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Never have the words 'truth is stranger than fiction' rung truer than in the story of Wojtek the Syrian brown bear who became a Polish war hero. Captured in 1942 as a small cub by a boy in Iran he was sold to Polish soldiers stationed nearby for a couple of cans of meat. Weaned on an unusual diet of fruit, marmalade, condensed milk, beer and cigarettes he came to be a much loved mascot for the troops. Wojtek also loved to wrestle and was taught to salute when greeted. He travelled with the troops through the middle east to Egypt and became such a greatly loved talismanic figure that the Poles refused to leave him behind when they embarked to fight in the Italian campaign, and so he was enlisted as a private in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish 2nd corps. Astonishingly Wojtek served with distinction at the ferocious battle for the high fortress monastery of Monte Cassino where the Poles fought with astonishing valour. Such were his exploits carrying ammunition that the 22nd Artillery Supply company had a bear carrying ammunition as the painted emblem on their vehicles. Of all the unlikely places Wojtek ended up in Scotland.
Now that is quite a story, and one certainly worth telling. This documentary was first aired on the 30th December 2011 on BBC2 Scotland. Narrated using the mighty vocal chords of Brian Blessed this is an affectionate, and at times moving recollection of the the great bears exploits. One old soldier vividly recalls the unnerving experience of meeting Private Wojtek for the first time on his embarcation from Egypt to Italy. Old Polish soldiers recall Wojtek's big hearted antics and how he really believed himself to be one of the boys. Perhaps most moving of all was the recollection of an old Scottish soldier who remembered seeing the bear in Edinburgh zoo, and how he danced to Polish music showing an understanding of the Polish tongue and also ate a cigarette perhaps recalling better times. It was clear that the bear remembered his times with the Poles and responded accordingly. Most telling of all was the raw emotion of the soldier struggling to contain tears, who said it was the most moving thing that he had ever witnessed. Wojtek was no dumb beast and was sadly denied the chance to enter Poland as a war hero. A sad ending for a small bear that started off in the remote fastness of Iran. One of the best documentaries I have seen in a long time!