Droxford – the little village that loomed large in the D-Day story
World War 2 Supreme Allied Commander and US ex-President General Dwight D Eisenhower returned to his D-Day headquarters at Southwick House in 1963 to make a documentary for CBS, but before going there he attended a civic reception at The Guildhall hosted by Lord Mayor Harry Sotnick, which was where Tim King, former News defence correspondent, got an exclusive and revealing interview.
Priority sounded in the jangling of the phone in Charles Anderson’s office at Southampton Central Station.
When the assistant district traffic inspector answered it, a voice charged with urgency spoke from Deepdene, Southern Railway’s wartime HQ at Dorking.
“Expect a ‘special’ special train,” it said. Then it sought advice. “Where,” Anderson was asked, “can a train stand unobtrusively for some days with the protection of a cutting?”
Thirty five years’ encyclopaedic knowledge of the Southern Railway went into the answer.
“Droxford,” replied Anderson confidently ... and hung up on a significant contribution to World War II.
Droxford Station, one of five on the scenic Meon Valley line, handled seven or eight trains a day each way. More often than not they hauled loads of farm produce instead of passengers and rarely exceeded two carriages.
Friday, June 2, 1944, proved the exception.
That afternoon, eight carriages in immaculate LMS red livery hauled by a T9 4-4-0 Drummond engine, glided in.
Rumours, which had been circulating in the village swarming with troops, military police and plain clothes men, were now confirmed.
On to the flagstone platform stepped the bulky figure of Winston Churchill, wearing his baggy siren suit. He was followed by a dignified man in Army tropical kit: South African leader General Jan Smuts.
The train they had just got off was codenamed “Rugged” and it was the Prime Minister’s mobile headquarters in which he thundered around the nation’s defences – a Downing Street, Chequers and Whitehall bunker on wheels.
Forty eight hours, some of the most dramatic in the world’s history, started that day as the train was shunted into the up-siding at Droxford. There it lay, protected and snuggled against any unlikely Luftwaffe attacks in Anderson’s cutting.
Nine miles away at Southwick House, the greatest seaborne invasion was four days from being unleashed on the Normandy beaches.
Challenge to find historic photo
Nineteen years later in May 1963, I had just covered the weekly sitting of Droxford Magistrates’ Court.
After dispensing justice to the usual bunch of poachers and old lags, their worships repaired to the White Horse pub, where we chatted over a pint.
Discussion centred on the closure in 1962 of the Meon Valley line and Droxford’s rural station, victims of Dr Beeching’s axe.
“Here’s a challenge for you,” invited the bench chairman, “where’s the photo of the Allied leaders that used to hang in the waiting room?”
The scent of a good story was in the air.
At that time, villagers would proudly tell you the photo was taken on the platform when Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower and other allied leaders arrived on the Prime Minister’s wartime train to put the final touches to ‘Overlord’ – the D-Day invasion – and the decision to postpone it for 24 hours was taken there.
However, they were somewhat off-track as research later revealed and I discovered in an opportunist encounter that every reporter craves.
The photo disappeared after the station closed, so after questioning older villagers I tracked down signalman Reg Gould in the signal box at Botley.
Reg worked the necessary levers to let a couple of snorting diesels through and said: “They took it to Southampton with all the other gear when Droxford closed. That would be about May 4 last year.”
He knew a lot about the big wartime meeting. He also remembered the day early in the war when the Luftwaffe shot up the station.
“Shunting a freight train we were. He came over the trees and dropped a stick of bombs up the line. Didn’t do any damage though, except a few bullet holes in the station brickwork.”
At Southampton Central they told me Charles Anderson MBE had retired to Keyhaven and that’s where I found him.
He had the historic photo (now in the National Archives at Kew) which had been presented to him on retirement.
He kept it in his desk drawer
Amazingly, he kept it in his desk drawer, but he told me he had seen Eisenhower, Churchill and other leaders arrive on the train.
After overseeing the shunting of the train into the siding, Anderson was told to remain and take responsibility for its movements and safety. GPO engineers connected Churchill’s private phone to London.
Dignitaries came and went; Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin and the unmistakeable figure of General Charles De Gaulle.
He had been invited down from London and was furious at having to walk 450 yards to the siding where Churchill informed him France was about to be invaded. De Gaulle been kept in the dark until the last minute for fear of leaks across the Channel.
Behind all the activity lay the big question – why did Churchill journey to rustic Droxford to spend two days in a railway siding?
Various theories have been advanced, the most probable being that he wanted a bit of the action.
Churchill’s lust for conflict may have reached a point when he wanted to re-enact his charge into battle with the 21st Lancers at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898 ... on the bridge of a warship heading for Normandy, this time to ‘fight them on the beaches’.
Indeed, he had insisted on taking part and persuaded his close friend, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey – the C-in-C for the Channel operations and naval hero of Dunkirk – to take him on board HMS Belfast.
Ramsay arranged for Churchill to be picked up by the cruiser in Weymouth Bay as it headed to the assembly areas.
He would remain on board as the naval armada approached Normandy and Belfast bombarded Mont Fleury German battery overlooking Gold Beaches.
Churchill would make a beach landing if it was relatively safe – a propaganda coup that no doubt would have sent the still sleeping and not-to-be-disturbed Hitler into uncontrollable rage – and then return to the UK on a destroyer sailing back to Portsmouth to reararm.
Eisenhower was horrified and vetoed it. Montgomery declared:
“Why in hell doesn’t he go and smoke his cigar at Dover Castle and be seen with the Lord Mayor? It would fix the Germans’ attention to Calais.”
But how did you stop a man like Churchill getting his way?
The King steps in
King George VI’s private secretary, Anthony Lascelles, was tipped off and the Monarch used to dissuade the PM – eventually.
There was an exchange of letters from Droxford between Churchill and the King, who originally wanted to accompany his Prime Minister as he hadn’t seen action since Jutland when he served as a turret officer in the dreadnought HMS Collingwood.
Then, prompted by Anthony Lascelles, the King told Churchill they could be an embarrassment to those commanding the ships.
Churchill reluctantly backed down and decided to return to London, whereupon Charles Anderson had his train shunted to the main line and routed it to follow the 6.50pm from Portsmouth to Waterloo.
And Droxford returned to its bucolic obscurity.
So did Churchill, Eisenhower and their allies take any momentous decisions on the train?
It was a common misconception. Considering the area was teeming with troops, Anderson may have mistaken from a distance one of numerous American bemedalled senior officers for Eisenhower.
It was many years later, after wartime papers became available, that the former Supremo’s visit was questioned.
Railway buffs have since closely scrutinised a section of canopy in the photograph, some concluding it was more likely taken at Ascot on May 12 where Eisenhower joined Churchill for dinner on the train after earlier inspecting troops at Lydd.
Unfortunately, there’s now no way of telling as the island platform at Ascot where they would have alighted burnt down
That information was unavailable to me when Ike arrived in Portsmouth to a tumultuous welcome in Guildhall Square on August 6, 1963.
Security would never allow it today, but I simply followed him and Lord Mayor Harry Sotnick up the Guildhall steps.
The reception was in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour and as I walked along the corridor, I glanced into an ante-room and there, all alone enjoying a cigarette, stood the ex-President.
“Carpe diem, King,” I muttered excitedly, strode in, introduced myself and for the next 5 minutes I had Ike to myself.
He told me he’d just moved from Kingston to establish his advanced HQ at Southwick House on June 2, but at that time I had no reason to question whether he had arrived on Churchill’s train.
So I asked him: “Was it at Southwick or in the famous Churchill train at Droxford where you made the decision to postpone D-Day?”
He replied: “Right there at Southwick, early on the 4th.”
He also told me: “Some of us camped in the woods. I had a caravan but unlike Monty’s it has not been traced.
“I often went there after the invasion. I think we moved across to France about 5 or 6 weeks later.”
I followed Ike into the reception where joy turned to ecstasy at the expression on the face of a rival reporter who’d been happily partaking of the Lord Mayor’s wine and vols au vents while I scooped him in the room next door.