Incredible story of Polish Army hero Wojtek the bear

He was the largest and undoubtedly most intimidating fighting force of the Polish Army.
Wojtek thebearWojtek thebear
Wojtek thebear

Standing at 8ft, he headed into parts of the frontline where even the most hardened squaddie would not dare tread, transporting vital artillery boxes to his grateful comrades.

Sure when it came to his downtime, he enjoyed a beer and a ciggie as much as anyone, but in battle he was focused, reliable and, above all, incredibly brave.

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His name was Wojtek, and he was the Polish army’s secret weapon.

The bronze memorial commemorating the story of WojtekThe bronze memorial commemorating the story of Wojtek
The bronze memorial commemorating the story of Wojtek

The story of the soldier bear who would ultimately end up as an Edinburgh Zoo attraction has come to prominence in recent years as a campaign was launched to honour this overlooked war hero. That successful campaign culminates on Saturday when a new statue of Wojtek is unveiled in Princes Street Gardens, ensuring the story of his extraordinary endeavours will live on for future generations.

But how much do we really know about Wojtek?

His name – sometimes written as Voytek or Voychek – means “smiling warrior”. He was a Syrian brown bear with vicious claws, teeth like razors and the strength of several men.

Those who knew him say his bravery and loyalty was almost as exceptional as his incredible gentleness.

Wojtek grew up with Polish troops.Wojtek grew up with Polish troops.
Wojtek grew up with Polish troops.

The story of how he was found by soldiers and raised to be one of their own to join their wartime struggle is legendary.

He ended his days – some say with a certain sadness in his deep brown eyes – in solitude behind bars in the zoo, where visitors would pass him cigarettes and the sound of a Polish voice was guaranteed to prompt an instant response.

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“I’m passionate about Wojtek’s story,” sculptor Alan Herriot told the Evening News at the beginning of the project.

“Wojtek was an incredible creature. He liked a fag and drank his beer from a can, he slept alongside the other soldiers.

Wojtek at Edinburgh ZooWojtek at Edinburgh Zoo
Wojtek at Edinburgh Zoo
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“One day they were unloading military artillery shells and the bear picked one up and started to move it, walking on his two legs, carrying shells.

“He became a national hero.”

Wojtek’s story began by chance in Persia, now Iran, in 1942, where the Polish Second Corps, a group of soldiers released from Soviet slave camps in Serbia, were making the arduous journey to join comrades fighting in Egypt and Italy.

A young mountain shepherd boy had found the orphaned bear cub, and somewhere on the narrow mountain tracks running between Hamadan and Kangavar, the boy and the soldiers met. The Poles shared their food with the hungry lad and watched with interest the sudden movements coming from within his sack.

The cub inside was desperately in need of care. For a few provisions, the boy traded his “pet” and set Wojtek on the road to becoming one of the world’s most famous creatures.

In 1944, troops were ordered to head for Italy to join the Allied advance on Rome. No animals were supposed to accompany them, so the Poles enrolled Wojtek as a soldier. They headed for Monte Cassino, where the by then 500lb bear astonished all by raising himself on to his hind legs and carrying boxes of live shells from lorries to gun emplacements.

It was such a remarkable sight that Wojtek became adopted as a symbol of the Polish fight, and the banner and buttons of the Transport Corps were redrawn to carry his image. The Soviet occupation of Poland meant that at the end of the war the Polish soldiers and Wojtek ended up at Winfield Aerodrome on Sunwick Farm near Hutton in Berwickshire. Eventually the soldiers left, but Wojtek had to stay behind. “They took the bear to Edinburgh Zoo which must have been terrible for them to do,” Mr Herriot said. “By all accounts, they were in a terrible state.”

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Wojtek’s health failed and he withdrew into his compound, rarely venturing out and reacting only to the sound of a Polish voice.

“He had crippling arthritis. He was 22 when he died in 1963, anaesthetised and shot – a soldier’s death,” said Mr ­Herriot.

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Interest in Wojtek was revived in 2007 following the Evening News retelling his story.

At the time Archie Brown, who served with the 8th Army Signals HQ, recalled his meeting with the mighty Corporal Wojtek - and dispelled a few myths.

Mr Brown, who has now sadly passed away, remembered: “Wherever he was, he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

“But he wasn’t the drinking, smoking, circus animal they are trying to make out . . . the beer bottles he drank from were filled with tea.”