Story 67

Physical valour and moral courage

My first awareness of Leonard Cheshire came from his extraordinary wartime record. The famous film ‘The Dam Busters’ ends with the surviving aircrews of 617 Squadron returning from the raid that re-branded their unit forever.

Julian Lewis MP

Yet, the attack on the Ruhr dams occupies only the first half of the book on which the film was based: the second half is dominated by Guy Gibson VC’s most remarkable successor, Group Captain Cheshire, then in his mid-twenties.

In 1944, at the height of Hitler’s V-weapon offensives, Cheshire’s bombers mounted raid after raid to shatter their launching ramps and the gigantic concrete fortifications housing their stockpiles. How was the accuracy achieved, without which such ‘bomb-proof’ structures were invulnerable? By Leonard Cheshire flying in at rooftop level, in a single-seater Mustang fighter, dropping flares to mark the targets for his bombers to obliterate.
The contrast between Cheshire’s prowess as a warrior and his post-war humanitarianism has led some to claim that witnessing the atomic bombing of Nagasaki turned him against the notions of defence and deterrence. This was quite untrue.

In 1983, this sensitive and spiritual man gave me permission to republish the text of his lecture on ‘The Error of Pacifism’ in a collection of essays to counter the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) – a defining issue in that year’s general election. In February 1985, I attended his debate against the CND at the Quaker Headquarters in London, where he argued calmly and rationally that the abandonment of nuclear weapons would ‘bring back the spectre of world war which the deterrent is holding back’.

He developed this thesis in ‘The Light of Many Suns’, published in 1985 – the year that he returned to Nagasaki to mark the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing and to pray for its victims. Yet, he always maintained that it had been necessary and right to end the war quickly in order to avert far greater casualties from months of ‘conventional’ conflict. His writings on nuclear deterrence still resonate today, and I have collected and reproduced them as part of my website.

Leonard Cheshire combined physical valour and moral courage. He was a military realist and a humanitarian idealist. His religious faith and his sense of duty inspired him, and the serenity of his final interview, undaunted in the face of motor neurone disease, should inspire us all.

The serenity of his final interview, undaunted in the face of motor neurone disease, should inspire us all.