Celebrity ‘soldier’ was smarter than the average bear

Perhaps it’s because of some authentically soldierly habits - he liked his cigarettes and beer - that the story of Wojtek the Bear has never become a Disney movie.

Friday, 11th April 2014, 3:54 pm
Wojtek in his heyday.
Wojtek in his heyday.

His astonishing tale is told in full in Objectiv Theatre’s forthcoming production at Cumbernauld Theatre (May 9), and is as much about the heroic Polish fighters who adopted a bear cub as it is about the ursine “mascot” who served with an artillery battery throughout the Second World War.

The story effectively begins in 1942 with a young Polish girl, Irena Bokiewicz, escaping from Stalin’s Russia across the Elbruz mountains.

She had acquired the orphan cub from an Iranian boy, but - struggling to feed a growing bear - finally entrusted him to some Free Polish Army soldiers, who had been liberated from Soviet slave camps tofight alongside the British 8th Army.l

The bear thrived on condensed milk fed from an empty vodka bottle, fruit, marmalade, syrup and honey - and beer, his favourite drink.

As time went on and Wojtek (“smiling warrior”) grew dramatically in size, he both smoked and ate cigarettes, and learned how to salute .

The warrior bear was a wildly popular Polish military icon while serving with Mongomery’s British 8th Army in Egypt, and - always keen to help his friends - soon learned how to carry arillery shells (a crate at a time) to the guns.

He became so famous that headquarters approved a special motif for his company of a bear carrying a shell.

The highlight of his military career was assisting his gunner comrades to bombard the Nazi-held stronghold of Monte Cassino during the Italian campaign.

Apparently he was completely unconcerned by the noise of exploding shells.

After the war Wojtek was initially stationed in Berwickshire, before being demobilised and sent to Edinburgh Zoo.

There he was regularly visited by Polish veterans, as well as countless journalists. In fact for the army veteran bear the Zoo became more like a comfortable retirement home for a much-loved celebrity, and - just as he had been loved by the people of Berwickshire - he effectively became an honorary citizen of Edinburgh to rival the legendary Greyfriars Bobby.

Wojtek never quite gave up his cigarette habit - well-meaning visitors knew his fondness for tobacco - but, lacking anyone to light them , he just ate them instead.

Further celebrity followed, with regular appearances on BBC’s Blue Peter, and a film documentary narrated by classic British character actor Brian Blessed.

Wojtek lived to the grand old age (for a bear) of 22, dying in 1963.

As well as memorials in London, Canada and Cracow, there’s a fine bronze statue of him in Edinburgh as well as a stone plaque at the Zoo.

Theatre Objectiv’s award-winning production of the military bear’s fascinating story is at Cumbernauld Theatre on May 9 at 7.45pm.