The Apple Tree

Previously, I have written about my father and his experiences as a Royal Marine Commando during the D-day landings and the taking of Pegasus Bridge. Here, I want to write a little about what happened after that and how it might relate to the times in which we now live.

As I write the world finds itself in the grip of a pandemic. An invisible Coronavirus has plunged us all into a strange, unfamiliar world. Suddenly, we are having to live very differently. Politicians and commentators are talking about being “at war” with the virus. Comparisons have been made with the wartime experience. In the UK, even our Queen, who, herself, lived through the Second World War, has drawn parallels. I think that there are similarities and lessons to be learned by their contemplation but, mindful of conversations I had with my father before he died, I also think that the similarities are more subtle than they might first appear.

But, to tell this chapter in my father’s story, I have to begin at the end. The story that I am about to tell was told to me at my father’s funeral or, more precisely, at the wake that followed. My father, Jim Jukes, never shared this story with me but he had told a friend and that friend made a point of approaching me at the wake in order to tell it to me. He felt strongly that I needed to hear it. He wanted to make sure that I knew this detail of my father’s life but had to wait until his death to be able to share it. I wondered why – what makes it such a difficult tale to tell? It is only now, as I come to share it myself, that I begin to understand. The events that the tale relates have such weight and significance that they demand to be told in a way that has appropriate reverence. It is important to do them justice. There is a kernel of truth contained within them that is hard to communicate in words. I have tried many times to do so and ended up binning the results. Yet I feel that it is important that I do pass this story on, however imperfect my telling. Our ancestors made huge sacrifices so that we might live the lives we live today. It is only right that we honour their sacrifices by telling their stories.

This story begins in the days shortly after the war. Jim had been de-mobbed, left the Royal Marines and returned home to the Stourbridge Road, Dudley where he shared a house with his mother, Katy, and elder sister, Florence. One night Katy was awakened by an unfamiliar sound. Dull, thudding and rhythmic, she identified it as coming from outside the house. More precisely, from her own back garden. Taking care not to wake the sleeping Florence beside her, she gently parted the bedroom curtains and peered through the window. It was a clear night and the moon was full enough for her to see that yes…there was something going on at the bottom of her garden. Someone was out there in the dark and up to no good. Katy crept quietly from her bedroom and went to wake the man of the house. But, when she opened the door to what had up until recently been Florence’s room, the bed was empty, the bed clothes on the floor and Jim’s slippers missing. What on earth was going on? She slipped on her own slippers and dressing gown and made her way by touch and memory to the back door picking up a poker on the way. For eight years now she had lived without a man in the house – she was well used to dealing with unwanted visitors and knew that it was wise to be prepared and take precautions. As she inched down the garden path, the sound that had awakened her became louder and more discernible. It was a triangular sound – sharp at its onset but softened and muffled by its own progress – the sound of metal hitting wood. A steady, regular thump followed by a barely audible exhalation of breath, a small admission of human effort. Eventually, she grew close enough to make out the source of the night’s disturbance. A human figure, a man, was swinging an axe at the trunk of her beloved apple tree.

“Jimmy!” She cried, “What are you doing?”

Two years earlier, early June 1944, a few days after D-day, following the successful capture of Pegasus Bridge and the subsequent securement of an Allied foothold on the coast of France, Jim Jukes was walking down a road in the Normandy countryside wondering what to do next. 

Jim was a Royal Marine Commando. The Commandos were formed for the specific task of spearheading the Allied push back against the Nazi advance. The Allied Commanders knew that they needed a special kind of soldier to do what needed to be done. The plan was to send in a small number of men to secure places of particular strategic importance behind enemy lines, the taking of which would enable the Allies to land their forces in France and begin the offensive with the aim of driving the Nazis out of Europe. Places like Pegasus Bridge. Clearly these soldiers needed particular qualities: they had to be resourceful and self reliant, able to think for themselves and remain calm under great pressure. They were going to be put into situations where there was no chain of command, nobody to give them orders, to tell them what to do. They had to make quick decisions and respond to unpredictable changes in circumstances. They had to be flexible and able to improvise. They knew the aim of their mission but how they achieved it was, in large part, up to them. Remarkable men who had been through a rigorous and challenging training programme at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands, they were a breed apart from the average soldier.

Jim’s mission had been to land at Sword Beach on the Normandy coast, make his way inland to Pegasus Bridge to support the Paratroopers who had been flown in earlier that morning and secure the bridge for the Allied Forces. Once that objective had been achieved, there was no time to sit around and celebrate. He would have still been deep behind enemy lines with no officer to tell him what to do next. Having survived the chaos of D-Day his orders now were to try and stay alive and make contact with other members of his unit. Which is how he came to be walking down that Normandy road surrounded by the open fields of the French countryside. He was accompanied by two fellow Marines one of whom was suffering badly from shell shock – his mind torn to pieces by the horrors of the preceding days. Their progress was slow, but you didn’t leave a comrade behind. Between the three of them they had two rifles, only one of which had any bullets left in it.  They knew that they were in dangerous circumstances here on the open road. They kept a constant watch on the skies, aware that, being behind enemy lines, they could as easily be shot by their own planes as the Luftwaffe. They had little choice but to keep on moving. Perhaps around that upcoming bend there would be a village where they could find something to eat and drink.

But, to their horror, at that moment, around the bend came the sound of marching boots and the sight of German uniforms. A full unit of German infantry, all carrying rifles, all presumably loaded. Jim and his mates knew there was no point in trying to run. They had no option but to surrender. Normandy is famous for its cider and calvados and Jim was bundled into a nearby orchard. He was stood against an apple tree and six German soldiers formed a line facing him. They raised their rifles to their shoulders, took aim and waited for the command to fire. Suddenly, the silence was broken but not by a gunshot or a barked command. A German officer was talking quietly but firmly to the rifle squad, pointing towards the setting sun with an emphatic forefinger. The soldiers put down their rifles and walked away. The German officer spoke English. He turned to Jim and explained:

“The Fuhrer has given orders for British Commandos to be shot on sight. He says that the Commandos do not follow the rules of war so the conventions of war do to apply to them. That is why the soldiers were going to kill you. But I told them that thousands of your friends, a big army, have just landed on the beaches and are coming this way. I pointed out that your friends would not look kindly upon enemy soldiers who had shot you as a firing squad. You have had a lucky escape. My advice is to rip off those Commando badges from your uniform now or next time you might not be so fortunate.”

Jim followed his saviour’s advice.

How many of us have had to stare down the barrel of a loaded gun?

How may have been called upon to face Death in the way Jim was on that day?

How would we respond?

Certainly, the experience stayed with Jim. It gave him nightmares powerful enough to wake him in the night, to drive him to take an axe and chop down the apple tree at the end of his mother’s garden.

Certainly, Jim had to face Death again and again before the war was over. As a Prisoner Of War. On the Long March of selected Allied POWs across Germany.

In many ways, his having to have faced Death head on defined my father. His response to his awareness of his own mortality made him the man that he was. He was never bitter about his experiences. They led him, rather, to embrace life fully. I have never known anyone more fully alive. He appreciated the gifts that everyday brought him. He valued the simple joys of life and was grateful for all that life offered.

As I sat beside his hospital bed in Jim’s final few days, he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he spent most of his hours asleep. He talked in his sleep and it was clear to me from what he said that, in his final hours, as he prepared for his last confrontation with Death, he wasn’t there with me. He was back on those D-Day beaches, back at Pegasus Bridge, back under that apple tree. 

It seems to me now that Covid-19 is our apple tree. We live in a culture that likes to keep Death at a distance. Many of us go through life without ever seeing a dead body. We behave as if Death is something to be feared, something to be avoided. And, yet, Death is our only certainty. We all know that we all must one day die. Yet, we never talk about it. We make it a taboo subject. Act with surprise and horror when it happens. The pain of separation we feel when we lose a loved one is undoubtedly real and hard to bear but our culture’s denial of Death only makes it harder. 

We behave as if we can control what happens to us in Life.

Covid 19 has revealed how insubstantial and illusory all those structures we built our lives around actually are. How easily those carefully laid plans for economic growth, career progression, a new car, a foreign holiday, a wedding to remember, a worthy funeral have all been swept away. This virus has shown how chaotic life really is. How little control we actually have. Like Jim on that Normandy road, we cannot predict what is around the next corner.  But we do know what is waiting at the end of the road.

This pandemic is making us face our own mortality. How we chose to respond will define us all in the years to come.


  1. This is the truth. Thank you for telling the story of your father. It is deeply instructive.

    I wish and hope that when the vaccine is safely achieved we really don’t go back to the life we had before. So many good things could come out of this. Being more fully alive would be a wonderful start.

    I read a long essay from Charles Eisenstein that I thought was excellent. It echos what you say.


  2. A great story of truth and courage, and really resonates with today in away, but such a different battle we are facing on the NHS front. Great read as usual.


  3. For Jim, my lovely father in law to cut down any tree, being the gardener he was, shows the depths of the trauma he experienced. Yet as you say, he embraced life fully. He shared his stories with me after my own trail of facing death with cancer, and this is how we came to communicate our experiences, knowing we had both seen death in different ways. My Grandma used to lay people out in her neighbourhood, long before the days when the dead were whisked away by the authorities. Death was part of life and to be honoured too for the passage it was. My mum now relives, repeatedly helping her mum through that journey and layed her out after her death. How many of us now can experience that privilege. I think this time is very much about our relationship with death and equally about how we live our lives in that knowing.

    Liked by 1 person

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