In the back of the Jeep the man’s head slumped on her shoulder. She put her arms around him and he broke into fits of uncontrollable sobbing.
It was early June and the pair had just hosted a party. He was escorting her back to her digs in Winchester.
Stella Rutter had a pretty good idea why the man in uniform had broken down, but she was sworn to secrecy and it would be another 60 years before she ever mentioned it again.
The emotional officer was Major General Douglas Graham and 72 hours later he would lead more than 25,000 men into battle on D-Day.
He was the commander of the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division which stormed ashore and secured the beach codenamed Gold. It was the beach on which the 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment also won its D-Day honours.
Stella was 20 and had been asked to co-host the party thrown by General Graham for more than 60 of the most senior British and American military commanders taking part in Operation Overlord.
They included General Omar Bradley, who, from the Normandy landings to the end of the war in Europe, commanded all US ground forces invading Germany from the west. He ultimately commanded 43 divisions and 1.3 million men, the largest body of American soldiers ever to serve under a US field commander.
Stella’s presence had been requested by Montgomery and Eisenhower because she had proved her trustworthiness.
As a result, she was placed on the Bigot list, which stood for British Invasion of German Occupied Territory, and which kept track of the select few who knew of the impending landings.
Stella, now a sharp-as-a-pin 89-year-old, might not have spoken about the events of the night of June 3, 1944, but she kept meticulous notes and diaries of her remarkable early life. Today they are stored fastidiously in cabinets in the bedroom of her flat at Emsworth House Close, Emsworth, and have formed the basis of her autobiography.
Her home today is not far from where she was born at Fourth Avenue, Denvilles. Her family moved later to Bedhampton Hill, Bedhampton.
At that party in a sunken Nissen hut in the extensive grounds of Hursley Park, near Winchester, Stella learned the names of regiments and commanders and even codenames of the Normandy beaches which would be the turning point to end the Second World War.
But what was she doing there? She was the only woman in the drawing office of Vickers Supermarine updating the designs of Spitfires. The office was also in the grounds of Hursley Park. She was so highly regarded that her bosses felt they could trust her to put the officers at ease just three days before the invasion of northern France.
She says: ‘It was very traumatic because the chances of those men coming back alive were very slim.
‘That is why I was asked to calm their nerves on the orders of General Montgomery himself.
‘Each officer had to spend between 10 and 30 minutes chatting to me about everything except the war and I was very good at it.
‘The important thing was to get them to relax, eat and drink – the tables were groaning with delicious food: ice cream, cream and even bananas. You could tell the Americans were here.’
When she was 17 her father Charles Broughton, the vice-principal of the Portsmouth College of Art, recommended her to the head of the Experimental Drawing Office of HMS Excellent at Whale Island, Portsmouth.
The war had just started and Stella, who had excelled as a pupil at the same college, was snapped up for her artistic ability and engineering knowledge, assisted in the Royal Navy’s war effort.
But after a year she was head-hunted by Supermarine and moved to the drawing office at Hursley Park where she became the UK’s first female draughtswoman working on the Spitfire and other aircraft. At first she was not even allowed to work in the same room as the 200 men.
‘In those days women did the tracing and men did the drawing and never the twain did meet.
‘But because of my particular education not only in engineering but also in architecture I was seen as part of the team. But, I was actually doing secret work that not even my bosses knew about.’
So, with just a few hours’ notice Stella was asked by General Graham to co-host that party.
She recalls: ‘I was horrified because all my evening dresses were home back at Bedhampton.
‘He assured me it would not be a formal affair so I told him I had a gold-coloured dress and would that do?
‘For a moment he looked horrified, but then he said in a very quiet and controlled voice ‘‘That would be most suitable’’.’ It was the use of the top secret word ‘gold’ which had worried the general so much.
Stella says the party went so well that General Graham insisted on escorting her back to her digs. They sat in the back of his Jeep.
Stella adds: ‘He asked me if I would mind if he put his arms around me. I realised he was desperately fighting for control and needed the close human contact.
‘As his arms came around me his head dropped on to my shoulder. His whole body was shaking. He was sobbing and he held me as though he was clutching for dear life on to a lifebelt in the sea and I was his anchor.
‘For a moment I was shattered to feel the depth of the emotional outburst from this man who had in his command the lives of thousands of men.’
Stella’s autobiography Who Goes Where? is available from her for £9.99 plus £2 postage by sending a cheque to her at 31 Furlonge House, Emsworth House Close, Emsworth, Hants, PO10 7JR.
Hursley House is an 18th century Queen Anne-style mansion near Winchester.
During the First World War the second floor was used as a hospital for officers.
In the Second World War it was again intended to be used as a military hospital, but was requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to rehouse the Design and Production departments of Vickers Supermarine, which had been bombed out of its premises at Woolston, Southampton.
Apart from the Spitfire, Supermarine worked on the development of many aircraft including early jet fighters like the Attacker, Swift and Scimitar.
In 1958, IBM started using the house and its grounds as development laboratories before buying the 100 acres of grounds surrounding the house.