‘Leonard Cheshire risked his life with great courage’

9 July 2018

On 6 February 1944 Leonard Cheshire conducted an RAF bombing raid on a military factory in Nazi-occupied France, putting himself at great risk to warn workers and local residents.

Monique Francis, grandmother of our Public Affairs Officer Victoria Hemmingway, tells us how she may have been spared by the actions of our founder.

During a world war two bombing raid on the Gnome et Rhône aero-engine armament factory in Limoges, Leonard Cheshire flew three times over the target at very low levels, allowing 500 workers to escape. He waited a further five minutes before dropping flare markers for the bombers. 

His actions, which saved many lives, are captured brilliantly in a new exhibition called ‘Leonard Cheshire: A Pilot’s Story’ which launches this month as part of the RAF’s centenary celebrations. Aviation artist Graham Singleton put together the collection and created the masterful painting of Leonard Cheshire flying over Limoges in world war two.

Painting of Leonard Cheshire flying over Limoges in world war two by Graham Singleton

Monique Francis, who lived in Limoges, was just a teenager at the time. She looks back on the raid nearly 75 years ago.

Taking maximum risk to save lives

Monique says:

‘We heard that Leonard Cheshire had taken the maximum risk to himself, first of all giving the workers warning.

‘I remember we heard the sirens. We lived in a first floor flat, so everyone in the block had to go downstairs for safety. Then we heard the bombing.’

Thanks to Leonard Cheshire, many casualties were avoided that night. Only one person was killed – a man who went back into the factory to collect his bicycle.

Monique adds: 

‘This man, Leonard Cheshire, risked his life with great courage. If he hadn’t done that, I could have been killed and my granddaughter would not be here.’

Today, the connections continue

Monique says she has long been a ‘great admirer’ of Leonard Cheshire and believes he is a ‘shining example’ to others. Not surprisingly, she tells us she is delighted that the family link remains today, with granddaughter Victoria Hemmingway doing sterling work as our Public Affairs Officer.

I have a very personal reason to be grateful to Leonard Cheshire. And I am very happy that my darling granddaughter is working for the charity that he founded.‘

Monique with her granddaughter Victoria Hemmingway, Public Affairs Officer at Leonard Cheshire.

Limoges during the war: Monique shows her own resistance

Monique, now 91, moved to England after the war having married an Englishman, RAF squadron leader Peter Francis. She still recalls vivid memories of growing up in Limoges during the war, including the time she was expelled from her school for showing opposition to the Vichy government of occupied France.

‘I was expelled because walking to school, I tore some posters asking people loyal to the Vichy government to shoot French Resistance fighters.

‘I couldn’t stand it, so I tore them all the way down the street. Some people denounced me and reported it to the Gestapo.’

Resistance and radio: ‘Free France’ and the BBC

Monique recalls avidly listening to BBC radio programmes in French, as people crowded round to listen to the voices of General Charles de Gaulle and France Libre (Free France – the French government-in-exile).

‘We used to listen to the BBC every day. It was a great support — especially for me after my brother and future brother-in-law left at the crack of dawn in a sailing boat to England to join the Free French.

‘I can still remember the day we heard a coded message telling us they were safe. That was a great, great joy.

‘We were very optimistic. It never crossed my mind that Hitler was going to win.’

Leonard and Limoges

Leonard Cheshire’s heroic actions were captured in dramatic night time footage filmed by a colleague.

Many years after the war, Leonard Cheshire maintained a close connection with Limoges and its people. He kept a card of Limoges Cathedral on his desk and met with people who had been in the factory at the time.

He said:

‘Limoges will always have a special place in my heart and to the end of my days I shall remember that visit to you and all that it meant to me being able to feel part, as it were, of the family of Limoges.’

Find out more about the exhibition

‘Leonard Cheshire: A Pilot’s Story’ is a mobile exhibition including the brilliant painting of Leonard Cheshire flying over Limoges.

Featuring works from several superb artists, it launches on 10 July at The Mall for London’s RAF100 celebrations.

The collection moves to Cambridgeshire for the Flying Legends Airshow in Duxford on 14-15 July, touring throughout the year. The paintings will be available to buy from the charity at the final exhibition at the Law Society in London on 18 December.

Listen to Monique’s story

You can find out more about Monique’s story in an interview on BBC Radio Norfolk, featuring Monique and her granddaughter Victoria. (Listen from 41 minutes. Available throughout July 2018.)

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A person of endless goodness indeed

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