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The Yorkshire Medieval Priory and its part in the WW2 D-Day Landings…

Either coming back from tours of Whitby or on my way to Castle Howard, I often visit the ruins of Kirkham Priory. Once home to a community of Augustinian Priors, this is a beautiful spot on the edge of the Howardian Hills and the banks of the River Derwent.


The Priory was abandoned after the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of  Henry VIII and all that remains now are the stunning ruins including The Great Gatehouse with its intricately carved coat of arms of the influential de Roos family and other northern aristocratic families.

The Gatehouse also shows depictions of George and the Dragon and David & Goliath to signify a bulwark against evil.


But fast forward just over 400 years from the dissolution of the monasteries and the people of Britain were facing a new evil. This time in the form of Nazi Germany.


In 1944 Britain and its Allies were preparing for one of the most significant military operations of the 2nd World War. An event which is now seen as the beginning of the end of the war.


But well before the D-Day Landings, where British and American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on 6th June , this quiet, peaceful tourist destination was a hive of activity and played a huge part in the planning of the operation.


The D-Day landing were the largest seaborne invasion in history and it was important that nothing went significantly wrong. The operation to liberate Nazi held Europe had to succeed.


Omaha Beach after D-Day. Protected by barrage balloons, ships delivered trucks loaded with supplies. June 7-10, 1944, World War 2. Normandy, France

The site of Kirkham Priory and the wide banks of the River Derwent played a huge part in the training of troops and the testing of military craft and vehicles. The river was used to test the water-proofing of “wading” vehicles and tanks were also put through their paces.


Amongst units moved to Kirkham were the British 11th armoured division, the aim being to give drivers experience of manoeuvring the equipment using the banks of the River Derwent as the practice coastline.


But not only was the river next to the monastic site used for training but also the Priory ruins themselves. As part of the D-Day Landings, the military knew that they would have to get troops off the main transport ships and into smaller landing craft during the invasion.


Troops would need training in the use of scrambling nets to achieve this. So on the high wall of the western Cloisters a scrambling net was erected and soldiers trained climbing up and down the nets. I’m sure English Heritage would have something to say about it if someone tried to do that in this day and age!


With the site at Kirkham Abbey being one of the most important D-Day Landing training bases, it did receive a couple of important visitors who came to observe progress.


The then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill paid a secret visit to monitor preparations showing how important the site was. But also the site was visited by King George VI who also made the trip north.


Churchill visiting Kirkham Priory on March 31, 1944. The man he's greeting was Colonel Wormald, who was a fellow officer in the 21st Lancers. (Image: © IWM H 37181)


From the rear of the photo: The prime minister watching an armoured car being conveyed across the River Derwent by raft. In the background are the ruins of Kirkham Abbey. Taken by Capt. Horton from Imperial War Museum reference H 37175 - Wiki Commons

Considering the importance of the site to the ending of World War 2, there is little to indicate what went on in 1944. A single board by English Heritage is all that tells the tale, which is a shame really. I’m sure more could be made of this story to attract visitors to the site.


So not only is this a hidden gem in a beautiful setting which helps tell the story of medieval monastic life, its more recent history is fascinating too. This now peaceful, beautiful site played a huge part in ending the war and gaining us the freedoms we enjoy today. Well worth a visit.



1 Comment

Feb 23

This caught my eye immediately “ D Day Landings” which I’ve undertaken an extensive tour led by qualified battlefield guides. This succinct summary of the history of Kirkham Priory , its intricate stone carvings and its significance in the preparations for the largest military operation in June 1944 is well researched and presented. Thanks Tim

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