Leonard Cheshire is one of Great Britain’s most decorated wartime bomber pilots and, today, one of the world’s premier humanitarians. Educated in law at Oxford, he learned to fly with the university’s air squadron before graduating on the eve of World War II. His first real trial of skill and courage came while flying a twin-engine Whitley bomber on a night raid in late 1940. Anti-aircraft fire caused a photo flare to explode inside his aircraft, ripping a 12-foot hole in the fuselage and starting an onboard fire. Despite the smoke and flames, Cheshire brought the crippled aircraft under control and calmly directed the actions of his crew while he continued the run and released the bombs.
For his actions, King George VI presented him with the first of his three Distinguished Service Orders. Later, following a combat tour as commander of a Halifax heavy bomber squadron, 24-year-old Cheshire was promoted and became the youngest Group Captain in RAF history. Within a few months, he voluntarily gave up his promotion and returned to operational flying as commander of the famed No. 617 “Dambusters” Squadron. Flying Lancaster and Mosquito bombers, he proved his innovation and courage while perfecting the nighttime technique of “marking” targets with colored flares from extremely low level. With Cheshire leading every mission for over a year, they scored direct hits on the Limoges aero-engine works, the submarine pens at LeHavre, and the Saumur rail tunnel, which linked the German’s main rail supply line from the south to the Normandy Front.
He also flew in support of D-Day by successfully dropping strips of tin foil called “window” to create the false illusion on German defense radars that the invasion fleet was steaming toward Calais rather than Normandy. Following his 100th combat mission, Leonard Cheshire was taken out of the front line and awarded his nation’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross, for “sustained bravery” throughout an unprecedented four tours of operations. He was to fly just one more mission during the war–as an observer for America’s atomic bomb release on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. Following his departure from the RAF after the war, he has devoted himself to the relief of suffering by founding the Cheshire Foundation which has been responsible for establishing some 200 homes for the disabled in over 45 countries.