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The wealthy banker Lionel de Rothschild bought the Exbury Estate, in Hampshire, in 1919. In 1922, work began on creating what is now a 200 acre garden, internationally famous for its rhododendrons, azaleas, rare trees and shrubs. Exbury Gardens are open to the public, nestle on the eastern edge of the Beaulieu River in the New Forest National Park and are just wonderful for wandering idly through on a spring day.
In 2001, a 12¼ inch narrow gauge steam railway opened on the site, which offers a relaxed tour amongst the foliage. This was a dream of Leopold de Rothschild, who wasn’t allowed an electric train set as a child…see what happens, when one deprives youngsters? The station is modelled on the one in Aviemore, in the Scottish Highlands.
The wisteria-clad Exbury House is not open to the public, but, re-named HMS Mastodon during World War Two, had a role as part of the administrative network supporting D-Day, the invasion of occupied France.
On 18th April 1944, a black Junkers 188E German bomber appeared flying a meandering course, low over the nearby Isle of Wight. Naturally, it came under fierce attack from anti-aircraft batteries. Curiously, the pilot took no evasive action and the only thing that dropped from the bomber was a number of red flares. Eventually, the aeroplane flew over to the mainland in the Beaulieu area, where two RAF Typhoons pounced on it, shooting it to pieces. Given that this corner of southern England was where part of the invasion force was being assembled, security was understandably tight; no enemy aircraft would be allowed home with revealing photographs of landing craft, or intelligence of any kind. The Junkers was finished off by more AA fire, before crash-landing close to Exbury House. The Junkers 88 had a crew of four; but this one was carrying seven young Luftwaffe NCOs, three of whom must have been sitting on their comrades’ knees. All seven perished – one made it just as far as the hospital, saying nothing before he died. The mystery is the subject of a book, The Exbury Junkers by John Stanley. He spent six years meticulously researching the story, though I don’t know whether he found the conclusive answer to the puzzle of what these young men were up to. They certainly weren’t trying to hurt anyone. If they were engaged in espionage, it was a pretty clumsy effort. Were they lost? Were they trying to defect to Britain?
The story inspired the Nevil Shute novel, Requiem for a Wren. Shute was based at Mastodon and came across the aircraft shortly after it was brought down. This curious enigma stayed with him, and he wove it into a work of fiction, one of Shute’s bleaker works.