Exbury House and Gardens and other nearby properties such as Inchmery House – played a vital role in the run-up to D-Day.

Lionel de Rothschild purchased the Exbury Estate at the end of the First World War and created a Woodland Garden, unequalled in the world.

Lionel died in January 1942 at which point Exbury House was requisitioned as the naval stone frigate ‘HMS Mastodon’. Over 1000 naval personnel were stationed there in ranks of Nissen huts which were built right across the site.

King George VI and Winston Churchill were among the many visitors during the build up to D-Day.

The author Nevil Shute was a war correspondent sent to Mastodon to record an event that took place on April 18, 1944, and which was later fictionalised in his novel Requiem for a Wren.

In the novel, Shute paints a vivid picture of life at Exbury close to D-Day, and notes that you could walk across the Beaulieu River without getting your feet wet, such were the concentration of Tank Landing Craft.

His wonderful description of the gardens helps set the scene:

“That evening the two girls wandered around with mixed feelings, bemoaning the fate that had landed them into a place where there was nothing operational going on and which was ten miles from the nearest movie.

"At the same time, they were forced to realise that the Navy had sent them to one of the most lovely country houses in England.

"It was a stone-built, fairly modern country house in the grand style, with a flagstaff flying a white ensign on the lawn in front of it.

"All afternoon the girls wandered up and down the woodland paths between thickets of rhododendrons in bloom, each with a label, with water piped underneath each woodland path projecting in stopcocks here and there for watering the specimens.

"They found streams and pools, with ferns and water lilies carefully preserved and tended. They found a rock garden half as large as Trafalgar Square that was a mass of bloom; they found cedars and smooth grassy lawns.

"They found long ranges of greenhouses, and they learned with awe that the staff of gardeners had been reduced from fifty to a mere eighteen old men.

"And finally, wandering entranced through the carefully tended woods, they found the Beaulieu River running up between the trees, still tidal. The path ended in a private pier with a hut and a small dwelling house at the shore end.”

Requiem for a Wren’s 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 18, 1944, at dawn in central France, seven young Germans climbed aboard a Junker 188E pathfinder bomber 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.

Had the plane returned to Germany, with photographs of the invasion fleet in the Solent, then history may well have been different.

The allies were planning to trick Hitler into thinking the invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais - a deception strategy codenamed Operation Fortitude.

Nearby Inchmery House was also occupied in the Second World War, housing agents specialising in sabotage and subversive activities for operations behind D-Day bridgeheads. Sections of the Mulberry Harbour – vital for the success of D-Day - were constructed at Lepe.

Exbury was first opened to the public in 1955 when the Navy returned Exbury House to the Rothschild family.

Today visitors can pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign at the Arromanches Plaque at the southern end of the Gardens, set in a peaceful location overlooking the banks of the Beaulieu River.

Written by Nigel Philpott of SeeSouthampton.co.uk