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Friday Night Dialogues: Boyhood in wartime Britain

Meet Michael Coles, author of “A Boyhood in Wartime Britain” on June 14 at the Shelter Island Library.

Mr. Coles was born in 1932 and was 7 years old when World War II began. His father was a partner in a lucrative brokerage firm but, fearing instability with war approaching, sold his interest in the firm as well as their house. When war broke out, not having a job or a home, he was immediately incorporated into civil defense as a fireman in London.

The family rented a house on the outskirts of London and built an air raid shelter with a neighbor. The 1940 Battle of Britain took place not far from Michael’s school. The children could see the planes flying overhead and would see black smoke as planes were shot down. These early years of the war were marked by mass evacuations of children from London to safer places in the countryside. Britain still maintained a rigid class system which led to many misunderstandings as poor children were sent to more affluent families in the country. Often children were unable to cope and attempted to escape back home. Because of experiences in World War I, the British assumed the Germans would use poison gas and all London residents had to carry gas masks, even small children. 

One night when the children were in the air raid shelter and Mr. Coles’ parents were sitting in the house, it was bombed. No one was injured, the bomb hit the front of the house, but the family needed a new place to live. In 1941 Mr. Coles’ father acquired a home in Kingswood, a pretty suburb of London where they had lived before the war. At this time, Mr. Coles was enrolled in a boarding school in the countryside where he was to spend many years during the war. This was very common for people who could afford to send their children to prep school, but the children spent three-quarters of their year away from their parents. Mr. Coles was 9 at the time. His younger brother stayed with his parents and faced daily wartime fears, including constant runs into air raid shelters.

Mr. Coles has many keen and fascinating observations of these interesting years, recalling American serviceman who were well-fed and well-dressed with plenty of candy for the children, and tube (subway) stations turned into makeshift shelters for people to sleep in at night. Please join us on June 14, Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Shelter Island Library’s community room. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. For more information, contact the library at (631) 749-0042.

Mr. Coles, born in England in 1932, was educated there until 1951 when, following the start of the Korean War, he joined the Royal Navy. He served as a carrier pilot providing air support to British Commonwealth forces fighting in Korea under the command of the United Nations. On his return from Korea he spent another two years in carrier-borne flight operations, followed by two years as a flight instructor. Upon leaving the Royal Navy in 1959 he married and obtained an MBA from Harvard. Following Harvard he joined Goldman, Sachs and Co. in New York, and eventually became Chairman of its International Corporation.

After retiring from Goldman, Sachs in 1987 Mr. Coles earned a Master’s Degree in History from Columbia University. He lives with his wife, Dr. Edith Langner, in Shelter Island and Palm Beach.

Join us on Friday, June 21, for Egypt Dances – a documentary by Magda Saleh. Dr. Saleh will be here to narrate this film about the numerous indigenous dance forms of Egypt.