GREAT FIGURES: by Siobhan ReevesNews Weekly
One of the 20th century's greatest humanitarians
, December 8, 2012
Almost exactly 20 years ago, in her 1992 Christmas Message, Queen Elizabeth II paid special tribute to Leonard Cheshire, who had passed away six months before: “Perhaps this shining example of what a human being can achieve in a lifetime of dedication can inspire in the rest of us a belief in our own capacity to help others.” Cheshire was an extraordinary individual whose legacy should not be forgotten.
Group Captain Lord Leonard Cheshire of Woodhall, VC OM DSO DFC (1917-1992), was the youngest group captain in the RAF in 1944 at the age of 26. By the end of the war he had so much combat experience that statisticians estimate he should have been killed four times over. He completed over 100 missions, and in 1944 took command of the legendary 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters.
He received the Victoria Cross in 1944. Field Marshal Sir William Slim (who served as Australian governor-general from 1953 to 1960) considered Cheshire’s VC to be the finest awarded during World War II, as it was earned for remarkable courage over a great number of missions rather than for one battle.
Cheshire was also the official British observer for the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki on August 15, 1945. As well as the VC, Cheshire received three Distinguished Service Orders (DSO) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), making him the most highly decorated British airman of World War II, at just 28 years of age.
In 1948 Cheshire took into his home a terminally ill man, Arthur Dykes. Dykes was a Catholic and his faith had a deep impact upon Cheshire. After Dykes’s death, Cheshire converted to Catholicism and was baptised on Christmas Eve, 1948.
By the following year, Cheshire was caring for 28 patients in his home, and thus started the Cheshire homes for the ill and disabled. HRH the Duke of Edinburgh described these homes as “one of the greatest acts of humanity of our time”. Cheshire himself took care of the patients and the upkeep of the home, from scrubbing floors to cleaning bedsores. For his works he was invested with the Order of Merit by HM the Queen in 1981, and eventually accepted a peerage in 1991.
Cheshire’s remarkable wife was also a great humanitarian in her own right. Baroness Ryder of Warsaw CMG OBE (1924-2000), at the outset of World War II, joined the first aid nursing yeomanry at the age of 15. She later became part of the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Witnessing firsthand the sufferings of refugees and wounded soldiers, Ryder after the war set about establishing homes for these people. Immediately after the war she also worked tirelessly for the former inmates of concentration camps, many of whom were then tragically in prison.
She herself was also a convert to Catholicism. Cheshire and Sue Ryder met in 1954, and were married in India in 1959, spending their honeymoon establishing a home for sufferers of leprosy. Cheshire and Ryder continued with their respective charities and also created a new charity, the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation. In the three charities, there are now nearly 400 homes in more than 50 countries.
I had the privilege of reading some of Cheshire’s private letters, and was touched by his warmth, generosity and tireless work ethic.
Both Cheshire and Ryder were extraordinary individuals who, after seeing firsthand the trauma of war and “man’s inhumanity to man”, dedicated their lives to relieving the suffering of those neglected by society.
When Cheshire died in July 1992, having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in January of that year, and when Ryder died in November 2000, the world mourned the passing of two true servants of humanity. Characteristically, Cheshire commented upon his own grim diagnosis, “Now I am one of them (the disabled) too. At last I can fully begin to understand their problems, and know exactly what still needs to be done.”
Here in Australia, the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation runs three homes: in Mount Gambier (SA) and Singleton (NSW) for the care of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and in Ivanhoe (Melbourne) to provide accommodation for patients from rural areas or interstate who are receiving outpatient treatment at Melbourne hospitals.
Overseas the Australian Foundation supports the Ryder-Cheshire homes Raphael, at Dehra Dun in northern India, and Klibur Domin, at Tibar in East Timor.
The president of Ryder-Cheshire Australia, Air Commodore Peter Newton, AO RAAF (Retd), is one of many Australians who have been inspired by Cheshire’s remarkable life and who continue his work today. He says: “From the most highly decorated British airman of World War II to one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century, Leonard Cheshire was indeed a remarkable individual. He and his wife Sue Ryder have inspired generations of people who continue to help those who are sick and disabled in nearly 400 homes in 50 different countries. His legacy is ongoing.”
Siobhan Reeves is studying for a masters degree in international relations at the University of Melbourne. In 2013 she will be assisting at Klibur Domin, the home established in East Timor by the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation in 2000.