Wojtek the Legend.
There is a growing interest in “Wojtek” both in Poland and abroad. Perhaps it is fueled by the growing historiography on war mascots such as Jilly Cooper's "Animals in War" (2002). Exhibits such as “The Animals’ War” which ran its course at the Imperial War Museum in London, England in 2007, contribute to the intellectual and popular awareness of countless wartime companions. While such exhibits and texts raise the moral question of subjecting animals to the cruelty of war, they also fortify the need to commemorate and to share their valiant efforts and legendary experiences.
This website is a contribution to the unique history of the Soldier Bear from the Second Polish Armed Corps. Literature on this subject is becoming increasingly popular as Wojtek’s story becomes a platform for screenplays, documentaries, and both historic and narrative texts. There are efforts to raise funds for new "Wojtek" memorials on both sides of the Atlantic. The Soldier Bear has undoubtedly left a legacy.
My professional interest in twentieth century Anglo-Polish relations has allowed me to deeply immerse and familiarize myself with a vast array of heroic, brave and often times tragic experiences suffered by Polish men, women and children during the Second World War. However, one of the most captivating and perhaps more unique experiences involved the life of an extraordinary Iranian brown bear who became a soldier in the Polish Second Army Corps.
History is littered with famous army animals who gained their fame by participating in military maneuvers, riding in tanks, airplanes and jeeps, lining up with the ranks for inspection and for boosting the morale of fellow comrades. Wojtek, (pronounced Voy-tek), the Polish soldier bear was no exception. He was arguably one of the most beguiling war-time animal personalities who became a legendary mascot well after the war. So fascinating was Wojtek’s role, that his comrades in the 22nd Transport Company did not regard him as a mere mascot, but as a fellow soldier who participated in the daily routines of army life and who shared the common hardships of war. Rarely has an army animal graced his fellow comrades with such dutiful service as the Polish soldier bear.
Barely two decades passed since the Russo-Polish war of 1919-1921, when Poland was once again forced to defend her borders. The September onslaught from Germany in the west and later from Soviet Russia in the east left Poland gasping for air as the invading forces sealed her in a tight ring of occupation. Although the Polish government was forced to flee from Warsaw, it continued to fight for Poland abroad. Countless numbers of Poles smuggled themselves via Romania and Hungary (among other outlets) to join the newly formed Polish army in the West. Those who found themselves under Russian occupation were treated no better than those under the Germans. Thousands of Poles were deported to the merciless depths of Russia. Individual professionals and entire families were uprooted and placed into the merciless Gulag system in the harsh Siberian outback.
On 30 July 1941, following the German invasion of Russia, the Polish Government in London signed the Polish-Soviet Agreement which led to a resumption of diplomatic relations and provided for the release of all Polish deportees. From a military perspective, the agreement provided for the release of soldiers who helped form a Polish Army contingent in the East. The arduous route via Persia, North Africa and Italy began for thousands of Polish soldiers.
In April 1942, various Polish units began to land in Persia on the edges of the Caspian Sea. They headed toward Egypt and Palestine in order to re-group under British Army organization. During this period, numerous units landed in the port of Pahlevi and began to make their way through the mountainous terrain toward their destination. To their unknown surprise, while enroute between the town of Hamadan and Kangavar, a new future soldier entered their ranks.
Wojtek, like so many other soldiers of the Polish army was expelled from his home and forced to survive in unfamiliar and challenging situations. He was taken from his birthplace in the Hamadan mountain region after a party of bear hunters killed his mother. At only three months, the young bear was forced to scrounge for himself until he was taken captive by a young Iranian boy. He was packed tightly into a sack, and dragged behind his new owner until a group of Polish soldiers spotted the boys plunder.
Long rows of transport trucks were making their way along the winding roads between the desolate Hamadan mountains. During a rest stop, a group of Polish soldiers were drawn to the Iranian boy and the curious shape in his sack. To their amazement, a young Iranian brown bear emerged before them and began to yearn for food. Without much debate, the men purchased the bear and took him under their protection.
Their first responsibility was to feed the starving cub. After numerous attempts, an empty vodka bottle with a twisted handkerchief was adopted as a means to serve diluted condensed milk to young Wojtek. The vodka bottle contained a few drops of alcohol which were accidentally mixed into the milk. The soldiers later thought that this may have been the reason why Wojtek had developed a taste for alcoholic beverages, namely for beer, in his later years.
The young bear crossed the entire Polish combat route from Iran through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and into Italy. In his early months he was kept warm in the comfort of woolen blankets and uniforms. When he grew older, new “beds” such as a bathtub and later a trunk accommodated the growing bear. Yet despite the numerous efforts to make new sleeping quarters, Wojtek preferred to sleep with the Polish soldiers. He also loved to cuddle beside strangers, and waited until the morning to frighten them with a big wet lick.
His favourite past time was to wrestle. He was a fierce but also a courteous competitor and would sometimes allow his opponents to win. He would go on long walks to explore his surroundings and enjoyed cold baths. Wojtek was a fantastic swimmer and diver. While his company was stationed near the Adriatic coast, he would often go for a quick dip. On numerous occasions he would emerge out of the water among bathing locals and cause panic and confusion.
Wojtek’s diet was predominantly composed of fruits, marmalade, honey, syrup and beer, which was usually given to him as a reward. Alcohol had the same effect on Wojtek as it has on humans. Yet despite the confusion and headache, Wojtek remained a jovial bear. He also liked cigarettes: not to smoke, but to eat. Interestingly, the cigarettes had to be lit in order for him to consume them. When offered an unlit cigarette he was quick to spit it out.
Wojtek made many friends during his military career, including a large Dalmatian dog who belonged to a British liaison officer. The two animals would play and wrestle together to the endless delight of their fellow soldiers. Wojtek’s encounter with other animals did not always end with delight. While the 22nd Company made camp in the outskirts of an Iranian town, Wojtek decided to approach a grazing horse. The frightened animal lashed several kicks toward the bear, hitting his head and neck and causing him to stagger. Wojtek growled and groaned as if to complain to the soldiers about the unjust punishment from such an undisciplined horse. He learned his lesson. Wojtek stayed clear of any donkeys and horses for the remainder of the campaign.
Apparently there were also other bear mascots in the Polish Army. The 16th Lwow Rifles Battalion had a bear mascot named Michael (named in memory of the Polish general Michal Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski, who had received the bear as a gift from the Shah of Persia). However, a violent run-in with Wojtek and an Arab regiment quickly ended the bear’s welcome in the Polish army. The soldiers from Michael’s regiment wanted to introduce their bear to Wojtek, and hoped to acquaint the two animals. Yet Michael tore at his leash and attacked Wojtek with vicious growls and snarls. The soldiers were unable to control the animals and they had no choice but to wait for the outcome. Wojtek gained the upper hand in a violent fight and released Michael after a long bout. Following his aggressive display, Michael was given to an Arab regiment stationed near Kirkuk. Yet Michael attacked the Arab soldiers and made his way back to the Polish battalion. He was then given to the 22nd Transport Company, but after numerous more attacks on Wojtek, it was obvious that he had to be moved. Consequently, in September 1943, the 22nd Company presented the Tel-Aviv Zoo with Michael. Mayor J. Rokach of Tel-Aviv expressed his gratitude (one would hope without sarcasm) to the C.O.:
“In the name of the city of Tel-Aviv, I sincerely thank
you for the bear. He will be a memory of the Polish Army.”
Monte Cassino overlooks the major road running through the southern part of Italy. The Germans had fortified and incorporated the monastery that sits on top of the hill into their “Gustav” system of defenses. The taking of Monte Cassino meant breaking the Gustav line and opening the road to Rome. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by the Australians, the British and the Canadians against the strong German defense. In May of 1944, the Polish Second Corps under the command of General Wladislaw Anders was ordered to assault the Germans. For over a week, the Poles bombarded the German positions and gradually made their way up the hill. Despite the difficult terrain and the German advantage, Polish troops overwhelmed the enemy and took the monastery on 18 May 1944.
Wojtek’s Company had been preparing for their "re-entrance" onto the European stage since the day they began their arduous journey out of Russia. In the early months of 1944 they were ordered to embark for Italy to join the Allied advance. However, the British orders for embarkation declared that no animals were allowed to accompany the troops. The quick-to-it Poles enrolled Wojtek into the army as an official rank-and-file soldier of the 22nd Transport Company (Artillery Supply) of the Polish Second Army Corps. Wojtek’s comrades waved the appropriate documents in front of the British authorities and boarded the ship with the bear at Alexandria.
It was in Italy where Wojtek was exposed to the war which his comrades had been preparing for. Geofrey Morgan and W.A. Lasocki in their narrative history Soldier Bear, explain that it did not take long for Wojtek to get used to the sounds of artillery fire at the front line. In fact, he often perched himself on the tallest trees in order to observe the distant explosions.
The 22nd Transport Company worked under heavy enemy fire in order to supply vital positions with ammunition and food. During the battle for Monte Cassino, Wojtek’s Company supplied approximately 17, 320 tons of ammunition, 1,200 tons of fuel, and 1,116 tons of food for Polish and British troops.
It was during this period, under a constant barrage of enemy fire, when Wojtek fulfilled his duty as a true soldier. He had observed his comrades who continually loaded and unloaded heavy shells and boxes with ammunition. At one moment the bear walked toward a supply truck on his hind legs, stretched out his paws and waited for the soldiers to give him something to carry. To their amazement, Wojtek effortlessly lifted a heavy box of ammunition and carried it from one truck to another and returned for more. Filled with enthusiasm, the bear marched day after day and carefully carried vital supplies until the Polish soldiers took Monte Cassino. Astonishingly, Wojtek was so careful that he never dropped a single shell, food sack or box with ammunition.
The soldier bear became famous for his contribution to the Allied victory. Wojtek became a celebrity. An image of him carrying an artillery shell became an official army symbol, proudly affixed on the uniforms, pendants and vehicles of the 22nd Company.
After Wojtek finished his tour of duty in Italy, he sailed to Glasgow, Scotland were his Company was later demobilized. Wojtek’s fame continued as he was welcomed by local spectators who came to watch and cheer for the famous Iranian soldier-bear. Reporters streamed into the headquarters of the 22nd Company at Winfield Park to take pictures and to write about the fantastic stories of the brave bear. The local Scottish-Polish society nominated Wojtek as a fellow community member and presented him with a bottle of beer.
Yet despite the fact that the famous bear entered the annals of history, he spent his last days in sadness. The demobilization of the Polish army in 1947 forced Wojtek’s comrades to search for a new home for the large animal. On 15 November 1947, it was decided to transfer Wojtek from Winfield Park to the Edinburgh Zoo for “safe keeping.” Wojtek’s companions gathered at the Zoo to say their goodbyes. Thomas H. Gillespie later remarked in his book:
“He walked into his cage of his own accord…I never
felt so sorry as I was to see an animal who had enjoyed so much
freedom and fun, confined to a cage.”
Wojtek continued to be visited by many spectators and artists who made pictures and sketches of the famous army animal. He was also visited by his comrades who frequently jumped over the fence and into his cage in order to wrestle with the aging bear. Interestingly, Wojtek only responded to Polish visitors who cheerfully shouted at him in their native tongue. G. D. Fischer, the Director-Secretary of Edinburgh Zoo described Wojtek’s remaining years in the Zoo when he wrote:
“He [Wojtek] was of a friendly disposition and I had many pleasant
talks with him…..He was I think, happier indoors at this time, where
he enjoyed the warmth of infra-red heat. During his last few months he
was an old animal, but lived very contentedly.”
It is difficult to believe that Wojtek enjoyed the indoors and that he lived his last years contentedly within the confines of his cage. He was, after all, a soldier-bear who had helped fight for freedom. He must have preferred to spend his last days with his companions who shared with him the memories of war.
Wojtek died in Edinburgh at the age of 22 in 1963. He grew to be almost six feet tall and weighed approximately 500 pounds. The Edinburgh Zoo authorities erected a plaque to commemorate the legendary bear. There is also a commemorative plaque in the Imperial War Museum in London, England and in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. Important archival data and a large sculpture of the Polish soldier-bear can also be found in The Wladislaw Sikorski Institute in London, England.
I am indepted to Mr. A. Kipiniak whose father, Captain A. Kipiniak, ranked in the 22nd Transport Company and shared many experiences with Wojtek. His vivid recollections and photographs placed Wojtek in a more intimate picture and prompted the desire to add to the growing literature on this legendary soldier.
Mr. Richard Paudyn, a veteran of the Polish Second Corps, provided valuable insights and personal perspectives. His article on Wojtek has been published in Polish in the Goniec Newspaper.
Hopefully this website will serve its purpose as a growing online collection of historical records on Wojtek and the 22nd Transport Company.
Patryk Polec. 2008.