It was not uncommon for army units to have their own mascots to keep up morale during war, most of the times the mascot was a dog or even something as exotic as a monkey. Private Voytek was a different matter entirely, not only was he a bear mascot for the Polish 22nd transport company, he was also a registered soldier who performed admirably during battle.
Voytek, a brown bear, was found by Polish soldiers in Iran. These Poles had been prisoners in the Soviet Union and were freed in 1942. As they organized they set out towards Egypt to link up with the British to join the war effort. As they were traveling through Iran the Poles found a little bear cub. His mother had been killed by hunters so the soldiers adopted him as one of their own.
Voytek was raised among soldiers and it was often said that Voytek did not even know he was a bear. He loved being with the men, and he enjoyed what they did. He was feed honey, fruit and syrup and greatly enjoyed wine, beer and cigarettes. He was known to drink wine out of a bottle and then peer into the bottle hoping for more. His favorite method of smoking was to take a quick puff before eating the cigarette. Voytek loved taking baths and wrestling with the soldiers, though there weren’t that many willing to wrestle him. While he was still small enough Voytek would ride in the cab of the transport trucks and enjoyed sticking his head out the window. As he grew, Voytek became fairly large at close to 500 pounds (35 stone), and began riding in the back with the cargo.
When the 22nd transport company reached Egypt they sought passage to Italy to join the war effort. The British transport ships initially refused passage to a bear and maintained that only soldiers could be on the ships. The company got permission to enlist Voytek as a private; this is also where he formally was named Voytek, meaning “smiling warrior” in Polish. As a member of the Polish army, Voytek was granted passage to Italy.
In Italy, Voytek saw action at a number of sites but none were more memorable than Voytek’s service at the bloody battle of Monte Cassino. At Monte Cassino the Allies launched an attack at a deeply entrenched German position. The Polish units suffered severe casualties and were constantly in need of ammo. Voytek was given crates of ammo and had artillery shells strapped to his legs and transported the ammo all the way to the front lines. Voytek showed no fear as he made several trips to supply his comrades on the front lines. The firepower from the Polish artillery was an important factor in the eventual allied victory. The 22nd artillery was so impressed by Voytek’s efforts that they changed their official insignia to a bear holding an artillery shell; a similar image would be used as a sign for the 22nd transport company.
Voytek had proved to be a fearless soldier as well as a lovable mascot and friend to many of the Poles. After the war was over Voytek did not have a place to go so he was taken to the Edinburgh Zoo in 1945. Voytek lived a full at happy life at the zoo and always perked up when he heard someone speak Polish. His old friends from the war would occasionally visit him to sneak him bear and occasionally climb in to wrestle with him. Voytek died in 1963 at the approximate age of 20-21. He has monuments now in Edinburgh and in Kraków and displays at the London Imperial War Museum and the Canadian War Museum. Voytek is a great reminder of the lighter moments of WWII and his great importance to the Polish army for both Voytek and the Poles were soldiers without a place to call home.
By William McLaughlin for War History Online