Tributes to Second World War hero who helped raise shell carrying bear Wojtek

Bazyl Klimowicz as a young man, left, and after retirement, right

Bazyl Klimowicz has died aged 103. He served in the Polish II Corps in the Second World War before seeing out his life in North Walsham. - Credit: Klimowicz family

Tributes have been paid to a Polish war hero who fought in the Battle of Monte Cassino and alongside a bear who has gone down in his nation's history.

Bazyl Klimowicz, who was thought to be one of the last surviving members of the Polish II Corps, died in North Walsham on July 3, aged 104.

His wife June described him as "a wonderful husband" adding she could not have asked for more during their 70 years of marriage.

His daughter Angela described him as "gentle" yet "so strong and brave" adding: "He was incredible, the world needs more men like him."

Tributes have been paid to Polish war hero, Bazyl Klimowicz, who raised and fought alongside Wojtek the bear.

Tributes have been paid to Polish war hero, Bazyl Klimowicz, who raised and fought alongside Wojtek the bear. - Credit: Pauline Kent

Born in north east Poland in 1917, Mr Klimowicz joined the Polish army in the late 1930s, but was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia when the Soviet Union invaded.


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He was released at the beginning of the Second World War, when the Polish army agreed to fight against Germany in return for the prisoners' release.

Once in the Polish II Corps, Mr Klimowicz had to travel from Siberia to north Africa to undergo training.

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It was on his journey to Africa that he and his fellow soldiers met Wojtek the bear at a railway station in Iran.

Angela said: "There was a little boy sitting at the station with a little brown bear, its mother had been shot, so the little boy had tried to rescue it.

"The men asked the general if they could adopt the bear as a mascot, and he agreed, so the soldiers got together some chocolate, money and whatever they could get together to give the boy, and took the bear."

Bazyl's brother Walter, who served alongside him, with Private Wojtek.

Bazyl's brother Walter, who served alongside him, with Private Wojtek. - Credit: Pauline Kent

She said the bear was only small at first and was fed with a vodka bottle with a teat attached, however Wojtek eventually grew to 7ft and became one of the men.

When Mr Klimowicz and the group were assigned to the Italian campaign, Wojtek followed due to his rank of private, drinking, smoking and play fighting with the men as well as helping to carry shells on the battlefield at Monte Cassino.

Private Wojtek was even given his own pay allowance.

After the war, Wojtek was taken to Edinburgh Zoo, where Mr Klimowicz was reunited with him in 1955, visiting alongside June and Angela.

A statue of Wojtek with a Polish soldier located in Edinburgh.

A statue of Wojtek with a Polish soldier located in Edinburgh. - Credit: Pauline Kent

June added: "When we saw him, all three of us cried, the war ended and Wojtek's life ended.

"If Bazyl could've brought him home, he would've done."

Before meeting Wojtek and being taken to Siberia, Mr Klimowicz was involved in another battle at the Vistula River in Poland.

Tributes have been paid to Polish war hero, Bazyl Klimowicz, who raised and fought alongside Wojtek the bear.

Tributes have been paid to Polish war hero, Bazyl Klimowicz, who raised and fought alongside Wojtek the bear. - Credit: Pauline Kent

His group were poorly equipped and forced to swim the river while taking gunfire from German soldiers posing as Polish ones.

Mr Klimowicz made it to the other side, however after seeing other men still in trouble, he took a small boat and rowed across dodging bullets to rescue two of his comrades.

Angela said: "He was brave - he had the heart of Wojtek."

For his service in the army, Mr Klimowicz was awarded the Italy,  France and Germany Star, Defence Medal and the War Medal.

Bazyl was awarded Italy,  France and Germany Star, Defence Medal and the War Medal for his time in the army.

Bazyl was awarded Italy, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal and the War Medal for his time in the army. - Credit: Casey Cooper-Fiske

Following the war, June met Mr Klimowicz aged 18 in her home city of Newcastle in 1949, after he settled there following the war, unable to return to Poland as it had not been liberated.

June said: "My family used to mix with people, and we used to have parties at home.

"Bazyl was invited and that's how I got talking to him, then he invited me out, I only went out with him once and he asked me to marry him.

"We were together two months and we got married, I've never regretted it, we had an absolutely wonderful married life.

"He was everything I looked for in a man."

Bazyl with wife June and the rest of his family.

Bazyl with wife June and the rest of his family. - Credit: Pauline Kent

When he arrived in the UK at Liverpool docks, Angela says her husband was given nothing to help him except for ten cigarettes and a blanket from the Red Cross.

Angela said: "He got here from the Italian sunshine and said it was raining and grey with fog, it was like weather he'd never seen.

"From Liverpool, some army people met him and took him to some army barrack place and then eventually he got work as a carpenter."

Once Mr Klimowicz took early retirement, he and June moved to North Walsham in 1976, in order to be closer to Angela.

He never returned to Poland as he never believed doing so would be safe enough.

Bazyl with wife June.

Bazyl with wife June. - Credit: Pauline Kent

He enjoyed his retirement, especially spending time tending to his garden and trips to the seaside.

Angela said: "He loved music, especially Italian music, Mario Lanza and all that as well as recent singers, he also loved dancing and partying.

"He said to me, make sure you get the family together at least once every month.

"The last Wednesday before he died, he was telling me about parties we'd had and he was laughing, saying 'let's have a party tonight'."

Private Wojtek

Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear bought from a child by the Polish II Corps at a railway station in Hamadan, Iran.

When the unit was assigned to the Italian campaign, Wojtek was given the rank of private, giving him a pay allowance for his rations and transportation.

He was brought up by the group and as he became an adult he smoked, drank and played with the men, cooling down with a shower in the evenings.

During battle, Wojtek would help the troops by carrying shells and crates of ammunition, most famously at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Following the war, Wojtek was sent to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947 where he lived until he died aged 21 in 1963.

The bear has become famous around the world with monuments to him and the Polish II Corps in Scotland, Poland, and England.

Polish II Corps

The Polish II Corps was a major unit of the Polish armed forces in World War Two, led by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders.

They fought the Italian campaign after being deported from Soviet occupied Poland, following their release from prisoner of war camps in Siberia.

The group is best known for its efforts at the Battle of Monte Cassino, which saw the Allies make four assaults on the Winter Line in Italy which was held by Axis forces.

The Italian Campaign was costly, with the Polish II Corps losing 11,379 men, with 2,301 killed in action, 8,543 wounded in action and 535 missing in action.

Of the 2,301 killed, 1,079 died during the Battle of Monte Cassino, these men were buried at the Monte Cassino Polish war cemetery.

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