Cathedral offers hope in fight to honour city’s soldier bear

How the statue of Wojtek might look
How the statue of Wojtek might look
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HE was an intimidating 35-stone soldier who battled the Nazis as the pride of the Polish infantry before seeing out his days at Edinburgh Zoo.

Now “Private Wojtek” – a six-feet-tall Syrian brown bear – could be immortalised with a £200,000 bronze statue in the city to remember his contribution to the war effort and commemorate his poignant tale.

After previous bids to erect a memorial at Edinburgh Castle and Calton Hill hit the buffers, a new plot has been earmarked near St Mary’s RC Cathedral on Picardy Place, with blueprints set to go before planners.

The project is the brain-child of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, whose key figures include Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Major General Euan Loudon, and author Aileen Orr.

The remarkable story of Wojtek, whose name means “smiling warrior”, began in Persia in 1942, where the Polish Second Corps was approached by a shepherd boy who swapped an orphaned baby bear for some cans of tinned meat.

The bear travelled with the soldiers to join the fight in Egypt and Italy but within two years had been enrolled in the Polish army, despite strict orders that no animals accompany the soldiers to join the Allied advance on Italy.

At the Battle of Monte Cassino the 500lb bear cemented his legacy by raising himself on to his hind legs and carrying boxes of live shells from lorries to gun emplacements. Wojtek was later adopted as a symbol of the Polish fight, and the banner and buttons of the Transport Corps were redrawn to bear his image.

Like his comrades, Wojtek was also known to recharge from the fighting by drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

After the war the bear moved with his unit to Berwickshire, because of the Soviet occupation of Poland.

Writer Aileen Orr, whose book Wojtek The Bear, Polish War Hero was published last year, has a link to the story through her grandfather, a King’s Own Scottish Borderers colour sergeant who met the bear in Egypt and Palestine before the pair were later reunited in a farm in Berwickshire.

She said: “Wojtek is part of our own history, a feel-good story that has captivated so many people around the world.”

Eventually the Polish soldiers left, but Wojtek had to stay behind and entered Edinburgh Zoo in 1947 where he spent the rest of his life.

Ms Orr said there was global interest in Wojtek’s story and a commemorative statue would have wide appeal.

“We have a potential venue for the statue in front of St Mary’s Cathedral,” she said. “It’s a fair bit away from the front steps on a grassy knoll that already commemorates The Battle of Monte Cassino.

“It’s hugely positive for Scotland and also a huge tourist draw. This is not a military thing. It’s very much a humanitarian, touching story, a story beyond politics and war. It’s about comradeship.”

If given the green light a nine-foot bronze statue of Wojtek and his “keeper” soldier Peter Prendys will be installed at the site.