Parliament honours ‘Soldier Bear’
[i]Voytek the bear - Picture courtesy Imperial War Museum Wojtek was taught to smoke and drink beer…[/i]
A reception has been held in the Scottish Parliament in honour of a bear which saw action in World War II. Wojtek - dubbed the “Soldier Bear” - was adopted by Polish troops and helped them carry ammunition at the Battle of Monte Cassino. When their forces were deployed to Europe the only way to take the bear with them was to “enlist” him. So he was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign. Wojtek - also known as Voytek - was rescued as a cub in the Middle East in 1943. The Polish soldiers adopted him and as he grew he was trained to carry heavy mortar rounds.
At the end of the war the bear - who had also learned how to smoke and drink beer - was billeted at an army camp in the Scottish Borders at Hutton in Berwickshire. When the Polish soldiers were demobilised he was taken to Edinburgh Zoo where he eventually died in 1963. Members of the Polish community, Hutton residents and ex-servicemen were expected to attend the event.
“The fact that a large bear could be trusted with humans to the extent he played with children and enjoyed a bottle of beer made him unique” - Aileen Orr, Wojtek Memorial Trust. Efforts are now being made by the Wojtek Memorial Trust to build a permanent tribute to the bear. Founder Aileen Orr said: "The story of Wojtek has only recently been raised again throughout Poland and Scotland. “It is understood no bear can be tamed, but he was the exception.” "The fact that a large bear could be trusted with humans to the extent he played with children and enjoyed a bottle of beer made him unique.
The trust also aims to recognise the efforts of Polish troops and celebrate the connections between their country and Scotland. “We owe a great deal to them and, through the trust, we hope to erect a memorial to celebrate his life, as well as to enhance the links between our two countries,” added Ms Orr.
Scots sculptor Alan Herriot has been commissioned to create the memorial. He said: “I loved this story the minute I read it last year.”
As a child I remember seeing this bear in the zoo puffing a fag, yet had no idea of his history, quite sad really