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Croydon man who took a bear to fight the Nazis dies, aged 89

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A FORMER soldier who took a beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking bear into action with him has died aged 89 in Kenley.

Dymitr Szawlugo, who died on April 2, was serving with the Polish Army in Iran in 1942 when he adopted a small bear, which he named Wojtek.

When his unit was relocated to Italy, the soldiers were told they had to leave Wojtek behind because he was a mascot.

To avoid this, they enlisted the now much larger animal on to the army payroll – giving him a rank and serial number.

Wojtek was no teddy bear, however, seeing action on the front line and carrying ammunition to be used in the Battle of Monte Cassino.

Mr Szawlugo's daughter, Helena Gates, 48, said: "My father said the bear was very much one of the lads.

"Wojtek used to smoke cigarettes and loved a beer as a reward. When his beer was finished he used to peer into his bottle until someone came and topped it up again." Wojtek, pronounced Voytek, used to mimic everything the soldiers of the 22nd Transport Company did.

After the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, the company changed its badge to an image of Wojtek holding a shell.

Old Coulsdon resident Helena said: "I remember when I was a child my dad telling us stories about Wojtek at bedtime.

"He gave me a teddy bear and suggested I name it Little Wojtek."

When Mr Szawlugo and his colleagues were demobilised at the end of the war, Wojtek took up residence at Edinburgh Zoo, where he died in 1963.

Shortly before Mr Szawlugo died, he was visited by best-selling Second World War author Brendan Foley, who is writing a screenplay based on his life with Wojtek.

After he left the Army, Mr Szawlugo moved to south London and worked as an engineer at the AGI factory in Lombard Road, Croydon.

His wife Victoria died in 2008, and he spent his final years at Homefield House in Old Coulsdon and Hill House in Kenley.

Mr Szawlugo will be given a small funeral next week in Streatham, organised by Rowland Brothers.

Mr Szawlugo's son Andy added: "There will be Polish Army insignia on his coffin and pictures of Wojtek too, because he played a big part in his life."

Croydon man who took a bear to fight the Nazis dies, aged 89


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