The Bird Men PoWs

Seventy years ago, four men started an ornithological society. An innocent enough activity, except they were British soldiers in a German prisoner-of-war camp…
In the summer of 1940,’ wrote John Buxton in his notebook, ‘lying in the sun near a Bavarian river, I saw a family of redstarts, unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees.’

Four months after being captured in Norway, Second Lieutenant Buxton was trapped behind barbed wire in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was heading towards starvation on a diet of rotting potatoes and scraps. Out of contact with his family and young wife, Buxton might have brooded on his uncertain fate.

Instead, he and three other prisoners overcame hunger, hardship and fear by looking to the sky above their prison boundaries. Nearly 200,000 Allied servicemen endured up to five years as PoWs during the Second World War, but few tales of captivity are as truly uplifting as those of the British birdwatchers.

The time they spent together interned at Warburg, a vast, sprawling hell-hole on the north German plain, was to change all their lives and ultimately the course of wildlife conservation.

As officers, their status gave them the ‘privilege’ of enforced idleness.

Oxford literature graduate John Buxton spent some of his time running an English literature dinner club, where each man would bring his slice of bread and piece of potato. But it was the birdwatching society that the four set up, which brought him the most solace, noting: ‘One of the chief joys of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I.’

Birds in a cage

Buxton chose to study the redstart. Two were nesting in the walls of the camp and he watched their every movement, saw them dart in courtship chases through the wire where he could not go himself, noting every detail. ‘The only chick known to have died after leaving the nest met with a somewhat unnatural accident,’ he wrote, ‘since aprons of barbed wire are not an integral part of the redstart’s environment.’

Every scrap of paper – loo paper, the backs of cigarette packets – were used to scribble observations. Artillery gunner George Waterston had kept bird records almost to the point of his capture at the fall of Crete. ‘Afraid my notes are very scrappy,’ he wrote in his notebook, ‘largely compiled while dodging about in fox holes, etc.’

RAF pilot John Barrett was shot down on his first mission in a plane he had only flown for the first time the day before. Meanwhile, Peter Conder had been with the 51st Highland Division, trapped by Rommel’s panzers in the Normandy port of St-Valery. An academic failure earmarked to inherit his father’s advertising business, he was a passionate, obsessive birdwatcher.

George Waterston (top) and Sqn Ldr John Barrett George Waterston (top) and Sqn Ldr John Barrett

Initially, the men’s relentless notetaking attracted suspicion, and in Conder’s case, 10 days in solitary confinement. Never pleasant, nonetheless he noted that he was happy with the sentence. In the overcrowded conditions, privacy was a valuable commodity that the men bought and sold among themselves, taking on fake identities to serve time.

But soon the guards ignored them, with Barrett observing ‘the guards had convinced themselves we were just another type of harmless idiot that they were paid to watch’.

While other officers made music, read, performed plays or simply frittered away the years, the birdwatchers dedicated themselves to serious study. During the spring, they watched on a slagheap at the corner of the camp, counting the mass migration of thousands of rooks, jackdaws, and skylarks overhead. Buxton wrote excitedly to his wife after seeing 15,000 skylarks pass over: ‘I’ve never seen such a spectacle before.’

Still, there were basic practical difficulties. None of the men had binoculars, so distant specks remained just that. Help came from unexpected quarters. A German ornithologist called Dr Erwin Stresemann took the risky decision to correspond with the men in English, even though his office, in Berlin’s Zoological Museum, was less than half a mile from the Gestapo headquarters. Buxton had met Dr Stresemann – one of the most influential ornithologists of his time – at a conference in Stockholm in 1934, and used this slight acquaintance to start correspondence.

POW Peter Conder (top) and Barney ThompsonPOW Peter Conder (top) and Barney Thompson

Dr Stresemann willingly obliged, sending books, papers and metal bird rings. He even published a scientific paper in which he gave thanks to Waterston. He eventually stopped after receiving an official warning, although he resumed writing to Buxton after the war, until his death. ‘I welcomed the opportunity of helping a brother ornithologist to overcome the mental strain of being a prisoner of war,’ he wrote in one of his later letters.

Yet not only did these men carry out remarkable ornithological studies, they also used their observations as cover to act as lookouts for escaping prisoners – there were 47 at Warburg alone.

In 1943, Barrett was separated from the others and sent to Stalag Luft III. He made another birding companion at the camp, Flight Lieutenant ‘Barney’ Thompson, and the two men became instrumental in one of the most famous escape episodes of the Second World War: the Wooden Horse.

The accommodation huts at Stalag Luft III were raised two feet off the ground on brick pillars, rendering digging beneath impossible. But outside, a little way short of the wire, two officers had set up a vaulting horse for gymnastics. Just about every day for four months, the homemade wooden horse was carried to the same spot and every day, a man hidden inside would drop to the ground, remove a concealed cover and dig a little more of the tunnel while prisoners vaulted over the horse under the eyes of the guards.

While the prisoners dug their 40-foot tunnel under the wooden horse, Barney kept lookout – he was the birdwatcher who went anywhere and everywhere and had long since stopped drawing any suspicion. He also timed the changing of the guards. On evenings in his hut, he would put his skills as a draughtsman to use in drawing maps for the escapees. Barrett, meanwhile, was one of the vaulters, organising and fixing up who should remove the excavated sand and where they would dump it.

On the evening of 28 October 1943, three diggers surfaced on the other side of the wire with Barney’s maps in their possession. All three made it back to England.

John Buxton, head of the table, studies bird life on Skokholm island, 1913John Buxton, head of the table, studies bird life on Skokholm island, 1913

While Barrett, as an RAF officer, had been moved to Stalag Luft III, Conder, Buxton and Waterston were moved to the Bavarian camp of Eichstätt. This wooded valley turned out to be a paradise for wildlife. Natural history became universally popular with all the PoWs when a colony of edible snails was found.

As for birds, they were breeding everywhere – swallows even nested inside the barrack huts, swooping over the men’s beds.

Buxton posted up weekly bulletins of nature news on the canteen noticeboard, and he and his fellow birdwatchers rounded up teams of willing volunteers to help. This was the dawn of a new age in ornithology, demanding impartial scientific observation of bird behaviour.

Conder led a spring watch on a pair of goldfinches that were nesting in a tree outside his hut. Much to his frustration, ‘practically the whole camp comes at regularly spaced intervals to stand and look up at it and not only that but will keep on asking me questions when I am trying to look at the bird, or write down what I have seen’.

Birds in a cage

Buxton found another pair of redstarts and rounded up 17 assistants. Waterston had 12 men taking turns to observe small woodpeckers called wrynecks nesting in wooden boxes he had made from planks ripped out of bunk beds.

The commitment was stupendous. Even some of the German guards would join in, and one – perhaps with an eye on the likelihood of defeat – would take the men outside the camp on parole walks. Although, as Buxton noted: ‘one day they take you out to hear the dawn chorus, the next day they take away your bedding’.

Eventually, as the war was coming to an end, on a January night in 1945, with the temperature outside 20 degrees below freezing and the Russian army approaching, the men at Stalag Luft III were ordered to prepare themselves to leave the camp.

All but one of them filled his bags with food. Barney Thompson packed his bird notebooks instead, putting them at the bottom of his rucksack so that if he experienced moments of weakness, they would be the last things to be jettisoned.

And as he marched in the days ahead through snow and ice, his frost-chilled fingers scribbled down any spotting on empty cigarette packets. Likewise, leaving his German camp two months later, Peter Conder evaded his captors by bolting into the woods, but kept hold all the while of 17 heavy notebooks wrapped in a shirt fashioned as a rucksack.

After being given their freedom, the birdwatchers talked little about their prisoner-of-war experiences but remained in contact for the rest of their lives, fuelled by a missionarylike devotion to the study and conservation of birds.

Birds In A Cage by Derek Niemann (Short Books, £20). A percentage of sales will go to the RSPB.