Wojtek, often referred to as the ‘soldier bear’, is more than just a Polish legend.
While his tale may initially seem like folklore, a deeper understanding of Poland’s history and culture reveals the plausibility of such an extraordinary story.
This bear not only became a part of the Polish military but also played a significant role during the Second World War.
How did this come to be, and what made Wojtek’s journey so remarkable?
In this in-depth exploration, we delve into the extraordinary life and achievements of Wojtek, recounting his unique journey from a young cub to a symbol of courage and camaraderie during World War II.
Wojtek’s Unexpected Introduction to the Polish Soldiers
In spring 1942, at a transit camp in northern Persia, a gathering of young Polish soldiers encountered a shepherd boy who had stumbled upon an abandoned bear cub.
The soldiers decided to purchase the cub from the boy and bestowed the name Wojtek, a diminutive of the Polish name Wojciech, meaning “happy warrior.”
Drawn to his innocence and vulnerability, the soldiers decided to adopt the young bear cub into their ranks, marking the beginning of an extraordinary bond.
Playing with him regularly and living on a diet of fruit and condensed milk, Wojtek quickly became an integral part of the unit.
Understanding Wojtek’s Species: The Syrian Brown Bear
Wojtek (pronounced in English as “Voy-tek”) was a Syrian brown bear (Ursus arctos syriacus), native to the Middle East and Caucasus Mountains.
Today, Wojtek’s species in Turkey face significant risks due to extensive fragmentation of forests, habitat degradation, and persecution in regions where it causes harm to beehives and livestock.
In the Black Sea area, local residents engage in illegal bear hunting primarily for the purpose of obtaining bear fat, believed to possess medicinal properties.
Bears are occasionally killed during hunts targeting wild boars with the aid of dogs. In addition, they fall victim to poisoned baits and unlawfully set snares intended for red deer, roe deer, wolves, or lynxes.
The Unusual Decision: Adopting a Bear into the Polish Army
The decision of the Polish army to adopt a bear into their ranks during World War II was driven by a unique combination of circumstances and emotions.
Amid the chaos and hardships of war, the Polish soldiers found solace, companionship, and a source of morale in the bear’s presence.
It’s easy to understand how the soldiers’ encounter with the young bear cub stirred a sense of compassion and empathy within them.
They couldn’t bear (pun intended) to leave the defenceless creature behind, knowing the life it would have with a small boy.
It’s arguable that the bear would have a ‘better life’ as a soldier in the Polish military, but we’ll never really know the real motivations of the soldiers.
More importantly, the bear’s presence served as a symbol of hope and resilience for the soldiers.
Amidst the harsh realities of war, Wojtek became a source of inspiration and a reminder of the innocence and beauty that still existed in the world.
The soldiers found comfort in caring for the bear and witnessing its playful nature, allowing them to momentarily escape the horrors of war.
A Furry (and practical) Comrade in Arms
As Wojtek grew, so did his connection with the soldiers who cared for him. He quickly became integral to the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.
However, animal mascots were not allowed on transport ships or into war zones. To circumvent this, the soldiers ingeniously enlisted Wojtek as a regular private in the Polish army, complete with his own paybook and serial number.
Wojtek’s physical attributes and innate abilities played a practical role within the army.
As he grew, his strength and agility became apparent, making him a valuable asset for tasks that required lifting and transporting heavy ammunition crates.
This contribution eased the burden on the soldiers and showcased Wojtek’s usefulness as a member of their ranks.
Wojtek’s Contributions and Companionship
Wojtek’s exceptional qualities extended beyond his endearing presence.
He possessed an uncanny ability to mimic the actions of his fellow soldiers, often observed helping with various tasks around the camp.
His physical strength and agility proved invaluable in lifting heavy ammunition crates, a skill that earned him the nickname “the Strongman.”
Henryk Zacharewicz, a member of the 22nd Transport Company says “He was like a big dog, no one was scared of him”.
According to Second Corps veteran Dymitr Szawlugo “I soon became familiar with Wojtek (Voytek) the bear, and we spent much time together. We all loved him, and everyone enjoyed his company. He loved to drink from a beer bottle, and when it was empty, he would look through the opening to see where the rest of the beer was.”
“Once, a scorpion stung him on the nose and became very ill. A few of us stayed with him all day and night to nurse him. We thought he would die.”
“Many soldiers would not play with Wojtek as it got quite rough sometimes with people being scratched and uniforms getting torn. You had to know how to handle the bear and if you did no one got hurt. When enough was enough then we stopped play fighting.”
Wojtek in Battle: The Crucial Monte Cassino Campaign
In late 1943, as the 22nd Corps prepared for deployment in Italy, the status of Wojtek, their beloved mascot, became a pressing issue.
Bringing animal mascots on transport ships or into the war zone was prohibited. The soldiers ingeniously enlisted Wojtek as a regular private, complete with his paybook and serial number.
Throughout the Italian campaign, he faithfully served alongside his unit.
May 1944 marked a significant moment for the Polish Second Corps, as they were tasked with dislodging the Nazi defenders from Monte Cassino.
This mountaintop position, fortified and held by elite paratroopers, was a crucial stronghold on the German Gustav Line, commanding the Liri Valley and the road to Rome.
Previous Allied attempts to capture it had resulted in heavy casualties. The untested Polish troops were now challenged to storm the position, which became the Battle of Monte Cassino.
On May 11, the battle commenced, unleashing one of the war’s most intense and brutal confrontations.
Former concentration camp prisoners fought fiercely, engaging in close-quarters combat with Hitler’s elite soldiers. Although the Poles managed to push the defenders back, they fell short of their objective due to relentless counterattacks, suffering significant losses.
The Poles launched a final assault on Cassino on May 17.
A massive artillery bombardment was planned to prepare for this attack, aiming to saturate the enemy lines. The Second Corps artillery was positioned as close to the front lines as the rugged terrain permitted.
The veterans who experienced the bombardment called it “turning night into day.” While the Corps’ guns fired relentlessly, the men of the 22nd Transport Company tirelessly transported ammunition to the forward gun positions.
Wojtek the bear pitches in
“Private Wojtek” joined his comrades in carrying heavy boxes of 25-pounder shells, fearlessly delivering them to the front line.
Unfazed by the shelling, the bear continued this duty throughout the battle. By the morning of May 18, Allied forces successfully captured Cassino.
Life After War in Edinburgh Zoo
Following the end of World War II, Wojtek’s future remained uncertain.
The Polish government after the second world war, quickly became a Soviet satellite state. The new communist government wanted to keep to make good socialists of the Polish population, and celebrating war veterans didn’t fit in with that idealology. Many Poles who fought for Poland and the allies couldn’t return home without being persecuted. Therefore, many decided to settle in the US or UK.
Wojtek couldn’t really go to Poland, either. So he found a new home at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he lived in peace and tranquillity for the remainder of his days.
Even in his post-war life, Wojtek continued to captivate the imagination of people worldwide. His intelligence and personality were always on display for the guests of the zoo.
Wojtek’s story was on show for everyone, mentioned on a plaque next to his enclosure.
In retirement, Wojtek served as a living reminder of the courage and compassion that can be found even in the most unlikely places.
In recognition of his remarkable contributions, the image of a bear carrying a heavy artillery shell became the official emblem of the 22nd Transport Company.
As several of his former comrades resided in Scotland, they frequently visited him at the zoo.
The bear would become alert whenever he heard Polish being spoken, a testament to the bear’s intelligence and memory.
When the zoo staff left the area, his comrades would toss lit cigarettes and open bottles of beer into his enclosure, where WOjtek knew exactly what to do.
The Soldier Bear’s Final Days
Wojtek passed away at the zoo in 1963 on 2 December 1963 at the age of 21 years.
He spent the final 16 years of his life at Edinburgh Zoo. Unfortunately, A plaque erected in his memory by the zoo authorities has disappeared.
At the time, the BBC announced “with regret the death of a famous Polish soldier.”
He has been immortalised in Poland and Edinburgh, with a statue in the park surrounding Edinburgh Castle.
Celebrating a Unique War Hero
Wojtek’s legacy transcends the boundaries of time.
His extraordinary tale has been immortalized in various forms, including books, documentaries, and sculptures.
His story is a powerful reminder of the unbreakable spirit of humanity, the bonds that can form in the face of adversity, and the capacity for animals to touch our lives in profound and unexpected ways.
While there are other stories of animal mascots during war (the Canadian black bear named “Winnie“, “Sergeant Stubby“, an American dog that captured a Germany spy in WW1), Wojtek stands alone owing to his active role in combat.
In the annals of history, few stories capture the imagination quite like that of Wojtek, the bear who fought alongside soldiers and left an indelible mark on the hearts of many.
Wojtek exemplified the resilience and bravery that define true heroes, from his humble beginnings as an orphaned cub to his pivotal role in the Polish II Corps.
His extraordinary journey is a timeless testament to the power of unity, compassion, and the enduring bond between humans and animals.