Durhams’ D-Day diary: continuing the amazing events of 75 years ago as he recorded by Sgt Charles Eagles of the Durham Light Infantry

Part 5: Prisoners

WE were in a hole, a sticky situation, a tight spot. The 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry had progressed about 13 miles inland from Gold Beach where it had landed on D-Day eight days earlier. But it had just been massacred in a cornfield below the church of Lingevres.

There were 226 men and 22 officers who were casualties; 32 of them, including the commanding officer, were dead. This battle had lasted about 90 minutes.

Four of us who had somehow survived lay beside a farm track not knowing which way to turn for the best. Our deliberations were interrupted by a polite cough – "ahem, ahem" – and we looked up to see a German major, with a dozen German troops, staring down at us.

"Throw down your weapons. You are surrounded, " he said in perfect English.

We didn't argue. They didn't search us but took us on an amiable amble a mile or so to their camp. Their officer, who'd been educated at either Cambridge or Oxford before the war, asked which of us was senior rank, and I produced my sergeant's stripes from my pocket – Normandy, with its close fields and tight hedgerows, was perfect sniper territory and they deliberately targeted officers with binoculars round their necks and stripes on their arms.

He laughed. "You must be the youngest sergeant in the British Army." I was nineteen-and-a-half.

Later, the major offered me, with apologies, a mug of revolting coffee, and said they couldn't send us back because they had no transport and Red Cross vehicles were being strafed by the Americans.

We got chatting, passing around sweets and tobacco. It was funny, considering that a few hours earlier we had been employing the most vicious weaponry in our desperation to kill each other. Half-a-dozen Typhoon planes roared overhead, dropping their usual load of two bombs and ten rockets each. The major reminisced about the delights of Scotch whisky and English pubs.

At dusk, we lay in a ditch with warm mugs of coffee, surrounded by our new German friends and slowly dozing off. Cat-napping, stirred by the slightest noise, had become a way of life. At times I thought it was a dream and I'd soon wake up.

We awoke the next morning, June 15, 1944, and it was bright and sunny.

More Typhoons flew overhead. We could hear the Germans' artillery fire as they tried to bring our planes down; then we heard our planes drop our bombs on their lines. A plume of thick, black smoke rose in the distance. It was probably a German stronghold near the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles. It was all very alarming.

The German major beckoned me over. He'd been out during the night on a recce. "Things are grim," he said in his well-spoken English. "We are cut off. There is no way we can take or send you to Germany."

A weak smile passed over his face. "In fact, " he said, "I'd like to suggest that we surrender to you."

My face must have been a picture as he said he was speaking on behalf of the three platoons in his charge, dug into those woods. That's about 100 men surrendering to the four of us.

The tables were turned.

But now it was my problem to get my prisoners back behind my lines. If 100 Germans approached out of nowhere through no-man’s land, after yesterday's massacre at Lingevres, our boys were bound to become jumpy – and shoot the lot of us.

And, if we led the Germans in, did we really trust our enemies behind us? "They could bloody shoot us in the backs when we get down the road, " whispered Corporal "Woodie" Wood.

We resolved that the safest way was if I and the German major took the lead, followed two or three yards behind by Woodie and the Panzer tank commander who would then be followed by our private and a German corporal. We'd leave the rest of the Germans – the other 97 or so of them – dug safely in their wood until we could come back for them.

I still wasn't too happy with the plan, and the German major read my mind.

"Perhaps if I give you my pistol, " he said, "that would show my intentions are honourable."

As he handed it over, I think we all found this surrender rather embarrassing.

I tucked the pistol between my belt and tunic top (how I wish I had kept it, but I later swapped it with a Canadian for some cigarettes – and I've never smoked), and he held out his hand.

I cannot recall precisely what he said, but it was something like: "I wish you luck that you may come through this conflict unharmed."

With that, in formation, we set off down a track to a minor road and headed for the nearest village. It was probably only half-a-mile, but it seemed like ten. It was a harrowing journey, me side-by-side with a German major and sporadic firing in the distance.

We came to a crossroads where the British were dug in. I could see them in their slit trench, a light machine gun resting on top of it and pointing straight at us. My heart was pounding as they spotted us and lined up their Bren guns on us.

We continued walking steadily, no sudden movements, but hoping against hope that they'd spot our light-coloured flag – it was supposed to be a white flag of surrender but all we could find between us was a dirty vest.

"Hold your fire, " I bellowed. "Make way for the Durhams."

A thick Scottish voice yelled back: "You could be bloody Germans."

Woodie fired back: "Don't be so bloody daft, Jock."

"Get an officer down here now," I shouted, getting more and more concerned as these lads were rather wild-eyed and may well have discovered a bottle of the local tipple, Calvados.

Fortunately, a lieutenant appeared. I told him our story and the German major confirmed it. It was agreed that Woodie and I would return with four men and bring back the rest of the Panzer men.

Before I left, I walked over to the major and said: "I am sure you will be treated with respect for the way you have treated my men." I unashamedly gave him a salute out of utter respect.

As I walked passed the Panzer corporal, I squeezed his arm and nodded. "Good luck, " I said. He smiled.

We retraced our steps and were astonished to find the Panzer Lehr men, three platoons of Germany's crack troops, ready assembled. God! When I saw how many there were, I nearly died. I hadn't even got a rifle – and neither had Woodie.

He led this long line of 100 or so Germans towards captivity and I brought up the rear. Everything went like clockwork. Most seemed pleased that it was all over for them and they were still alive.

The whole operation took one-and-a-half hours. We reached the British lines and stopped, and our prisoners just carried on walking into captivity. It was extraordinary.

As they disappeared, Woodie and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Four members of the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, without a rifle or even a knife or fork between them, had taken prisoner 100 armed Germans!

Sgt Charles Eagles, who in later life became renowned for his photography shops in Durham and Sunderland, died earlier this year aged 94. He wrote his diary, which has been adapted by Chris Lloyd, for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004. We are following his extraordinary war in his own words for the next month