Working on Mum’s memoir has brought up many memories, for me as well as for her. The more I put the work into shape, the more questions it brings up which leads to long conversations over the phone. Sometimes, it’s a date, or a fact I need to check; other times what we’ve been talking about reminds me of a story I vaguely remember being told in my childhood.
Wojtek, the soldier bear, is one of those stories that Dad told me when I was little. I’d forgotten all about it until the husband of a friend, who has a Polish grandfather, mentioned it. Neither of us could remember the details, so some research was necessary.
During WW2 my dad fought with the Second Polish Corps. Like Mum, he was in Iraq, then took part in the Italian campaign, but it was in Iraq that he must have first encountered the Corps’ mascot.
Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear. His mother had been shot by hunters and he was found by a young Kurdish boy, who took him to the railway station at Hamadan, in Iran, hoping to sell the cub. Luckily for him, and for the bear, one of the civilian refugees who was with the Polish army took a liking to the little creature and persuaded a young lieutenant to buy him.
The bear spent the next three months in the refugee camp near Tehran before being donated to the 2nd Transport Company. The soldiers named him Wojtek and very rapidly became one of the men. He enjoyed drinking beer and smoking, or even eating his cigarettes. He even marched alongside the soldiers on his hind legs, because that was what he saw the others doing.
To get him onto a British transport ship, when his unit sailed from Egypt to fight alongside the Eighth Army in the Italian campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private. Otherwise as a mascot he would have been left behind.
Wojtek had his own paybook, rant and serial number and lived with the other men in tents, or a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts during the battle of Monte Cassino when Wojtek’s unit conveyed ammunition, the bear helped by carrying 45kl crates of artillery shells, without dropping a single one. He’d seen the men doing this and copied them, but while it would take four soldiers to lift one box, Wojtek managed on his own. Due to his role in the battle, he was promoted to the rank of corporal.
After the war, Wojtek was demobbed and finally retired to Edinburgh Zoo where he was often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers. He also made frequent guest appearances on Blue Peter.
The bear lived on until 1963 and immortalised in a number of sculptures: one by David Harding in the Sikorski Museum in London; a wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby and in Krakow’s Jordon Park. My favourite, however, is the one in Edinburgh by Alan Beattie Herriot which shows Wojtek and a fellow Polish soldier walking together.
So much of what I’ve learned about my parent’s history has shown the darker side of war. Wojtek’s story has been a delightful light relief. Now what I need to do is to find out if the story of the bear getting into the men’s tents and eating their soap ration is indeed true…