Wojtek the Soldier Bear
After Germany seized Poland in the Blitzkrieg, Polish forces were evacuated into the Middle East to assist Britain in the Africa campaign. On the road to Tehran, Polish soldiers encountered a boy caring for a Syrian brown bear and decided to buy the young cub. After staying in a refugee camp and being fed condensed milk from old vodka bottles, the bear was donated into the 22nd Artillery Supply company and named Wojtek, meaning “joyful warrior.”
He quickly became the group’s mascot, dining on honey and marmalade, smoking and eating cigarettes, and indulging in his favorite drink: beer. Wojtek was immensely popular with the soldiers and civilians. He often wrestled with his caretakers and was even taught to salute when greeted. Wojtek took to his new family as well—having lost his mother to hunters before being found. Wojtek reportedly would cover his eyes when sad or in trouble and learned to turn on the showers to cool off.
The war bear accompanied the military through Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Though he was known to raid the kitchen and engage in other wanton mischief. He also contributed to the war effort, reportedly catching an Arab spy who was so afraid of the bear that he spilled enemy secrets.
Drafted into the Army
When it was time to sail north into Italy to assist in the defeat of Mussolini’s armies, Wojtek was made an official private to gain passage.
He was assigned two caretakers—Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo—as well as his own serial number and pay book. He slept in the tent with his fellow enlisted men but had a special wooden crate instead of a cot.
Growing over six feet tall, and weighing 250 pounds, Wojtek was a curious sight to behold on the battlefield. During an assault against the Winter Line at the Battle of Monte Cassino, several accounts were made of Wojtek helping to carry artillery shells for his comrades. Due to his effect on morale, the Polish Army recognized Wojtek’s service by featuring him on the 22nd Supply Corps insignia.
After the war ended, the 22nd Artillery Supply was moved to an English airfield, but as his comrades began returning home, he was donated to the Edinburgh Zoo to live out his days. Visitors and the press loved the curious bear, but Polish soldiers were also seen stopping by from time to time to greet their old companion and throw him a cigarette.