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The boys, British schoolchildren, were in a plane that was shot down and crashed on a deserted island. The "shooting down" of the plane is to let the audience know that this is a time of war.
The scene at the very beginning of the book is during one of the world wars. As a bunch of British school children were flying on an airplane in order to escape the warefare their plane was shot down. I believe that it tore the plane in half, sending one part into the ocean and one onto the island since if you read the details only part of the plane was there.
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