Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Making a Difference: Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder

Leonard Cheshire

Born in Chester, England in 1917, Leonard Cheshire became one of the most decorated pilots of the Second World war, being awarded the Victoria Cross, The Distinguished Service Order and two bars, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He flew 102 bombing missions and was the youngest Group Captain in the RAF. Many of his most dangerous raids were as commander of the elite 617 Squadron (The Dam Busters) who carried out precision bombing on difficult targets, mostly at night and low level. On 9th August 1945 as an official observer he witnessed the detonation of an atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan from a support bomber.

The War had a profound effect on Cheshire. By 1946 he was discharged from the RAF and his mental health was in a bad state. His marriage to American actress Constance Binney had failed. He purchased Le Court – a house and estate – from a relative and set up a community for returned servicemen and their families trying to reintegrate into peacetime life. The community failed financially, but in 1948 Cheshire was contacted by a hospital and asked if one of his former community members – Arthur Dykes – could come and live at Le Court. It turned out Arthur was dying of cancer. In their conversations together, they started discussing religion. Dykes was a lapsed Catholic but was rediscovering his faith. Cheshire had been brought up in the Church of England but had long since abandoned any belief. But through his time with Arthur he too found an enduring faith in God and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He dedicated his life to peace and justice in the service of his God. Cheshire began to receive referrals from NHS Hospitals for patients who were disabled. By the middle of 1949 Le Court was home to 24 residents with complex needs, illnesses and impairments. This started the charity work that would dominate the rest of Cheshire’s life.

Born in Leeds in 1924, Sue Ryder joined the the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in January 1942 and became part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which was the secret force that carried out reconnaissance and sabotage in occupied territories. For most of the war she was assigned to the Polish unit within the SOE, and stayed with them in North Africa and Italy.

Sue Ryder

After the war, Ryder volunteered to do relief work in Europe for aid agencies. When most of the relief agencies pulled out of Poland in 1952, she stayed on a set up charitable foundations to support displaced people. She visited prisons and hospitals. In the aftermath of war there were many non-German young men who were unable to return to their own countries either due to lack of documentation or because their families were all dead. Some of these young men turned to crime, often for food, but in some cases as revenge against their former captors. Sue Ryder drove all over Germany to visit them in prisons. She advocated for them, and was not always welcomed by the authorities. At its peak she had identified 1400 ‘Bods’ as she called them. They were from all over Europe, but the majority were Poles. Ryder appealed on their behalf for their sentences to be reduced, or for their release, and for many she would be their only visitor. Some were executed and she would stay to pray with them. Sue was involved in charitable works for the rest of her life in Europe, the UK and India.

In 1958 Sue along with Leonard Cheshire established a centre in India called Raphael, near Dehra Dun. The centre included homes for those with leprosy, people with learning disabilities, and orphaned and destitute children. The complex included a school and a hospital with a tuberculosis wing. Fundraising for this project started in Australia and New Zealand, and the projects are still operational today. Leonard and Sue had their own charitable foundations separately, but for the Raphael project they set up the Ryder-Cheshire charity for this and any other projects they established jointly.

Sue and Leonard were each awarded life peerages in their own right for their humanitarian work. Sue became Baroness Ryder of Warsaw. Leonard became Baron Cheshire of Woodhall.

Leonard and Sue were married in April 1959 at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Bombay (Mumbai), India. Their lives were irrevocably changed by a war in which they were active participants in the horror and destruction. Yet because of that experience they found peace in their joint faith in God and in the service of thousands of people through their charitable foundations.

The Ryder-Cheshire Foundation in New Zealand raises funds and sends volunteers to Raphael in Northern India, and Klibur Domin in Timor-Leste.

Click here to find out more about the work of Ryder-Cheshire and donate online.

The Garden at Kilbur Domin – Timor-Leste

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