Sir Peter Le Cheminant was a Second World War pilot, who survived scores of hazardous bombing raids across Europe, North Africa, Italy and Sicily for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and, after myriad postings and promotions within the RAF, went on to become the first native in over 600 years to hold the post of Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey, serving as the Queen’s representative on the island.
Upon retiring from the RAF in 1979, he had flown 73 types of aircraft, including biplane trainers, heavy bombers, seaplanes and helicopters; he even flew with the Red Arrows.
Not one to dwell on the past, he enjoyed life and seized every opportunity, eventually rising to become Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff and then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces Central Europe, where he ensured that the fighting elements in the Central Region of Nato had the appropriate directives, reinforcements and logistical support.
He was a prolific writer, winning several prizes in service-sponsored competitions as well as two gold medals for essays on military subjects from the Royal United Services Institute. He showed his humorous side with two comic novels under the pseudonym Desmond Walker about a bungled government plot to make the Channel Islands part of Hampshire.
Born in Guernsey in 1920, Peter de Lacey Le Cheminant was the son of a schoolmaster and a housewife. His mother left when he was eight. Educated at Elizabeth College in St Peter Port, where his father taught and ran the Officer Training Corps, Le Cheminant excelled at shooting and was part of a British public schools team that competed against Canada in 1937. He enjoyed shooting throughout his life. Soon after leaving school, and against his father’s wishes, he enrolled at RAF College Cranwell, Lincolnshire, graduating in December 1939 shortly after the outbreak of war, having survived a mid-air collision during training that killed three pilots in the other aircraft. He joined No.4 Squadron flying Lysanders and was soon flying sorties supporting the British Expeditionary Force in France until Dunkirk. Thereafter, he spent two years with 614 Squadron flying anti-invasion patrols along the coast. In May 1942, he flew in support of two of the three “Thousand Bomber” night raids on Essen and Cologne by attacking the German fighter base at Twente in Holland.
A few weeks later, in August, he took part in the ill-fated Allied raid on Dieppe, Operation Rutter, where five bomber crews were tasked with laying smoke screens over the beach before the landings. As he approached the target, he saw the other planes being hit by intense anti-aircraft fire, which reconnaissance had missed, before his own plane was struck several times in what he described as “a brisk and energising few moments”. Though he made it home, 106 RAF planes were lost and most of the troops who made it ashore were either killed, wounded or captured.
In late 1942, Le Cheminant was appointed a flight commander to No.114 Squadron and sent to North Africa in support of Operation Torch, where he flew Bisley bombers, which he thought were not fit for purpose. He defied the odds as he led numerous attacks on German positions supporting the advancing British 1st Army towards Tunisia. However, his formations were often up against Luftwaffe fighters and so casualties were high. For relaxation, he and his fellow pilots played poker with the money in their escape wallets.
In May 1943, he was promoted to wing commander and took charge of 223 Squadron, equipped with the US-made Baltimore bombers. Shortly afterwards he led the last bombing raid of the North African campaign in Tunisia, forcing the remnants of the German 90th Light Division at Bou Ficha to surrender.
Within a month, his squadron began bombing German airfields in Sicily in preparation for the island’s invasion, Operation Husky. In July, Le Cheminant was awarded the DFC “for his courage and devotion to duty which was an inspiration to all aircrews”.
He then bombed mainland Italy ahead of the Allied three-pronged amphibious landings in southern Italy. Supporting the first landings at Salerno, Le Cheminant’s bomber was so badly hit that he was forced to land without brakes or flaps.
At the year’s end, having completed over 80 operations, he returned to England where he joined the new Tiger Force, a long-range bomber squadron that was to operate out of Okinawa and attack mainland Japan. However, with the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the force never deployed.
Le Cheminant took command of 209 Squadron in Singapore in 1949, piloting Sunderland flying boats. The following year the Korean War broke out and he found himself in the thick of it again, this time, often flying in dreadful weather conditions, trying to detect enemy ships and submarines. He completed 22 sorties and earned a bar to his DFC in 1951.
Thereafter, his career switched between operational postings, which he enjoyed, and administrative jobs in London, which bored him. Over the next 20 years, with the break-up of The British Empire, he witnessed the unrelenting contraction in Britain’s military reach and capabilities.
In 1961, Le Cheminant took command of RAF Geilenkirchen on the Dutch-German border and home to a Canberra nuclear strike squadron and a Javelin all-weather fighter squadron. He seized the opportunity to fly both. He then endured two years as Director of Air Staff Briefing.
Soon after, he became embroiled in the bitter argument between the RAF and Royal Navy over the relative merits of the proposed new CVA 01 aircraft carrier and the F-111 long-range bomber. He noted that defence secretary Denis Healey seemed “to enjoy watching the two services destroying each other” before cancelling both projects.
Promoted to air commodore in 1964, Le Cheminant was appointed Senior Air Staff Officer, Far East Air Force two years later, where he saw the end of the so-called Indonesian Confrontation. He also began preparations for the withdrawal of British forces from the east of Suez, despite protests from Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and saw the reduction of the RAF’s role as part of the nation’s independent nuclear force. After a spell in Ankara, Turkey, as the UK Permanent Military Deputy to the Central Treaty Organisation, where he had to use all his powers of persuasion and diplomacy to work with Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the US, in 1974, Le Cheminant became Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.
He subsequently had a confrontation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of northern Cyprus, which saw the Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios, airlifted to the RAF base at Akrotiri; Le Cheminant then authorised him to be flown to Malta by the RAF, much to the annoyance of the FCO, who claimed he had disobeyed the Foreign Secretary James Callaghan’s orders. He stood firm on his decision and in 1976 was promoted to Air Chief Marshal.
As the Governor of Guernsey (1980-85), he enjoyed receiving the Queen Mother and having a gin and tonic with her, as well as carrying out his other duties. He enjoyed the social life on the island and was known for his generosity and keen sense of humour.
He married childhood sweetheart Sylvia van Bodegom in an Aldershot register office in 1940, before taking a two-day honeymoon. They had three children. In retirement, they toured Europe in a Volkswagen camper van for a year before returning to a farmhouse in western Guernsey. He dedicated his memoir, The Royal Air Force: A Personal Experience, to Sylvia, who moved home “without complaint and never in need of counselling”. She died in 1998.
Although bed-bound over the last 18 months of his life, he did not lose his sense of humour, gently flirting with the nurses until the end.
He is survived by his children.