Skip to main content
The Role of Birds in World War Two (cover)

Publisher: Pen & Sword History, Barnsley

Publication Year: 2022

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 224

ISBN Number: 9781526794147

Price: £ 25.00

The Role of Birds in World War Two: How Ornithology Helped to Win the War

Stories such as War Horse have brought the history of animals in warfare into the public consciousness. Their significant contribution was formally recognised in 1943 through the creation of the PDSA Dickin Medal awarded for gallantry and devotion to duty, and the important role played by birds in World War Two is clear from the fact that pigeons are the most numerous recipients.

You would be forgiven for thinking this will be a book about messenger pigeons. Whilst individuals such as Winkie, who delivered a message leading to the rescue of an aircrew who had crash-landed in the North Sea, are included, Nicholas Milton’s fascinating work goes beyond individual tales of feathered valour. From the avian origins of the Government’s Mass Observation programme to record everyday life in Britain, to military personnel and Prisoners of War enjoying birdwatching in times of adversity, this book explores the numerous ways in which birds had an impact in the Second World War.

Amongst the stories of birdwatchers there is welcome mention of several key figures in BTO history. Max Nicholson, the central founder of BTO, held important positions during the war in the Ministries of Shipping and Transport, but would break away from meetings to listen to a Black Redstart singing outside his office. Bernard Tucker, the first BTO Secretary, makes an appearance in a story about Peter Scott’s discovery of a White-fronted Goose on the Severn Estuary. One of Tucker’s successors, James Fisher, published the guide Watching Birds during the Blitz in 1940 which went on to sell over three million copies. 

As the author notes in his preface, nature was as important to people’s mental well-being during the Blitz as it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the direct contribution made by birds themselves, The Role of Birds in World War Two also highlights their more indirect impact on the lives of those who studied them.  It is an unusual and informative approach to a subject about which not much has previously been written, which should appeal to anyone with an interest in history as much as birds. 

Book reviewed by Lesley Hindley

buy this book

Related content