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Beer-swilling bear Wojtek’s Second World War heroics set for Hollywood

Wojtek fought alongside Polish soldiers during the Second World War. Picture: BBC

Wojtek fought alongside Polish soldiers during the Second World War. Picture: BBC

  • by MELISSA CLARK
 

A BEAR renowned for helping in some of the most significant battles of the Second World War is to have a Hollywood film made about him.

Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who drank two bottles of beer a day, fought alongside Polish soldiers during the war before spending his final years at Edinburgh Zoo. He was adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps in 1942 and helped move ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy.

Brendan Foley, a writer and director from Belfast, has bought the film rights for Wojtek the Bear and plans to bring his story to the big screen with Ned Dowd, producer on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Mr Foley said: “It is an amazing story – a bit like War Horse but with humour and pathos alongside the action – and the bear is a real character.”

One of the studios believed to be interested is Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, which made War Horse.

Mr Foley said: “Making a major film is always a long process, but we very much hope that some of the work and the locations will be in Scotland, where the bear and his soldier minders ended up after the war.”

Aileen Orr, the author of Woj- tek the Bear who sold the rights to Mr Foley, discovered the story growing up in Berwickshire and by visiting Edinburgh Zoo.

Wojtek was an orphaned cub found by a boy in Hamadan, in Iran, who sold him for two tins of meat to Polish soldiers stationed nearby. The soldiers had been held in Russian internment camps but were released after Hitler began his invasion of Russia in June 1941. They were now heading for North Africa with the allied forces opposing Rommel’s tanks in the desert.

Wojtek grew up among the men, who fed him condensed milk from an empty vodka bottle and later honey, marmalade and syrup. The large bear lived in a tent with them, drank two bottles of ale a day and used to swallow a lit cigarette and exhale smoke as his party trick.

He was taught how to salute when greeted and was enlisted as a private soldier with an official rank and number.

Wojtek became known as a legend when he helped in the battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy, where he used his giant paws to carry heavy boxes of mortar shells from trucks to gun emplacements.

The image of him carrying a shell became the regiment’s official emblem.

When the war ended in 1945, Wojtek was dispatched to Berwickshire with some of his Polish comrades-in-arms.

He was then taken into the care of Edinburgh Zoo in 1947, when the soldiers were demobbed, and stayed there until he died there in 1963.

It is believed that soldiers would continue to visit him and occasionally enter his enclosure to hug him.

 

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