The 49th Division became known as the Polar Bears because of their service in Iceland between 1940 and 1942. The adoption of the new divisional sign accompanied publication of the division's newspaper 'The Midnight Sun'.

The famous white polar bear originally appeared in a natural attitude - face lowered to look into a hole in the ice, preparing to grasp his next fishy meal.

This is the badge you can see on John Crook's shoulder.


John with the 'Polar Bear' head down badge on his left shoulder


After leaving Iceland 146th Brigade under Brigadier N P Procter M.C were stationed in Hereford and Ross on Wye.

In the Spring of 1943 the Hallamshires were pitched against the Canadian Army under General MacNaughton in an exercise called 'Spartan'. It lasted over a fortnight.

The new general officer in command of 49th Division was Major General 'Bubbles' Barker. He died in 1983 and his Times obituary revealed that his nickname related to his effervescent spirit and puckish sense of humour. In his staff there was a Brigadier-Major Paul Crook who had been a talented swing musician and cricketer. It's unlikely there was any close relation but John Crook and Paul Crook would have been connected many generations before in the family trees of English Crook dynasties.

Bubbles Barker was responsible for redesigning the division's badge.

Whilst it was known that Polar Bears hunt fish with their heads down to see and claw back their prey: they also lower their heads before charging. But 'Bubbles' felt that the lowered head indicated a lack of martial intent. He wrote:

'The Bear is too submissive. I want a defiant sign for my division, lift its head up and make it roar.'

So 16,000 soldiers, each with two battledresses and four divisional signs, were issued with new 'aggressive signs'.

The Polar Bears became notorious to German troops and merited a vicious attack by Lord Haw Haw on the radio during the Normandy campaign. He called them 'The Polar Bear Butchers' and the insult formed the basis of a somewhat bloodthirsty 49th Divisional Christmas Card for 1944. This extreme rhetoric reflects the ugliness of fighting in Normandy.

 

There was a constant fear that neither side would give any quarter. Sadly there many many incidents of POWs on both sides being executed after capture. Snipers and SS troops were hated and many documented accounts indicate they were unlikely to be given the courtesies of the Geneva Convention.