A mission to help – An Irishman’s Diary on the centenary of the birth of Leonard Cheshire
Leonard Cheshire in 1945
Leonard Cheshire, who was born 100 years ago on September 7th, was a highly decorated RAF pilot during the second World War but it is for his extraordinary postwar contribution to the good of humanity that he deserves to be remembered.
He was born in Chester but brought up near his parents’ home in Oxford, where he attended Dragon School, Stowe School and Merton College, from which he graduated in jurisprudence in 1939. Following the outbreak of war, he joined the RAF (having trained as a pilot in college), with a permanent commission.
In November 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for flying his badly damaged bomber back to base after a mission. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross in March 1941 and was a squadron leader by early 1942. Introducing many improvements and innovations in aircraft, procedures and pilots’ conditions, he was popular with his men and inspired much loyalty. He became the youngest group captain in the RAF and pioneered a new method of marking enemy targets for bombing by flying in at a very low level in the face of strong defences, using first the versatile de Havilland Mosquito and then a North American Mustang fighter.
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, the highest British military award. His citation referred to his entire 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.”
In his book, Bomber Command (2010), Max Hastings wrote: “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 around him, but without affectation or pretension.” He was one of the official British observers at the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. It affected him profoundly but, as he always pointed out, not any more than the war as a whole had done.
He retired from the RAF in January 1946 on medical grounds and soon established the Vade in Pacem (Go in Peace) colony at Gumley Hall, Leicestershire to give ex-servicemen and women and their families a chance to live together and help their transition back into civilian life, a project that ended in 1947. The following year, he took a dying man, who had nowhere else to go, into his home and nursed him himself. Soon others came to him looking for help and by the summer of 1949, his Hampshire home had 24 residents with varying complex needs.
Support came from across the UK and then the world as NHS hospitals referred disabled people needing urgent care.
Thus began the charity that is now known as Leonard Cheshire Disability. By 1955, there were five UK Cheshire Homes and one in Mumbai in India. In the subsequent decades, the charity expanded rapidly both nationally and internationally, so that by the time its founder died from motor neurone disease in July 1992 at the age of 74, the charity operated 270 homes in 49 countries.
The first Cheshire Home in Ireland was opened at Shillelagh, Co Wicklow, in 1961 and the Cheshire Foundation (now Cheshire Ireland) was established in 1963. The home in the Phoenix Park, which opened in 1974, was one of the first purpose-built residential centres for people with disabilities in Ireland and there are now 17 accommodation centres across the country.
In the early 1970s, a care-in-the-community project was trialled on the UK south coast and its success led to support at home becoming one of the many services that the charity now offered. Moving people with disabilities from long-stay group accommodation to houses or apartments has been Irish government policy since 2011 and Cheshire Ireland now offers community-support as well as residential and respite services. (For interviews with two former Cheshire Home residents who now live in apartments with support services, see The Irish Times, October 29th, 2013).
“How far that little candle throws his beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world,” says Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Leonard Cheshire knew more than most the harshness of the world but the light of his good deeds continues to shine.
He converted to Catholicism on Christmas Eve 1948 and the Catholic diocese of East Anglia is now promoting the cause for his canonisation.