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Worth’s role in the D-Day landings

Thu, Jun 6th, 2024
Worth School

Today we mark 80 years since the D-Day landings, remembering the immense courage and sacrifice of those who launched a combined naval, air and land assault on Nazi-occupied France. It is also an opportunity to remember the role Worth played in the D-Day landings.

On this special day we reproduce an article first published in Worth Knowing, the School magazine, in 2017, which included contributions from the late Fr Bede Hill. Please read on …

From Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower visiting Worth to top secret plans for the D-Day landings being discovered almost 50 years later, the School’s Second World War history is rich and fascinating.

At the outbreak of War in 1939, the Prep School was evacuated to Downside in Somerset and in its place arrived the Sisters of Notre Dame, who were moved from Liverpool as the docks were a target for the Germans. However, the Sisters soon found they were in the middle of the Battle of Britain and promptly moved back to Merseyside.

The Canadians were based at Worth during the War and it was they who built Cuckfield Hospital, which became the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath. Graffiti left by Canadian soldiers can still be found on walls in certain areas of the Worth campus.

In the latter stages of the War, Worth Abbey (always referred to as Worth Priory at the time) was a significant location for intelligence gathering and planning ahead of the Normandy landings as the Allied Forces sought a conclusion to the conflict.

In April 1944 the 8th Corps, under the command of General Sir Richard O’Connor, was moved from its headquarters in Yorkshire to Worth to plan for the invasion of D-Day, which took place on 6 June 1944.

It was during this time that both Montgomery and Eisenhower visited Worth. The latter arrived on 25 May 1944 to speak to the troops, who were lined up on the cricket field (now the Austin Oval). The Worth Record of the time recorded: “The Supreme Commander arrived in a beautiful car, but he brought a far smaller entourage with him than ‘Monty’ would have brought. After he had spoken to the troops, he walked up to the house and had tea in the present Monks’ Refectory (now the Cowdray Room).”

When troops left Worth for the Normandy landings during the Spring of 1944, top secret intelligence documents, plans for the invasion, aerial reconnaissance photographs and maps of French coastal towns should have been destroyed, but in the 1990s Worth’s monastic archivist Fr Bede Hill discovered by chance that not all of them had.

Fr Bede recalled: “In the 1990s I was a member of the Bursar’s office staff and as part of my job I went into the walk-in safe which is behind panelling somewhere near the Head Master’s office under the main staircase. There is a solid door, then another barred door. I needed to go through all the stuff, to know what was there and chuck out what was not wanted. I found a cardboard box and on the top of this box which was tied up with string was a handwritten note which read, ‘Major Jackson, to remain at Worth Priory’.

“Major Jackson was the officer in command of the intelligence unit at Worth in the preparations for D-Day. Written in pencil is the writing of a monk who was the caretaker at Worth during its occupation by the military. He wrote: ‘One of General O’Connor’s staff; 8th Corps. He asked to be allowed to leave these books here, when he went out to France at D+4 days. He said that if he survived he would call back for them after the War. He left no address’.

“As Major Jackson hadn’t called back I assumed he couldn’t have survived. I did some research, though, and found out he had survived; he had just never come back for the box which was full of military intelligence reports and aerial photographs relating to the preparations for the D-Day landings.

“He obviously broke all the rules, keeping intelligence documents which should have been destroyed, leaving them here.”

Major Jackson actually wrote a book about the 8th Corps and in it he recalls how some sappers devised a supposedly fool proof way of destroying documents – by using explosives. A stack of intelligence reports and maps no longer needed were piled up 300 yards from the house in the Glen, below the pond, and interleaved with gun cotton, but the plan did not work and instead the air was filled with scraps of paper, blowing around in the wind. The whole area was immediately cordoned off amid fears of court martials and numerous soldiers spent the next three hours retrieving every bit of paper, including climbing trees to shake down scraps, before everything was burned.

Our pictures show General Sir Richard O’Connor and others outside reception at Worth, Field Marshal Montgomery and General Eisenhower, the note which had been left by Major Jackson, plus top secret intelligence documents, plans for the invasion, aerial reconnaissance photographs and maps of French coastal towns which were found with the note.