Wojtek the War Bear Was Fond of Hauling Artillery
Polish army battery recruited orphan Iranian bear
Sauntering in southern Italy in 1944, enjoying the sun and a smoke, two British soldiers were foraging. They and thousands of other Allied troops were involved in perhaps the bloodiest of all the battles fought to liberate Europe—the siege of Monte Cassino.
But they weren’t alone. The pair jumped as a brown mass caught their eye, walking right up behind them. Pressing themselves against some bushes, they shouted to warn an artillery battery up ahead. A pretty dangerous looking creature was headed their way.
The beast lumbered past, as they cowered into the undergrowth. Strangely, the men manning the artillery gun seemed nonplussed—even as the creature made its way over to a truck, picked up an artillery shell—and made his way over to them. He dropped off the shell and returned to the truck, helping the other artillerymen unload.
The baffled Brits had just met Private Wojtek of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, Polish II Corps—the only bear to fight in World War II.
Wojtek’s war began in western Iran, when a local Persian boy found him as a cub. Someone had shot his mother, leaving the cub an orphan.
Looking to make a quick buck, the boy duly sold the bear cub to a passing Polish woman. Irena Bokiewicz had escaped from a camp full of Polish deportees in the Soviet Union by walking to freedom right across the Elbruz Mountains.
As the cub grew into a bear, she donated him to the Polish army, which at that time had several units based in Iran.
The men took to him instantly, feeding him condensed milk from a vodka bottle—they’d drunk the vodka—as Wojtek initially had problems swallowing. They added syrup, honey, marmalade and some fruit to his diet. It turned out Wojtek also liked beer.
The Poles also discovered he liked both eating and smoking cigarettes, as well as wrestling. There still remains some extraordinary footage which shows Polish soldiers play-fighting with the bear.
Throughout the war, none of the soldiers who faced Wojtek in the ring reported any injuries. Wojtek knew his strength and thought of his captors as friends. Locals and soldiers grew to love him—and he quickly became an unofficial mascot of all the Polish units stationed in the area.
The company that had originally adopted him soon moved to Iraq, then Syria, Palestine and finally Egypt. Wojtek traveled with them. His name means “he who loves war.”
Having been part of the armies that beat Rommel in North Africa, the Polish troops subsequently ran into a problem. The British logistics organizing the convoys to southern Italy refused passage for Wojtek. The Poles’ ingenious and cheeky solution was to assign Wojtek the rank of private—and so Wojtek began his official military career.
Which brings Wojtek to his greatest moment—helping his fellow soldiers unload ammunition for the waiting guns surrounding Monte Cassino. He famously never dropped a load, and picked up the habit himself without any training.
Wojtek also gained notoriety in Italy when he brought four convergent roads of military traffic to a standstill. Fascinated by a distant barrage of smoke and explosions, he had shimmed up a tall signpost to get a better view. To tempt him down, the troops used their traditional bait—a bottle of beer. Wojtek obliged and the traffic, which had backed up for miles, finally cleared.
Wojtek ended the war in captivity, becoming a star attraction in Edinburgh Zoo. Many Polish troops had been stationed in Scotland, and Wojtek ended up in Berwickshire, where he became an honorary member of the Scottish-Polish Association.
There are several monuments to him, including one in Waverly Gardens, Edinburgh—a metallic mural which depicts the war-bear’s journey from the Middle East to Scotland.
A statue of Wojtek is in the Sikorski Institute, London—a life-size memorial by the Scottish artist David Harding. This museum of Polish military history is well worth a visit, especially for the Polish and English-speaking tour guides and historians who can relay far more detail about Wojtek.
In May 2014, the city of Krakow in southern Poland unveiled a statue of Wojtek. There’s a plaque in memoriam in the Imperial War Museum in London.
At the time of his death, in December 1963, Wojtek was 22 years old. He weighed nearly 500 pounds and was over six feet tall. And the insignia of the 22nd Artillery Transport Company, a unit Wojtek fought with, became a simple badge of a certain bear carrying, as he so often did, an artillery shell.
At top—Wojtek as a cub. Sikorski Institute photo