In the spring of 1942 following the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Stalin released thousands of Polish civilians, initially deported to gulags or work camps in the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. The released prisoners formed into the Anders Army, which was a Polish unit, and refugees journeying from USSR to Tehran. During a rest stop, one of the refugees, eighteen year old Irena Bokiewicz persuaded one of the Polish solidier’s to trade a tin of meat for an orphaned bear cub. The adopted cub spent the next three months in a Polish refugee camp near Tehran and was then given to a Polish unit, the Second Transport Company which later became the Twenty Second Artillery Supply Company. The unit christened the bear Wojtek, a popular Polish name meaning “joyful warrior.” He soon became of the lads and enjoyed the occasional beer, wrestling with the soldiers and swimming. Wojtek learned to salute, weighing around 35 stone and standing at over six feet tall, this was an impressive sight. The bear soon enjoyed celebrity status and became the unofficial mascot of the unit. He accompanied the unit when it left Iraq to go to Syria, and then on to Palestine and Egypt.
When the unit sailed with the rest of the Polish II Corps from Egypt to fight alongside the British 8th Army in the Italian Campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the twenty second Artillery Supply Company in order to ensure his place on a British transport ship.
As an enlisted soldier of the company, with his own paybook, rank and serial number, he lived with the other men in tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy (also known as the battle for Rome in which the Allies sustained heavy casualties) Wojtek helped by carrying 100-pound crates of 25-pound artillery shells, all without dropping a single one. In recognition of the bear’s dedication and bravery, the Polish army approved a depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell as the official emblem of the Twenty-second Company.
Following the end of The Second World War in 1945, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland with the rest of the Twenty-second Company. They were stationed at Winfield Airfield near the village of Hutton in the Scottish borders..
Following demobilisation on Fifteenth November 1947, Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo,
where he died in December 1963, at the age of twenty one. He received many visits from his former comrades in arms and was a frequent guest on the children’s television program Blue Peter.
Having experienced Soviet repression first-hand, many of the Polish soldiers who had fought for their freedom during the Second World War refused to return to Poland which fell under Soviet control and chose instead to remain in Scotland in exile.
Unveiled on Seventeenth November 2015, a bronze statue commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust was erected in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens, it presents Wojtek and a fellow Polish Army soldier walking together. The statue commemorates not only the much-beloved bear, but also the Polish soldiers who shared the same harrowing journey and ultimately sought refuge in Scotland.
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