Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire



Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire

Baron Cheshire VCOMDSO & Two BarsDFC ; 7 September 1917 – 31 July 1992, was a highly decorated World War II Royal Air Force pilot and philanthropist.

Early Life
Leonard Cheshire was the son of Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, 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. At Stowe he was taught English by the fantasy novelist T. H. White. 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. He went to stay in Germany in 1936 with the family of Ludwig von Reuter in Potsdam and whilst there, witnessed an Adolf Hitler rally. Cheshire caused considerable offence by pointedly refusing to give the Nazi salute. Cheshire graduated in jurisprudence in 1939.

Military career

During his university years, Cheshire learned basic piloting skills with the Oxford University Air Squadron, receiving a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 16 November 1937.


A Whitley warms its engines prior to a mission

With the outbreak of war Cheshire received a permanent commission with the RAF, dated 7 October 1939. He was sent for training at RAF Hullavington (now Hullavington Airfield). Promoted to flying officer on 7 April 1940, he was posted that June to 102 Squadron flying out of RAF Driffield.

At Driffield he was placed with Frank Long, first pilot in the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley medium bomber they were flying. Long was a tall New Zealander, known as “Lofty” to his crew. Cheshire states as first captain Lofty Long set a high standard. Absolutely professional, he pressed Cheshire to learn the aircraft inside and out, mastered all controls and instruments, could find them blindfolded, so that when at the point of critical action all of Cheshire’s attention could be focused on the problem, as none of his concentration would need to be diverted to the task of flying. Long placed Cheshire in the pilot’s seat often and early on, and Cheshire credits him for making him a good captain.

While at Driffield Cheshire came to know two pilots who would go on to have careers of distinction: Hamish Mahaddie and Jimmy Marks. Said Mahaddie “Leonard Cheshire was our first university entrant, and viewed with considerable suspicion.”


Cheshire’s damaged Whitley following a flak hit on his bombing run which caused one of the aircraft’s flares to explode, November 1940 

In November 1940, Cheshire was on an operation against Cologne, when during his bombing run the aircraft was struck twice by anti-aircraft fire. The fuselage suffered a huge tear in the side, and one of the shells ignited one of the aircraft’s flares. The aircraft fell into a steep dive and was set on fire. Cheshire was able to pull the aircraft out of the dive at about 5,000 feet and the fire was put out. He continued to the target, dropped his bombs and was able to get his aircraft home. Cheshire won his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for this mission.

In January 1941 Cheshire completed his first tour of operations. He immediately volunteered for a second tour. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in March 1941. On 7 April 1941 he was promoted to flight lieutenant. He was posted to No. 35 Squadron, flying the Handley Page Halifax. He completed his second tour early in 1942, having earned the temporary rank of squadron leader. Cheshire was promoted to the substantive rank of squadron leader on 1 March. In August 1942 he returned to operations as an acting wing commander and commanding officer of No. 76 Squadron RAF. The squadron had recently suffered high losses operating the Halifax. Cheshire immediately tackled the low morale of the unit by ordering improvements in the performance of the squadron aircraft. He had the mid-upper and nose gun turrets removed to reduce weight and had the exhaust covers removed. 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”, the manoeuvre used by bomber pilots to escape the attacks of night fighters. The test pilot, Captain Eric Brown, set about to determine the cause, and planned to undertake a series of flight tests accompanied only by a flight engineer. Brown was informed a representative from Bomber Command would fly along. 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 Halifax’s rudder design. Cheshire became enraged when Handley Page initially declined to make modifications to avoid disrupting production.

During his time as the commanding officer of No. 76 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Cheshire took the trouble to learn the name of, and recognize 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 feet (the most dangerous height for light flak) Cheshire simply refused, stating they would fly at 200 feet or 20,000 feet. Typically, Cheshire inspired such loyalty and respect that the ground crews of 76 Squadron were proud to chorus “We are Cheshire cats!”.

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 described the bravery of a badly burnt member of his crew, but declined to mention being awarded the DSO.

No. 617 Squadron

In March 1943, by now an acting group captain, Cheshire became station commander of RAF Marston Moor 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. In April, he was awarded a bar to his DSO. His efforts paid off with a posting as commander of the legendary No. 617 Squadron RAF (Dambusters) in September. While with 617, Cheshire helped pioneer the low level, daylight marking of enemy targets for Cochrane’s No. 5 Group. For this purpose he initially used the versatile de Havilland Mosquito, and then moved to the North American P-51 Mustang fighter.

On the morning before a planned raid by 617 Squadron to Siracourt, a crated Mustang turned up at Woodhall Spa, a gift for Cheshire from his admirers in the US 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 Squadron 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. This development work in target marking was the subject of some severe intra-service politics; Cheshire was encouraged by his 5 Group Commander Air Vice-Marshal Ralph Cochrane, although the 8 Group Pathfinder Air Officer Commanding(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. His citation remarked on the entirety of his operational career, noting:

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.

It also gave special mention to a raid against Munich on 24/25 April 1944, in which he had marked a target while 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.”

Later operations


A portrait of Cheshire in 1945 

One of Cheshire’s missions was to use new 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bomb deep-penetration bombs to destroy V3 long-range guns located in underground bunkers near Mimoyecquesin the Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France. These were powerful guns able to fire a 500 lb (230 kg) 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.

Cheshire was, in his day, both the youngest group captain in the service and following his VC, the most decorated. In his book, Bomber Command (2010), Sir Max Hastings wrote that “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 commanding officers 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 refusing to fly (commonly called Lack of Moral Fibre in the RAF) when subject to the combat stress of bomber sorties (many of which had loss rates of 50 percent 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“; Cheshire transferred LMF cases out of his squadron almost instantaneously (as every other RAF squadron did at the time).]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.

On his 103rd mission, Cheshire and William Penney were official British observers of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. 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 feet (12,000 metres) instead of the agreed height of 30,000 feet (9,100 m). 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. Like Britain herself, he had been fighting or training for fighting since 1939“. He was earlier quoted as saying: “… then I for one hold little brief for the future of civilisation”.


Following the end of the war, Cheshire retired from the RAF on medical grounds on 22 January 1946, retaining his final rank of group captain. 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 who “was one of the last persons on earth he would have credited with” religious convictions.

After the war, Joan Botting (widow of Dambusters pilot Norman Botting) lived with Cheshire at the “VIP (for Vade in Pacem – Go in Peace) Colony” he established for veterans and war widows at Gumley Hall, Leicestershire – 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 (Joan is not mentioned by name in The Face of Victory). 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.

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, to help their transition back into civilian life. He hoped that training, prosperity and fulfilment 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.

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.” In the meantime, Joan Botting had converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On Christmas Eve, 1948, Cheshire was received into the Catholic Church.

Charitable life

Leonard Cheshire Disability

In 1948, Cheshire founded the charity now named Leonard Cheshire Disability, which provides support to disabled people throughout the world. At the beginning of 1949, eight patients were staying at Le Court. Six months later, there were 28. Cheshire dedicated the rest of his life to supporting disabled people, combining this with lecturing on conflict resolution.

Other organisations set up by Leonard Cheshire are:

  • The Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, set up by Leonard Cheshire and his wife Sue Ryderat the time of their marriage in 1959. It now mainly operates in two fields: the rehabilitation of disabled people, through ENRYCH and the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis, through Target Tuberculosis.[44]
  • In 1953, Cheshire founded the Raphael Pilgrimage to enable sick and disabled people to travel to Lourdes.
  • In 1990, Cheshire founded the UK charity the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief. Cheshire is acknowledged on the album The Wall – Live in Berlin by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters. The concert launched and benefited the charity. 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. Their divorce was ratified in January 1951.

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. They had two children, Jeromy and Elizabeth Cheshire, and lived in CavendishSuffolk.

Cheshire was a lifelong tennis fan, a member of the All England Club, and a formidable amateur player well into his seventies.

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

Honours and tributes

The Lord Cheshire
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire c. 1943
Birth name Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire
Born 7 September 1917
ChesterCheshire, England
Died 31 July 1992 (aged 74)
CavendishSuffolk, England
Buried Cavendish Cemetery
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1937–1946
Rank Group Captain
Service number 72021
Unit No. 102 Squadron RAF
No. 35 Squadron RAF
Commands held No. 76 Squadron RAF
RAF Marston Moor
No. 617 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars Second World War
Awards Victoria Cross
Member of the Order of Merit
Distinguished Service Order & Two Bars
Distinguished Flying Cross
Mentioned in Despatches
Spouse(s) Constance Binney (1941–51)
Sue Ryder (1959–92)
Relations Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire (father)
Other work Humanitarian

Among the honours Cheshire received as a pilot was the Victoria Cross, the highest 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.

After the war he founded a hospice that grew into the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability. He became known for his work in conflict resolution. In 1991 he was created a life peer in recognition of his charitable work.



Cheshire’s medal group on display at the Imperial War Museum

It was announced in 2017 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia will promote Leonard Cheshire’s cause for canonisation as a saint.

Courtesy of


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