World War II Veteran Wojtek, Polish "Soldier-Bear," Dies in Scottish Zoo

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World War II Veteran Wojtek, Polish "Soldier-Bear," Dies in Scottish Zoo

Wojtek being fed by Polish artilleryman, c. 1942-43
Photographer unknown; image courtesy of Imperial War Museum, UK
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 2, 1963

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Today's offering is definitely not the usual "battle-of-the-day" I've been presenting you for the past several years. December is a notoriously poor month for military operations (except in tropical climes). This story was first brought to my attention about eight years ago. So, here is the fascinating story of an Iranian brown bear, who was "drafted" into a Polish artillery support unit…but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Background: Polish II Corps

Invasions of Poland by Germany (Sept. 1, 1939) and Russia (Sept. 17, 1939); Image courtesy of
Invasions of Poland by Germany (Sept. 1, 1939) and Russia (Sept. 17, 1939)
Image courtesy of

After the nation of Poland was invaded and dismembered by Germany and the Soviet Union, many Polish army units fled their native land. Some traveled south through Romania to the British-administered nation of Palestine (modern-day Israel and Jordan). Other units journeyed east into the "belly of the beast," the USSR. Many Polish soldiers, accompanied by their families, had been sent to Soviet gulags (prison camps) after the partition of Poland. These men were released – under a Russian "amnesty" – from the gulags so they could join the "Polish Army in the East."

For several years, the Soviet military treated these exiled Polish units as nominal allies, providing them with supplies, armament and uniforms. They were stationed mainly in southern Russian and Kazakhstan. However, by 1943 they were being excluded from receiving materiel. Political pressure from Great Britain persuaded Russian leader Joseph Stalin to allow these Polish units to begin a second exodus. This time, the Poles began filtering across the border into northern Iran. In that nation, they made contact with British Army units stationed there, guarding Russia's southern border – as well as nearby oil fields – from possible attack from the Germans.

Nearly 113,000 Polish men, women and children entered Iran. Many of them were suffering the effects of lack of food and medical attention while being "guests" of the Soviet Union. [Perhaps 15,000 Polish soldiers were unaccounted for by the Russians. When asked their whereabouts, Stalin semi-jokingly said they probably escaped to Manchuria…] Many of the women and children were transported to British bases in India and Africa, to allow them to regain their health. Their men-folk, numbering about 35,000-40,000, began organizing and rearming themselves along the lines of their British allies. The Polish units were eventually given the designation "II Corps (Poland)."

Wojtek Adopted by II Corps

Wojtek the cub, with Polish artillerymen of 22nd Supply Company, 1942; Image courtesy of
Wojtek the cub, with Polish artillerymen of 22nd Supply Company, 1942; Image courtesy of

In 1942, a young Iranian boy found a badly malnourished brown bear cub, his mother apparently shot by hunters, near Hamadan, Iran. Realizing he couldn't take care of the animal himself, the boy approached the men of a nearby British unit. He sold the bear cub to the foreigners for a tin of canned meat, a chocolate bar, and an army penknife. The soldiers, who were actually members of the 22nd Artillery Transport Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, fed the cub condensed milk from an empty vodka bottle. Thus began the story of Wojtek, the Polish "soldier-bear." [The name is basically pronounced VOY-tek. The name means "little Albert."]

In 1943, the Polish II Corps began moving southwards, marching into Syria and Palestine, finally reaching Egypt. During this time, Wojtek was fed many of the same rations as his comrades, but he especially liked fruits, marmalade, syrup, and honey. He also developed a taste for beer, drinking it right out of the bottle like his fellow soldiers. Wojtek also acquired a taste for cigarettes, eating them like candy (though he would only eat them if they were lit. If unlit, he would spit them out). The wandering Polish soldiers treated the "homeless" bear like one of their own. Wojtek further enjoyed rough-housing and wrestling with his comrades. He did, however, have something of an advantage, as he quickly grew to be nearly six feet tall and weighed in at nearly 500 pounds.

Wojtek soon began taking on almost human characteristics. He would cry like a baby if left alone; if he was ever chastised for his behavior, he would put his paws over his eyes. While the 22nd was stationed in Palestine, they acquired a bath hut. Eventually, Wojtek learned to open the door, work the controls, and happily splash in the water. He spent so much time in the hut that it had to be locked to keep him from wasting precious water.

One day, Wojtek discovered the door to the bath hut unlocked, and he gladly entered. However, inside he found a stranger: a local Arab was spying on the Poles, making plans for a raiding party to steal weapons and ammunition from the 22nd. Hearing the commotion caused by an angry, growling six-foot-tall bear, nearby Polish soldiers converged on the hut to see what was the matter. Finding an angry Wojtek menacing an Arab local, the Poles were perplexed. The spy confessed all, and the raiding party was rounded up. For his heroic actions, Wojtek was rewarded with two bottles of beer and allowed to spend an entire morning happily splashing in the bath hut.

Wojtek made many friends during his military career, including a large Dalmatian dog who belonged to a British liaison officer. The two animals would play and wrestle together to the endless delight of their fellow soldiers.

Service in the Italian Campaign

"Private" Wojtek riding in company transport (note the unit insignia, a bear carrying an artillery shell, based on an actual incident); Image courtesy of
"Private" Wojtek riding in company transport (note the unit insignia, a bear carrying an artillery shell, based on an actual incident); Image courtesy of

In late 1943, the British Army was beginning to make plans for the invasion of Italy. The men of the 22nd Supply Company were told that no mascots would be allowed to go. Thinking quickly, the Polish artillerymen came up with a creative solution: they "drafted" Wojtek, gave him the rank of private and a serial number, and he became "just one of the boys." He would ride in the front seat of trucks, sticking his head out the windows and no doubt disconcerting the local populace.

When the II Corps was deployed to Italy, the Poles fought in some of the heaviest action of World War II. These actions included the 4th battle of Monte Cassino (May 11-18, 1944); the battle of Ancona (June 16-July 18, 1944); and, the battle of Bologna (April 9-21, 1945). During the most crucial phase of the battle of Monte Cassino:

…when pockets of men were cut off on the mountainside desperately in need of supplies, [Wojtek], who all this time had been watching his comrades frantically loading heavy boxes of ammunition, came over to the trucks, stood on his hind legs in front of the supervising officer and stretched out his paws toward him. It was as if he was saying: "I can do this. Let me help you." The officer handed the animal the heavy box and watched in wonder as [Wojtek] loaded it effortlessly onto the truck. Backwards and forwards he continued, time and time again, carrying heavy shells, artillery boxes and food sacks from truck to truck, from one waiting man to another, effortlessly. The deafening noise of the explosions and gunfire did not seem to worry him. Each artillery box held four 23 lb. live shells; some even weighed more than a hundred. He never dropped a single one. And still he went on repeatedly, all day and every day until the monastery was finally taken.

After the battle of Bologna, the II Corps was pulled from combat. By this point in the war, the results of the Yalta Conference were known. The exiled Polish soldiers learned that large parts of their native country were going to be given to the Soviets as a condition of post-war peace. With their morale low, the II Corps was withheld from further action. They remained in Italy until 1946, when they were transported to England to be demobilized.

War's Aftermath

Wojtek – recently promoted to corporal – accompanied his fellow soldiers to Great Britain. With no free homeland to return to, many of the Polish soldiers settled in England. When the 22nd Supply Company was demobilized in 1947, Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he lived the remainder of his life. He continued to drink beer, eat lit cigarettes, and be a special exhibit for the public. Occasionally, his former comrades would come to visit him. Wojtek would perk up when he heard Polish being spoken, and some of his old chums would jump into his bear pen and wrestle him for old time's sake.

Footnote #1: Eventually, old age caught up with the Wojtek. In late 1963, he was not eating well and losing weight (he now tipped the scales at 1100 pounds). On December 2, Wojtek the soldier-bear was euthanized by the staff of the Edinburgh Zoo. Afterwards, his Post Mortem report indicated a constricting lesion in his esophagus, with the subsequent extensive scar tissue contracting with age and preventing normal feeding. [I'm no medical expert, but it seems to me this was a result of his years of eating lit cigarettes.]

Footnote #2: Today, there are various memorial plaques honoring Wojtek, including one at the Imperial War Museum in London. Several books have been written about him, including Voytek the Soldier Bear by Garry Paulin. There is also an alternative rock bank in the UK called "Voytek the Bear."

Sculpture of Wojtek and Polish soldier, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Sculpture of Wojtek and Polish soldier, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Footnote #3: There is a statue of Wojtek and a Polish soldier in the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. It was sculpted by Alan Beattie Herriot and unveiled in November, 2015. There is also a statue of the soldier-bear in Park Jordana, Krakow, Poland.

Footnote #4: On December 30, 2011, a film, Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War, was broadcast on BBC Two Scotland, narrated by British actor Brian Blessed.

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