DURING the Second World War 12,000 soldiers were awarded a Military Cross for bravery. Several hundred received two such awards; only 24 received three.

One of those 24 was Major Ian English of the 8th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, whose second award came in the days after D-Day.

The battalion had gone to France in 1939 then back to England in the boats from Dunkirk. No rest, out to the Middle East, through Palestine and Iraq, but then withdrawn. Victory at El Alamein and the push through Egypt into Tunisia where, at the Battle of Mareth in March 1943, Maj English was injured and taken prisoner. He was held near Parma for six months, but when the Italians capitulated he was released and made it back to Gateshead where, despite the offer of a training job, he resolved to rejoin his battalion.

"It was a desperate disappointment for my parents," he said. "They thought they had got me home."

Within weeks he was being shown cloth models of a foreign landscape with false names attached to the towns. As June 1944 began he learned that the towns called Luton and Tipperary on the model were in fact Caen and Bayeux in Normandy, and on D-Day they were going to land on the beaches just in front of them.

For most of the DLI, D-Day was no more dangerous than any other day. "The night was uneventful, although the sea got choppier and choppier," he recalled. "We were all issued with a sea sick pill and I felt really queasy, but a lot of fellows were desperately sick."

There were about 220 men crammed in that airless, tossing landing craft, so one man's nausea must have been sickeningly catching.

The DLI landed at about 11.30am. They were supposed to be on King Beach, which was part of Gold, although obstacles prevented Maj English's landing craft reaching the sand.

"We jumped in and were out of our depth," he said. "We had been given these waders, up to our chest, but the water was running in over the top of them and they became absolute death traps."

Ironically, the Army top brass had only handed out the waterproof anti-gas trousers after a training exercise in which the DLI had landed in the waves near Southampton and route-marched ashore, ending up with their sodden trousers causing severe chafing.

Come D-Day, the trousers proved more dangerous than the German fire and Maj English ordered that his men take them off before they drowned.

"There was quite a lot of debris on the beach, knocked out landing craft and the odd tank," he remembered, "but it was by no means littered because of the beach organisation. The beachmaster had a megaphone and told us to move inland as far as we could."

He was in command of D Company, a cycle-borne company, which was another of the Army top brass' ideas to get the invasion moving quickly. This, though, rather overlooked the fact that rural Normandy is not ideal cycling country, so the bikes were quietly forgotten.

The 8th saw its first action three days after D-Day. They had reached the village of St Pierre, which is 12 miles inland and occupies high ground above the slightly larger village of Tilly-sur-Seulles.

Sustaining their first casualties, the DLI forced the Germans to retreat into Tilly, but the next morning they returned.

"All hell broke loose," said Maj English, who was telling his story in 2004 when he was back in peaceful St Pierre. Then aged 84, he stood in the middle of a lane, oblivious to tractors, and in his mind’s eye he was 24 again, reliving the battle.

He continued: "While the attack was going on, the second-in-command of C Company, Captain John Wheatley, came back across the orchard to about here."

He youthfully took a large stride towards the middle of the lane. "I was standing against the wall there." He waved his hand at the 8ft stone wall less than 6ft away.

"He was here and a mortar bomb landed between us. I don't know how it happened – he got the great majority of it. In fact, he got all of it, and he crumpled down here.

"I was quite unhurt. All I could do was get the stretcher bearers, but he was dead by the time he reached the Regimental Aid Post a couple of hundred yards down there." He waved his hand back down the little Normandy lane, Rue de Cristot.

Then Maj English assumed a position in the middle of the lane, looking quizzically, head to one side, down it…

"We could just see some of their guys milling about round the corner," he said. "Then three tanks appeared, driving five or six cows in front of them. The Piat man (a piat was a portable anti-tank gun) got down here to see if he could hit the tank.

“The Piat was a good weapon and if it hit the tank it penetrated the armour and burnt the inside. But it had a fault which, in my experience, occurred only twice. Once was in England in training and the other was here, at this moment.

“The baseplate of the projectile came back and hit this chap on the head and killed him."

History doesn't remember the name of the Durham who died on this spot. Another man – Sergeant Stephen Wallbanks from Chester-le-Street – took his place at the Piat, firing three shots "which rather startled the cows". One skidded beneath the leading tank's tracks and ended the Germans' advance.

The Battle of St Pierre finished the following day when the DLI was ordered to withdraw. It had lost five officers and 31 other men with another 130 wounded.

“After all the effort we had put into this place we were very disappointed to give it up," said Maj English, "and to this day I'm not sure why.”

He then went a couple of kilometres through the French countryside to Jerusalem Cemetery, near Tilly-sur-Seulles. It is one of the smallest of the UK’s war cemeteries, with 48 graves – 23 of them belonging to members of the Durham Light Infantry.

Maj English stood in front of Grave A13 which belonged to Capt Wheatley who was blown up only yards from him.

"I'll show you the chap who was my driver from December 1939 to June 1942," he said, and moved slowly on to B14. In that grave lies Pte Kenneth Stanger, 21, who, according to the cemetery book, has no next of kin and no "additional information".

But Maj English could see him as he’d been when they’d first met in December 1939, when Stanger was barely 18. What times they had shared, driver and officer, through Dunkirk and the Middle East only for it to end here in Normandy, in a dip beside the D6 road a couple of weeks after D-Day.

He also knew he had had six more decades which Stanger had been denied. He knew that after St Pierre, the DLI had got going, rounding up Germans as they chased across the countryside at the rate of 30 miles a day. Decorated with another Military Cross, Maj English's combat had ended three months later when he was wounded at Gheel in Belgium. After recovering, he’d gone to Cambridge University and became an agricultural advisor, living near Leyburn. He’d married happily, had three children, become a grandfather, and died in 2006 at the age of 86.

And there he stood on the neatly tended grass of Jerusalem, the sunlight catching the medals gleaming on his chest and the water welling in his red eyes.

After an eternity back in 1944, he returned to the present in the cemetery, and gasped as if he were drowning: "I knew just about half of them,” he said.