An extract from the film ‘Heaven With The Gates Open’
(Written and narrated by Nicholas de Rothschild)
As HMS Mastodon, (though she was also called HMS King Alfred and HMS Hawke at different times, and 'she', for all ships are traditionally called she), was responsible for the administration of victualling, arming and training of crews for the landing craft that were used in amphibious assaults against occupied Europe.
Mastodon was not of primary importance for the strategic planning of D-Day, being subordinate to HMS Vectis on the Isle of Wight. Rather it was a cog in the great scheme of things, but, as any watchmaker knows, without just one cog the watch will not work.
Of all the stories that came out of this period in Exbury’s rich history the most interesting must be that which was fictionalised by author Neville Shute who was often billeted at Mastodon. In his novel ‘Requiem For A Wren’, set in part at Exbury, his heroine, Janet Prentice, shoots down a German bomber and suffers from guilt after being told that the plane was filled with refugees trying to surrender. The truth was somewhat different but no less dramatic.
On a foggy April 18th 1944 at dawn in central France, seven young Germans climbed aboard a black-painted Junker 188E pathfinder bomber Z6EK and set out, in theory, for Holland. Four were crew, the other three, crammed into the cockpit and sitting on their compatriot’s laps, were ground support staff. It lost its way and crashed in flames in front of Exbury House or HMS Mastodon as it then was.
The Solent was filled with the invasion fleet for D-Day so security was tight. The action was recorded as starting at 7.24 am, the weather in England clear and balmy. The unidentified black aircraft suddenly appeared over the Isle of Wight, circling lazily as if lost. Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire, to which it responded by firing red Very Lights, often a signal of distress or submission.
The bomber continued slowly at no more than 1,000 feet crossing the whole Allied invasion fleet that was laid out in orderly ranks as far as the eye could see. The Nazis must have been astonished at the assembly of might below them, though their attention must have surely been focused on two RAF Typhoons that latched themselves onto their tail, pumping a stream of 20mm cannon lead into their cockpit and fuselage.
Wounded, but not fatally, the plane headed down the coast before turning back, Typhoons following, but cannon silent. They withdrew to a respectful distance to allow a Bofors gun in Lower Exbury marsh to have some real target practice, where the gunners managed to knock bits off the tail.
The stricken plane circled, engines roaring, it cleared Exbury House roof by only a few feet before bouncing on its belly across the Park and stopping, abruptly, nose down, in a bog beside a quiet country lane. This was at the same time as Leading Seaman Reginald ‘Tug’ Wilson was returning on his bicycle from seeing his newborn baby daughter for the first time. He saw, to his horror, this flaming monstrosity heading directly for him and had ‘to pedal like the devil’ to avoid the bomber’s massive engines as they came bowling through the hedge passing within a few feet of him.
By lunchtime the remains of the plane, which some eyewitnesses said had been reduced to being no more than two feet off the ground, had been picked up and removed on a low-loader to vanish completely from all records as if it had never existed. It is only with diligent research that the true story has come to light.
Author John Stanley has pieced together the events in The Exbury Junkers: A World War II Mystery the culmination of more than six years research.
“In the aftermath of the crash a number of questions arose,” he said. “Why had the Junkers flown alone, in broad daylight, directly to an area where preparations for D-Day were reaching a crescendo?
“Why had it circled low over the Isle of Wight? Why when it was under attack had it taken little defensive action and fired red Very lights?
"And, crucially, why were seven bodies found in the wreckage, when the bomber should have been carrying a crew of four?”
John has spoken to eyewitnesses, traced relatives of the Germans who died in the wreckage and examined official records. He has also explored the connection between the crashed aircraft and the author Nevil Shute, who adapted the incident for his novel Requiem for a Wren.
The Exbury Junkers, published by Woodfield Publishing contains more than 90 illustrations, and a forward written by Edmund de Rothschild. The book is for sale at the Exbury Gift Shop.