£20k boost to memorial for Nazi-fighting bear

The Wojtek Memorial Trust hopes to erect a statue of the bear in West Princes Street Gardens. Picture: contributed
The Wojtek Memorial Trust hopes to erect a statue of the bear in West Princes Street Gardens. Picture: contributed
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Campaigners battling to erect a memorial to a famous Nazi-fighting bear have received a £20,000 boost from the Scottish Government.

Wojtek the bear was brought to Scotland by Polish soldiers after the Second World War – following a distinguished career fighting German troops in Italy at the height of the conflict.

Now the Scottish Government has announced a grant for the Wojtek Memorial Trust, the charity seeking to build a memorial to the bear in West Princes Street Gardens to mark the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

A Trust spokesman said they hoped to unveil the new statue next year, after so far achieving two thirds of their initial £300,000 funding target.

The government’s cash injection will go towards a panel explaining the significance of the memorial – with the Polish government also set to make a contribution.

Simon Thompson, chair of the Trust, hailed the donation as “great for the Trust and great for the statue.”

Wojtek was the mascot of the Free Polish Army during the Second World War, after being rescued as a cub by soldiers as they made their way through the Middle East.

The bear – by this point a fully grown, 6ft adult male – became one of the troops, enjoying wrestling with the men and even smoking cigarettes and guzzling beer. And after soldiers refused to desert him he was given a name, rank and serial number in order to travel with the Poles to fight in Italy.

During the devastating Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, it was claimed the bear carried live rounds through the battlefield to support the war-weary men.

Following the end of the Second World War, Wojtek travelled to Scotland with the Polish soldiers, where they received a heroes’ welcome and lived in Winfield Camp in Berwickshire as displaced persons fleeing a Poland now dominated by Soviet rule.

But the camp was closed in 1947 and Wojtek was put under the protection of Edinburgh Zoo until his death in December 1963.

Announcing the government’s cash boost to the campaign, Culture and External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “Wojtek the soldier bear symbolises the strong 
relationship between Scotland and Poland and our historic links, and I am delighted to support this statue.

“The Scottish Government recognises the huge contribution Polish immigrants make to Scottish life – from the Poles who fought alongside us, and alongside Wojtek, in World War Two, to more recent arrivals.”

She added: “I want young Scots to know the story of Wojtek the soldier bear.”

Mr Thompson said: “Wojtek’s story, which is becoming better known around the world, reminds us not only of the strong historic links between Poland and Scotland, but also of the ever increasing current links between our two nations. Wojtek is a powerful symbol of these links, and of the gratitude felt in Scotland to the Polish men, women – and a bear – who fought for their freedom and ours”.