Thursday, January 31, 2008

Wojtek the bear – Polish war hero


He served, with distinction, in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. He helped the Poles to victory at Monte Cassino. He shared beer and cigarettes with the lads (and a few lasses).

And now he is going to get his own memorial in Scotland and someone has written a biography. Blockbuster movie, anyone?

Wojtek was born in 1943 in what was then Persia, where a local boy sold him to the Polish 22nd. Artillery Supply Company. He was officially enlisted and travelled with them west, finishing up at the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.

Wojtek had arrived at his finest hour, carrying ammunition, motors and other things that go ‘’bang’, to the front lines. The Battle of Monte Cassino was and is a big deal in Poland – finally a victory by Polish troops against the Nazis.

My dad, then a very young man, was also at the Battle of Monte Cassino, though he didn’t ever tell me about a bear. (He also never mentioned any Poles at Monte Casino. When I told him a few years ago about how proud Poles were of this victory, he was surprised to hear that they were actually there. Which just shows, that in the fog of war, the last to know what the hell is going on are the soldiers in the thick of it. Maybe a good argument against embedding journalists with front line troops?)

At the end of the war, Wojtek was stationed in Berwickshire in Scotland. He was demobed in 1947 and spent a happy retirement at Edinburgh Zoo, and lived to the ripe old age (despite a modest alcohol and tobacco problem) of 22 years old.

A group of campaigners, led by Aileen Orr (well, maybe they got bored with British politics, which is quite understandable) have proposed a memorial to the soldier bear to be erected in one of Edinburgh’s parks.

But this won’t be the first to be erected to the only bear with a smokers cough to have lugged motors for the Polish army. Local high school teacher and historian, Garry Paulin, has written Wojtek’s biography aimed at the kids market – The Soldier Bear. He told the Berwickshire News:

"Since his death there have been statues put up in his honour in London and in Ottawa, Canada."

And perhaps Wojtek can become the symbol of the new Polish immigrant who has flocked and frolicked to Scotland’s bonny lowlands in the last few years. He is just like them. Nice, friendly type, who likes a drink and a smoke.

There is a nice site about Wojtek here. And Garry Paulin’s site is here.


Read on:
Patryk emailed to ask me to remind you about this site dedicated to the bear.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

How can it be possible that your father didn't know about the Poles being in Monte cassino? Is that credible?

michael farris said...

Wojtek enjoying cigarettes and alcohol doesn't surprise me at all.

Race-baiter and socio-biological determinist Steve Sailer wrote (one of the very few things he's written that I agree with) that the difference between bears and most other wild animals is that bears aren't freaked out by things human. In fact, they seem fond of the human lifestyle and the products of human civilization.

They apparently aren't put off by the human scent (which seems disgusting to many wild animals), adapt quickly and willingly to human food and are fond of swimming pools where they overlap with their range. Who's to say they wouldn't go in for central heating, cable tv and starbucks?

beatroot said...

I heard similar stories about bears, Mike. Which is quite dangerous for the bear, of course, when you have men stalking about with guns.

As for the ‘credibility’ of my Dad’s story. Are you calling my dad a liar?

The fact is that my dad’s generation are not obsessed and do not romanticize WW II in a way that the generation that came after them did. My dad fought in the war, then he moved on from it. He is not that interested in the details of the battles etc.

It goes the same with the generation that fought in the Uprising9s) in Warsaw. They did what they had to and have now moved on. They, like my dad don’t bear gruiges against the germans. In fact, my dad always says they his fellow soldiers had a kind of respect for them – though they hated all the Nazi stuff, of course.

The generation that followed has not shown that level of maturity, however. And when I see people of my age – in Britain – going around with negative stereotypes of Germans I just wanna puke.

By the way, back to normal blogging next week - I have had a very tough week at work, trying to shake things up a bit, and it has taken up all my energy.

YouNotSneaky! said...

"In fact, they seem fond of the human lifestyle and the products of human civilization."

Hence, Yogi Bear.

I remember reading the book about Wojtek as a kid. Totally forgot about him until now.

"They did what they had to and have now moved on. They, like my dad don’t bear gruiges against the germans. "

I don't think this applies to the Poles. Certainly my grandparents disliked Germans well after the war. The way I learned to curse in Polish was by watching TV with my grandmother who'd let out a sailor's streak everytime a German person came on tv. Well, they did pour gasoline on her and threaten to burn her alive during the war.

(with respect to Russians she'd just always say "they are a tragic people" and shake her head sadly)

beatroot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beatroot said...

Yeah, that generation have a bad view of Russians. And although a shame today, a no brainer, then. There is a tomb to the Soviet 'Unknown Soldier' in Berlin. The locals used to call it the 'Tomb to the Unknown Rapist'...which, if you know a little history, is a no brainer, too.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Also the whole lack of knowledge about Poles role at Monte Cassino - I don't think it's just the fog of war and stuff like that. A history professor of mine in college was also surprised to learn that there were Poles at MC or for that matter in the Italian campaign. True, the guy's field wasn't WWII but he was a historian.

On the other hand in Poland there's a bit of an exaggeration of the role Poles played in the battle - at least there was when I learned it in school. Usually it's presented as various other allied troops being unable to take the monastery and then Poles finally doing it. But in fact the whole assault on MC had three phases. If I remember correctly - and it has been awhile since I read up on it - there were basically two lines of German fortifications and then the mountain with the monastery on top. Poles didn't play much of the role in the first two phases - I think they were still recovering from a previous battle (Tobruk?). The American, the British, the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Free French and the Ghurkas fought over the first two fortifications. The Poles were thrown in in the third phase which included the final assault on the monastery - which in the very end the Germans abandoned. But this wasn't a "other allies couldn't take it" but rather just a normal rotation of fresh troops in for battle weary ones.
Still, the casualty rates amongst Anders' men were very high and I guess the Polish way of telling things could be salvaged by saying that the third part of the battle was the toughest.

"Yeah, that generation have a bad view of Russians."

I don't know if 'bad view' is a correct characterization. My sense was that my grandmother actually felt sorry for them. She pretty much saved up her hatred for home-grown Polish communists.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Oh yeah, and there was also Baska Murmanska (Polish wiki: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ba%C5%9Bka_Murma%C5%84ska), a polar bear that accompanied Polish anti-Bolshevik units in Siberia and apparently "saluted" Pilsudski at a military review.

beatroot said...

Sneaky – you have enhanced my view of this blog. Superb comment about the German thing. But they do separate Germans from Russians, here. The army has a bad reputation.

I think Nazi and Stalinist horror is about the same horror.

jannowak57 said...

Years later the issues of Poles being at Monte Cassino was not as well known as one would think, it is of course well known to Poles. The event itself was well publicized by the Polish government in exile but the British were not eager to give much publicity to the Poles. The Battle of Monte Cassino was a large operation with many different national armies participating; the capture of the monastery had a huge physiological impact on Poles.

This was all happening at the same time the Red Army had entered Poland and it was becoming clear to many of the Polish soldiers at Cassino that their allies already betrayed them. Surprisingly this was prior to the infamous Yalta Conference, one Polish veteran recount a conversation he had with a GI of Polish origin who stated to him that “you people know you can’t return to Poland”.

The “London Poles” had desperately hoped that such a contribution to allied victory would be taken into consideration by the western allies and greater desperation resulted in the authorization for the Warsaw Uprising.

The British at this point were already conscience of the problem they faced with the “London Poles” who were becoming an inconvenient presence. And a one-way trip on a “defective” airplane was not practical for so many people.

After VE day there were two groups not permitted to march in the victory parade German war prisoners and Polish Soldiers.

beatroot said...

As a Brit I can say that many Brits would maybe agree with that. Churchill certainly realized what would happen to Poland, and felt bad. But he also knew that the Great British Empire was finished, and in its place was the two new superpowers, with nuclear weapons. Britain was not important anymore.

Renegade Eye said...

What do they have in Ottawa, in honor of the bear?

geez said...

The Ottawa Senators sport an image of a bear on their hockey jerseys.

opamp said...

the British were not eager to give much publicity to the Poles.

This is not the only case. See, for example, the whole Enigma business.

~JS said...

remember flipper the dolphin? well, we all know that dolphins are used in the military now...some trained for suicide missions...is it ethical?

let us compare to the use of the retarded women in iraq the other day (bombs remotely detonated)...same logic, just enough smarts and obedient...is this a new low for humanity? or the next innovative leap in the use of "flipper IQ" humans for warfare?

beatroot said...

Dolpgin suicide bombers? Does al-Qaeda know about this?

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