Tom Matthews and the WWII Steiff Bear
This is the four foot, battered teddy bear who took on Hitler’s Third Reich – and won.
Quite simply, there’s not a bear in the world who can boast the wartime exploits of this paw-atrooper.
Yes, he needs some TLC – he’s effectively blind, with buttons for eyes, and the ears need re-stitching.
But that’s hardly surprising for a mascot that marched with our troops all the way to Berlin.
The toy trooper was handed to Stafford cobbler Thomas Matthews by one grateful, liberated villager following his June 6, 1944, D-Day landing on Juno Beach with the Royal Artillery’s 62nd anti-tank regiment.
And the brave bear became a part of Thomas’ M10 Tank Destroyer crew as they cut a swathe through occupied Europe.
He dodged bullets and shells all the way to Berlin. The Russians may have had the Red Army. We put the willies up Adolf with the Ted Army.
Thomas, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, gave the cuddly hero to his son when he was demobbed.
It spent decades in the loft of Tom Jnr and wife Mo’s Stafford home until the couple dusted-it off for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“It used to be in my pram,” says Tom Jnr, who followed his father’s footsteps into the shoe business.
“He needs work, but that’s hardly surprising. He hasn’t got any proper eyes and the ears need stitching.
“Would I ever get rid of him? I’m 76 and, let’s be honest, I can’t have much longer to go.
“I don’t want him to be dumped in a skip – I’d rather see him looked after.”
The teddy certainly proved a lucky charm for the wartime soldier. Thomas was twice shot in the leg but both bullets were “spent”. He simply pulled them out and stuck plasters over the wounds.
It may prove equally lucky for the squaddie’s son. Tom Jnr and Mo have been told the toy is a rare and highly collectible Steiff bear.
“We never did get round to giving it a name,” says Mo, “but someone suggested Tanky.”
Thomas was given the bear shortly after he and colleagues moved into Raamsdonksveer, Holland. It was a gift from a grateful school ma’am who allowed troops to bed down at her home.
Dad and the teacher were sitting in the living room talking on their own,” Tom Jnr explains. “She said to him ‘You know, you have been ever so good to us since you got here.
“‘You’ve fed us and got us warm again, you’ve made us feel like human beings, I want to give you a present for your son.
“‘I know that you wouldn’t accept anything, but I hope you will take this home next time you go on leave’.
“She went to the cupboard and came back with a well-worn teddy bear. Dad told her he couldn’t take it because it belonged to her two children.
“But she said ‘Don’t worry about that, they never play with it anyway’. The teddy had no eyes but she quickly got two buttons and stitched them in. She also did some darning on his nose and on his paws.
“Dad felt very humble. This person had so little left and yet was so appreciative for what had been done for the family. She had given him one of the few things they had.
“He found two clean sandbags, pulled one over the top of the bear and one over the bottom and stitched them together. He then stowed him behind the instrument panel in the M10 tank destroyer. Later on, Dad would use the teddy bear as a pillow when sleeping inside the tank while they were in the Ardennes.”
The bear crossed the Rhine, moved through Germany and even took part in the Berlin victory parade.
Now, the toy, in its dotage, is enjoying a life less stressful. And that’s well deserved: for this teddy bear, the war was no picnic.