Weirdest Soldier of WWII: Wojtek the Bear

he Second World War changed the definition of “normal”. Due to the nature of the conflict, unconventional tactics had to be used to gain an advantage over the enemy. This led to the development of many new technologies, tactics, and events that, before the war, would have made no sense. Such is the story of Kapral (Corporal) Wojtek.

Wojtek’s story began with the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union. After a brave final battle, the Polish nation was split in two by the Soviet Union and the Third Reich in 1939. The period that followed was a time of terror for the Polish people where many crimes against humanity took place. been committed. In one of my recent articles, I talk about the situation in Poland after the Soviet takeover, focusing mainly on one of the greatest crimes against humanity committed by the Soviets while they controlled Poland.

Poland’s Bloody Forest

Over the next few years, much of Poland’s population would be displaced and many would be exiled from Poland to the Soviet Union. Once in the Soviet Union, many would travel south to reach a refugee camp set up for Polish exiles in Tehran, Iran. On their way to the camp, a group of refugees passed a little boy at a train station in Hamadan, Iran. He had with him a small cub that he recovered after the cub’s mother was shot by a hunter. One of the civilians going to the camp, eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz, the great-niece of the famous Polish general Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, decided to take the little bear into her care.

Wojtek as a child, in 1943 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cub would be cared for by Irena for the next 3 months until a lack of resources prompted her to donate the cub to the 2nd Transport Company (later becoming the 22nd Artillery Supply Company). Soldiers of the 2nd Transport Company would give the bear the nickname Wojtek which is a shortened version of the old Slavic name “Wojciechwhich means “Happy Warrior”.

Some difficulties were encountered at first due to the young cub having swallowing problems, which meant his carer had to feed him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. After a while he would grow and his diet would be changed to include fruits and honey.

The beer would be used as a reward for good performance or behavior which would now become the bear’s favorite drink. Later, to imitate his compatriots, he smoked/ ate cigarettes and drank coffee in the morning with his compatriots. During cold nights, Wojtek also slept with the soldiers, bringing some warmth to the troops.

Later in his service he would learn to salute and march with the troops which he made on his two hind legs with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company which was his home during the entire time he served under the Polish Army.

become a soldier

The Polish army in exile will not remain hidden for long as long as their country is occupied. As a result, they linked up with the British Army in Egypt to aid them in their efforts to retake Italy. Mascots were banned under Army regulations; therefore, to keep Wojtek as part of the Company, they officially drafted him into the Polish Army. As an enlisted soldier, he would be paid and given a rank and serial number. He lived with the other men in a tent or in a special wooden box intended for his transport which would be moved in a truck in case the Company needed to change its location.

Wojtek at Edinburgh Zoo after his “retirement”, 1949 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As part of his service, Wojtek participated in the famous Battle of Monte Cassino. It is there that he will earn his rank of corporal by helping the Polish troops in their efforts. Seeing his comrades moving ammunition, he too began to move ammunition boxes as well as individual shells. Some accounts say that Wojtek moved around boxes which required 4 men to move and throughout his service he would not drop a single shell. Subsequently, in response to its popularity, the head of the Polish Army authorized the 22nd Company to change its emblem to a depiction of a bear wearing a shell which still exists to this day.

After World War II, Wojtek would go with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company to Scotland where he would be stationed at a base near a small village called Hutton. During the years between the end of the war and demobilization from the army in 1947, Wojtek would become a local celebrity. As a result, it would be donated to Edinburgh Zoo after the Polish Army in Exile had disbanded. Here he would spend the rest of his life often visited by soldiers from his former company who threw beer and cigarettes at him over the fence for him to drink and eat.

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