Heroes From History: Wojtek the Bear

Wojtek – meaning “Happy Warrior” in Polish – was a Syrian brown bear who was enlisted in the Polish Army during the Second World War. He was the only non-human to ever receive an enlisted position with an official rank and payroll in a human military, at least during WWII, and potentially ever. Wojtek was raised by humans and thought he was a human himself. He is perhaps most famous for serving in the Battle of Monte Cassino where he helped carry artillery shells from supply trucks to the front lines. Wojtek achieved the rank of corporal before retiring from military service.

Early Life

Following the release of Polish prisoners-of-war from Soviet gulags, British command began raising the men into an army in Iran. During this time, Wojtek was acquired by “Anders’ Army” and became a mascot for the 22nd Artillery Support Company. During his youth, he took on many of the behaviors of the men. He wrestled and played soccer, marched on his hind legs, and learned to salute on command. Wojtek loved smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and beer, and eating the oranges the men threw for practice throwing grenades.

Wojtek standing at attention
Wojtek copied the behavior of the men of the 22nd and would march, stand at attention, and salute with them.

Wojtek also loved to sneak into the communal showers to bathe himself and keep cool. He learned how to break into the locked showers and turn the water on himself. This caused water shortages at times, as he would take long showers. However, this would turn out to be a blessing in disguise as Wojtek once reportedly captured an enemy spy hiding in the showers. Wojtek snuck into the communal showers where he found the spy and began roaring until others came to see what the commotion was about. The spy was too scared to move for fear of the bear and was then taken into custody.

Military Career

When the 22nd was leaving the Middle East to be deployed in Europe, they attempted to take Wojtek with them. However, the British ship they were boarding did not allow animal mascots or pets aboard. To circumvent this regulation, Wojtek was officially enlisted as a private with the 22nd. This allowed him to stay with the men who had raised him a bit longer. He would also prove to be an asset rather than a liability, copying the activities he saw the men performing. This would be most beneficial during the Battle of Monte Cassino.

In 1944, the Allies were advancing toward Rome in Italy. The Italians had already surrendered and were now aiding the Allied advance through their territory. The Germans, however, continued to fight. German troops stationed across Italy put up resistance to the Allies, even as their Italian counterparts laid down their weapons. The Polish II Corps was part of the assault on Monte Cassino which was suspected to be an observation post used by the Germans to coordinate their artillery strikes in the area.

Emblem of the 22nd Artillery Support Company
The official emblem of the 22nd Artillery Support Company after the Battle of Monte Cassino.

The 22nd Artillery Support Company was resupplying artillery guns from their supply trucks throughout the battle, a task which required men to carry crates of artillery shells from the trucks to the front line by hand. Usually, four men were required to carry a single crate, as they were extremely heavy. Wojtek saw the men performing this task and copied what they were doing. He helped to carry the crates alongside them, walking on his hind legs. Wojtek was able to carry the heavy crates all by himself, taking a significant burden off the men of the 22nd.

The story of Wojtek’s role in the battle was controversial, as many refused to believe a bear actually helped in such a way. However, there was at least one British soldier who corroborated the report of a bear helping to carry crates of artillery shells. Still, some insist Wojtek only carried empty crates. Nevertheless, Wojtek was promoted to the rank of corporal for his exemplary service in the Battle of Monte Cassino. The 22nd also adopted an image of a bear carrying an artillery shell as their company emblem after the action.

Retirement

Wojtek was retired and sent to Scotland in 1945. He could not go back to Poland as the Russians had taken over the country, and the Polish people feared Wojtek would be used for communist propaganda if he were sent to the land he fought for and represented. He eventually found a home at Edinburgh Zoo in 1947. At first, he was placed with other bears, but this did not work out for Wojtek. He thought he was human and did not have the social skills to be with other bears. So, he lived out the rest of his days in his own personal enclosure.

Wojtek in retirement
Wojtek in retirment

Men of the 22nd would come to visit Wojtek at the Edinburgh Zoo after the war. They would hop the fence and wrestle with him. Some would also bring him treats of beer and cigarettes. Wojtek lived until the age of 21. He died in December of 1963 from damage to his esophagus, likely from smoking cigarettes. Today, a statue commemorating Wojtek can be found in Edinburgh.

Legacy

There are countless stories of exceptional bravery, honor, and service among human beings, and more than a few such stories featuring animals. Still, most of those involve dogs and horses. It is rare to see a bear find such a place in human history. Wojtek may not have understood the significance of his actions, and may have simply been copying the behavior of the humans he saw around him. Nevertheless, his actions displayed the same dedication as any other man in the 22nd Artillery Support Company, and he will be remembered for his part in the battle of good versus evil.


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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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