War has a way of bringing with it both horrors and wonders. Throughout our kind’s history we have fought each other, and from the midst of battle have sprung truly odd tales that are sometimes hard to really categorize. One such bizarre story comes to us from the battlefields of World War II, where stories of true terror and violence were interspersed with the occasional strange tale of undeniable weirdness, and sometimes touching hope. Here we can find a case seemingly out of a movie; that of an enormous orphaned bear who went from an unwanted abandoned cub to one of the war’s unsung heroes, and a testament to nature’s way of sometimes finding a way to surprise us all.
During World War II, Poland was at the mercy of the relentless drive against them orchestrated by both Germany and the Soviet Union, who killed, looted, stole land, oppressed, and imprisoned the Polish indiscriminately. The normally up to that point peaceful Poles had no choice but to be dragged into ferocious battle, where they faced execution and a life of hard labor in Soviet gulags if captured. When Germany eventually turned on the Red Army, Stalin made the decision to release thousands of Polish POWs in the hopes that they would go out to do battle with the Germans, but the Polish sided with the British instead.
In 1942, a military unit from Polish Armed Forces in the East, also called the Anders Army, set out from the Soviet Union towards Iran, along with thousands of these disgruntled refugees who had been put to grueling hard labor at the Soviet gulags. This ragtag group made their way to Iran, where they would form the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish Second Army Corps. Their ultimate mission was to continue on to Palestine, where they hoped to join forces with the British 8th Army and assist in the Allied invasion of Italy. On their way to Tehran, a group of Polish soldiers came across a young Iranian boy in the Hamadan Province, who had curiously found an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub whose mother had been killed by hunters and which he carried about in a simple sack. The soldiers became enamored with the bear, and offered to buy it for a mere couple of tins of corned beef.
The bear became adopted by the men of the Polish Second Army Corps, who named it Wojtek, which roughly translates to ‘he who enjoys war,’ ‘happy warrior,’ ‘joyful warrior,’ or ‘smiling warrior’. At first the bear was malnourished and in poor health, and had to be nursed back to health with condensed milk from a cleaned out old vodka bottle, which graduated to treats of marmalade and honey. When Wojtek had regained his health and vigor, he quickly enamored himself to the soldiers and became a sort of unofficial mascot of the company. The huge bear was uncommonly tame and friendly, known to sit around the campfire with the men, sleep in their tents, eat with them, and engage in playful wrestling matches with them, all the while remaining a gentle companion even as his size skyrocketed to around 1,000 pounds and a height of over 6 feet. All in all, the hulking bear was treated just like anyone else in the unit, and most forgot the fact that he was a massive, potentially dangerous animal. To them he was one of their own.
One of Wojtek’s most unusual attributes was his penchant for drinking beer, which was doled out as a reward, as well as his habit of chain smoking the cigarettes which the entertained men steadily provided him. He also was quite fond of taking hot baths and showers, and even learned how to operate the water taps. The unusual bear was also known to march alongside the soldiers on two feet, ride around in jeeps with his massive head hanging out of the passenger window, and stand up to salute passing soldiers when greeted. All of this further endeared him to the Polish soldiers, and offered a much needed boost of morale for the men, who had been toiling about in the harsh desert conditions. One of the men would later say of this:
What the bear offered all of these men was comfort. At a time when they were far from home, had nothing, and often no-one, Wojtek stood in for the wives, children, pets, family they’d left behind. He was someone to love and someone who loved them back.
Wojtek would become quite the attraction among the soldiers, civilians, and locals alike, and seemed to make friends wherever he went on the unit’s trek to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He even started to prove his usefulness, when he allegedly cornered an Arab spy in a bathhouse, which led to his capture and the subsequent extraction of key information, which catapulted Wojtek from a pet to a hero. In Egypt on April 14, 1944, as they prepared to head out to Naples to join the British forces in their assault on Italian and German forces, the Polish unit faced a conundrum. The rules at the time forbade the presence of any animals or pets, only soldiers, so it at first seemed as though the men would be forced to say goodbye to their beloved companion. However, to get around this rule, it was decided to officially actually enlist Wojtek into the military as a private, and soon after a corporal, making him a fully legal member of the Polish military. The quick-thinking, improvised plan worked, authorization was granted, and Private Wojtek joined the rest of his unit on their dangerous journey ahead as an equal.
Upon arrival in Naples, the British official for the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, an Archibald Brown, was in for quite a surprise as he processed the incoming Polish unit. After talking to the rest of the disembarking men, he noticed that there was still one soldier who had not made his acquaintance, a Corporal Wojtek. The mysterious colonel had a service serial number and pay book, but seemed to have simply vanished. When numerous efforts to call out to the missing soldier produced no response, an exasperated Archibald is said to have asked the Polish where the man had gone, to which another Polish colonel is said to have responded “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian,” before leading the puzzled British official to the cage containing the bear. Interestingly, the British just sort of shrugged their shoulders and went along with it.
From here, Wojtek would prove his worth as he carried heavy supplies and artillery shells about for the Polish during the fierce battle for Monte Cassino, which had proved to be one of the bloodiest and horrific battles of the Western Front. Wojtek bravely and dutifully used his vast strength to lug extremely heavy packs and munitions from the supply trucks to the men on the front lines, completely unfazed by the loud cacophony of war blasting about all around him, and he became lauded as a loyal hero. So respected was this courageous bear that the official insignia of the 22nd Artillery was made into the image of a bear carrying a large Howitzer shell in order to honor him. It is unclear just what the befuddled German and Italian forces must have thought of the intimidating sight of a massive brown bear tirelessly carrying about supplies for the enemy, but it was probably fairly demoralizing. Wojtek’s reputation subsequently became almost legendary.
The Polish and their allies would eventually break through to capture Monte Cassino, and continue their fight up and down the Italian peninsula. When the war came to a close in 1945, the 22nd Company was brought to Berwickshire, Scotland, to be stationed at Winfield Airfield, along with their beloved brown bear Wojtek, who had survived the ordeal and was seemingly none the worse for wear. The curious sight made Wojtek a sensation among locals and the media, and he was even made an honorary member of the Polish-Scottish Association. When the unit was inevitably demobilized, Wojtek faced an uncertain future, as no one was quite sure what to do with a large brown bear. It was decided that he would be donated to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he would spend the remainder of his days.
During his time at the zoo, Wojtek became a huge attraction, drawing crowds of people, and he remained in the spotlight, being frequently visited by news crews and TV shows, as well as becoming a sort of symbol of the solidarity between Scotland and Poland. He was also sometimes visited by his old comrades in arms, to whom the bear would respond to by waving and pricking his ears up when he heard Polish. One former soldier who had served with the bear described one visit thus:
As soon as I mentioned his name, he would sit on his backside and shake his head wanting a cigarette.
Some of the men who had served with Wojtek secretly threw the cigarettes to their old companion, who would sadly just gulp them down in the absence of anyone to light them for him. A few of these old comrades were said to have even gone into the enclosure, where the bear would welcome them and wrestle with them just like old times. In December of 1963, Wojtek would finally pass way at the age of 21. After Wojtek’s death, several monuments were erected in his honor, including plaques in the Imperial War Museum in London and at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. In November of 2011, veterans and bagpipe players converged upon Edinburgh for a commemorative celebration which included a eulogy in Polish for the war hero bear. On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, on 7 November, 2015, a large, £300,000 bronze statue of Wojtek designed by sculptor Alan Beattie Herriot was erected in the center of Edinburgh in the city’s Princes Street Gardens, which depicts the bear and soldier Peter Prendys, who was often seen as his closest companion. Additionally, Wojteks’s unique history has been reproduced in numerous books and films, including the 2011 BBC documentary, Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War.
It is easy when looking back through the horrors of World War II to focus on all of the death and violence. The scale of the whole thing invites it, pulling us in with its myriad tales of death, desolation, and abject evil. Yet scattered through this domain of vicious fighting and mass destruction there are those that serve to touch us with their warmth and surprise us with their bizarreness. The tale of Wojtek the bear truly counts as one of the odder stories to pass through the history of World War II, almost surreal in its ability to meld the fighting with warmth, humor, and companionship. Wojtek the bear was a rarity in this world, a symbol of solidarity, morale, and hope, that came shining through the fog of war to guide those who would fight. It gives us hope that in our darkest hour, when we seem most alone, there can be a beacon that keeps us together and guides us, no matter what form that may take. In the annals of truly unique war stories, that of Wojtek the bear truly stands out as one of the stranger and more touching.