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Birding Within the Nazi Prison Camp



Rob Hardy


You don't expect birdwatching and Nazi prison camps to go together. Oh, sure, there's that scene in The Great Escape where Donald Pleasence is explaining how to identify a shrike, but that's just cover for his real lecture on forged papers. Some prisoners in real life, however, were confirmed birdwatchers and did not let a few Nazis and some strands of barbed wire stop them. That's the surprising and inspiring story within Birds in a Cage (Short Books) by Derek Niemann. Niemann is an editor at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in association with which this book is published, and which was to benefit from the prison camp birdwatchers. Not only did the four British birders here take their watching seriously, once the war was over, they were all influential in the birdwatching movement and helped in the beginnings of the wildlife preservation effort. 




Here are the four. Squadron Leader John Barrett had wanted to study zoology at Cambridge, but was told to study economics, and he did so. He qualified as a pilot four days before the war started, and commanded his first mission in September 1941, during which his plane was brought down and he parachuted into German territory. Second Lieutenant George Waterston had set up a bird observatory on the Isle of May and founded the Scottish Ornithologists' Club. He enlisted with the Royal Artillery, and was captured in 1941 when the Nazis invaded Crete. Second Lieutenant John Buxton was brilliant in ornithology, but also literature, languages, and archeology. He had worked at the bird observatory on the Welsh island of Skokholm, and married the sister of the ornithologist tenant there. His knowledge of Norwegian saw him posted to Norway in 1940, where he was captured two months later. Second Lieutenant Peter Conder felt imprisoned in the drudgery of the family business in London; the only thing he had ambition for was to watch and listen for birds. At least enlisting in the Army would get him out of London, but he was part of an invasion into Normandy that gave him a total of seven days of active battle service before he was captured in June 1940. 




Note that all four were captured early in the war, and except for Waterston who was repatriated in 1943, they were to remain in custody until 1945. They met in Warburg, a giant POW camp for Allied officers, and although they did not spend all their years in custody there, it was the site of their most intense ornithological work. And work it was. These men were busy; they lacked binoculars, but they scrounged paper and made detailed notes that were ready to be published eventually in ornithological journals. They cadged scrap wood to make nestboxes installed on the ends of their huts, and then kept a log of every bird's coming and going. They were enthralled with spring migration, and Conder wrote home, "I've been meaning to write for ages, but strange to say I've been very busy. We thought that we would be very badly off for birds here; we were mistaken." He went on to say that they started watching at dawn, finished at dusk, and then rushed to write up their observations before lights out at eleven. He was to document courtship behavior of goldfinches that had never been recorded before. The men made their own bird rings, and banded swallow chicks in a nest; the birds migrated to Africa and seven of them returned the next year. The birdwatchers would trap birds and ring them all through their captivity, even in a final year when no prisoners would be there to see the returning birds.  




Their fellow prisoners were often bemused; Conder wrote that "practically the whole camp" would come and look at what he was doing while he was observing a nest, "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." Some of the men, however, became interested in watching, and started, for example, taking their turns watching a nest of wrynecks. Waterston's instructions show how rigorous he wanted their logs to be: "Please write legibly... Please write only in the blank spaces... Before passing on your notes to the next observer, please re-read and see that they 'make sense'!... Please sign your initials and give time when you took over etc... Please keep a close watch on the box hole as on three occasions the bird entered or left the hole without being noticed... Two cases of faulty reading today." Keeping such records brought order, structure, and a sense of control to the lives of men who had little control in their fates.  




The Germans were often not amused by the watchers' activities. If the birders drew maps showing nest locations, for instance, and the maps were found, they could be confiscated under suspicion that the maps were to be used in planning escape routes. Conder, making observations on crows, had his notebook nabbed, and when the Germans interpreted his barely legible handwriting and maps as part of an escape plan, he was put into ten days of solitary confinement in the cooler. When the camp was on lock-down or being searched, observations could not be made. There was fellowship among ornithologists, however. Dr. Erwin Stresemann was curator of birds at the zoo in Berlin, and played a dangerous game in corresponding with the prisoners, supplying them with reference books and bird rings, and in using their data in studies published in German scientific papers. 




It wasn't all birding behind barbed wire. Niemann does not neglect to remind readers about how cold, lice, starvation, and illness took their toll on the men during all those years. Toward the end of the war, Barrett was allowed out on a walk, and wrote rapturously about sighting golden orioles, tawny pipits, hoopoes, and ortolan buntings, but finishes, "Those walks however were spoiled by dead bodies in the woods, masses of smashed equipment and all the litter and smelly remains of war & despair." However, since Niemann quotes extensively from their letters home, letters which the men knew had to pass by the censors, there is much good humor and understatement in their descriptions of their own lives. It is no surprise that they wrote about birds: "I am sorry this is such an ornithological letter," is the final sentence of one from Conder. During migration time, Buxton wrote his wife, "I've never seen such a spectacle before, for numbers. Three of us (not Waterston, who hasn't got his health back yet) count and scribble all day long!" At the end of his confinement, when the Germans were giving up, Buxton wrote joyously on 25 April 1945 about the excitement in the camp, and ended with, "The Commandant had not yet had confirmation, but to all intents and purposes the camp is now under Allied command. First swift of the year this pm." Niemann also ties in the men's activities to the timetable of the larger war, putting the birding efforts in the context of bigger events, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and more. 




Once they were liberated and back home, they were not the men they were; it is sad to read how medical problems had taken a permanent toll. There were mental scars as well, some more serious than Barrett's being unable to write if anyone was behind him or Buxton's inability to pass food to anyone else at table without taking his share. Reunions with family members were not the stuff of fairy tales. However, the four went on to train naturalists, found observatories, and write up their wartime findings. Barrett mailed to himself at war's end a huge body of raw data that he never saw again, but Buxton's wartime notes went into his volume on the redstart. Conder ran the RSPB from 1963 to 1975, making it a professional body and growing its membership by ten. The birds had, in a real sense, saved these POWs, and it is inspiring to read how the former prisoners returned the favor.



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