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How Winkie the pigeon rescued an RAF crew: New book reveals the important role birds played in WWII

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THE STORY

THE ROLE OF BIRDS IN WORLD WAR II

by Nicholas Milton (PEN AND SWORD £25, 252pp)

In December 1943, at the height of the Second World War, a medal was awarded “for having delivered a message under exceptional conditions and thus contributed to the rescue of an aircrew”.

Its recipient was a woman, nicknamed Winkie because she was seen winking at a dinner party held in her honor. Winkie was unusual for another reason. She was a dove.

As Nicholas Milton explains in this captivating book, nearly 250,000 pigeons served with various British forces during the war.

The Dickin Medal, the award Winkie won, was the brainchild of PDSA founder Maria Dickin. It was intended to recognize animal bravery. Of the 54 Dickin Medals awarded during the war, 32 went to other Winkie pigeons.

The British Army Pigeon Service had been created during the First World War but disbanded when hostilities ceased.

In 1939 it was re-founded as the National Pigeon Service. Birds were not only employed, like Winkie, as messengers in the RAF. Intelligence services have found them useful. “Operation Columba” in 1940 saw thousands of pigeons in special containers dropped by parachute into occupied France and the Netherlands.

People who found them were asked to fill out a questionnaire, attached to the birds’ legs, with information about life under German rule. The carrier birds could then be released and cross the Channel back to Britain.

Birds played an important role in culture during times of war. In film, Leslie Howard played RJ Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, in The First Of The Few, supposedly inspired to create his plane after observing seagulls in flight. The story is probably apocryphal. The same goes for Mitchell’s response to the news that the plane was to be called the Spitfire. “That’s the kind of stupid name they would choose,” he reportedly said.

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Birdwatching, Milton notes, was an extremely popular pastime during the war years. James Fisher’s Penguin book Watching Birds, published in 1940, became a bestseller. He lists some of the ornithologists he knows: “a prime minister, a secretary of state, a cleaning lady, two policemen, two kings, an ex-king, five communists, a fascist, two laborers, a liberal and six conservatives. Members of Parliament…’

The first minister was Neville Chamberlain, who installed birdhouses in the garden of 10 Downing Street and went birdwatching in St James’s Park most days. He left office, of course, shortly after Fisher’s book appeared, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.

Maria Dickin, founder of the veterinary charity People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), presents RAF Winkie carrier pigeon with the Dickin Medal in 1944

Maria Dickin, founder of the veterinary charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), presents RAF Winkie carrier pigeon with the Dickin Medal in 1944

Along with Churchill, one of the most important war leaders was Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of the war.

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Alanbrooke did not always have an easy relationship with Churchill. Birdwatching was his escape from the incredible stress of his job and, as he described in his diary, “the whole nightmare of responsibility”. In June 1943 Alanbrooke bought a 45-volume set of John Gould’s The Birds Of Great Britain for just over £1,500. They were, he wrote, “of marvelous value…as an antidote to war and to Winston!”

Other ornithologists continued to pursue their passion in the most desperate of circumstances. Future naturalist and conservationist Peter Scott rejoiced at the sight of a Dartford warbler amidst the chaos of war while serving aboard HMS Broke. The Changi Bird Study Group must be unique among birding clubs in that all of its members were Japanese prisoners in the Changi POW camp near Singapore.

“Birds,” wrote James Fisher in his best-selling wartime book, “are part of the legacy we fight for.” Today that may seem like a stretch, but Nicholas Milton’s informative book shows just how close he was to the truth.

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