In an earlier post, I wrote about what my father, Jim Jukes, had told me of his experiences on D-Day. I ended that post with him having just landed on Sword Beach on the Normandy Coast. I promised to write more about what happened next. Here it is.
My father’s mission on D-Day was to make his way to Pegasus Bridge and hold it from the Germans. British paratroopers had been flown over during the night and, my dad hoped, had taken possession of the bridge. It was his job to get there as soon as possible in order to support the paras who would be fighting behind enemy lines. Pegasus Bridge was of vital strategic importance to both sides and would not be surrendered easily. As Jim made his way through the curtain of machine gun fire that covered the beach, he could not have known exactly what he was going to face ahead of him. But there was no turning back. The only option was to press on forwards into a hail of enemy bullets. As dad told me, “You just had to keep going and do your best to stay alive.” He didn’t view himself as having been brave or courageous – just lucky to have survived and got off that beach. Many didn’t. How many of us today have had to face such a moment in our lives – to stand at the mouth of Hell knowing full well that to step forwards is to embrace Death but also knowing that there is nowhere else to go? That is quite something – at the age of 20, when your life should just be beginning, when the world should seem to be full of possibilities – to have your world narrowed down to one simple question: Are you going to live today or die today? And step forwards anyway. Doubtless, that step will change a person forever. Certainly, my father was defined for the rest of his life by what he experienced during the War. How could he not have been? It may not have been courage exactly, but my father had a steeliness about him, a fearlessness that came from having been tempered in fire.
I am sure that my father felt afraid on that day. But he stepped forwards anyway. And he kept on stepping. Kept on staying alive. Until, eventually, he made it to Pegasus Bridge.
Just over 50 years later my father, my brother and I stood at the site of Pegasus Bridge. The original bridge is no longer there. In 1994, it was replaced by a more modern version, better able to stand the strain of heavier, more frequent modern traffic. The war-time bridge was taken to the nearby Pegasus Bridge museum at Ranville. The bridge crosses the Caen Canal at a place called Benouville. Dad was especially interested in going to this spot. At the entrance to the bridge from the coastal side there is a small café/shop to one side and a telegraph pole to the other. We stood with dad next to this telegraph pole and he told us how, on D-Day, he had paused there to take a breath and find cover. It is not a particularly wide waterway – perhaps 100 metres across. The three of us looked down the length of the bridge and dad explained that there had been a German machine gun stationed at the far end sweeping the bridge with a hail of bullets and he had stood where we were standing wondering “How the bloody hell am I going to get to the other end of this bridge?” Suddenly, the far end of that bridge looked a long, long way away.
He never did explain exactly what happened next but, later that day, the three of us went to visit the Pegasus Bridge Museum and stood on the original bridge. It is a functional looking metal structure – impressive in its solidity. Standing upon it, I could clearly see the marks made by the bullets from that machine gun. Deep gouges in heavy cast iron. I could not help but imagine what those bullets would have done to soft human flesh. Once again, dad would have been facing Death on that bridge. Once again, he had to step forward and try to stay alive.
The Pegasus Bridge museum is well worth a visit if you have the opportunity. It tells the story of what happened there on D-Day and I think it does it very well. The museum is awash with artefacts. You can see the coarseness of the uniforms the paratroopers wore. You can sit inside the Horsa gliders that delivered the paras to their destination and feel the fragility of those aircraft. You can stand upon the actual Pegasus Bridge and run your fingers across the bullet scars in the metal. The physicality of it all brings home the reality of the situation those young men found themselves in. There are ghosts living in those objects and being in their presence communicates in a way that reading about the events of that day or seeing them portrayed in a film never can. Those objects open a portal to the past. As you wander through them, Time takes on a different quality and, if you allow yourself, you can be transported back to those hours when the lives of those young men involved took on a significance that they would never know again.
For a Time, those young men were no longer just sons and brothers, they became agents of History. Their lives became Epic and they became Heroes. Their lives took on a terrible weight and significance for which they never asked. No wonder it defined them for the rest of their lives. No wonder they found it impossible to speak about when they came home. They were forced to live through days unlike any we have lived through since. They had to do things we have never had to do. Make decisions that we have never been called to make. Decisions and actions that cannot be judged by the same standards to which we live our lives now.
My father was a Royal Marine Commando. That, in itself, means that he was trained to kill people with his bare hands. He may well have done so. It is pretty certain that he killed people during the war. My father ended the lives of other men. The man who bounced me on his knee, told me stories, taught me to draw, loved me and cared for me, never raised his hand to me, never even raised his voice to me … that man, ended the lives of other men. It is difficult to hold the two images of my father together in my head.
I think that it why my father never spoke about the war. The part of him that had kept on stepping into the bullets and had managed to stay alive during the war could not be allowed out during peacetime. That side of him had to be buried away somewhere deep. Because, dad knew, heroes belong in fairy-tales and legends. Not real life. Real life is too timid to contain them. Heroes are just too much for the everyday world. We talk about Help for Heroes and pretend that we love our heroes. But, if we are honest, we will admit that we are actually more than a little bit afraid of them. The actions of soldiers who are willing to die for us, for their country, for something other than themselves make the actions of us normal citizens look craven and selfish. The defining mark of the Hero is not Bravery or Courage – it is Sacrifice. The Hero is willing to sacrifice himself, to give up his own life, to acknowledge that he is not the centre of the universe, that there are more important things than himself.
We live now in a self-obsessed age. We are taught that it is normal and reasonable to put oneself first, that life is a competition and the person who gets the most stuff in life wins. Of course, you should seek that promotion, demand that pay rise. Because you are worth it! Self-betterment has become the norm and we are all the centre of our own little universes.
My father lived by a very different value system. He had little interest in money or status. If he had enough to feed his family and buy his mate a pint, he had more than enough and considered himself a lucky man. For dad, the most important thing in life was Comradeship. I am certain that it was his experiences during the war that made him see life this way. When you were facing an enemy machine gun, you had to know with absolute certainty that you could rely upon your comrades to watch your back. You had to be prepared to put your life on the line for your mates. They had to know that you would die for them.
How many people in your life now can you say would be prepared to die for you? We don’t ask that of people anymore. It seems too much to ask. We live in a timid age. An age that lacks the courage to ask the big questions of us. So, we lead small lives and feel that there is something lacking. My father had a quality of depth about him because he had asked himself those big questions. He knew that he was prepared to die for other people. Prepared to make that manner of sacrifice. That knowledge gave him a quiet inner strength that was formidable. There was a gentle certainty about him – if he set his mind to something, then he would make it happen, no matter how impossible it seemed.
And these things were usually achieved through the help of a great network of “mates” – people dad had met who he trusted to get the job done. Growing up in our house, whenever something needed fixing, whenever there was a job to be done, a problem to overcome, Dad knew “a bloke who can do that.” It was never a matter of simply looking for a tradesman in the Yellow Pages or going to a shop to buy what you needed. How, then, would you know you could trust the people with whom you were dealing? No. Dad’s preferred way was to bring into play the web of tried and trusted connections he had built up through his life. This method of getting things done was often maddeningly slow. You could be waiting months for someone to get back to you. It demanded flexibility and patience to make it work. And payment was never straightforward. Money was rarely exchanged for a service done. Rather, you entered into a hazy world of favours to be repaid at some unspecified time in the future. This was not a commercial transaction – in dad’s world you did work for a mate, not for financial reward, but to strengthen the bonds of comradeship. Dad knew that true wealth is measured, not in terms of money, but by the quality of your connections to other human beings and the Natural world around you. Happiness comes from feeling connected. You get connected by sharing – your time, your experience, your energy. The more you give, the richer you become.
Dad lived his life in the service of others: his mother and sister, his wife and sons, the wider family he found in the Scout movement. He knew the secret of a happy life is to serve others. I think he learned this through his experiences in the war – during his voyages as a Royal Marine, in his training as a Commando, on D-Day, as a Prisoner Of War. Many of those experiences were horrific, not ones we would wish on our children, and they did scar my father. But I am convinced that living through them was a huge part of what made him such a happy man – a man who made so many happy to have known him.
I agree with every thing you said. Confronting death, setting out to do what needs to be done in spite of personal peril really sets a person’s mind straight. I can’t recommend it enough. Although risky it does a person a world of good to figure out what is most important in life. None of this grasping, greedy selfishness if one knows what side the bread is buttered on!
Just brilliant Andy. I hung on every word right to the end. Thank you for writing and sharing this.
Thank you so much, Andy, for sharing a moment in your father’s life, the like of which most of us will never know. It’s a beautiful tribute to the man he became and the man who helped make you into the thoughtful, generous man you are.
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