' "A BIT OF FLAK ON THE WAY TO THE TARGET" – HOW A TRUE HERO FACED THE LAST ENEMY'
DAYS BEFORE HIS DEATH ON FRIDAY, LEONARD CHESHIRE GAVE THIS HIS LAST INTERVIEW
By Anne De Courcy
Evening Standard – 3 August 1992
The sun poured down on the pink-washed walls and peaceful shady garden of the Sue Ryder home in Suffolk where Leonard Cheshire spent his last days. He had the fatal muscle-wasting disease, motor neurone, and his condition was rapidly deteriorating. Two days earlier, he had rung to warn me that his voice was weak
"but do come ... this will be my last interview".
He sat in his electrically operated armchair, back to the windows of his upstairs study, knees raised to avoid pressure on his emaciated hip bones. Every few minutes he sucked through a straw from a glass of orange liquid; this, it transpired, was a mixture of Lucozade and a high-calorie food powder. He explained matter-of-factly that the internal muscles degenerate with the external ones, so that breathing, voice and eating are all affected.
"You can't chew, and you can't swallow properly, so you tend to choke."
Baron Cheshire of Woodhall, founder of the Cheshire Homes for the Disabled, had spent most of his life working for others. Nevertheless, he was probably better known as Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC, DSO and two Bars, DFC, most decorated bomber pilot of the last war and iconic hero-figure from an age when patriotism, honour and selflessness were unquestioned moral absolutes. Today, at 74, he faced what St Paul called the last enemy.
"Am I frightened?"
"Oh no, how could I be? I've worked all these years with disabled people and, really, it's a kind of confirmation of my vocation. Before, it was always a case of me and them but I can now say, 'We disabled'. I mustn't be presumptuous – I may find that the physical difficulties get me down – but it has given me a kind of inner joy. If you're a Christian, then you have to believe that the Christian way is the way of the Cross. I've had a good life. This is just something to be got round – a bit of flak on the way to the target."
The imagery of war fell vividly from his lips. The war, he said, and subsequently his faith, were the great formative influences of his life. In September 1940, aged just 23, he was given command of his first bomber, a Whitley; winning his first DSO for 'brilliant leadership and skill' within two months. Requiring still cooler courage were the Pathfinder missions, flying a Mosquito at low, sometimes rooftop, level to mark targets with flares for the bombers 20,000 feet above. He flew 100 missions over Germany, the only man to do so (the average was 25).
Under a common threat people behave quite differently, he said of those days 50 years ago: it is sink or swim together.
"To me, the great tragedy today is that throughout the world, for individuals as well as little groups and communities and nations, it's one's own interests that come first. The cause of most of our problems is excessive self-interest. Of course, you've got to work for yourself, better yourself – but not at the expense of others. The other great change between now and then is that, as a country, we are not sure where we're going. When we had a leading role in the world we felt responsible, we had a sense of duty to others. Now, we have lost our way and when that happens people take refuge in all sorts of wild ideas.
"I think that moral certainties are linked to knowing what the purpose of your life is, of having a goal to go for. Then, you know that anything that's dishonest or lets the team down is wrong. Even the worst-behaved people can change remarkably when they see somebody in need."
Before the war, he said, he just wanted a good life, fun, a job with plenty of excitement, high pay and not too much work. He was completely irreligious. Faith came as a dramatic road-to-Damascus revelation. In 1945, the war in Europe over, Cheshire was on the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington when he heard that his brother had been released from a German prisoner-of-war camp.
"I dreamed up some reason to come home and see him, and we went out celebrating, to the Vanity Fair Club, and somehow the talk got around to religion. I thought, 'What could be more inappropriate?' and tried to stop it. One of the girls said, 'You're talking nonsense. God is a Person, and you know it.' And I can't tell you how but I did know it. Absolutely – there and then. A sudden certainly. For a long time, I put it down to the culmination of an unconscious process of reasoning, but I realise now it wasn't that at all. It was a mysterious encounter. I had actually encountered God, not like a person, of course, but with the same recognition and certainty."
Five weeks later, on 9 August, the 27-year-old Cheshire was sent as the Prime Minister's official observer on the second atomic raid, on Nagasaki. From the cockpit of a Superfortress 39,000ft up and 40 miles away, he saw the huge fireball, the mushroom cloud and the thick black pall of smoke covering the devastation on the ground. It must have been difficult to reconcile the knowledge of the horrendous and widespread death below with his newly found Christian principles?
"If there had been any other way of winning the war, then yes, it would have been immoral and obscene. But the Japanese military were dedicated to fighting to the last man – they didn't even have a word for surrender – and civilians were regarded as second-class citizens.
"The Americans were about to invade Japan, landing first on South Island in November, and the Russians were coming in from the west. The liberation of south-east Asia was due to start on 6 September, four weeks ahead, and the Japanese had ordered that on the day the offensive began, every prisoner of war, military and civilian, had to be killed. I have copies of some of the orders and it's terrible the language they are drafted in – 'You can crush them, you can poison them, you can stake them.'
"Think what that would have meant in terms of slaughter. Hiroshima and Nagasaki cost 200,000 lives each and, yes, if you look at those figures on their own, you can be appalled. But if you set them in the context of what could have happened, they are the lesser evil."
When battle had finally ceased on all fronts, Cheshire, psychologically and emotionally exhausted, went to British Columbia, working as a logger in the solitude of the woods. Gradually, the shape of his future emerged.
"The realisation that I had come through the war while everybody else I started with hadn't made me feel I had to do something to help towards a better world. I went through very difficult stages searching for a big crusade but I never found it."
Instead, he founded the first of what would become the Cheshire homes (there are now 270 worldwide). One of the first patients was an elderly man with terminal cancer, the indirect cause of his conversion to Catholicism.
"The night that he died I was alone with him at midnight in this huge house with no electricity – just three oil lamps. His priest had said you could not lay someone out until three hours after death and I thought I must while away the time. I picked up a book lying there, Monsignor Vernon Johnson's account of how he, the famous Anglican preacher, became a Catholic. Suddenly, everything fell into place."
He drew a painful breath, a legacy of the TB caught from terminally ill TB patients he nursed in the early days. One of his lungs had to be removed, with sections of five ribs. His courage was so shining that it seemed almost impudent to ask if he had ever been frightened. He thought, then offered:
"A week before I reported for duty in my first squadron, I was sitting on the lawn at home and I suddenly thought, 'Next week I shall be in action. What's going to happen?' I couldn't see myself being fired at and standing up to it. But once I arrived at the station that dropped away. You had a job to do and you were just carried along."
Only once did fear creep past his own defences.
"It was on one of the most difficult trips, to Munich. It was a major attack and we were at extreme range – we only had 15 minutes' spare fuel – with very heavy gunfire. I'd done the low-level marking and got out, and I said to my navigator, Pat Kelly, 'We've made it, Pat! Give me a course for home'. As I said that, we were suddenly caught by a searchlight and found ourselves being hit by heavy flak. Both of us nearly broke down. Pat swore for two minutes and I don't think he repeated himself once, and I was trembling and sweating. The point is, when I'd said 'We're home', I'd let my guard down."
It was time to prepare for the hospital. He insisted on rising as I left, took my hand, smiled gently and said:
"I've learned now never to say you're home until you've crossed that finishing tape."