HE’S the beer-swilling “soldier bear” who helped stockpile ammunition in the Second World War and struck fear into the hearts of Germans at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
But now a ferocious 15-foot portrait of Private Wojtek – the famous Syrian brown bear – is set to terrify motorists across Edinburgh who get stuck behind a dedicated Lothian bus.
The colourful graphic depicts the huge predator carrying a bomb – a nod to his famous 1940s exploits in Italy where he helped the Polish II Corps take on the Nazis by moving heavy caches of ammunition to allied gunners.
Created by Polish artist Mateusz Jarza, the striking image aims to promote a memorial campaign honouring the war hero who spent his twilight years at Edinburgh Zoo after being demobbed from the Polish army.
Mr Jarza said the fascinating Wojtek story unites Scotland and Poland.
And he spoke of his pride at being able to pay tribute to the iconic bear with such a public commission.
“I was at the depot seeing the bus yesterday and the graphic of Wojtek looks amazing and I’m very happy with it,” he said.
“It was quite difficult to do. I was working on it for a while and changing the graphics – and now finally we have it.
“I’m very proud I was chosen to do the graphics, as I know they could have chosen anyone.”
He added: “Wojtek helps people to work together. The story helps different generations of Polish immigrants to work together, and it helps Scottish people to know more about Polish culture and people.”
A 10ft bronze statue of Wojtek is expected to be unveiled next year in West Princes Street Gardens.
Driving the plan forward is the Wojtek Memorial Trust, which has already raised two-thirds of a £300,000 funding target to complete the installation.
A £20,000 grant from the Scottish Government helped push the project towards the finish line but more donations are still needed.
The story goes that Wojtek was adopted as a cub by Polish troops based in the Middle East during the Second World War, and became such a part of army life he was even given his own name, rank and serial number.
He went on to fight alongside the men during the famous 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, and after the war travelled to Scotland with the displaced Poles – where locals gave them a heroes’ welcome.
Wojtek Memorial Trust founder Aileen Orr, whose grandfather trained Wojtek’s Polish comrades in the Middle East, said the bear is “living history” whose story is still recounted in both Warsaw and Edinburgh.
She said the Lothian Buses campaign – to be unveiled today – was intended to draw attention to the statue fundraising campaign and to boost its profile.
“I hope people like it,” she said.
“I think younger people will like it more than the older people – the kids will like it.”
Wojtek’s statue is being designed and built by Scottish sculptor Alan Herriot.
The monument depicts Wojtek’s “keeper”, soldier Peter Prendys, placing a hand on the shoulder of the bear.