Leonard Cheshire in the Second World War
A Spotlight on... Leonard Cheshire's career in the RAF by Dr Robert Owen - Official Historian for No. 617 Squadron Association
Leonard first learned to fly with the Oxford University Air Squadron. Flying appealed to his flamboyant, slightly reckless attitude and sense of adventure. Aircraft combined speed, technology and new sensations and, for the more traditional, the RAF was seen as slightly disreputable, appealing to the non-conformist.
He joined the RAF immediately after graduating and after further training commenced operations in the summer of 1940, joining No. 102 Sqn, based in Yorkshire and flying Whitley bombers. He soon proved himself a capable and effective captain, and was awarded the DSO for bringing his badly damaged aircraft back from Cologne in November 1940.
Leonard was thorough in everything that he did. He learned all he could about the aircraft he flew and how to get the best from them. He took an interest in the work of the rest of his crew, and the groundcrew who serviced the machines. His interest in technical matters with the new Hadley Page Halifax helped with the development of modifications for the aircraft of his squadron, improving serviceability and performance, helping to minimise losses. So effective were these that a number were adopted as standard by the manufacturers.
As a commander of men he instilled confidence by his own example, leading from the front. Leonard’s informal style and consideration for both aircrew and groundcrew, treating officers and airmen alike went against service protocol but built a loyal, willing and exceptionally able team. His open management style encouraged innovation and earned him the respect and dedication of all those he commanded. By 1943, aged 25 he was the youngest Group Captain in the RAF.
Taking a drop in rank he went on in November 1943 to command 617 Sqn – The Dambusters. He strove for perfection. Leonard switched them from low level to high level precision bombing and personally pioneered a method of accurate marking – first in a Lancaster, then using a Mosquito and Mustang against strongly defended targets.
In July 1944 he was taken off operational flying having flown on 100 attacks. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and two bars to the Distinguish Service Order and in September 1944 received the highest award – the Victoria Cross, not for any single act of bravery, but for sustained courage and application over four years of war.
He was then sent to India, and then to America, before being despatched to the United States Air Force in the Pacific where he flew as a British observer to witness the dropping on Nagasaki of the second atomic bomb on 9 August 1945.
On his return to Britain Leonard made a broadcast in which he voiced the significance of what he had seen, saying …”We are faced either with the end of this country, or the end of war. Ending war and making a better future is not a responsibility that we can say belongs exclusively to the government …each one of us must play our part.”
Leonard would be true to his word.
View more photographs of Leonard Cheshire’s RAF career.