The bear who served in World War II

Wojtek the bear

History is replete with examples of animals serving as military mascots.

The fictional bear Winnie the Pooh is based on “Winnipeg,” or “Winnie,” a black bear that was the mascot for a Canadian cavalry regiment during the early part of World War I; “Tirpitz,” was a pig captured from the German Navy following the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914 and ended up as the mascot of the cruiser HMS Glasgow; and “Old Douglas” was a camel that served as part of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment during the War Between the States until he was killed by a Union sharpshooter at Vicksburg.

However all of the above take a back seat to Wojtek, a bear who was not only the mascot of a Polish artillery supply unit, but actually was given a rank and perform duties while in service during World War II.

Wojtek was happened upon by a group of Polish soldiers in the spring of 1942 after they had landed in Persia and began moving toward Egypt in an effort to re-group under the direction of the British Army, according to the website Today I Found Out.

The Poles had originally been taken prisoners by the Soviets following the invasion of Poland by German and Soviet forces in 1939.

When Germany turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets, in dire need of troops, decided to release their Polish prisoners of war, who started re-forming into a fighting force.

As the Polish troops made their way through the mountains of Persia, the story goes that a group of soldiers happened upon an Iranian shepherd boy who had found an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub. With food scarce, the boy agreed to trade the cub to the soldiers for some canned meat.

The soldiers named the cub Wojtek, pronounced “Voytek,” meaning “he who enjoys war” or “smiling warrior,” according to Today I Found Out.

The bear quickly proved a morale booster to the Polish soldiers, according to the 2008 book Voytek the Soldier Bear.

As an unofficial member of the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish II Corp, Wojtek relocated with the unit to Iraq, then Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The care and feeding he received would likely cause today’s animal right’s activists fits of apoplexy, but Wojtek appears to have enjoyed being “one of the guys.”

While Wojtek was young, the soldiers nursed him with condensed milk placed in empty vodka bottles, then fed him fruit, honey and syrup until he could eat more solid foods. Knowing little about the care and feeding of bears, the troops eventually treated him as if he were just another solider, including giving him beer rations, which quickly became his favorite beverage.

Unit insignia of the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, featuring Wojtek the bear.

Unit insignia of the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, featuring Wojtek the bear.

He also developed other vices.

“He had a habit of drinking from a beer or wine bottle and when empty, he would peer into the bottle waiting patiently for more. He would usually take one puff of a lit cigarette and then swallow it,” according to the website The Soldier Bear.

Despite his smoking habit and seemingly lack of proper nutrition, Wojtek grew to approximately 6 feet tall and weighed around 485 pounds. His favorite pastime was wrestling his the men of his unit, although he also enjoyed a good game of tug of war.

“Besides these activities, Wojtek enjoyed playing with other animals,” Today I Found Out wrote. “He was best friends with a Dalmatian belonging to a British liaison officer. The two animals would play and wrestle together. Not all animals were open to befriending the bear, though. Wojtek at one point approached a horse in a field and was kicked in the head and neck several times. He reportedly stayed away from horses and mules after that.”

As the Polish Army neared the front lines in Italy in 1943, Wojtek’s “comrades” began to ponder the quandary associated with what would happen if he continued to accompany them.

The problem became a head in 1944 in Egypt when the soldiers were headed to Naples to fight with the British Eighth Army in the Italian campaign. Port authorities refused to let the bear board the ship.

“They solved the problem by giving Wojtek his own paybook, rank and serial number,” according to the website. “They even taught him how to salute like a proper soldier. After the paperwork was filed, he was officially a member of the Polish Army in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, and he was now allowed on the ship.”

In Naples, it was British Courier Archibald Brown’s job to help process Polish soldiers that had just arrived from Egypt so they could quickly advance with British soldiers against German and Italian forces.

But when Brown called Wojtek’s name, no one answered.

“We looked at the roster, and there was only one person, Corporal Wojtek, who had not appeared,” Brown said in an interview years later. He asked the other soldiers why Wojtek didn’t come forward. An amused soldier replied: “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.”

To his surprise, Brown was led to a cage holding a full-grown bear.

During the brutal Battle of Monte Cassino Wojtek soon proved he was more than just a mascot. Inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, Wojtek he began picking up heavy crates filled with mortar shells from the supply trucks and delivering them to the men operating the large guns on the front line. The roar of the cannon didn’t faze him in the least.

After the battle, a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell became the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company. The image was put on vehicles, flags and uniforms.

At the end of the war, about 3,000 Polish soldiers and their bear ended up being stationed in Berwickshire, Scotland, for nearly two years.

When the soldiers were demobilized in 1947 and sent home, some said some heart-wrenching goodbyes to Wojtek.

Wojtek eventually found a home in the Edinburgh Zoo where he became a popular attraction. Many of his Polish servicemen friends visited him at the zoo over the years.

“… his old friends would come and visit and occasionally they would jump the fence and give him a cuddle or a bottle of beer,” one zookeeper remembered. “If he heard the Polish language spoken, he would often perk up.”

Wojtek would live for many years in the Edinburgh Zoo before dying in late 1963 at age 22.

(Top: Wojtek the bear holding a beer bottle during “down time.”)

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