Saturday, January 26, 2008
WW2 Soldier Bear - 26 Jan 2008
Honour sought for 'Soldier Bear'
Voytek was billeted in the Borders (Imperial War Museum)
A campaign has been launched to build a permanent memorial to a bear which spent much of its life in Scotland - after fighting in World War II.
The bear - named Voytek - was adopted in the Middle East by Polish troops in 1943, becoming much more than a mascot.
The large animal even helped their armed forces to carry ammunition at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Voytek - known as the Soldier Bear - later lived near Hutton in the Borders and ended his days at Edinburgh Zoo.
He was found wandering in the hills of Iran by Polish soldiers in 1943.
They adopted him and as he grew he was trained to carry heavy mortar rounds.
When Polish forces were deployed to Europe the only way to take the bear with them was to "enlist" him.
So he was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign.
He saw action at Monte Cassino before being billeted - along with about 3,000 other Polish troops - at the army camp in the Scottish Borders.
The soldiers who were stationed with him say that he was easy to get along with.
"He was just like a dog - nobody was scared of him," said Polish veteran Augustyn Karolewski, who still lives near the site of the camp.
"He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer - he drank a bottle of beer like any man."
When the troops were demobilised, Voytek spent his last days at Edinburgh Zoo.
Mr Karolewski went back to see him on a couple of occasions and found he still responded to the Polish language.
"I went to Edinburgh Zoo once or twice when Voytek was there," he said.
"And as soon as I mentioned his name he would sit on his backside and shake his head wanting a cigarette.
"It wasn't easy to throw a cigarette to him - all the attempts I made until he eventually got one."
Voytek was a major attraction at the zoo until his death in 1963.
Eyemouth High School teacher Garry Paulin is now writing a new book, telling the bear's remarkable story.
Local campaigner Aileen Orr would like to see a memorial created at Holyrood to the bear she says was part of both the community and the area's history.
She first heard about Voytek as a child from her grandfather, who served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers.
"I thought he had made it up to be quite honest but it was only when I got married and came here that I knew in fact he was here, Voytek was here," she said.
"When I heard from the community that so few people knew about him I began to actually research the facts.
"It is just amazing, the story is totally amazing."