To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, we start the serialisation of a D-Day diary written by a sergeant in the Durham Light Infantry

D-DAY on June 6, 1944, saw the largest seaborne invasion in history, when in the course of one day, 160,000 troops landed on the western coast of German-occupied France. The idea was to drive the Nazis eastwards out of France and then, eventually, defeat them in Germany. It was a crazily ambitious plan, which began at about midday when 24,000 airborne troops were dropped into the Normandy countryside. Then bombardment from the air and from the sea began in the hope of destroyed German coastal defence. Finally, at 6.30am, the first landings began as the tide came in along a 50 mile stretch of beaches, with the tens of thousands of men disgorging from 6,936 vessels.

Those who landed on the beaches first bore the brunt of the resistance, and that included men in our local regiments, the Durham Light Infantry and the Green Howards who began to land on Gold beach at about 7.25am.

By the end of the day, the invaders had suffered 10,000 casualties, with 4,414 dead; the Germans lost about 1,000. None of the Allied objectives had been achieved – but they had established a toehold from which they turned the war. By the end of June 1944, 875,000 men had landed on the Normandy beaches and were chasing after the retreating enemy.

Today, 75 years on, there are hardly any people still alive who can say “I was there” on D-Day, but in 2004, The Northern Echo was privileged to serialise the diary of a sergeant in the Durham Light Infantry who had landed on the beaches that morning. He fought his way off them for six weeks until being badly injured by a mine. He told an extraordinary story of bloody battle, terrible injury, kill-or-be-killed action and the amazing capture of about 100 German prisoners without firing a shot.

He was Charles Eagles, who died earlier this year aged 94 – which in itself was a tribute to his capacity for survival as after he'd been blown up, a medic at Dryburn Hospital told him that such were his injuries he would be wheelchair bound by the time he was 40.

While convalescing, Charles met Irene, from Meadowfield, whom he married, and she supported him as he established his well known photography business, which had branches in Sunderland and Durham. She died in 1982 never having known the story of his war.

His second wife Lyn, whom he married in 1991, persuaded him to put something down on paper, and the arrival of his grandchildren helped focus his mind.

Part of that process was making his first return to the beaches in 2004 for the 60th anniversary. He was 79, still on his feet, but finding mobility increasingly difficult. Charles gave The Northern Echo a draft of his diary, and we shall be re-running over the next week, starting today with the build-up to D-Day. It is an amazing story in its detail, its humour and its remarkable events, and it is authentic – told by one who was there on the beaches 75 years ago.

Part 1: In the boats

IF I remember rightly, it was quite breezy on June 1 and 2, 1944. There was quite a bit of horsing around, with grown men acting like kids, lots of high-pitched laughter that didn't seem real – it was all to cover up our nervousness.

We'd been told that the invasion was imminent and had rushed off to pack our kits and write our last letters home. I was in the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, although I originally come from Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Staffordshire.

It's a long story. In 1943, aged 18, I joined the Commandos, but I fell down a cliff while training in Scotland and was sent to hospital. When I recovered, the adjutant asked me where I came from, I said Newcastle, thinking there was only one. And they sent me "home" to another one – Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

So instead of joining my local regiment, the North Staffordshire, I ended up in my new local regiment, the DLI. I was posted down to the 9th Battalion's training camp at Saffron Walden, in Essex, on February 12.

We spent a couple of months building up our fitness – on one occasion, in conjunction with some Yanks, we covered 105 miles in six days wearing Army kit and heavy boots and carrying our rifles.

We started at Boston, in Lincolnshire, and ended in Hull and in between managed to "capture" five villages.

I had gone on an explosives course to learn how to deal with mines and booby traps and to earn 6d a day extra. It meant I was in S Company.

"Does S stand for stupid, sir?" I asked Lieutenant Jack Williams, tongue-in-cheek.

"No, it bloody doesn't," he roared back. "It's superior, special, and it's elite."

I liked Jack Williams. He was a miner from Brandon, County Durham, and like me, a keen boxer. I would go to hell and back with him, which was a good thing because, as it turned out, he took me there and I carried him back.

Because I was in S Company, I had to carry a large pack containing detonators, gun cotton, fuse cotton, rope, string and a pair of wire cutters. All in all, I had about 100lbs on my back which, with hindsight, was a ridiculous amount to try to carry.

But, as we were crammed into the hold of an American ship like sardines with just enough room to lie down, we were keen to get on and fight.

Yet the weather wouldn't let us. We were told that, because of it, the invasion was postponed and we would have to stick it out onboard for another day.

Little gambling schools formed all over and we took turns to go on deck for fresh air. Some men wanted to talk, others just played cards; some oiled their rifles, others sat poker-faced - they were the ones that had already seen action. One soldier was on the brink of tears, repeatedly opening his wallet and looking at his pictures of his wife and children.

The heat in the hold was dreadful and the smell was awful, the rations were boring and the lads were getting grumpy.

Then, on the night of June 5, Lt Williams came down and excitedly told us the invasion was on, and that we would sail that night. He gave us instructions, landmarks to recognise and told us to put on our waders that came up to our necks about an hour before we were to land.

The lads cheered up; at last something was happening. In fact, it was an amazing turnaround. The men were keyed up and raring to go, the American sailors were cracking jokes and a cheer went up as we set off.

Yet to me inside the hold, the sea seemed deadly quiet.

It was an echo of ourselves; calm on the outside but deep and unfathomable feelings on the inside.

There was a quiet buzz of conversation and louder murmurs from the gambling schools. A few tried to get some shut-eye, but every now and then someone would step over you to visit the toilets on deck.

I went up and was amazed at what I saw. Thousands of boats of all descriptions had amassed around us – but all I could see in the night light was their silhouettes. Hundreds, thousands of ghostly vessels all sailing in the same direction.

As I scrambled back down, I thought to myself: "If we get a direct hit, we won't have a cat in hell's chance of getting out of the hold."

I offered up a silent prayer to my guardian angel. Because I never knew my father, I developed a close relationship with the man my mother worked for. He built a little truck for me to push round delivering things, and when he died, I believe he came to look over me.

I crossed my fingers and thought: "Look after your little friend, Tom Kerry."

How Sgt Charles Eagles landed with the DLI on D-Day will be told on Thursday morning, the exact 75th anniversary