An interview with Leonard Cheshire
The Tablet – 2 September 1989
Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was a bomber pilot in World War II and an observer at the dropping of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki. He has Just launched the World War Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief, appealing for £5 for each of the 80 million lives lost in the two world wars. He talks here to Alenka Lawrence about the experiences which changed his life.
Leonard Cheshire was at Oxford, coming up to his final year, at the time of Munich.
"I didn't really understand it, but I felt we'd gone back on our word, we'd let somebody down."
It was disillusioning for someone brought up with a rose-coloured view of his country.
"I couldn't really believe that Britain would ever be other than on the side of justice and peace. It's the same as when I became a Catholic; I was convinced that every Catholic must be a good, holy person, and it was quite a shock, you know, in the early days of the euphoria of conversion, quite a shock to find out that they weren't."
There was in 1938, he maintains,
"an insular attitude which bedevilled our thinking in those days and still does, I think, today. We're not really concerned, as we should be, about the problems of the poor world . We're still putting what we perceive to be the national interest first."
Excessive self-interest, he recalls, has been condemned by Pope John Paul II as a primary trigger of wars. If there was immorality at Munich, it was in sacrificing Czechoslovakia
"for what we thought would be our future safety".
So, says Cheshire, the Czechs at Munich were locked in a hotel room with an armed SS soldier standing guard.
"They weren't even allowed into the conference room. It fell to a junior Foreign Office official to go and tell them, 'Sorry, but we're not going to support you'."
And when Chamberlain took off from Croydon,
"he looked down at the suburban houses and said, 'If there's war, these will all be destroyed', but it's ironic that when he came in to land at Munich, he flew over Dachau. He never said, looking down at Dachau, 'If Hitler gets his way, this is what will happen in Europe'."
Cheshire allows no excuses of ignorance about Dachau. He owns a book telling the truth about it, written by a Jew and published in 1938.
"British intelligence was the best in the world at the time; of course the Government knew about it."
Hitler could have been stopped in 1938, he is sure.
"If Britain and France had come in on Czechoslovakia's side, Germany couldn't have had a chance — some 35 divisions against 120 or so."
And he rebuts the theory of the "year of freedom" which Chamberlain is supposed to have earned. He points out that by September 1939 Hitler had 112 divisions, and half of them were armoured.
"The only things we had advanced in were radar and the RAF."
If Britain had stood firm, Cheshire believes that the German generals, already outraged at the idea of a war on three fronts, would have toppled him. Instead, they changed their minds about Hitler.
"What Munich did was to mobilise the whole German nation solidly behind Hitler. He became a hero, who could defeat more powerful nations by his cunning and diplomacy."
It is easy to understand how appeasement happened.
"The thought of war had become so abhorrent that nobody could contemplate the possibility of another, and when it came to the 1930s and Hitler, we as a nation had built into us the belief that, whatever happens, we must not risk a war. So the thinking, not just of Chamberlain and Baldwin, but of all political parties – none of them can try and excuse themselves – was 'Give in, compromise, find a way'."
It shows, he believes, the importance of responsible leadership.
"In 1940, when it looked as if everything was lost, and I was in the squadron, we were saying to ourselves, 'Will the Government continue fighting?' ... It was only when Churchill came in that we knew we had somebody who was not going to give in. If you don't have people at the top who know what they're doing, and are going to take things by the throat and control them, not for their own purposes and good, but for the general good of everybody, then we're the victims, not the makers of history."
And, he says, the crucial lesson from that is clear.
"Often an excessive fear can bring about the very catastrophe you're trying to prevent. If you meet a mugger on the street, and you are strong and willing to fight, he'll probably think twice. But if he sees you are frightened and not going to put up any resistance, he goes for you. It's just normal human nature and you can transfer it from an individual to a nation."
He sees the two world wars as marking a historical threshold. Before them, resort to warfare was an accepted way of resolving differences between nations; after them it was not.
"In 1914 when war was declared there was euphoria. Governments knew they had the public behind them. But then came the development of new powerful weapons and the stalemate in the trenches. In 1918, for the first time, the post-war victory march was a peace march."
His fundamental thesis is that the Second World War completed the process started on the Somme in 1916.
Now, he says, we have the best of both worlds: world war is seen to be unacceptable and at the same time nuclear weapons exist that make such a war impossible to fight, and hence inconceivable.
"A terrible price was paid, but it bore fruit. I was absolutely convinced of it when I saw Nagasaki. Anyone who could have seen the effects of that weapon over that city would have said, 'Nobody can fight this. If the other side's got weapons like this, what's going to happen to my country?' It seemed to me from that moment on, that war was finished."
But if the superpowers have, apparently, drawn the appropriate moral, there are patently other nations which have not. Cheshire believes nevertheless that the same principle will filter through to them, and expects a gradual reduction in battle between armies.
"In 50 years' time it won't just be the major powers that can't go to war, it will be the medium powers. I think the time may come, if weapons get too powerful, when the world community will realise that it is threatened even if a smaller nation uses them, and so will take concerted action to stop it."
Yet this hope for the future springs only from expediency. Cheshire urges a move towards a more positive solution – an improvement in human nature.
"Keeping war at bay doesn't give you peace. Hostile movements build on a sense of grievance and injustice. Or, if that is putting it too simply, they build on some deeply felt and extreme ideology, which can only be opposed by a better ideology. The real lesson of 1939-45 is that each of us should be working against injustice and repression, working to establish, improve and safeguard human rights, making certain that we don't look for too much for ourselves at somebody else's expense – which is of course the most difficult thing of all."
He reflects on the positive effects of the war on himself.
"The war gave me discipline. It gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a realisation that if I did anything that appeared good, it was thanks to a lot of other people. It also made me aware how grateful I ought to be for having survived – because I didn't get through by my own efforts. The sky is full of shells and you can't tell where they are going to burst."
He came out of the war disorientated but with the feeling that somehow he had to work to try to help build the peace. For there is another lesson he learnt from his war experience:
"It made me realise what men and women can achieve when they are united behind a common purpose."
Ultimately he found his way and
"fitted into my little niche".