The heart-melting story of the bear who went to war

Across the road from the newsagents in the small market town of Duns in the Scottish Borders stands a huge statue of a bear carrying an artillery shell.

Flowers almost always are placed in the bear’s hands and every few weeks he is cleaned from top to toe by volunteers.

Tourists and passers-by on their way to Edinburgh or the Highlands no doubt look at the statue with bemusement, thinking it another British quirk involving unsuitable pets — this one with razor-sharp teeth and claws.

Grizzled veteran: Wojtek seeing out his days at Edinburgh Zoo after fighting valiantly in World War II

Grizzled veteran: Wojtek seeing out his days at Edinburgh Zoo after fighting valiantly in World War II

But to the people of Duns, the statue of Wojtek, the bear who fought valiantly in World War II and retired to Berwickshire, is a powerful reminder of a brave and loyal ‘soldier’ whose extraordinary story will soon be given the full cinematic treatment it deserves.

The renowned animator Iain Harvey — who was executive producer on the 1982 TV adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s Oscar-nominated tear-jerker, The Snowman — is planning a film called A Bear Named Wojtek, which he hopes to release in time for the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8, 2020. Hankies at the ready.

‘It’s fantastic to have a piece of magic that’s real,’ said Mr Harvey, who, like many others before him, had assumed that the life and times of Wojtek was ‘pure fantasy’.

He can be forgiven for dismissing Wojtek so easily.

After all, you don’t hear of many 6ft bears, weighing in at around 35 stone, with a taste for beer, vodka, Woodbine cigarettes and bouts of wrestling with their human buddies.

Paw hero: Wojtek was adopted by Polish soldiers in Iran when he was just a cub

Paw hero: Wojtek was adopted by Polish soldiers in Iran when he was just a cub

But, then, Private Wojtek — who was raised to the rank of corporal shortly before his death in 1963 — was no ordinary Ursus Arctos Syriacus (Syrian brown bear), a relatively small sub-species native to the Middle East.

Born near the Iran-Iraq border in early 1942 but orphaned while still a tiny cub, Wojtek was found abandoned by a young shepherd boy.

Some weeks later, the boy came across the 2nd Polish Corps who had made their way to Iran after they had been released from the slave camps of Siberia following the Soviet invasion of German-held East Poland in 1939.

The boy sold Wojtek, hidden within a small wriggling bag, to a lieutenant called Anatol, for some local currency, a chocolate bar and a Swiss Army knife. 

He was then given to a young soldier called Pyotr (Peter in English) to look after.

Peter fed the cub with condensed milk from an old vodka bottle and kept him in his quarters. But soon Wojtek (as the soldiers named him, meaning ‘he who is happy to battle’) became a central part of life in the camp.

He seemed to pick up Polish instructions quickly and was taught to salute when greeted by a senior officer.

The soldiers enjoyed his company and Wojtek returned the compliment, albeit causing a certain amount of mayhem.

Whenever the men put out their clothes to dry, Wojtek would steal the garments, whirling them around his head in triumph as if it was a game just for his benefit.

Wojtek sparring with an army comrade. He helped carry 100lb crates of artillery shells at the Battle of Monte Cassino

Wojtek sparring with an army comrade. He helped carry 100lb crates of artillery shells at the Battle of Monte Cassino

Wojtek being fed by a soldier in his younger years

Wojtek play-fighting with one of his comrades

Wojtek being fed by a soldier in his younger years (left) and play-fighting with one of his comrades (right)

Wojtek playfully nibbling on a soldier's arm during World War II as troops watch in bemusement

Wojtek playfully nibbling on a soldier's arm during World War II as troops watch in bemusement

But he also came in handy as a security guard. One night, an Arab spy broke into the camp and was about to make off with weapons stored in the bath house when he came across Wojtek taking his daily shower.

The terrified man froze on the spot and was then captured. 

When the time came for the Polish troops to join the Allies in North Africa prior to their posting in alongside the British 8th Army in 1944, it was decided that Wojtek would go too.

But pets were

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