Private Wotjek - The Bear that went to War
Meet Private Wotjek (voy-teck). This private had all the characteristics you’d like to expect from a war fighting extraordinaire – he loved to booze, was a fearless warrior, had an unbelievable way with the ladies and was undeniably the strongest bloke in the troop. This was probably down to the fact Private Wotjek was a bear. That’s right, a fucking bear.
Wotjek was bought at an Iranian railway station as a cub and raised by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, and he really took to the soldiers way of life - he enjoyed drinking beers with the guys, wrestling with the guys, eating cigarettes with the guys and of course wooing the ladies.
He pissed a few of the hierarchy off when he accidentally ate an entire Christmas meal that had been prepared for the troops and stole a clothesline of ladies underwear, But managed to redeem himself however, when he caught a would be enemy saboteur who had snuck onto camp - Wotjek was rightly rewarded with two beers and unlimited shower time.
When the time came to head to the Italy 1944, the authorities insisted that soldiers-only were to board the troopships. The only logical solution therefore was for the Polish troops to give Wotjek his own rank, service number, and pay book and officially enlist him as a soldier of the Polish army.
Despite bemusement from the British boarding officer, Wotjek was permitted to board; and with the only family he knew Wotjek the bear headed for war.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was a blood bath. It’s final victory paid for at a tremendous cost of Polish life - As the Polish had been tasked with the final assault on the Germans strategically vital “Mountain Fortress”. A fortress which had already repelled 3 assaults from Allied forces, and a fortress the Germans would defend at all costs.
As well as Supporting the assaulting troops with artillery fire the 22nd Artillery Supply Company also endured sickening artillery bombards from the defending troops, and the now Private Wotjek was no exception. Now although the private was technically speaking an enlisted soldier, he was still just a bear, with no comprehension that he was at war. So when the Germans started their bombardment all Wotjek knew was the deafening roar of his world around him exploding. The poor bear, terror struck, climbed a nearby tree to try and get away from it all - which leads to the most amazing part of this story.
Rather than fleeing the scene in understandable confusion and fear, Private Wotjek watched his comrades - his family - carry the munition crates from the bottom of the hill to the gun lines. The bear then climbed down the tree and instead, assisted his brothers in arms. Despite being under heavy fire, the mighty bear persevered and successfully transported munition crates to their firing points. A complete “what the fuck” moment for one British veteran who swore blind that, in the heat of battle, he had been stunned to see “a bear ambling past him carrying a crate of mortar rounds”.
The Polish troops had grown to love Wotjek whilst serving alongside him and so when the war was over, they continued to look after him. They decided that as Poland was now a communist state, the troop would resettle at Winfield Airfield on the Scottish Borders. After much heated debate it was decided the bear would be taken in by Edinburgh Zoo where it was said that whenever any of the visitors would speak to Wojtek in Polish he would excitedly salute or wave at them.
Private Wotjek - the bear that went to war - Would live out the rest of his days in peace (and sober) here at Edinburgh Zoo until he passed away in 1963 at the ripe old age of 22.
After his death, having completely stolen the hearts of both Scots and Poles alike, £300,000 was raised for a bronze statue of him and his trainer to be made and placed in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens.
The statue still stands to this day.