Back to news
21st November 2023
Archie Brown and Wojtek the Bear as told by Erskine Creative Marketing Officer Krystyna Caulfield
Years ago, as I started my career at Erskine, I made a trip over to the Erskine Edinburgh Home, where I met the most wonderful gentleman and Veteran, Archie Brown. As I sat in his room I was enthralled by his story, I could have listened to him all day, and it is fair to say that my meeting with Archie is one that has stuck with me nearly 15 years later. He was one of the true characters with incredible stories, who I have been honoured to work alongside.
In 1940, from the Royal Artillery, Archie joined the Royal Corps of Signals as a signaller, and was sent to the Eighth Army in the North Africa campaign shortly afterwards, where he worked as trusted messenger to Field Marshal Montgomery. The work was dangerous, with Archie relaying coded messages from the commanding officer to the troops at the front line. He was frequently transported in Montgomery’s own bullet- and bomb-proof vehicle. The campaign included the horrific battles at El Alamein, Tobruk and Monte Cassino. The experience that he shared with his fellow soldiers deeply affected Archie for the rest of his life.
As the proud Granddaughter of a Polish submariner during WWII, what captivated me was Archie’s story of Wojtek the Bear. The story starts in 1942, when a local boy found a bear cub near Iran, whose mother had been shot. The bear passed hands and eventually a young Polish refugee, escaping from the Soviet, donated the bear to the Polish Army. The young bear initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an emptied vodka bottle. The bear was subsequently fed with fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup, and was often rewarded with beer, which became his favourite drink. He also liked smoking cigarettes. The bear enjoyed wrestling and was taught to salute when greeted. The bear soon became renowned, and an unofficial mascot of all units stationed nearby.
The bear moved to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine and Egypt with the Polish Company. When it came to leave, the soldiers refused to go without the bear. It was then that he was officially drafted into the Polish Army and given the name of Corporal Wojtek. As an officially enlisted "soldier" of the Company, he lived with the men in their tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. It is said that during the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped by transporting ammunition – never dropping a single crate.
Archie proudly served with the Royal Signals until 1946, when he was seconded to the Polish Royal Artillery Unit based in Winfield Camp at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Whilst interviewing everyone in the Unit to ensure they could understand English and help with employment in the UK, he was introduced to Corporal Wojtek, who had been listed as a Corporal on the regimental roster. The first meeting with Corporal Wojtek, an over- 8 ft brown bear, was truly unforgettable for Archie! Archie helped to facilitate Wojtek’s safe transfer to Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived out the rest of his life, often visited by former Polish soldiers, some of whom would toss him cigarettes, which he would eat as there was no one there to light them for him.
If you visit Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh you will find a statue of Wojtek the bear, and if you look even closer the name “Archie Brown” engraved on its plinth, along with names of Polish Soldiers and my Grandfather Joseph Diak.