If you find yourself at Edinburgh Zoo, and you can tear yourself away from the pandas, we heartily recommend heading to the Rainforest Room in the Education Centre for a fantastic exhibition called ‘Animals Beyond the Call of Duty’. The exhibition aims to tell the story of animals in war, and includes two very close to Birlinn’s heart.
Bamse was a St Bernard dog who served aboard the Norwegian mine-sweeper Thorodd during WWII and became a global mascot for the Royal Norwegian Forces and a symbol of freedom and inspiration for Allied troops throughout Europe. He was a familiar and much-loved sight around his adopted home of Montrose, shepherding his fellow crew members home after nights out, travelling on the local buses and even intervening to save a man overboard and a victim of a robber. In 2006 a statue of Bamse was unveiled in Montrose and his life story was told in Sea Dog Bamse: World War II Canine Hero by Angus Whitson and Andrew Orr.
Just as brave and cuddly as Bamse, if even larger, was Wojtek, a 500-pound cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking brown bear who was adopted as a cub by the Polish Army in Iran also in WWII. He became an enlisted soldier so he could accompany his comrades onboard ship to Italy – bears weren’t allowed on boats – but he did more than just keep morale up with his cute antics. During battle, and under fire, Wojtek carried heavy shells to the soldiers operating the guns without flinching. After the war Wojtek joined other Polish exiles in Scotland, finally retiring to Edinburgh Zoo where he never failed to get very excited at the sound of Polish being spoken. Aileen Orr, whose grandfather met Wojtek on active service, tells his remarkable story in Wojtek: Polish War Hero.
Aileen, Angus and Andrew all took part in a special event to launch the exhibition, talking about Wojtek and Bamse and their lives.The exhibition itself is kindly sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General to celebrate the links between Scotland and Norway and the 40th anniversary of a penguin at the zoo, ‘Colonel-in Chief’ Nils Olav, being adopted by the Norwegian Kings Guard. It runs until 31st August, and copies of Sea Dog Bamse: World War II Canine Hero and Wojtek: Polish War Hero are available to buy at the zoo.