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North Vancouver's Coles brothers were war time flyers

Eighty years on, we pay tribute to the heroism of Art and George Coles

It’s 80 years since news arrived in 1943 that Arthur and George Coles were missing in action. Flying Spitfires and Avro Lancaster bombers, respectively, each of the brothers from North Vancouver was doing his bit for the Allies in the fight against the Nazi war machine. One brother was to survive the Second World War – the other tragically did not.

It was a twist of fate that the brothers were even from Canada in the first place. Born in 1873, their father, Charles Petley Coles (C.P.) was an emigrant from England who initially settled in the California Bay area of the U.S. Tragedy struck when his wife died in childbirth along with their first born. It was a history of family loss that was to reoccur.

C.P. met his second wife, Anna McGillivray Campbell, an American, shortly afterwards. They corresponded for a year, before marrying in 1909. Two sons, Charles and Don were born in San Francisco. However, in 1912 the family moved to North Vancouver.

C.P. established a grain shipping brokerage, travelling across the ferry each day to his downtown Vancouver office while living at East First Street, North Vancouver. An early pioneer, C.P. was responsible for selling the first parcel of wheat to be shipped from the port.

In 1920, C.P. and Anna moved to East Kings Road in Upper Lonsdale. By this time, they had five children. But fate had struck another blow for C.P. and Anna. Three weeks after the birth of their youngest son, Arthur in 1917, their eldest son Charles, had died, aged seven. Arthur’s daughter, Judy (Coles) Mordy, the family historian, still lives on the North Shore. She told me it was from scarlet fever.

The timing of the loss, and Arthur’s almost contemporaneous birth made the Coles’s youngest son special. Two girls followed: Louise and Alice. All three went to North Star Elementary.

Walking up hills must have been a regular occurrence. C.P. passed his love of skiing onto his sons, the boys regularly trekking up the slopes of Grouse Mountain. Art emerged as a talented skier, and obviously something of a speedster, given what was to happen.

Art and several other siblings were still living at home when the hand of fate was to strike again for the Coles family. In 1937 at the age of 55, C.P.’s wife Anna died from cancer. C.P., who was inconsolable, moved up the coast for several years, as his granddaughter, Judy describes, to “hide from life.”

Events were moving dramatically, both for the Coles family and in the wider forum of Europe. Art left his job at Aetna Life Insurance to focus on his ski training with Peter Vajda in Alberta. Vajda was a ski racer and coach and designer of the original chairlifts at Grouse Mountain. Such was Art’s talent that he garnered the nickname “the Vancouver Thunderbolt,” claiming titles for four combined slalom and downhill races in 1940 including the Canadian Championships (then called the Dominion Championships).

It was a career that was to be cut short. War with Germany had broken out the previous year, and in June 1940 Art enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force, training in Vancouver, Toronto and Saskatchewan, before becoming a flying instructor in Trent, Ont. and Moncton, N.B.

Art Coles in German POW camp during 'The Great Escape'

The Allies needed pilots, and in late 1942 Art was posted to Britain where he joined his brother, George who had enlisted in 1941. Art flew Spitfires with 412 Squadron. George flew Lancaster bombers with 617 Squadron, famous for participating in the Dambusters Raid.

George was the bomb aimer, but did not fly on the night in May 1943 when the Squadron hit the Mohne and Edensee dams. Several of his six-man crew were sick. He did fly several months later, participating in the Squadron’s raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Sadly, five of the eight Lancasters that departed from their base in Lincolnshire, England in the early hours of Sept. 16, 1943 did not return. Reported as missing in action, it was later discovered by the family back in North Vancouver that George’s plane had been hit by flak over the canal’s banks. He and his crew members had all perished.

As if the Coles family had not seen enough loss, news followed shortly afterwards that Art’s Spitfire had gone down in smoke over Ypres, France on Nov. 29, 1943. He was missing in action.

Word came in early 1944 that Art had survived the crash, but had been captured near Vermes, Belgium. It was 18 long months before his release in June 1945. Art endured the hardship of three German POW camps in Frankfurt, Stalag Luft III, and Luckenwalde, south of Berlin.

Stalag Luft III was a high security camp, housing 10,000 Allied airmen near Zagan, Poland. In March 1944, 76 British and other airmen escaped through a tunnel dug under the perimeter fence. Called “The Great Escape,” it was an event later immortalised in the 1963 movie. One can only guess as to whether Art was involved in the tunnelling. He was lucky not to be one of the escapees. Almost all of the 76 men who crawled out were subsequently recaptured and executed by the gestapo.

Miraculously, Art survived the war, even enduring in February 1945 an enforced two-week march and five-day rail journey crammed into box carriages. Many of his fellow war prisoners died.

In 1942, C.P. sold the family house in East Kings Road, living through those difficult war years before he died in 1947 at age 73. His granddaughter Judy never met him, but by all accounts he was a considerate and temperate man.

Art, her father, returned from incarceration and married his sweetheart, Jean whom he had met while training pilots in Moncton, N.B.

Sadly, the Spitfire Ace survived the war, but was to die young. Art was flying with Okanagan Helicopters when a parts failure caused his Bell Hawk to drop from the sky near Timmons, Ont. It was June 1955. He was 37.

Eighty years on, we pay tribute to the heroism of Art and George Coles, the war time flying brothers from North Vancouver.

Paul Haston is an author and advocate with the North Shore Heritage Preservation Society, writing for its blog.