Military Myths & Legends: Wojtex the Soldier Bear
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
In the spring of 1942, after being attacked by Germany, the Russians released their Polish prisoners from the labor camps in Siberia. A new Polish Army was being formed in the Middle East under the command of the British and released Polish soldiers among the prisoners were ordered to join them.
On their way to the organization in Palestine, a group of Polish soldiers crossing through the Alborz Mountains of northern Persia came across a young boy from Hamadan Province. He told the soldiers he found the orphaned bear cub in the wild months before after hunters had shot the cub’s mother. The boy took the fluffy little cub home, but finding it increasingly difficult to care of the cub, he sold his playmate to the Polish soldiers for a few tins of food and other sundry items.
The cub was very small and the problem of feeding him was soon overcome by the improvised techniques employed by his new family including feeding him from on a bottle filled with condensed milk. Eventually, they all arrived in Palestine and the clumsy little bear quickly became the beloved pet of soldiers in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. They fed their ursine ward milk from bottles and showered him with the attention he had come to adore after losing his mother and being exposed to humans at an early age. In return, he boosted the soldiers’ morale.
He was given the name Wojtex, pronounced Voytek.
From the beginning, he became a popular member of the Company spending most of his time with the soldiers of the 4th Platoon. Two of his closest friends were two young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz who would both be featured in many of the photos and film footage was taken of Wojtek. He would often be found in the kitchen area eating everything he was fed and even developed a taste for beer and wine together with cigarettes which he would only accept when lit. 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.
Wojtek grew to become a very strong bear and was happy bathing and wrestling with his comrades. Only a few soldiers dared to take him on in a wrestling match as sometimes the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched or have their uniforms torn. The rest of the men were happy to watch. In Palestine, Wojtek 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 and the commotion that ensued resulted in his arrest. Wojtek was quite satisfied with the reward of a bottle of beer.
When he was small, it was easy for Wojtek to ride in the cab of the transport vehicles but as he grew he would sit in the back with the supplies though he would often ride on one of the recovery trucks where there was more room to lie down during the long journeys and he could play by climbing up the crane.
Wherever he went, Wojtek would attract attention and his antics would cause a sensation as he loved to entertain people. He made friends with a few of the other mascots including Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. Kasha died of a broken heart after her chronically sick baby lived for less than a year and Kirkuk did not survive a sting by a scorpion. Such an insect did sting Wojtek on the nose on one occasion and the men of the Company thought that he would not make it through. His close companion Henryk nursed him back to health and he did not leave his side for a couple of days. After he had recovered, he was back to his usual self.
But before long, it looked like the soldiers would have to part ways with their new companion. On April 14, 1944, they found themselves in Egypt waiting to board a ship headed to Naples, where the unit was supposed to join in the Allied campaign in Italy. Port officials in Alexandria refused to allow the wild animal on board the ship, stating that only soldiers could make the journey.
So the soldiers improvised: They quickly obtained an authorization from the head military office in Cairo and made their bear an official soldier. They gave him a service number, a rank, and a pay book. It was now hoped the British officials in Naples to accept the bear as part of the unit.
It was mid-February 1944, and the courier ship for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was in the port of Naples to help process Polish Soldiers that had just arrived by ship from Alexandria, Egypt, to advance with British soldiers against German and Italian forces.
Archibald Brown was a British official whose everyday duties was checking crew manifests and speaking with freshly arrived soldiers. But this would be no typical day.
He had already spoken with every single member of the new unit, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps – except one.
“We looked at the roster, and there was only one person, Corporal Wojtek, who had not appeared,” Brown recalled in an interview, years later. But the documents said that Wojtek belonged to the unit. Brown had his service number and his pay book, but the soldier himself seemed to have vanished without a trace.
Brown then called out the soldier’s name, but there was no response. So he asked the other soldiers why Wojtek wasn’t coming forward. An amused colonel responded: “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.” Brown was then led to a cage holding a full-grown Syrian brown bear, the unit’s most popular member.
Brown thought it was merely a joke. But the soldier-bear was actually a legal member of the Polish military and one that provided his comrades with vigorous support. Brown simply raised his hands in the air and left.
By then, the once small cub had grown to become a big bear, standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 485 pounds Having resolved to put their furry comrade’s strength to use, the Soldiers taught how him to carry crates full of heavy mortar rounds.
In the Italian theatre, the Polish 2nd Corps soon prepared to break through the German defenses at Monte Casino where it successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting.
During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line where he was seen to move crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained.
Henryk had been assigned to take care of the bear that day but when he was ordered forward as an artillery spotter, he had to leave Wojtek alone. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, he began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons. The sounds of gunfire did not concern him and he displayed courage in his willingness to participate in the action. After the battle, the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company became a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell. This symbol appeared on vehicles, pennants and on the uniforms of the Soldiers.
The war ended in May 1945 and the Polish soldiers were eventually sent across Europe to Berwick upon Tweed in England where they stayed at Winfield Camp.
As the Soldiers went through a process of demobilization, they would say goodbye to Wojtek, many knowing that they would never see him again since their journeys would take them to distant parts of the globe, but it wasn’t clear where the bear would live. A political tug of war of sorts began. The bear’s caretakers didn’t want him to go back to Poland because they were afraid that the fledgling Soviet-controlled government would adopt the bear as a symbol for communism, which was the opposite of what those Polish troops had been fighting for.
He ended up in Scotland, in a village called Hutton in Berwickshire, on a farm where he lived with other former Polish fighters who were being lodged there temporarily after the war.
That’s where the story gets personal for Andre Orr. Her grandfather was a Scottish Soldier who helped train the Poles from the Siberian gulag when they were in Baghdad, and she ended up marrying the man who ran the camp where they had stayed. She currently lives on that very farm, which apparently still has the bear’s claw marks etched into the trees in her garden.
So she grew up hearing stories about how people at the Scottish camp would feed the bear sweets like honey and jam, attempt to wrestle him, and kick around a soccer ball with him. “He was very much a part of the community and attended dances, concerts, local children’s parties,” she said. “He was like a dog. He was almost human.”
His death in 1963 at the age of 21 was met with sadness from those who knew him and it was reported in newspapers and radio stations. His exploits and adventures have not been forgotten with 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.
Wojtek is still remembered today, his heroic deeds in the war living on in the tales and memories of those with whom he served. He became irreplaceable to his comrades – not because he was a wild beast, but because he truly became one of them.
In November 2011, a parade of veterans and bagpipe players made its way through Edinburgh as part of a celebration that included a eulogy – delivered in Polish – to the Bear-Soldier. There are already a number of commemorative plaques and statues in various museums, and the Wojtek Memorial Trust is lobbying to get a large bronze statue of Wojtek erected in the heart of Edinburgh.
On top of all this, Wojtek’s unique history continues to be repeated in stories, books, and film. In 2011, Will Hood, the director of the ‘Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War’ documentary, was asked what he found so fascinating about the bear’s story.
“The fact that he himself thought he was a human poses some very interesting questions about what it is to be human,” Hood responded.
Wojtex became part of the history of the Polish Armed forces in the Second World War and his legacy will endure.
Short video on Wojtex can be found at: