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The history of Headley Heath

A path through green leafy woodland at Headley Heath in Surrey
Take a walk through the woodland at Headley Heath | © National Trust Images/Juliet D'Costa

Before becoming the wildlife and walking haven you can enjoy today, Headley Heath in Surrey has seen many uses over the centuries. Discover Headley Heath's history, from common land and grazing animals to hosting Second World War military training and operations, including launching a Nazi assassination.

Headley long ago

The name Headley, ‘Hallega’ in old English, means a clearing with heather. There are three villages named Headley in southeast England and they’re all in acid heath areas, perfect conditions for heathers.

Headley can trace its origins back many years. It was part of the Copthorne Hundred, an administrative division devised by the Saxons.

The Manor of Headley is listed in the Domesday Survey of 1086 and it was held by Ralph of Felgeres. Previously, the manor was held by Countess Goda (the mother of King Harold) and it was granted to her by King Edward the Confessor.

At this time the heath would have been used for grazing animals and collecting furze, bracken and firewood by the villagers.

The 18th century

In the 18th century Headley was part of Ashtead Park Estate. Manors were bought and sold then as today but then the lord of the manor was much more powerful.

The lord granted Rights of Common to his tenants which gave them the right to use the land to graze animals, collect wood and furze and even, in some cases, fishing rights. At Headley, as in many other places, the majority of these ancient rights were taken away by the 1965 Commons Registration Act. However, at Headley one cottage still has the right to graze geese on Headley Heath.

The ownership of Headley Manor passed from Ashtead Park Estate to the High Ashurst Estate and remained with them until just after the First World War, when it was sold to the Crookenden family of Headley.

The Second World War on Headley Heath

During the Second World War, Headley Heath was used by the Canadian Army as a training ground, firstly as defence against the threat of German invasion and later, in preparation for D-Day and liberating occupied Europe.

From late 1939, the Canadian 1st Division and associated units (around 23,000 all ranks) arrived in the south of England. In the aftermath of the fall of France, a new Anglo-Canadian 7th Corps was formed to help defend Britain from an expected German invasion. The Corps headquarters were at Headley Court.

Divisional Headquarters were established at Headley Court, later the Headquarters of 1st Canadian Corps (a combination of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions). Headley Court served as the senior Canadian field headquarters throughout almost the entire period until the First Canadian Army moved to France in 1944.

Engineers learnt to build trench systems (using earth-moving equipment), gun emplacements, roads and even a runway. Other training on the Heath included aircraft recognition, gas attack drills and use of a shooting range at High Ashurst.

When you visit Headley today, you'll probably walk on one of the many paths created by Canadian soldiers. You'll also see evidence of their activities in the number of lumps and bumps all over the heath.

Wellington and Hampden aircraft crashes

In the early hours of 3 September 1941 two Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft returning from missions to attack Frankfurt crashed in the vicinity of Headley, only 30 minutes apart.

Vickers Wellington Z8851 - 150 Squadron RAF was crewed by Pilot Sergeant Dickinson (or Dickenson) and Sergeants Bright, Clark, Eivers, Hatch & Roberts.

On their return journey from Frankfurt, the Wellington’s port (left) engine seized and shed its airscrew. The starboard (right) engine was failing, forcing the crew to make a crash landing on Headley Heath at 2.15am, coming to rest not far from the area that's now the Brimmer car park, with all crew surviving the crash landing.

Handley Page Hampden AD913 - 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF was crewed by Pilot Sergeant Knight and Sergeants Churchill, Spanner and Stevens.

Having just released their bombload, their port engine cut out – the result of anti-aircraft fire, leaving them to return to base on a single engine. When they neared Dorking, their remaining engine failed due to shortage of fuel, pitching the aircraft into a dive from only 5,000 ft.

The crew scrambled to escape and parachute into the night sky. Tragically, Sergeant Stevens was unable to clear the aircraft and his body was found near the wreckage of the aircraft, which had crashed near the Canadian Headquarters at Headley Court at 2.45am.

Sergeant James Stevens (751652) of the RAF Volunteer Reserve was laid to rest in his home town of Eastbourne (Plot U.A. Grave 41, Eastbourne Ocklynge Cemetery).

A bench with the inscription 'Friends of Headley Heath' under a Silver Birch tree
A 'Friends of Headley Heath' beach under a Silver Birch tree | © National Trust Images/Gary Cosham

Bellasis House and the Nazi assassination

On the southwest boundary of the Heath, Bellasis House (now a private home) was a training centre for SOE (Special Operations Executive) operatives preparing for missions across occupied Europe. They ranged from anti-Nazi prisoners of war, to trainee secret agents drawn from several nations.

The SOE agents for whom Bellasis is chiefly remembered were the two members of Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. In early November 1941, Warrant Officers Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš of the Czechoslovak army-in-exile, came to Bellasis for six weeks of ‘continuation and skill enhancement’ instruction after extensive training elsewhere by SOE.

Gabčik and Kubiš parachuted into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the night of 28/29 December 1941. On 27 May 1942, they carried out their attack as Heydrich was being driven into Prague. Heydrich died in hospital from infected wounds on 4 June 1942.

On 18 June 1942 Gabčik and Kubiš, together with five other Czechoslovak parachutists trained by SOE, were cornered and besieged by overwhelming enemy forces in the Saint Karel Boromeo church, now the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, in Prague. Neither man survived the attack.


From June 1944, prisoners of war from the German forces who claimed to be anti-Nazi, including Austrians, Poles and Russians, as well as Germans, were interrogated at Bellasis to determine whether they might be suitable for training to be inserted as agents behind German lines and in Germany itself.

These men were codenamed BONZOS. Austrian BONZOs who were screened at Bellasis were dropped into Austria in 1945 in order to secure a large collection of Nazi-looted art treasures and its subsequent rescue by an Allied mission.

Looking after Headley

After the war, films were shot on the heath, including Albert R.N.

In 1946 Mr and Mrs Crookenden gave the Lordship of the Manor of Headley, which includes the heath and many small plots of land round Headley (the Manor Waste), to the National Trust.

In 1956 devastating fires burnt half of the heathland. In the 1970s the Aspen, Bellamoss and Brown ponds were created.

In the early days a local committee was formed to manage the heath and raise funds for its maintenance. The heath was very run down when the War Office derequisitioned it in 1948. Today the Friends of Headley Heath continue to raise funds, and we work together to protect this beautiful area for all to enjoy.

Some text and photos, with thanks - The Secret WW2 Learning Network

A bench with the inscription 'Friends of Headley Heath' under a Silver Birch tree

Discover more at Headley Heath

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