BOMBS rained down from the gloomy night sky and the rattle of continuous gunfire echoed for miles around.

Soldiers cowered together, darting from shelter to shelter, battling for king and country, as well as their own lives.

For the courageous young recruits entrenched in the battlefields of Arras, in France, in May 1940, it seemed like the loneliest place in the world, as though it would never end.

Two young soldiers from the eighth battalion of the Durham Light Infantry - part of the British Expeditionary Force territorial unit - sought solace in each other's company, reminiscing about home in the North-East of England, and praying they would return very soon.

Private Stanley Cloughton, aged 21, was scared. Scared he would never return to his home in Sunderland. Scared at what the future would hold even if he survived that night's battle.

He turned to his comrade, Private Tom Jackson, and made a solemn request, one single wish he longed to come true if the worst did happen.

Handing over his treasured rosary beads, pressing them tightly into his palm, Pte Cloughton said the words that would echo in Pte Jackson's mind until the day he died.

"Keep this safe for me. I might not survive the war but I want this to go home. If I never return to England, please give it back to my family."

Nothing else was said, but the vow was made. But that one brief exchange would begin a quest by Pte Jackson that would last more than 60 years, and would eventually be fulfilled through an incredible connection with his next-door neighbour.

Pte Jackson, a regiment driving instructor, never saw Pte Cloughton again after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Pte Jackson sustained a serious injury that meant he would take no further part in the conflict.

He returned to his Darlington home, and his lifelong love and future wife Vera - but never forgot that promise.

Mrs Jackson said: "We had a photo of Tom's regiment, and he pointed Pte Cloughton out and said to me, 'That's the lad who gave me the rosary beads'. He always wanted to find him and wanted to get the rosary back to him, but didn't really know how to go about it. Tom didn't even know where he was from."

The Jacksons later learned that Pte Cloughton was killed in conflict in Tunisia on March 22, 1943, aged only 24. He is buried in the Medjez-el-Bab war cemetery.

Mrs Jackson's husband died in 2000, aged 83, but she resumed the search with renewed vigour, determined to fulfil his pledge.

And by the most extraordinary coincidence, she would eventually discover that her search need not have extended past her own doorstep.

After fruitless appeals through numerous newspapers and magazines, a letter printed in The Northern Echo was, by chance, seen by Gladys Dodd, from Darlington, a distant relative of Pte Cloughton.

She made contact with Mrs Jackson and broke the news which left both women completely stunned.

Mrs Jackson said: "Gladys came to me with her family tree, which left me in no doubt that she was a relative of Pte Cloughton. I was so excited, so thrilled. But what I couldn't believe was that her brother, Tom, is married to my next-door neighbour's daughter. All this time and the answer was on my own doorstep."

But it also emerged that the connection could have been discovered much earlier, as Mrs Jackson knew Mrs Dodd's mother - Elsie Cloughton - although not her surname.

"She was always just Elsie to me, the lady who played piano at the Dolphin Centre exercise classes in the 1960s," she said.

"If I had known her surname, I would definitely have asked. It's such an unusual name anyway, but one that stuck in my head for a very important reason."

Yesterday, delighted Mrs Jackson met Mrs Dodd and Pte Cloughton's great-nephew, Tom Cloughton, to share memories and fulfil their relatives' promise of safely handing back the rosary.

Cousins Mrs Dodd and Mr Cloughton both admitted being slightly overawed by the reunion, but now intend to make the rosary a family heirloom.

Mrs Dodd said: "I went round the same day I saw the appeal in The Northern Echo, but when I found out where she lived I was stunned. I thought, 'That's where Tom's mother and father-in-law live'."

Mr Cloughton said: "It really is amazing. But we will treasure this rosary, and are passing it to the only man in the next generation of our family, Peter. Hopefully, now it can be passed through Cloughtons for generations to come."

Steve Shannon, of the DLI Museum in Durham, said: "This is really an amazing story. You couldn't make it up. It's the first time I've heard something like this, and there are many extraordinary war-time stories."

The families hope to keep in touch, and continue the bond formed during the darkest days of war.

Mrs Jackson, fighting back tears, added poignantly: "I'm sure that if Tom was here now he would have been thrilled to bits this has finally happened."