Who was Leonard Cheshire?

Find out about our founder Group Captain Lord Leonard Cheshire VC

Leonard Cheshire was born on 7 September 1917, the son of an Oxford Professor of Law. He was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, at Stowe School, and at Merton College Oxford where he took a degree in law.

(View more photographs of Leonard Cheshire’s childhood and his life as a teenager) He was commissioned in the reserve of the RAF on joining Oxford University Air Squadron in 1936. He took a regular commission in 1939 and during World War II served almost without interruption in Bomber Command, including taking command of 617 Squadron “the Dambusters” (after Guy Gibson) in 1943. His record of 100 operational bombing missions was unequalled. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1940 (with two bars in 1943 and 1944), the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1941, and the Victoria Cross in 1944 for sustained bravery throughout the war. He was selected by Winston Churchill as the British observer at the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in August 1945. Find out more about Leonard Cheshire’s RAF career with our Spotlight on… article

(View more photographs from Leonard’s RAF career) He was medically discharged from the RAF after the war, and struggled to adjust to peacetime. As a solution, he attempted to set up a community life for ex service men and women like him, first at Gumley Hall in Leicestershire and then at Le Court in Hampshire, but the scheme failed. In 1948 – still at Le Court – he agreed to look after one of the former members of the community who was dying of cancer and had nowhere else to go: it was contact with this man, Arthur Dykes, which initiated Leonard Cheshire’s conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. (Find out more about Arthur Dykes). Cheshire found others coming to him for help, and so started what was to become the world-wide charity Leonard Cheshire. After many years of turning down honours, his award of the Order of Merit was announced on 5 February 1981. He accepted this because it was a personal honour from Her Majesty The Queen, who later became our Patron. On 15 June 1991 Leonard was elevated to the peerage as Baron Cheshire of Woodhall Spa. He chose Woodhall Spa (his base as Wing Commander of 617 Squadron) because he considered it the place where his life’s work began.

On 5 April 1959 Leonard Cheshire married Sue Ryder whose own international charity, the Sue Ryder Foundation, was already well established helping those in need of relief from persecution and illness. Together, they also established the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation to take on projects for which there was a clear need but which lay outside the scope of their separate foundations. Lady Ryder died on 2 November 2000. Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder had two children – a son Jeromy and daughter Elizabeth. Leonard Cheshire died from the effects of motor neurone disease on 31 July 1992.