Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that a group of Polish soldiers liberated from their Russian captors and starting a long trek across the Middle East to join the British forces, found hope in a bear cub orphaned after his mother was killed by hunters (according to legend).
Wojtek was a curiosity from the start. What do soldiers know about bears, let alone one that was just a tiny cub? How do they feed him? What do they feed him?!
Condensed milk, for starters, out of an old vodka bottle. Later, as he grew and became the official mascot of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. By all accounts—and there are an increasing number in recent years—Wojtek enjoyed play-boxing and wrestling with his fur-less brothers, even understanding he couldn’t be too rough with them or they wouldn’t want to play anymore.
He was also known to enjoy playing with other animals kept by the company as mascots, including a Dalmatian that belonged to a British liaison officer. The only animals he stayed away from were a horse after the horse, frightened, kicked him in the head, and a bear kept by a different company.
As he grew, Wojtek the smiling bear warrior moved on from condensed milk and ate the same rations as the other men in his company. And like any soldier out with the men for the first time, he developed a fondness for beer and cigarettes. By some reports, Wojtek learned to smoke cigarettes by watching the other soldiers; others say he wouldn’t so much inhale the smoke as he would eat the cigarette, filter and all. Eventually, Wojtek received double rations as he grew to more than six feet in height and over 485 pounds (220 Kg) in weight.
Wojtek traveled with the company from Iran to Palestine and into Egypt without any trouble, it seems, but when it came time to board a ship that would take the soldiers to Naples, Italy, it was made clear by port authority officials the bear was not going to be joining them.
The solution: make Wojtek an official soldier, giving him the rank of private and his own pay book and serial number. He joined his fellow soldiers on the ship in a cage and made the voyage to Italy. Wojtek was even taught to salute. Upon arrival, British Courier Archibald Brown met with each man individually to check his papers. Imagine his confusion when one man was not accounted for.
He recounted in a 2012 interview that, when asked where Corporal Wojtek was and why he didn’t respond, one Polish soldier said “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.” It was then that Brown was taken to see the missing Wojtek in his private “office”.
When the soldiers went into battle or moved from camp to camp, Wojtek joined them, either marching in step with them or traveling in a vehicle big enough to hold him.
Wojtek was seen carrying shells, or boxes of shells, during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, leading to the company’s adoption of a pin featuring a bear carrying a shell as their emblem.
He also helped carry food and other supplies for Polish and British troops, becoming accustomed to the loud noises of war and could sometimes be seen up in tall trees to watch the action. When carrying or stacking the heavy boxes of artillery, it is said that Wojtek never dropped anything.
When the war mercifully ended, the company’s time with their bear-brother was over. Wojtek was discharged and transferred to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived for about 15 years until his death in 1963 at the age of 21. Some of his fellow soldiers came to visit him in the zoo after the war was over and it’s said Wojtek would perk up and become more animated whenever he heard Polish spoken near his new home.
Wojtek has been commemorated with a statute in Park Jordana, Krakow, Poland, another in the Sikorski Museum and one in Princes Street Garden in Edinburgh. There are additional commemorative plaques in London and Ottawa. In 2011, the film Wojtek—The Bear that Went to War was broadcast on BBC Two Scotland, narrated by Brian Blessed, and in September 2014, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, British songwriter Katy Carr released a video called simply “Wojtek”.