Polish veteran unveils ‘soldier bear’ Wojtek statue

Wojtek ''the Soldier Bear"'. Picture: Neil Hanna
Wojtek ''the Soldier Bear"'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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HE WAS one of the Second World War’s unlikeliest heroes, pressed into service by Polish troops before ending his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

The contribution of Wojtek the bear to the war effort was finally commemorated yesterday with the unveiling of a memorial statue in the capital.

Wojtek the Polish soldier bear in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Hemedia

Wojtek the Polish soldier bear in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Hemedia

Hundreds of people stood in heavy rain in West Princes Street Gardens for the ceremony performed by Polish war veterans.

The bear is said to have drank beer with the soldiers and helped carry ammunition.

Recognition for his contribution has been a long-running campaign by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, which raised some £300,000 for the sculpture. It shows Wojtek and a Polish soldier “walking in peace and unity” to represent the bear’s journey from his Middle East home to Scotland.

The bronze sculpture stands on a platform of granite from ­Poland.

Polish Second Corps veteran Wojciech Narebski, who unveiled the statue with Edmund Szymczak, observed: “Wojtek could not return to Poland, but he is staying on Polish soil.”

The retired soldier, who served with the bear, also spoke of his “deepest gratitude” for “this great thing you have made”.

Polish ambassador Witold Sobkow read a message from Polish president Andrzej Duda, who described Wojtek as a “most unusual hero”.

He said the statue would “serve as a reminder of Poland and the Polish soldiers who fought in all theatres of the Second World War, and provided living evidence of valour, courage and dedication”.

The memorial was dedicated by the Most Rev Leo Cushley, Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

He said: “We give thanks for the gift of the special friendship between the Scottish and Polish peoples – a link that continues to this day.”

Lord Provost Donald Wilson said of the memorial: “This is a fantastic gift. This one is really something special.

“It is quite right it is displayed in our beautiful Princes Street Gardens – it is the perfect location because it can be seen easily from Princes Street and from all around.

“It is to commemorate and show respect for the immense effort of the Polish forces during the Second World War.”

Among the crowds was Rozalia Nicolson, 65, whose Polish soldier father took her to see Wojtek at the zoo as a child. She said of the occasion: “It’s fantastic, wonderful. Wojtek acted as a soldier. He was very, very brave. It’s important to remember this.”

However, Nicolson questioned whether Wojtek had beer: “He drank tea. You wouldn’t give a bear alcohol.”

Another spectator, Hamish Allan, 66, who also recalled seeing the bear on frequent visits to the zoo, said the memorial was not before time.

He said: “I remember being rather saddened by him, being in a cage, but it’s a wonderful story. I’m astounded at the amount of interest by the number of people here.

“Animals gave everything asked of them and many were very badly treated – but ­Wojtek was the exception.”

Paws for thought: From cub to comrade

Wojtek was born in the mountains of Iran, an orphaned brown bear cub who was rescued by Polish soldiers in 1943 as they moved through the Middle East.

His exploits included “capturing a spy who had infiltrated the soldiers’ camp”, according to the Wojtek Memorial Trust.

The so-called “soldier bear” was then taken with Polish forces in a British troop ship to fight in Italy in 1944, including at the battle of Monte Cassino.

The trust said the soldiers took Wojtek to their hearts, wearing his image in their caps and painting it on the side of army trucks.

In 1945, Wojtek and his comrades were sent to Sunwick camp in Berwickshire, where he swam with the men and carried logs.

He was transferred to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947, where he died in 1963.

The trust was formed six years ago to promote Wojtek’s memory and the links he helped create between Poland and Scotland.

This led to a fund-raising campaign for the statue, which was approved by Edinburgh City Council in 2013.