Educated at Stowe School, Cheshire won a place at Merton College, Oxford in 1936. At Oxford, Cheshire followed the usual pattern of extrovert young men of the time: he became noted for fast cars, reckless exploits, fantastic extravagance, mounting debts and shady associations. He was also known to go dog-racing with college servants; and at one time he held the undergraduate record for the fastest return from Hyde Park Corner to Magdalen Bridge, in an Alfa Romeo. Yet Cheshire also unobtrusively worked hard. His tutor, F. H. Lawson, described him as ‘intelligent and competent’, and he graduated in 1939 with a good second-class degree. Immediately after his graduation in 1939 he applied for and accepted a permanent commission in the RAF. He was then sent to the flight training school at RAF Hullavington.
Although the great majority of his contemporaries at Hullavington volunteered for Fighter Command, Cheshire was posted to 102 squadron, Bomber Command. Cheshire was soon captain of his own plane and carrying out raid after raid on the industrial cities of Germany. His dedication was such that he volunteered for missions when it was not his turn and even while he was assigned temporarily as a flying instructor. His rapport with his air crew and with his ground crew became legendary: one later commented that ‘He could get me to do anything’ . He was once criticized for drinking with his crew in a saloon bar reserved for officers, but replied: ‘If I am good enough to fight and fly with these men I am certainly good enough to drink with them’.
Within a year Cheshire was awarded the DSO for bringing home his holed and burning aircraft—and its crew—after an attack on Cologne: ‘If ever an aircraft flew on faith and little else that one did’, a colleague wrote. His commitment and dedication could not fail to impress his commanding officers, and led to rapid promotion: to flight commander and then squadron leader.
Cheshire was the first to admit that luck played a great part in his survival. He was constantly under enemy fire month after month without fatal damage—although it was no doubt responsible for his breakdown and prolonged ill health after the war. His targets included some of the most heavily defended on the continent, but he attacked them successfully and with initiative. Any new plan for such attacks was thoroughly tested by Cheshire, and he constantly sought to improve the efficiency of his aircraft (especially the four-engined Halifax, deemed by many to be unsafe); and he pressed for the introduction of smaller, faster aircraft, such as the Mosquito.
Cheshire demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities and at twenty-five became the youngest group captain in the RAF, commanding the bomber station at Marston Moor. This pleased his new wife, Constance as it took him away from operations, but he was desperate to return to a flying command. This caused his superiors some problems, as they did not wish to waste such a brilliant talent; but in due course the perfect post emerged. Although he had to revert to the rank of wing commander, Cheshire was given command of the legendary 617 squadron. Formed by Guy Gibson in 1943, and using new bombs designed by Barnes Wallis, the ‘dambuster’ squadron had become famous through their low-level attacks on the Eder and Möhne dams.
Under Cheshire’s command and commitment the squadron became responsible for further refining the art of precision bombing. Through intensive training and great technical skill 617 became adept at marking targets by diving and dropping marker flares from only a few hundred feet. A larger force was then able to drop their bombs from a safer altitude. The technique was first successfully tested early in 1944 on an aero-engine plant at Limoges (which was destroyed in a manner that gave the French workforce time to escape). Subsequent precision targets that were destroyed or put out of action included the submarine pens at Le Havre and the sites of V-weapons in northern France.
Wing Commander Cheshire was awarded his Victoria Cross in September 1944 and uniquely it was awarded for his four years of sustained courage, and bombing sorties in the face of heavy ground reaction, rather than for a single act of courage. Nevertheless, the citation discussed at length the great raid on heavily defended Munich on 24–25 April 1944; and it went on to praise the ‘careful planning, brilliant execution and contempt for danger which has established for Wing Commander Cheshire a reputation second to none in Bomber Command.
Shortly after receiving his VC Cheshire flew his 100th mission, and was subsequently grounded. Cheshire may have thought that his war was over but nothing could be further from the truth. He was appointed one of two official British observers to the culmination of the Manhattan project, the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs. Due to American opposition Cheshire was unable to secure a place on the plane that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima; but after pressure from the British government, he did witness the attack on Nagasaki on 15 August 1945.
There is no doubt that the mission to bomb Nagasaki affected Cheshire greatly. His health began to deteriorate and RAF doctors sent him to St Luke’s psychiatric hospital at Muswell Hill, London. An ‘affective disorder’ was diagnosed and he was invalided out of the RAF on 22 January 1946. His marriage was also over (a divorce being ratified in January 1951). The atom bomb did not make Cheshire an out-and-out pacifist, as he realized that such a campaign would not ‘fit the real world in which we live’. However, it did initiate the reorientation of his life towards a search for real peace. His life became, as he later put it, ‘an attempt to achieve the kind of peace to which the key exists only in men’s hearts’.
From that date until his death in 1992, Leonard Cheshire devoted his life to caring for the sick and needy. Cheshire first sought to achieve this through creating self-governing communities of ex-servicemen; but these experiments soon disintegrated. However, he was left with a property that had been acquired: this was Le Court, a large country house near Liss in Hampshire; and it was unclear what he should do with it. Then he heard that Arthur Dykes, an ex-serviceman who had belonged to one of those communities, was dying of cancer. Cheshire agreed to nurse him at Le Court and thus—unknowingly at the time—began not only his life’s work, but a dedication to the sick and the needy that rapidly became characterized as saintly. Immediately prior to his death there were 270 Cheshire homes in 49 countries caring for the sick and disabled..