Island bookshelf: ‘A Boyhood in Wartime Britain’

COURESTY PHOTO

COURTESY PHOTO

“A Boyhood in Wartime Britain,” by Michael H. Coles, Devonport Press.

Watching through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy, imagine seeing planes flying in low over your school in the English countryside. Michael and his friend David  studied the aircraft as members of the junior observer corps. They recognized first the shapes of German Henkel HE11s, then the black silhouettes of bombs falling over the Epsom Racecourse nearby. As they left, the Germans strafed the road where Michael walked to school most mornings.

For Americans, living in a country that has not seen warfare on our soil since 1865, it’s difficult to imagine the experience of living through the German blitz.

Born in England in 1932, Michael Coles’ account brings to life the fears and dangers Britons faced every day. Remarkably, he keeps the voice of his young self intact, acknowledging candidly that the hobby of collecting shrapnel from fallen bombs was as big a part of his life as racing to shelters to escape their deadly blasts.

The Coles family had been living in comfortable circumstances as the war approached, but its advance caused them to move to a series of ever poorer dwellings. And even as he describes life in a moldy, crumbling cottage, with the pungent stench of its outhouse, he pays respect to the burdens his mother carried. “I had an easy time in the war compared to other people,” he’s said. “But I was very aware of my mother’s economic strain. Her life went downhill very quickly, facing the scarcity of things one takes for granted.”

Although he had limited understanding at the time of what the Nazi threat entailed, his book places his memories in their historical context, from Britain’s entry into World War II to its end in 1945. He recalls being taken to a local movie theater with other school boys to view newsreels of the concentration camps newly liberated by Allied forces: “Watch carefully,” we were told, “someday there may be people saying something this unbelievable never happened.”

Later in life, Mr. Coles moved to America and discovered Shelter Island through the family of his first wife, Joan, who died in 1999. Today, he spends summers at a rambling home in Hay Beach, where the growing Coles family of children, grandchildren and four new great-grandsons surround the patriarch with constant activity and laughter.

Mr. Coles said he wrote about half the book at his Shelter Island home, and half in Florida where he and his wife, Dr. Edie Landeck, spend the winter.

Mr. Coles, a lifelong lover of poetry, intersperses poems with his recollections and reflections on the war. One of his favorites, by John Betjeman, who was appointed Britain’s poet laureate a few years after the war, is “In Westminster Abbey,” giving voice to a woman at prayer. One of several verses follows:

Gracious Lord, Oh bomb the Germans

Spare their women for Thy sake

And if that is not too easy

We will pardon thy mistake

Mr. Coles said that not long ago on Shelter Island, a gentleman introduced himself at a cocktail party and said he was John Betjeman’s grandson. For such an ardent poetry fan to make his acquaintance was a delightful coincidence, he said.

Mr. Coles served in the Royal Navy during the Korean War, as a carrier pilot and later as a flight instructor. There is much more to the Michael Coles story, but you’ll have to buy the next book when it comes out. Yes, you heard it here first, a sequel is in the works. I, for one, can’t wait.

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