IT is exactly 75 years since the deadliest day of the Durham Light Infantry’s Normandy campaign: nearly 250 men either killed, wounded or captured in a 90-minute battle.

After landing at about 9am on Gold beach on D-Day, the 9th Battalion had made it around Bayeux – the first major town captured by the Allies but more famous for its tapestry depicting another war – and were about seven miles inland approaching the village of Lingevres.

They were also approaching the Germans’ elite tank division, the Panzer Lehr.

HMS Orion had first bombarded Lingevres on June 10. On June 11, the Essex Regiment had gone in, supported by tanks, but the Germans armed with flamethrowers and assisted by Messerchmitts overhead had fought viciously and on June 12, the Essex Regiment had withdrawn having lost 150 men.

On June 13, the DLI was ordered forward, supported by Sherman tanks and preceded by an awe-inspiring bombardment.

They didn’t know, though, that the Germans had attached strings to the triggers of their machine guns and were hiding in their deep foxholes. A pull on the string unleashed a fusillade while they were fairly safely out of sight.

Our DLI D-Day diarist, Sgt Charles Eagles, takes up a truly amazing story…

Part 4: The Battle of Lingevres

THE cornfield was triangular, and we were to advance through it towards the apex where there was a wood that we had to capture. The old stone white church of Lingevres was on our right along with A Company; to our left was B Company as the field fell away slightly to a tree-lined beck.

I was in the middle in one of two personnel carriers – vehicles that had been detailed to act as bodyguards for Colonel Humphrey Woods, the commanding officer of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. He was 28, from Hertfordshire, decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and a Military Cross from his time in the desert, and popular with the men. He was in a third carrier to my right.

From behind us, our 25-pounder guns opened up and directed a sustained barrage at the wood; overhead roared the US Typhoon planes, each releasing two bombs and ten rockets, straddling and plastering the wood. It literally danced in front of the eyes, and it was impossible – absolutely impossible – that anything could have survived within it.

Then there was silence, about seven or so minutes of it, as the Durham Light Infantry pushed through the field towards the wood. The men were well spread out, rifles at port position (ready in front of them like on the end sequence of Dad's Army), wading through the waist-high corn. It was a First World War advance.

Beside me was Lieutenant Jack Williams who was the one I looked up to. He was born in Brandon, County Durham, and now lived in Spennymoor where his father was a miner. In fact, his father had been in the DLI during the First World War. He'd been gassed at Ypres and had lost a leg.

Suddenly, about 500 yards up the cornfield, all hell broke loose. A German tank in the left side of the wood opened up without warning, followed by another to the right. Withering Spandau (machine gun) fire shot across the cornfield. The gunfire was so intense that it cut the corn like a scythe, and men were falling with it, left, right and centre of me.

It was a First World War massacre.

I jumped out of my personnel carrier and ran alongside it. Jack asked me what I was doing. I wasn't sure; I just felt uneasy. He followed me out, and a minute or so later the carriers were hit by mortar fire. Our driver, a young ginger-headed lad who I think was Private Arthur Mortimer (from Middlesex), was in a terrible state. Dead. Killed instantly.

We ran over to the second carrier and pulled a corporal clear. He was screaming in agony because his leg and arm had been blown off.

There were dead and dying all around us, and gruesome screams filled the air, competing with dreadful sound of gunfire. Jack screamed at me "this way" and he dashed over to Col Woods' carrier.

The Colonel looked towards Jack and shouted an order at him. Jack then turned and starting running towards me. As he came closer, he started to stagger in slow motion, getting lower and lower in the corn until he sprawled at my feet, blood pouring from his thighs.

"Take a look, Eagles, " he gasped. "If they've shot my balls off, shoot me."

I pretended to look and said: "You're okay."

Somehow, I managed to get him up and across my shoulders and – how, I'll never understand – I carried him 50 yards – maybe 150 yards, I don't know – across the field until I spotted a medic. I dropped Jack at his feet like a sack.

As the medic began to attend to his injuries, Jack managed to say to me: "I'm okay, laddie. Get yourself back." Then he passed out.

This, though, was just the start of his extraordinary escape. When they got him back to a mobile surgical hospital, they found that he had received a gunshot wound to the right hip.

A bullet had passed through his left shinbone and another had hit him just above his left knee, shattering about an inch-and-a-half of bone. So serious were his injuries, that they decided to amputate his left leg – the same fate as had befallen his father in the First World War.

They completed the paperwork and he was moved to a surgeon's table. But then the field hospital was flooded with casualties demanding immediate attention. Jack's wounds were dressed and he was forgotten about, eventually ending up back in Spennymoor with both his legs intact. His medical records, though, said otherwise, and he had a hell of a job when he came to rejoin his unit, persuading them that this two-legged man standing before them was the one-legged chap that the paperwork told them to expect.

As I made my way back to my section, bodies were lying everywhere. Some still had life in them. Some men pleaded silently as they lay helpless and in pain – these awful sights and sounds have never left me.

What remained of my section had re-grouped in the apex of a cornfield. Col Woods ordered us forwards and we scrambled through a hedgerow – and spotted the turret of a Tiger tank trying to hide in a copse.

We scattered, throwing ourselves behind anything.

Except the colonel. He stood still, taking in the situation and then issuing an order: "Get that tank!"

I couldn't believe it. I may even have laughed. It was an impossible task. It would have been sheer suicide. It is one thing to be brave; quite another to be foolish.

Some mortar shells landed between us and I threw myself into undergrowth. When I looked again, I saw the colonel was down. He spoke his last words: "Surely they haven't hit me!"

They had. And how. He was virtually cut in half. He was 28.

I stood up. The dust had settled. The Tiger tank had gone. Things were quiet. But what a sight. I don't have the words to describe the horror, to describe the dreadful, ghastly, gruesome scene.

Bodies were scattered everywhere, one or two of them gently moaning.

I noticed a handful of Durhams – I recognised only one of them, Corporal "Woodie" Wood – alive. They were sitting, filthy, by a trackside. "That Tiger's got a nasty spit, " said one.

"It wasn't the Tiger, " I said. "It was too close. Those were mortars."

We moved down the track about 50 yards towards a farmhouse and spotted five or six of our lads lying as if they were observing ahead. Woodie crept over to them.

He soon came running back, panting as he gabbled: "They're all dead, sarge."

In the 90-minute battle beneath Lingevres’ stone white, the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry had lost its commanding officer and 31 of its men. At the aid posts and in the field hospitals there lay another 248 wounded.

It seemed as if just four of us had survived. We lay – shellshocked – trying to figure out what the hell we should do next.

Then I heard a little, polite, cough. "Ahem. Ahem." It was a German major, with a dozen or so German soldiers, standing almost on top of me. "Throw down your weapons. You are surrounded, " he said in perfect English. We were being taken prisoner…

L You cannot afford to miss Part 5 of the diary next week – it is unbelievable! Without giving too much away, Sgt Eagles survived the war, and set up a well-known photographic business with branches in Sunderland and Durham. He died earlier this year at the age of 94.