Have you heard about the 510-pound (210 kilogram), six-foot (1.8 meter) bear that served in the Polish Army during World War II? This is one of the warm and fuzzy, somewhat unusual, but true war stories. Wojtek was more than a mascot. He was one of the troops, just another guy on the battlefield. There are so many stories about Wojtek, said filmmaker Brendan Foley, who is making a movie about the infamous bear.
In the spring of 1942, Polish prisoner deportees were released from the Siberian labor camps. The main route out of the Soviet Union was across the Caspian Sea to Iran. Under the command of the British, a new Polish Army was being formed. On their way to the Palestinian organization area, a large group of Polish soldiers came across a little bear in the mountainous Persian regions. This group became the Polish Second Corps. Their mission was to form up in Palestine. Later the Polish Second Corps joined the British Eighth Army and assisted in the invasion of then Nazi-occupied Italy.
The cub or little bear, that the Polish soldiers found, was orphaned. His mother was killed at the hands of hunters. Near Hamadan, Iran, Irena Bokiewicz had purchased the male cub from a young Iranian shepherd boy. But when the little bear became too much to handle alone, Inka befriended the Polish soldiers. They chose to take the little orphan bear in. The small, malnourished cub needed food and care. He even had trouble swallowing. The bear was so small. The Polish soldiers, his new family, improvised techniques to face the challenge of feeding him. The Poles gave him an empty vodka bottle filled with condensed milk. Later, the cub was eating fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup. On the long journey from Iran through Syria and Egypt to Palestine, the little bear became the unofficial mascot of the Polish Army Second Corps. Eventually, the Poles with the cub in tow arrived in Palestine. The small bear was taken to the Twenty-Second Transport Company, Artillery Division Polish Second Corps. Here for the next few years, the men would become his daily companions. He was given the name Wojtek. Wojtek means “he who enjoys war” or “the smiling warrior.”
Wojtek would sit around the campfire, eating, drinking and sleeping in the tents with the soldiers. Sometimes he was put in a special wooden crate transported by truck. From the beginning Wojtek became a popular member of the Transport Company. He spent most of his time with the soldiers of the Fourth Platoon. Two of his closest friends were the young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz. These two Polish soldiers would both be featured in many of the photos and film footage taken of Wojtek. Often, the bear would be found in the kitchen area. He ate everything he was fed and even developed a taste for cigarettes, which he would only accept when lit. He would take one pub of a lit cigarette and then swallow it.
He even enjoyed drinking beer and wine. He had a habit of drinking from a beer or wine bottle. When the beer or wine bottle was empty, Wojtek would peer into the bottle waiting patiently for more. Wojtek grew to become a very strong bear. He was happy and got a kick out of bathing. Often he was playing and wrestling with his comrades, the Polish soldiers. Only a few soldiers dared to take Wojtek on in a wrestling match. Sometimes the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched. Others might have their uniforms torn. However, the rest of the men were happy to watch.
On marches Wojtek would stand up on his hind legs and walk along with the troops. When the motorized convoy was on the move he would sit in the passenger side of the jeep. He would hang his head out the window, often shocking the people observing from the roadside. When he was small, it was easy for Wojtek to ride in the cab of the transport vehicles. But as he grew Wojtek would sit in the back with the supplies. He would often ride on one of the recovery trucks, where there was more room to lie down during the long journeys and Wojtek could play by climbing up the crane.
Wherever he went, the bear would attract attention. His antics would cause a sensation as he loved to entertain people. He enjoyed taking baths. Over the summer in Palestine he learned how to work the faucets. He broke into the shower hut and used the entire regimen’s water supply for a month. You could often find him splashing about the showers of the bath house.
In Palestine, the soldier bear became a hero one night by capturing a thief, who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping. The Arab was shocked to find himself confronted by the animal. Once he entered the bath house and found a spy planted there to gather intelligence on the Allied camp. The enemy had also planned to steal arms from the ammo dump. Wojtek slapped the spy’s head, growled and the man turned himself in. In the commotion that ensued, the enemy was arrested. He thought that the Polish soldiers had sent in a monster to eat him, so he surrendered. The bear was a hero for successfully capturing an enemy agent. The spy in turn was questioned and gave up valuable and vital intelligence on the enemy positions. Wojtek was quite satisfied with the reward of a bottle of beer.
Wojtek made friends with a few of the other mascots including Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. After her chronically sick baby lived for less than a year, Kasha died of a broken heart. Kirkuk, the dog, did not survive a sting by a scorpion. Such an insect did sting Wojtek on the nose. The men of the Transport Company thought that the bear would not make it through. His close companion Henryk nursed the bear back to health. Henryk did not leave Wojtek’s side for a couple of days. After Wojtek recovered, he was back to his usual self, entertaining and full of antics.
As the Polish Army prepared to enter the war zone in Italy during 1943, the problem confronting the Polish soldiers was the question of Wojtek’s status. The British High Command did not allow pets. Animals were not permitted to accompany the army during the fighting. The Polish soldiers did not want to leave him behind in their effort to take Rome, Italy with the British Army. By giving the bear his own pay book, rank and serial number there would be no question that he was on the list of soldiers of the Polish Second Corps. Wojtek was given the rank of Private, assigned a serial number, and from then on was included in all official rosters. There was a minor problem during the embarkation prior to crossing the Mediterranean Sea but with his papers in order Wojtek would be on his way. The British soldiers simply looked the other way when he marched with the Polish Army Second Corps.
In the Italian theatre, the Polish Second Corps soon prepared to break through the German defenses at Monte Cassino. Three previous attempts to take the hilltop were fruitless and bloody. Eventually, the Polish Army Second Corps successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting. During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line. Henryk had been assigned to take care of the bear that day. But when he was ordered forward as an artillery spotter, Henryk was forced to leave him alone. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, Wojtek began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons.
His shining moment was while watching his fellow soldiers moving ammunition, Wojtek joined in. He was seen moving crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained. Some of the crates of ammunition weighed a lot. The sounds of gunfire did not concern him. He displayed courage in his willingness to participate in the action. Thanks in part to the heavy shelling by the artillery, the Polish Army Second Corps broke through and defeated the enemy. As a postscript, the filmmaker Foley adds, “Wojtek often carried munitions for us, but usually he was a lazy thing and looked for the empty boxes to carry. At Cassino though, he carried full ones.”
According to Aileen Orr in her book on Wojtek, “Although he had never been trained to handle the unloading of 100-pound boxes of 25-pounder shells, the fuses and other supplies, he simply observed what the men were doing and joined in… Standing upright, he held out his front paws into which men load the heavy boxes of shells. Effortlessly, he carried the munitions to their storage areas beside the artillery positions, and returned to the lorries to collect more.” He never dropped a single crate of ammunition. Wojtek moved these crates from the truck to the frontlines, working tirelessly day and night, while his friends were fighting the Nazis.
Wojtek’s contributions did not go unnoticed for the Polish military brass approved a new emblem for the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company. After the battle, Wojtek’s inspiring actions were the reason the official badge of the Twenty-Second Transport Company became a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell. This symbol appeared on vehicles, on pennants, and on the uniforms of the soldiers. He and the Polish Army Second Corps would go on to fight up the Italian peninsula pushing the Nazis back to Germany.
The war ended in May 1945. The Polish soldiers were eventually sent across Europe to Berwick upon Tweed or Berwickshire in Great Britain where they stayed at Winfield Camp. The soldiers did not relish returning to a Stalin dominated Poland. Wojtek stationed in the village of Hutton near Dunns. He became popular with the local civilians and the media. As the soldiers went through a process of demobilization, they would say goodbye to Wojtek. Many knew that they would never see him again. Their journeys would take them to distant parts of the globe.
On November 15, 1947, Wojtek found a home at Edinburgh Zoo. There he became a popular attraction with many visitors including ex-Polish servicemen. The Polish veterans would talk to him in Polish. When these visitors would speak to him in their native language, Wojtek would wave a paw. The Polish-Scottish Association made him an honorary member. Some of his Polish soldier and veteran visitors would toss him cigarettes, which he promptly ate. Others would enter his bear enclosure and wrestle Wojtek for old time’s sake. He was also a frequent guest on British Broadcast Communication’s Blue Peter Program.
His death in 1963 at the age of 22 years was met with sadness from those who knew Wojtek. It was widely reported in newspapers and radio stations. His exploits and adventures have not been forgotten. There are numerous written accounts, memorials and statues. In a time when Polish soldiers had lost their country to the Nazis and later to the Communists, Wojtek became a symbol, which the soldiers were proud of, themselves, knowing that they would not soon return to a free homeland. He became part of the history of the Polish Armed forces in the Second World War and his legacy will endure.
There are statues and plaques commemorating Wojtek, the Polish Army Bear in a stone table in the zoo in Edinburg, Scotland, the Imperial War Museum in London, the Canadian War Museum, and a sculpture by David Harding in the Sikorski Museum of London. On the 25th of April 2013 the Krakow city council authorized a memorial in the Jordan Park and on 18 May 2014 the statue was unveiled. On December 30, 2011, BBC2 Scotland broadcast the film, “Wojtek, the Bear that Went to War.” On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburg Council authorized the erection of a bronze statue of him walking in peace and unity with a Polish soldier in the Princes Street Gardens representing his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army Second Corps. Alan Beattie Herriot will make the bronze statue. The Scottish government granted $32,000 and the fundraising effort has about two-thirds of the $470,000 needed for the monument.
Edinburg’s municipal bus company, Lothian Buses, unveiled a new Wojtek bus on 9 November 2014. Lord Provost Donald Wilson, Edinburg’s chief civic dignitary, took part in the ceremony unveiling Polish artist Mateusz Jarza’s graphic design of Wojtek the bear carrying a missile with the slogan, “Wojtek Returns.” It is hoped that his memorial will be dedicated at the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Aileen Orr is co-founder of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, which is raising the funds to have the statue erected. She lives on a farm in Hutton Scotland where Wojtek lived after the war. She said: “I can still see his claw marks on our trees in the garden.” Although Wojtek never wore a Polish soldier’s uniform, he was known to wear a red and white cravat. “He would put a hat on voluntarily, and sometimes stole a hat for fun. He was a much loved bear but his status as a mascot was respected, although they enjoyed wrestling with him and playing tug of war. He loved games and the company of people. He did not know he was a bear, he thought he was a soldier”, she added.
A number of books were written about Wojtek and his bravery including Wladyslaw Anders’ An Army in Exile, the Story of the Second Polish Corps, published in 1949 by Macmillan in London, Stefan Keczkowski’s Poland’s First 100,000: Story of the Rebirth of the Polish Army, Navy, and Air Force After the September Campaign, printed in 1945 by London and New York by Hutchinson, Geoffrey Morgan and Wieslawa A. Lasocki’s Soldier Bear, distributed in 1970 by Collins of London, Bibi Dumon Tak’s Soldier Bear, copyrighted in 2011 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Aileen Orr’s Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, developed in 2012 by Birlinn Publishers of Edinburg, Scotland, and Krystyna Ivell and Vic Baczor’s Wojtek Album, self-published in London. There is a six minute youtube film about Wojtek at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZT62Gbb3iE. There is also another film: http://www.wojtekfilm.com/large/map.htm.