Corporal Wojtek, the hard-drinking chain-smoking bomb-carrying bear that helped fight the Nazis…before retiring to Edinburgh!

The man leaning over the railings of the bear enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo looked as though he was dicing with death. Shouting down at the large brown bear on the rocks in Polish, laughing and ­gesticulating, the bear lumbered towards him, clearly interested.

Then, quite suddenly, the bear sat down and began nodding his head. As he did so the man whipped a cigarette out, lit it and tossed it to the bear.

The bear picked it up and swallowed the ­cigarette whole.

The zoo’s visitors were aghast. But the man who had come to see him knew better.

After all, this wasn’t just any bear in captivity. This was Wojtek, a retired corporal in the Polish Army. And after a long day, he loved nothing more than a cigarette and a pint of beer.

Wojtek the bear with one of his Polish Army comrades

Wojtek the bear with one of his Polish Army comrades

The extraordinary story of a Syrian brown bear who was adopted by a Polish military unit during the Second World War, fought against the Nazis and lived out his retirement in ­Edinburgh Zoo sounds so unlikely, it could be a Disney movie.

No wonder then that Dan Aykroyd, of ­Ghostbusters fame, who features Wojtek’s tale in a forthcoming episode of his new Sky History show, The Unbelievable Truth with Dan Aykroyd, remarked: ‘It’s not fantasy, it’s not fiction. It all happened. It’s true.’

It was April 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, when a group of Polish soldiers were approached by a shepherd boy holding a sack in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. It was ­wriggling violently, and when the boy opened it, out climbed a tiny bear cub.

The 22 Artillery Supply Company of the Polish Army were serving in the Middle East under British command.

Many of the men had spent most of the past three years in Stalin’s Siberian work camps and, having escaped, were now serving with the Allies in Iran, en route to Palestine.

The bear, found near the town of Hamedan, had been orphaned after his mother was killed by hunters. Lance Corporal Peter Prendys of the Polish unit took charge and gave the boy a handful of local currency, a bar of chocolate, a Swiss Army knife and a tin of bully beef for the bear, thinking he would make an unusual ­mascot for the unit. He soon christened him Wojtek, meaning ‘the happy warrior’.

From that moment on, Wojtek was one of the boys. While still a cub he was fed condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, then fruit, ­marmalade, honey and syrup and eventually, as he grew older, whatever rations the soldiers could spare.

He also developed a taste for cigarettes after watching his comrades smoke, although he preferred to eat them – but only after they were lit.

Wojtek with comrades in the Second World War

Wojtek with comrades in the Second World War

Then there was his habit of drinking beer. Wojtek was rationed to two bottles a day, although given his size – Syrian bears measure between 6ft and 8ft tall as adults and can weigh up to 500lb – it had little effect.

‘For him, one bottle was nothing, he was weighing 440lb,’ one soldier said. ‘He didn’t get drunk.’

He also loved to wrestle the soldiers – old wartime footage even shows him playfighting with one of his comrades. Although at his full size Wojtek towered over the men, he rarely hurt them. He was even taught to salute.

But it wasn’t long before Wojtek became more than just a mascot. He loved to take a shower in the hot desert heat of Palestine and one early morning in 1943, he spotted a door to a shower hut lying open (they were normally kept locked) and ­wandered in.

Shortly afterwards, a piercing scream punctured the air.

The soldiers came ­running and found Wojtek cornering an Arab spy in the shower hut. The man was ­sobbing with fear and begged for the soldiers to save him, while admitting he had been spying on the camp. He was hauled off for interrogation while Wojtek was rewarded with, you guessed it, a cigarette.

In 1944, 22 Company was sent to Italy to fight alongside the British Eighth Army, travelling from Egypt to Italy by boat to advance with ­British soldiers against German and Italian forces.

But there was a problem. At the time there was, perhaps sensibly, a strict rule prohibiting pets from the frontlines of the conflict. Before long, the men hatched an ingenious plan. They made Wojtek an official serving soldier, complete with his own pay packet and rank of Private, and Wojtek was allowed to set sail with them to Italy.

Wojtek enjoys a beer, although the alcohol had little impact on the 440lb bear

Wojtek enjoys a beer, although the alcohol had little impact on the 440lb bear

Arriving in Naples, British soldier Archibald Brown was tasked with processing the unit and running a roll call. When he found one member of the unit to be missing – a Private Wojtek – Brown was met with fits of laughter from the assembled unit.

An amused colonel explained: ‘Well, he only understands Polish and Persian,’ before introducing Brown to the bear.

In Italy, Wojtek caused another stir while travelling with his unit along the Adriatic coast.

One Polish soldier later recalled: ‘He jumped out and went to the beach, where there were many ­Italian girls bathing. You can imagine what happened. I said, “Girls, don’t be afraid. This bear is good”.’

The unit were soon sent to take part in the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino. There, Wojtek really proved his mettle, becoming used to the sounds of gunfire and explosions and before long, pitching in himself.

The soldiers always claimed that he was never trained to handle the boxes of 25lb shells, but one day, as the men were ferrying the crates back and forth, he held out his huge paws and started carrying the shells to the guns, then coming back for more.

During the battle, 22 Company ­supplied 17,300 tons of ammunition, quite a few of those tons from Wojtek. As a mark of his service, the unit had a special insignia made – featuring a bear carrying an artillery shell – which became 22’s trademark.

One Scottish soldier got the fright of his life when he came across Wojtek one morning while serving in Italy.

Actor Dan Aykroyd presents the documentary on Wojtek's life

Actor Dan Aykroyd presents the documentary on Wojtek’s life

Private John Clarke of the Black Watch was foraging for food in the Italian countryside when he found a battery of Polish gunners setting up a gun site in a large wood.

‘As I watched, suddenly out of the wood came a large bear, walking on its hind legs,’ he recalled.

‘It seemed to be carrying something. I shouted a warning to the gunners – but nobody responded.

‘The bear went up to the gun and placed a shell on the ground. It then went back into the wood and re­appeared with another shell. By this time, I had realised that the bear was tame and most likely a circus bear. I went on my way.’

After Monte Cassino, the unit moved north and saw their final action in April 1945 when they captured Bologna.

When the war was over Wojtek – by now promoted to the rank of ­Corporal – and his unit stayed in Italy for more than a year, having ­little desire to return to Poland under Soviet rule.

Eventually they were transferred to Scotland, where Wojtek and his company received a heroes’ welcome on arrival in Glasgow.

At the head of 22 Company, Wojtek proudly marched along the famous Broomielaw and through the city centre, as thousands of watching Glaswegians cheered.

Wojtek was stationed with his unit at Sunwick Farm army camp near RAF Winfield in Berwickshire, where he was able to roam free, begging extra rations from the cookhouse and giving rides on his back to local children.

He bathed regularly in the nearby River Tweed and had his own swimming pool in the camp – a converted concrete ­storage tank.

The men even took him to local dances at nearby village halls, reckoning, perhaps correctly, that they might have more luck with a girl if they had a dancing bear alongside them.

By 1947, plans were being put in place for the unit to be dispersed throughout the UK. Lance Corporal Prendys, who had adopted Wojtek years before and had been his closest companion, was going to London and it became clear that Wojtek would not be able to accompany him. Instead, the ­decision was made to send him to a zoo, and ­Edinburgh soon seemed the most obvious choice.

Wojtek left Winfield Camp for the last time on November 15. ­Reaching Edinburgh, he waved to passers-by as the truck drove along Princes Street.

Lance Corporal Prendys travelled with him, staying in his enclosure for a while before saying goodbye with tears in his eyes. He could not face ­visiting him in captivity and never saw him again.

Many of Wojtek’s fellow Polish soldiers did come to visit, however. They would throw cigarettes into the enclosure for him and, although it was officially forbidden, the zoo keepers turned a blind eye.

Augustyn Karolewski, who had served with Wojtek and died in 2012, recalled: ‘As soon as I called his name, he would sit on his backside and shake his head, wanting a cigarette.’

In 1959 it was reported that the Poles had asked for Wojtek to be moved to Poland to take up residence at a zoo in Gdansk, with the Polish Zoological Society claiming that ‘now, alas, he is in a cage and has very little freedom’.

Edinburgh Zoo strenuously denied the claims, adding that Wojtek had a large enclosure and was at the time suffering from ‘catarrh and a severe chill’, and would not stand up to the 1,000 mile journey. The dispute was resolved and Wojtek stayed in Edinburgh for the rest of his days. He died in 1963, aged 21.

Scottish sculptor Alan Beattie Herriot honoured Wojtek’s service, and his time in Scotland, with a life-size bronze statue of the bear in Edinburgh’s Princes Street ­Gardens, walking alongside a Polish soldier, unveiled in 2015. It has become a popular site for ­tourists, and traditional to rub his nose for luck.

In 2023, one of the last surviving soldiers who served with Wojtek, and relocated to Scotland after the war, died in Edinburgh, aged 95. Polish war hero Ludwik ­Jaszczur had been taken from his family home in Poland by the Nazis in 1939 when he was 12.

After escaping from Germany he joined the Polish Army and fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino alongside Wojtek. Following the war he opened a leather workshop in Edinburgh’s Lauriston Street which he ran for more than 50 years.

Mr Jaszczur was one of the many Polish soldiers who settled in ­Scotland who would regularly visit Wojtek at the zoo, and he never forgot the bear’s heroic contribution to their unit.

‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ he said once. ‘Wojtek helped us to win the Second World War.’

The Unbelievable Truth with Dan Aykroyd, Mondays, 10pm, Sky History

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button