Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero Aileen Orr, with an epilogue by Neil Ascherson

Birlinn, pp.200, 9.99

Ostensibly this small book is a jolly and true story (illustrated with some charming black-and-white snapshots) about the military experiences of Wojtek (pronounced Voycheck), the bear who, bought as a cub by Polish soldiers in Persia, earned name, rank and number as the mascot of the 22nd Company of the Artillery Supply Command, 2nd Polish Corps. But it proves a deeper and, especially for British readers, a much darker tale. Neal Ascherson, in a fine historical essay, explains how Wojtek spread hope and fostered humanity among soldiers, who ‘had lost most of what is supposed to make a war worth fighting and a life worth living’.

The men of the 2nd Polish Corps had fought and lost to the Germans and Russians, and survived deportation to the Soviet Union. They were released in 1942 to fight for the Allies, after the Soviets switched sides following the German invasion of Russia. Bases were set up for Polish soldiers and civilians alike. The commander of the resulting ‘army’ of ‘walking skeletons’ was General Wladyslaw Anders, himself a victim of Soviet imprisonment and torture. On his initiative the ‘army’ underwent a gruelling journey south to join the British in Palestine. Women and children were dispatched, a heart-rending process, and the 2nd Corps, the legendary ‘Anders Army’, was born.

It was in Anders Army that Wojtek (‘Happy Warrior’) made his mark. He travelled, usually in the passenger seat of a truck, from Persia in 1942 to Scotland in 1946 where, on his 1947 demobilisation, he entered Edinburgh zoo. The zoo’s director said he had never felt so sorry to see an animal confined to a cage. As an accredited Private, Wojtek had been a morale-boosting object of affection and amusement — quaffing beer, crunching lit cigarettes, wrestling with the men, scaring strangers — and a warrior on his own account. In Iraq his love of the wash-hut caused the arrest of a surprised and duly terrified enemy spy. But his and 2nd Corps’ finest hour was at Monte Cassino. Wojtek was a carrier, making light of the 100lb ammunition boxes he delivered to the batteries. The 2nd Corps successfully stormed the vitally strategic monastery on 18 May 1944, thus gaining Poland’s most mythic battle honour of the war. Soon the 22nd Company had its own regimental insignia, a silhouette of Wojtek bearing a 25lb shell.

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Hopes were now high that the Polish army would liberate its own country, but they were soon dashed. Poland had yet again been betrayed, this time by the American, British and Soviet tripartite conference at Yalta on the division of postwar Europe. In the words of Anders’ telegram to the London-based Polish president-in-exile, the 2nd Corps could not accept this ‘unilateral decision by which Poland and the Polish nation are surrendered to be the spoils of the Bolsheviks’.

In fact the decision had been secretly agreed in 1943 at the tripartite meeting of the big three in Tehran. That Britain proceeded to recognise the puppet government in Warsaw rather than the government-in-exile, its loyal ally throughout the war, was a perfidy compounded by the refusal to allow the Poles to march on VE Day, an insult which still rankles.

The 22nd Company was eventually posted to Berwickshire, via Naples and Glasgow, with Wojtek leading the victory march. The Labour government’s subsequent bribes to send Poles home to almost certain death provided a suitably disgraceful conclusion to our duplicity. And these were the people on whose behalf we had gone to war in 1939.

To make some amends Aileen Cooper has founded the Wojtek Memorial Trust to fight for Polish rights and written this latest book on Wojtek — required reading for any idealist considering a career in politics.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, History, Military, Non-fiction, Poland, Polish, War history, Wojtek the bear