During  the second world war, an orphaned bear cub found a new family amongst a company of Polish soldiers and went on to become an honorary member of their army. Wojtek the soldier bear would travel with these soldiers from the deserts of Persia to the battlefields of Italy, carrying ammunition and boosting morale. After the war, Wojtek settled into retirement at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he was frequently visited by people eager to pay their respects to this remarkable bear. Wojtek's story exemplifies the bonds of friendship and solidarity that can form even amidst the brutality of war.

Key Takeaways

  • In 1942, Polish soldiers adopted an orphaned Syrian bear cub they named Wojtek while traveling from Persia to Egypt.
  • Wojtek was enlisted as a soldier to get around regulations, given a rank and serial number, and helped carry ammunition.
  • After the war Wojtek was relocated to Scotland and became a popular attraction at the Edinburgh Zoo.
  • Wojtek served as a symbol of courage and Polish comradeship during the war and remains so today.

An Orphaned Bear Cub Finds a New Family

A Chance Encounter in the Mountains of Persia

In April 1942, a group of Polish soldiers had a surprising encounter while traveling through Persia. They were former prisoners of war who had been freed from Soviet labor camps and were making their way from Russia to the Middle East to join British forces.

While passing through the Zagros Mountains, the soldiers were approached by a young Iranian boy carrying a Syrian brown bear cub. The boy had found the cub after hunters had killed its mother.

One soldier, Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki, took pity on the orphaned cub and bought it from the boy for a few tins of food. Another soldier named Dymitr Szawlugo later recalled, "He was tiny, furry, and his snout was sticky from condensed milk supplemented with glucose and marmalade. He held out his small but strong arms to us straight away." The soldiers could not resist the appeal of the small bear cub who desperately needed their care and companionship.

Wojtek the bear

Adopted by Polish Soldiers Seeking Comfort

At the time, the Polish soldiers were weary after being imprisoned and marching hundreds of miles from the Soviet Union. The orphaned bear cub quickly became a source of joy and comfort. A soldier named Piotr Prendysz was appointed the cub's guardian, and they named him Wojtek, meaning "happy warrior" or "smiling warrior" in Polish.

"We fed him milk from a bottle as if he were a baby, and made him a little woollen jumper to keep him warm." - Soldier Dymitr Szawlugo

The soldiers treated Wojtek like one of their own. They fed him condensed milk from a vodka bottle and wrestled playfully with him. As Wojtek grew bigger, he mimic his human comrades by learning to march upright on two legs and enjoying treats like cigarettes and beer. He provided invaluable companionship and morale to the troops.

An Honorary Soldier in the Polish Army

Much like Sergeant Stubby, a remarkable war dog who rose to fame during World War I. Wojtek became an inseparable member of the company while the soldiers embarked on transport ships bound for Egypt alongside British Allied forces. However, there was a problem - the ships did not allow animals. Not wanting to leave their beloved bear behind, the soldiers hatched a plan.

wjotek the soldier bear

Officially Enlisted to Circumvent Regulations

The Polish soldiers officially enlisted Wojtek as the rank of private in their artillery supply company. He was given a serial number and paybook to classify him as a soldier rather than a pet or mascot. Wojtek's unique enlistment allowed him to board the transport ship with his comrades and accompany them wherever they were deployed.

Now an official honorrary soldier, Wojtek adapted quickly to military discipline. He marched alongside the other troops and saluted when greeted. His antics continued to raise morale and strengthen the bonds between the soldiers.

Helping the War Effort by Carrying Ammunition

In 1944, Wojtek and the Polish soldiers were deployed to the Italian front. During the crucial Battle of Monte Cassino, part of the larger Italian Campaign, the bear actively contributed to the war effort. The mountainous terrain made transporting heavy artillery difficult. Wojtek helped by carrying crates of ammunition from the supply trucks to the artillery positions.

The site of a 500-pound Syrian brown bear carrying artillery shells amazed the Allied soldiers and press corps. Although the crates were supposedly empty or only lightly loaded, it still boosted morale to see Wojtek pitching in alongside his comrades.

Promoted to the Rank of Corporal for Bravery

After the battle, Wojtek's heroic efforts were recognized with a promotion to the rank of corporal. The Artillery Supply 22nd Company also adopted a new emblem - a depiction of Wojtek carrying an artillery shell - to honor his service.

Did You Know: Wojtek was awarded with a promotion to corporal for his courage under fire. He truly was a morale symbol for all the troops.

Wojtek went on to fight in other critical battles of the Italian Campaign such as the Battle of Bologna in 1945. By carrying ammunition at the front lines, he demonstrated solidarity with his Polish brothers in arms.

Wojtek the Bear: Life After the War

Relocating to Scotland with the Polish Troops

When the war ended in 1945, Wojtek and the Polish soldiers faced an uncertain future. They had no home to return to, as their homeland was now under Soviet communist control. Many Polish troops opted to resettle in Britain rather than return to Soviet-dominated Poland.

In April 1947, Wojtek arrived with his company at Winfield Airfield in Berwickshire, Scotland. He soon became a local celebrity at the military camp, which housed about 3,000 Polish soldiers. The village children would take turns sitting on Wojtek's back as he gently carried them, and he even attended local dances and social events with his comrades.

“The only thing wrong with the bear is that he has developed a taste for whisky and beer. Apart from that he is very well behaved.” - Resident at Winfield Camp

Although the camp is gone today, Wojtek left his mark by climbing a favorite tree, which still bears his claw scratch marks.

Becoming a Celebrity at the Edinburgh Zoo

When the Winfield camp closed in 1947 and the Polish soldiers were demobilized, a permanent home had to be found for Wojtek. He was relocated to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, which would be his retirement home for over 15 years.

At the zoo Wojtek became a celebrity and popular visitor attraction. People were fascinated by his war history and friendly personality. Former Polish soldiers frequently visited Wojtek at the zoo and delighted him by speaking Polish.

"If Polish visitors came and spoke to him in Polish, he recognized that, and he responded by standing up and pacing in a circle, as if on sentry duty." - Zookeeper Helen Groves

Wojtek enjoyed his retirement at Edinburgh Zoo, spending his days relaxing, people-watching, and snacking on treats. His gentle nature made him a beloved figure until his death in December 1963 at the age of 21.

The Legacy of Corporal Wojtek the Soldier Bear

wjotek statue

Today Wojtek is remembered fondly as a unique symbol of solidarity and Polish patriotism during World War 2. This remarkable bear boosted morale in difficult times and built strong bonds between the exiled Polish soldiers.

A Symbol of Morale and Comradeship

During the war Wojtek helped lift spirits and represented the close comradeship of the Polish troops. His presence on the battlefield was a touching reminder of the humanity and loyalty of these soldiers. Wojtek asked for no special treatment but did his part alongside his comrades.

To this day, Wojtek remains an important symbol of Polish national pride and unity.

Honored with a Statue and Artistic Depictions

Wojtek's remarkable legacy lives on through statues, images, and memorials around the world. The 22nd Artillery Supply Company adopted their iconic patch depicting Wojtek carrying an artillery shell during the war. In Krakow, Poland a bronze statue shows Wojtek enjoying cigarettes with a soldier.

In November 2015, a large bronze statue of Wojtek was unveiled in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. The statue commemorates how the bear brought joy and companionship to Polish soldiers in their darkest hours. Children can be seen playing around the statue, reflecting Wojtek's gentle nature.

These memorials help ensure that the unique story of Wojtek the Soldier Bear continues to inspire future generations with its message of courage and loyalty. Wojtek the Soldier Bear's incredible friendship with Polish troops and contributions during World War 2 make him a truly exceptional bear. His unique story illustrates how bonds can form across barriers, bringing light even to the darkness of war. Wojtek continues to capture hearts, reminding us that loyalty and courage can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Frequently Asked Questions About Wojtek the Soldier Bear

Where did Wojtek the bear come from originally?

Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear cub found as an orphan in the Zagros Mountains of Persia in 1942. He was likely born sometime earlier that year.

Why did the Polish soldiers adopt the bear cub?

The Polish soldiers bonded with the bear cub because it was orphaned like them and brought them comfort and joy after enduring imprisonment. Wojtek reminded them of home and boosted morale.

How did Wojtek get his name?

The soldiers named the bear Wojtek, which is a diminutive form of the Polish name Wojciech. It means "happy warrior" or "smiling warrior" in Polish.

Why was Wojtek enlisted as a soldier?

Wojtek was officially enlisted as a private to classify him as a soldier rather than animal. This allowed him to circumvent regulations and stay with the troops when they shipped to Egypt and Italy.

What heroic things did Wojtek do during the war?

During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped carry crates of artillery shells for the Polish troops. This dangerous work earned him a promotion to corporal.

Why didn't Wojtek return to Poland after the war?

After the war Poland was under Soviet communist control. Many Polish soldiers did not want to return home and were resettled in places like Scotland.

How was Wojtek remembered after his death?

Wojtek is memorialized in statues, emblems, and artworks celebrating his solidarity and service. He remains an important symbol of Polish national pride.