By Alenka Lawrence
The Tablet – 8 August 1992
Group Captain Lord Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC, bomber pilot, observer at the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki and founder of 270 Cheshire homes for the disabled worldwide, died on 31 July, aged 74.
It was an extraordinary life, the stuff of filmscripts or, perhaps for Christians, miracles. Leonard Cheshire, the hedonistic student, became the RAF's most decorated wartime pilot. He witnessed one of the greatest cataclysms of modern times. He found God, deeply and permanently, on hearing a chance remark by a tipsy woman in a London nightclub and his post-war purpose in life after singlehandedly nursing a destitute cancer victim whom no one else would take on. He proceeded to change the lives of thousands of sick, disabled and despairing people all over the world. During the war he impulsively married a twice-divorced film actress 18 years his senior. It failed but, later, he found happiness with a kindred spirit. He won Britain's highest military and civilian honours – and played tennis into his seventies.
But if Cheshire was anything, he was an individualist; he never shirked departing from clichés. It is a fallacy that the sight of Nagasaki being vapourised by the atom bomb turned him into a pacifist. In fact, he saw the weapon as so terrible that he became convinced it would make warfare between the superpowers inconceivable and, from then on, argued strongly for maintaining a nuclear deterrent. He always upheld the bombing of German cities, saying that, although he regretted it deeply and mistakes were made, it was strategically necessary to halt the greater evil of Nazism. It was a measure of his loyalty to his wartime ideals that he turned up in a wheelchair a few weeks before his death to attend the unveiling of the controversial statue to his old chief, "Bomber" Harris. Cheshire saw no contradiction in being a staunch opponent of abortion and euthanasia, saying that the fifth commandment
"must surely be interpreted as meaning you must not kill without lawful reason".
The war, he said, had taught him a lot: determination, discipline, teamwork, compassion and care for his men – all things that were to stand him in good stead later, as he channelled his energies into helping the disabled.
In recent years, Cheshire had become slightly weary of people constantly asking him about the bomb. He felt that the disintegration of the Soviet Union had vindicated his stand but warned there would always be men of violence. Yet the real peace, he insisted, lay in fighting the fundamental cause of conflict, injustice. He said he owed this building of a better world, a job begun in 1939, to those who, unlike him, had not survived the war.
"The real lesson of 1939-45 is that each of us should be working in whatever way we can to remove the root causes of war and that means working to establish, improve and safeguard human rights, working against repression and making certain we don't look for too much for ourselves to somebody else's detriment, which is of course the most difficult thing to do of all."
... Leonard Cheshire was born on 7 September 1917, the son of a law professor. He took his law degree at Oxford and, after the outbreak of war, was commissioned into the RAF, becoming its youngest group captain in March 1943 at the age of 25. He flew over 100 missions, dropping rank to take command of the famous 617 "Dambusters" squadron, and pioneered low-level marking of targets which led to more accurate bombing, including the destruction of Hitler's secret weapon, the V3. In September 1944, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, not for a single act, but for consistent bravery. (In 1981, he was to become a member of the Order of Merit, the Queen's personal honour — this time for his work with the disabled.) On 9 August 1945, as official British observer, he was in an American B-29 above Nagasaki.
... Leonard Cheshire became a life peer in 1991. Just months later, motor neurone disease was diagnosed. Ironically, he used to say that, apart from an unpleasant bout of TB in the 1950s, he had never really suffered.
"Having been involved in so much destruction and killing in the war, if I had to die a fairly violent death, I could hardly complain."
His death was not violent, but it came on painfully:
"Cramp, quite severe cramp, is one thing. You get surprised by that. But I find it's healthy – that the moment it takes me by surprise, it confronts me with reality. There's a danger that we automatically say we accept it, as the Church always taught us, but it isn't sincere. I have no doubt that some things are going to be difficult to accept but all the same, you know that it's uniting you a little more closely with the sufferings of Our Lord and with other disabled people."
Already weak, he made a last visit to his homes in India. Maintaining that there was no point in running a race if you stopped short of the finishing line, he said of his impending death:
"The thought of what God is giving us out of his sheer goodness is so overwhelming that I immediately want to ask for a little more time to do better. There are so many things to be done, friends you want to be with, your family you don't want to leave. It may be a selfish side of me but I would prefer to stay on the battlefield of life, than leave it earlier than I've got to."
Alenka Lawrence is the author of "Where is God in All This?", a series of interviews with Leonard Cheshire.