A photographer who survived the bullets and bombs of D-Day today – on the 70th anniversary of the landings – recalls the hell that was Normandy on June 6, 1944.
A WELL-KNOWN Wearside businessman who took part in the D-Day landings returned to the beaches of Normandy to honour his fallen comrades.
Charles Eagles was just 19 when he landed on Gold Beach on June 6, 1944.
Coming under heavy fire, he had to crawl over the bodies of dead soldiers to reach safety.
Having survived the fierce fighting, the bomb disposal expert went on to cheat death several times during the rest of the war. He has never, however, forgotten D-Day.
“The noise of the shells, bullets and aircraft – it was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. All you could see were ships and boats and soldiers,” recalls Charles, now 89.
“I lost a lot of friends during D-Day, and this is not the first time I’ve returned to put crosses on their graves. It is important that we never forget the sacrifices they made.”
Charles, the son of miner and First World War veteran Edward Eagles and his wife Catherine, was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, in 1924.
After leaving school at 14, he started selling bikes in a sports shop. The storm clouds of war were gathering, however, and at 18 he joined the Royal Army Service Corps.
“It was all about supplies and I hated it,” he said. “I was only there for about a month before I volunteered for the commandos. It was tough, but I enjoyed it much more.”
Just two days before the course finished, however, Charles ended up in hospital after a pal slipped down a cliff during training – and fell straight onto his shoulders.
Charles missed his first posting while undergoing emergency treatment and was told he could either take the commando course again – or join another regiment.
“I was asked what part of the world I came from and I replied I was a Newcastle lad,” he said. “The next thing I knew I was on a train north to join Durham Light Infantry.
“I ended up in Brancepeth and was greeted by a lad from Seaham called George Burrows. He was a great bloke – but I couldn’t understand a word he said at first!”
Private Eagles found himself in the 9th DLI. It was not long, however, before he was recruited into a new platoon – S Company – and dealing with deadly explosives.
“It was our job to dismantle booby-traps and landmines. I volunteered for it, although some thought it was almost like a suicide mission,” he recalls.
Then came D-Day. Charles and his comrades were ordered to gather at Nightingale Wood, close to Southampton, and wait. Days dragged past without further news.
“Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery came through, to try and boost our morale with a chat. General Dwight D. Eisenhower paid us a visit as well,” recalls Charles.
“We knew when things were about to start moving, though, as the quality of our food improved significantly.
“We were also told to make our wills out before leaving.”
Finally, battalion by battalion, more than 3,000 allied soldiers left the woods and made their way into Southampton – where they boarded boats and landing craft.
“I was placed in the hold of a ship with my company. Some of the soldiers wrote letters, others looked at family photographs or cleaned their rifles,” recalls Charles.
“It was so bloody hot that it absolutely stank with all these men crammed together. You only had enough space to put down your bag – there was nowhere to stretch out.
“Then the weather got choppy and the invasion, which was originally scheduled for June 5, got cancelled. We weren’t allowed off the boat, though; we had to wait it out.”
Finally, with a calm period of weather predicted for June 6, D-Day was given the go-ahead. Charles landed on Gold Beach at 9.30am – in the middle of fierce fighting.
“As we got close to the beach, we had to climb down a rope ladder into a landing craft. This wasn’t easy, especially carrying 100-weight of high explosive,” he said.
“I managed that but, when marching off the landing ramp, I dropped straight into a bomb crater on the sea bed. I lost all my gear and could have drowned.”
The noise of shells, bullets and aircraft “whizzing” over his head greeted Charles as he was dragged from the water. Ships were behind him; dozens of dead soldiers ahead.
“I remember falling over dead bodies as I tried to run up the beach. I had nothing left, no gun or explosives. It was a terrible day, and I will never, ever, forget it,” he said.
Charles finally made it to his target area above the beach, where he and his comrades were expected to jump on bikes and start cycling. This was not, however, a success.
“We only got 100 yards before abandoning them because of mortar fire. It was just too dangerous to be riding along, you could end up being shot or blown up,” he said.
“We marched after that, but still had to dodge sniper bullets. The lanes were so overgrown it was like going through tunnels. It was slow progress, because of the snipers.”
Charles spent the rest of D-Day marching through France – very slowly – and the following day his company came across a mine. Charles was asked to take care of it.
“It was the first I’d dealt with during actual war and I was nervous,” he said. “I had to check all round, to make sure there were no booby-traps, before doing anything.
“All I had was my bayonet, to poke it with, and a pair of wire cutters if I was lucky. There was no safety gear, no protective uniform. Thankfully, it all worked out OK.”
It did not, however, work out OK for many of the men in Charles’ platoon. Indeed, he was promoted from private to sergeant just one week after the brutal D-Day landings.
At around the same time, Charles and his comrades were tasked with checking out a French chateau for explosives – after it was decided it might make an army HQ.
“I took about eight men and we spread out. All of a sudden, eight booby-traps were found in one room, three or four in another and one more in a toilet,” he said.
“We went out for a chat about strategy and then whoomph – we saw a big puff of smoke. A lance corporal, who had stayed inside, had set off one of the traps and died.
“We went in to find him and carried out his body. After that, we decided to blow up the chateau – as it was just too booby-trapped to be of any use to us.”
Fighting for land near a French village followed, which saw Charles and his squad come under fierce fire. The allies were told to “stop for no-one” until reaching their target.
“It was utter chaos,” he recalls. “There were German soldiers firing left and right of us. My colonel was killed by a mortar – just after he told me to bomb a Tiger tank.
“I managed to move a little further away with four other men but, as we sat down to discuss what to do, a big pair of boots stepped in front of me – a German officer.
“He marched us to a wood about a mile away, where the Germans were dug in, and we spent the night there – sharing their rations. I remember their bread was awful!
“After a few hours, the officer said he was going on a recce. When he came back, he said we were surrounded by British allies – and that he had decided to surrender.”
Charles felt suspicious at first, as he feared he and his comrades might be shot. However, just a few hours later, he led the party of Germans to surrender – without even a gun.
“After I handed them over, I went over to the German officer and saluted him. I was told off for that later, but the man could have easily killed me at any time,” he said.
Charles’ war was, however, soon to be over anyway – but not before he saved a comrade after being called to a field which had been mined to stop Allied advances.
“All of a sudden, my officer called out that he was standing on a mine. I dug round him with my bayonet, and found he was on a wooden Schu mine,” he said.
“If the bomb had exploded, he would have at least lost his leg – but I would have lost my head! Luckily, we both escaped without any injuries that day.”
Charles spent the next few days and weeks lifting and securing enemy mines across Normandy until July 22, when a “big call came in.” It was to be his last.
“We were tasked with clearing an area filled with mines. We cleared all round it, then jumped into the back of a carrier – ready to leave. As it moved, it blew up,” he said.
“It had rolled over the one mine we hadn’t cleared. I was standing up at the time, and was thrown up into a tree like a spring. If I’d been sitting down, I’d have been killed.”
Charles was left covered in shrapnel wounds following the blast and ended up in hospital in the North East. While there, he met and fell in love with a local girl.
“I didn’t realise I was covered in blood and shrapnel at the time, and tried to pull one of the soldiers out of the carrier. His arm came off in my hands,” recalls Charles.
“The next I remember is medics giving me some treatment, and then waking up in Southampton. Nothing more.
“After that I was transferred to Dryburn to recuperate.
“My mother received three telegrams at the time. One said I was missing, the next that I’d been killed in action. She never believed it. The third said I was in hospital.”
Charles went on to spend time in Berlin before being de-mobbed. He then moved to Staffordshire with his new wife, but relocated to the North East after she became homesick.
A job at Timothy Whites & Taylors in Durham followed, until he eventually set up his own photographic business in Sunderland – which still trades in Maritime Street.
Today, 70 years after D-Day, Charles still suffers from his wartime wounds. Indeed, his body only pushed out the last of the shrapnel this year – through a thumb nail.
“I’m pleased I was at D-Day in a way, as I feel I was born for adventure – and I got that for nothing during the war,” said Charles, who now lives in the Herrington area.
“But I lost a great many friends during that time, and I’ll never forget them.
“I find it very emotional to return to Normandy – but these men should never be forgotten.”