDL
  16. Boyle, Andrew. No Passing Glory. London: The Reprint Society, 1957, pp. 274–275.
  17. Leonard Cheshire, The Face of Victory (London: Hutchinson, 1961), p. 69
  18. The Face of Victory pp. 47, 55-57, 69, 102-107
  19. Cheshire 1981, p. 16.
  20. Quoted in Cheshire 1961, p. 136.
  21. Tihemme Gagnon, ed. "Introduction," Streaking! The Collected Poems of Gary Botting (Miami: Strategic, 2013)
  22. Cheshire 1961, p. 152.
  23. Cheshire 1961, p. 158.
  24. Richard Morris, Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM (London: Viking, 2000), pp. 408-432
  25. "Charities Direct." Retrieved: 3 April 2010.
  26. Charity Commission for England and Wales: Charity Number 285746
  27. "Registered Charity No. 1088623." ENRYCH.
  28. "Registered Charity No. 1098752." Target Tuberculosis. Retrieved: 3 April 2010.
  29. "Raphael: Registered Charity No. 1098328." Pilgrimage Charity. Retrieved: 3 April 2010.
  30. "Development Centre website." Retrieved: 3 April 2010.
  31. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 11. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 321. ISBN 0-19-861361-X. Article by Christopher Foxley-Norris.


  • Boyle, Andrew. No Passing Glory: The Full and Authentic Biography of Group Captain Cheshire, V.C., D.S.O, D.F.C.. London: Fontana Books, 1955.
  • Braddon, Russell. Cheshire, V.C. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 1954.
  • Brickhill, Paul. The Dam Busters. London: Pan Books, 1983. ISBN 0-330-28083-X.
  • Harvey, David. Monuments to Courage. Uckfield, East Sussex, UK: Naval & Military Press Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84342-356-1.
  • Hastings, Sir Max. Bomber Command (Pan Military Classics) London: Pan Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-33051-361-6.
  • Iveson, Tony and Brian Milton. Lancaster: The Biography. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd, 2009. ISBN 978-0-23300-270-5.
  • Laffin, John. British VCs of World War 2: A Study in Heroism. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997, ISBN 0-7509-1026-7.
  • Morris, Richard. Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM. London: Viking Press, 2000. ISBN 0-670-86735-7.
  • "Obituary for Prof. G.C. Cheshire." The Times, 28 October 1978.
  • Otter, Patrick. Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War. Newbury, Berkshire, UK: Countryside Books, 1996. ISBN 978-1-85306-424-1.
  • The Register of the Victoria Cross. London: This England, 1997. ISBN 0-906324-27-0.

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
H B Martin
Officer Commanding No. 617 Squadron
November 1943 – July 1944
Succeeded by
J B Tait

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