London Files: Wojtek, The Soldier Bear
The Polish Army Mascot, the Soldier Bear
One of the stops on our recent London Trip was the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum at 20 Prince’s Gate, Knightsbridge. This small museum is housed in what I’m guessing is a Victorian-era townhouse. It was rather hard to find because the block of houses is not well-marked. But we persisted, and it was well worth it! This museum is chock-full of interesting exhibits related to Polish military history.
The museum is only open for two hours, but those two hours include a fully guided tour.
One very fun exhibit is the statue in the lobby of a large bear. Wojtek (pronounced “voytek”) was a mascot for the Polish army.
Wojtek, the soldier bear, has no less than three books written about him. Two are available on Amazon, and this one I obtained at the museum.
If you remember your history of World War II, Poland was overrun and defeated in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1941 Germany invaded Russia. The Soviet Union switched sides and released thousands of Polish soldiers from prisons and labour camps.
The freed Polish soldiers traveled to the middle east to join allied armies. In Iran, they came across a bear cub who’d lost his mother and purchased him as a mascot.
I confess I’d never heard the history of Polish ground forces in World War II. When I think about the Polish military presence, I think of the airmen who flew with the British. (That’s a post for another day.) Nor did I realize there were bears in the middle east!
Wojtek became a beer-drinking, cigarette-eating member of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the 2nd Polish Corps. It is said that he served at the Battle of Monte Cassino, helping to unload artillery shells.
As our guide reminded us, World War II didn’t truly end for the Poles until 1989. In 1945, demobilized Polish soldiers scattered all over the world, and Wojtek went to live at the zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Here I am with Wojtek in the entry hall of the Sikorski Museum. I have more stories from this museum that I’ll share in future posts.
Images: Wikimedia and the Author