During WWII, the Polish II Corps recruited a very unusual soldier named Wojtek who worked his way up to the rank of Corporal. Wojtek proved himself invaluable during the Battle of Monte Cassino for his incredible strength, endurance, and bravery. At war’s end, however, he was put in a zoo.
It all began in 1939 when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Poland. Declaring Poland to be extinct, the Soviets imprisoned some 2 million Poles, deported some 325,000 of them to various parts of Russia, and declared the rest to be Soviet citizens.
Then Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941. This forced the Soviets to seek the British as allies, but Britain had three conditions. The USSR had to first: (1) break all pacts with Germany, (2) recognize the existence of a Polish state, and (3) release all of its Polish prisoners – military and civilians, alike. The Soviets agreed to all demands by signing the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement in London on 30 July 1941.
So there was now the matter of what to do with the Polish men, women, and children in Russian Gulags. With permission from the Soviets, Polish soldiers and civilian volunteers created a new militia under Lieutenant General Władysław Albert Anders (himself released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow).
And thus was born Anders Army, also called the Polish Armed Forces. Their official name was the Polish II Corps and were made up of three infantry divisions (5th, 6th, and 7th) who answered to the Polish government-in-exile in London. Irgun Menachem Begin (an Israeli prime minister and Nobel peace prize recipient), was among those who joined this force.
With food and supply shortages on the home front, the Soviets let them go to Iran, which they had invaded with the British in September 1941 to secure oil supplies. By the end of April 1942, some 41,000 Polish soldiers and 74,000 Polish civilians were in Iran under the British High Command in the Middle East.
Since the Soviets could transport them from Poland to Russia, but not from Russia to Iran, most had to walk. Men, women, children, the sick, the infirm, and the elderly had to trek from Turkmenistan (once the southernmost border of the USSR) into Iran despite the cold, as well as the lack of food and medical supplies. Thousands died, as a result.
On 8 April 1942, the Polish II Corps and their civilian charges were on their way to Teheran when they stopped for a rest outside the Iranian town of Hamadan. There they met an Iranian boy who found a bear cub that had been orphaned when hunters shot its mother.
Irena Bokiewicz (an 18-year-old civilian) became enamored with the cub, so to cheer her up, Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki bought it from the boy. The group made it to the Polish refugee camp outside Teheran where Irena took care of it. By August, however, she was no longer able to, so she gave it to the 22nd Artillery Supply Company who called the bear Wojtek (pronounced Voy-tek), which means “joyful warrior” or “he who enjoys war.”
Since the soldiers knew nothing about caring for bears, they tried to feed him condensed milk from an empty Vodka bottle, but he couldn’t swallow it. So they switched to honey, syrup, jam, and fruit. It worked, but those weren’t always available, so the men resorted to giving him what they had available.
As a result, Wojtek developed a taste for beer and cigarettes (which he also ate). From that point on, whenever he obeyed a command (like learning to salute), he was rewarded with beer. His favorite sports were wrestling (though he never hurt anyone), boxing, and tug of war. Despite his unusual diet, he grew to be 6’ tall and weighed 485 pounds.
Besides humans, Wojtek became friendly with the Dalmation of a British liaison officer, and would even wrestle with the dog. Once, he tried to befriend a horse, but the creature kicked him in the head and neck. From that point on, he avoided horses and mules.
Since the 22nd Company fought with the British 8th Army, the bear went with them to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. His handlers were Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo, but they never any problems with him since he was very tame. When not being transported in his cage, Wojtek would sleep with the men in their tent.
In January 1944, the 22nd were to leave Egypt for Italy, but port authorities wouldn’t let a bear board the ship. Since the 22nd refused to leave without him, they made Wojtek an official Private in the Polish Army complete with a paybook, a rank, and a serial number.
When they landed at Naples, Italy, British Courier Archibald Brown called out the soldier’s names, but Private Wojtek didn’t answer. When Brown asked where he was, the Poles claimed that the private only spoke Polish and Persian. The British bureaucrat demanded the soldier step forward, but the soldiers insisted that he go to Wojtek, instead. Annoyed, Brown did just that, only to find himself facing a bear in a cage.
On January 17, the Allies were trying to make it to Rome. Stopping them were the Axis forces outside the town of Cassino (some 91 miles southeast of Rome). German paratroopers had occupied the hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino (outside the town) and were putting up stiff resistance. Aerial bombing failed to dislodge the defenders, so the 22nd Company were doing their part on the ground.
So did Private Wojtek who carried heavy crates filled with mortar shells from the supply trucks. When the boxes ran out, he took to carrying shells, which was how some British reinforcements found him. Despite return enemy fire, Wojtek did his part unstintingly, earning himself the rank of Corporal. As a result, the image of him carrying an artillery shell remains the official emblem of the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company.
After the war, the company was disbanded in Berwickshire, Scotland and Wojtek was taken into the Edinburgh Zoo. Soviet Poland demanded that Wojtek be brought over to a local zoo, but the soldiers insisted he remains in Scotland so he could live free of Soviet occupation. This brave bear, who did so much to help the Poles, deserved better than ending his days in a zoo. However, there was no other option. However, he will always have a place in the hearts of Poles.