Wojtek – the Bear Who Fought Alongside Polish Soldiers in WWII

Diana Rus

Polish soldier with Wojtek in 1942Photo byWojtek (bear)/Wikipedia

Wojtek (1942 – 2 December 1963) was a Syrian brown bear that Polish II Corps troops who had been evacuated from the Soviet Union bought when he was a small cub from a train station in Hamadan, Iran.

He was eventually formally enlisted as a soldier with the rank of private and was then raised to corporal to afford his rations and transportation.

He joined the bulk of the II Corps in Italy, serving with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company.

During the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, Wojtek helped in moving ammunition crates and gained recognition among the visiting Allied generals and statesmen. He was mustered out of the Polish Army following the war and spent the remainder of his days at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.

Wojtek's fascinating life

In the spring of 1942, the newly created Anders' Army departed the Soviet Union for Iran, followed by thousands of Polish civilians deported to the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939.

On April 8, 1942, Polish soldiers came upon a little Iranian boy in a train station in Hamadan, Iran, who had found a bear cub whose mother had been killed by hunters.

Irena (Inka) Bokiewicz, an 18-year-old civilian refugee and the great-niece of General Bolesaw Wieniawa-Dugoszowski, was particularly fascinated by the cub.

She convinced Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy the cub, which spent the following three months mostly in Irena's care in a Polish refugee camp set up close to Tehran.

The bear was given to the 2nd Transport Company, which later changed its name to the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, in August. The troops gave the bear the name Wojtek. The name Wojtek is a shortened form of the traditional Slavic name "Wojciech", which means "Happy Warrior", and which is still widely used in Poland.

Wojtek and a Polish soldierPhoto byWojtek (bear)/Wikipedia

The soldiers trained Wojtek

Wojtek initially had trouble swallowing, so condensed milk was administered to him from a used vodka bottle.

Later, he received fruit, marmalade, honey, and syrup as rewards. Beer, which later became his favorite beverage, was also frequently provided to him. Later on, he also loved drinking coffee in the mornings and eating cigarettes. If the other troops were cold at night, he would sleep with them.

He was trained to salute when greeted, and he liked wrestling with the soldiers. He quickly turned into a popular attraction for both soldiers and civilians, and all the nearby units adopted him as their unofficial mascot.

He went to Iraq with the 22nd Company, then to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.

Wojtek imitated the other troops, drinking beer, smoking (eating cigarettes), and even walking with them on his hind legs since he observed them do so. Wojtek had a caregiver that was assigned to him.

The cub grew up during the campaign, and at the Battle of Monte Cassino, he weighed 200 lb.

Wojtek became a soldier

The Polish II Corps was sent from Egypt to the Italian campaign to fight with the British Eighth Army. Mascots and pet animals were not permitted aboard the British transport ship that was to take them to Italy.

To get around this restriction, Wojtek was formally enlisted as a private in the Polish Army and listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. His caregivers were Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz.

A standard 25-pounder ammunition crate, which held four shellsPhoto byWojtek (bear)/Wikipedia

Wojtek's life as a soldier

As an enlisted soldier with his paybook, rank, and serial number, he lived in tents or a special wooden container transported by truck with the other men.

During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped his unit in transporting ammunition by carrying 100-pound crates of 25-pound artillery shells and never dropping any of them. Although there has been debate over the authenticity of this story, at least one British soldier has claimed to have seen a bear carrying ammunition crates.

When the troops were lifting containers, the bear imitated them by doing the same. Wojtek would load ammunition boxes or trucks with boxes that would often need four men to lift.

He was promoted to the rank of corporal for his work at Monte Cassino. In appreciation of Wojtek's popularity, the official emblem of the 22nd Company was a bear carrying an artillery shell.

Wojtek with artillery shell: Emblem of 22nd Artillery Supply CompanyPhoto byWojtek (bear)/Wikipedia

Wojtek's life after WWII ended

Wojtek and the rest of the 22nd Company were sent to Berwickshire, Scotland, following the end of World War II in 1945. They were stationed at Winfield Airfield on Sunwick Farm, close to the Scottish Borders village of Hutton.

The Polish-Scottish Association elected Wojtek as an honorary member after he quickly gained popularity with the community's residents and the media.

Wojtek was demobilized on November 15, 1947, and was sent to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. He was regularly visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, some of whom tossed cigarettes for him to eat, as he had done during his time in the army.

Wojtek's fame was boosted by media attention. He frequently appeared on the kids' show Blue Peter on BBC television.

Wojtek died at the age of 21 in December 1963, weighing approximately 1,100 lb and measuring over 5 ft 11 in tall.

Wojtek in Britain after the WarPhoto byWojtek (bear)/Wikipedia


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