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Wojtek, the soldier bear

Wojtek playfully nibbling on a comrade's arm (Photo: AA Archive)
Wojtek playfully nibbling on a comrade's arm (Photo: AA Archive)

Humans have been using animals in war since the dawn of history. Horses, mules, camels and elephants have been used as riding mounts and beasts of burden for thousands of years. Dogs, and some other animals, have been trained to directly attack the enemy. Human creativity sometimes found even more bizarre wartime use for animals. In World War II, America planned to attach tiny incendiary bombs to bats and let them loose over Japan. In 525 BC, the Achaemenid Empire supposedly defeated an Egyptian army by carrying cats, dogs, ibises and sheep in the front ranks – the Egyptians considered these animals sacred and chose to retreat rather than risk harming and angering the gods. One of the most unique war animals in history was Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who served with Polish soldiers in World War II.

Wojtek giving a comrade a ride (Photo: Stewart Ferguson)
Wojtek giving a comrade a ride (Photo: Stewart Ferguson)

The story of Wojtek and his human comrades began in September 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both attacked Poland from opposite directions. Despite putting up a heroic defense, Poland had no chance to defeat the two forces: the fighting was over by the 6th of October, and the two invaders split up the country between themselves. Polish soldiers escaped the country by the thousands to join the Allies and fight abroad for the eventual liberation of their homeland. Many others were captured by the Germans or the Soviets. About 2 million Polish citizens, about one-eighth of them prisoners of war, the rest civilians, were imprisoned or deported to Siberia by the Soviets.

Polish prisoners of war marching into Soviet captivity (Image: Central Studio for Documentary Film -Soviet Union)
Polish prisoners of war marching into Soviet captivity (Image: Central Studio for Documentary Film -Soviet Union)

In June 1941, Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back and attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The invasion caught the Soviets by surprise, and the Red Army was desperately scrambling to slow down the German advance. Willing to consider any and every chance to stop Germany, the Soviet leadership came up with the idea of using the deported and imprisoned Polish soldiers against the invaders. The Soviet Union began talks with Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London, to reach a compromise. The resulting Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of July 30, 1941 allowed for a Polish military force to be recruited from among deported soldiers, while hundreds of thousands of other Poles would be released. The force, the Polish Armed Forces in the East, fought for the Polish government-in-exile on paper, but was actually intended to be used on the Eastern Front, fighting alongside Soviet troops. It should be noted that the Katyn massacre, the infamous slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia, was as yet unknown by the Western Allies at the time, and would have certainly thrown a spanner in the works.

Signing the Sikorski-Mayski agreement. Left: Sikorski, right: Soviet ambassador to the UK Ivan Mayski, UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and PM Winston Churchill look on. (Photo: Polish Government in Exile)
Signing the Sikorski-Mayski agreement. Left: Sikorski, right: Soviet ambassador to the UK Ivan Mayski, UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and PM Winston Churchill look on. (Photo: Polish Government in Exile)

The Polish unit, nicknamed Anders' Army after its commander, Lieutenant General Władysław Anders, was initially comprised of 25,000 soldiers. Setting up the army was not easy. The Russians wanted the unit to only recruit ethnic Poles, but not Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians with Polish citizenship. There was a distinct lack of recruitable officers (due to the aforementioned Katyn massacre). The new units did not have enough supplies and logistical support. But worst of all, there just wasn't enough food for Anders' Army and the thousands of freed Polish civilians who decided to travel with them, hopeful to eventually get home.

Polish and Soviet officers during a military exercise in Russia, winter of 1941. Władysław Anders is sitting on the ground, right. (Photo: Polish Armed Forces in the East)
Polish and Soviet officers during a military exercise in Russia, winter of 1941. Władysław Anders is sitting on the ground, right. (Photo: Polish Armed Forces in the East)
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In late August, 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union jointly invaded the neutral but Axis-friendly Imperial State of Iran. The seven-day operation not only acquired the country's oil fields, but also created a land route between the Soviet Union and the territories of the British Empire in North Africa. This allowed Anders' Army, which the Soviet couldn't feed and supply anyway, to move to Egypt through Iran, and be transferred over to British control where they could achieve more with proper supplies.

Władysław Anders (Photo: Centralne Archiwum Wojskowe)
Władysław Anders (Photo: Centralne Archiwum Wojskowe)

The army reached the Iranian city of Hamadan on April 8, 1942. The soldiers met a young boy with a bear cub at a railway station. The boy told them that the cub's mother was shot by hunters. One of the civilian refugees traveling with the army, 18-year-old Irena Bokiewicz, was taken in with the cub. She convinced a Polish lieutenant to buy the bear from the boy. The cub was taken to a refugee camp near Tehran, where Bokiewicz took care of it for three months. In August, the bear was donated to the 2nd Transport Company, later reorganized as the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of Anders' Army. The soldiers immediately took a liking to the bear and named if Wojtek, a diminutive form of the Polish name Wojciech, meaning "Happy Warrior".

Wojtek as a tiny cub, shortly after his adoption (Photo: British military)
Wojtek as a tiny cub, shortly after his adoption (Photo: British military)

Wojtek initially had a problem swallowing, so he was fed condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. His diet was later expanded to include fruit, marmalade, honey, syrup, and anything he could get, really. He also grew fond of beer and wine, which soldiers often poured in his own personal mug. After emptying his mug of booze, Wojtek would make a big show of staring at the empty container sadly until someone took pity on him and topped it up. If handed beer in a bottle, he would puncture it with a claw to get to the good stuff inside. Wojtek also took a liking to morning coffee and cigarettes, the latter of which he would enjoy in his way. He would take a cigarette in his mouth and wait for someone to light it. He would then take a puff or two, then swallow the whole thing.

Wojtek enjoying his favorite beverage: beer (Photo: The Daily Mail)
Wojtek enjoying his favorite beverage: beer (Photo: The Daily Mail)

Wojtek also enjoyed playful wrestling with his friends, always licking his sparring partner's face if he (that is, Wojtek) won. He also often went into the soldiers' tents or bunks to cuddle with them on cold nights. On one occasion, he noticed a thief who entered the camp at night, confronted him and got him to beat a hasty retreat. He also learned to salute officers, and sometimes rose to two legs and briefly joined marching soldiers. For longer-range travel, Wojtek initially hitched rides on the soldiers' trucks, but eventually grew too large to squeeze between the trucks' regular passengers. One of the company's recovery trucks was designated as Wojtek's ride, and he often climbed up the vehicle's crane to get a better view of the countryside. Wojtek was friendly and curious by nature, which got him in trouble once: he poked his nose too close to a scorpion and got a nasty sting, spending several days bedridden.

Wojtek play-fighting with a comrade (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)
Wojtek play-fighting with a comrade (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)

Anders' Army eventually reached British-held Egypt, and became the core of the Polish II Corps [officially II Corps (Poland)], a force comprised of various Polish units fighting for the Western Allies. The corps was transferred from North Africa to Italy in February 1944 to help the slow, hard-contested northward push there. Regulations onboard British transport ships forbade pets and mascots. The Poles got around this rule by officially drafting Wojtek into the unit at the rank of private, with his own papers and salary (which was spent on his food).

Private Wojtek boarding the MS Batory in Alexandria (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)
Private Wojtek boarding the MS Batory in Alexandria (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)

Once in Italy, the Polish II Corps was deployed at the Battle of Monte Cassino. Italy had surrendered by this time, but German forces seized control of much of the country and have put up a fierce defense in the mountainous peninsula. The medieval abbey atop the hill of Monte Cassino was part of the Winter Line, one of several German defensive lines. The fortified location stopped the Allies for four months. The grinding battle for the key hill saw 20,000 German and 55,000 Allied casualties and ended with the complete destruction of the monastery by massive aerial bombardment.

Polish soldiers carrying ammunition to the frontline during the battle for Monte Cassino (Photo: Wikipedia)
Polish soldiers carrying ammunition to the frontline during the battle for Monte Cassino (Photo: Wikipedia)

During the battle, Wojtek helped his comrades by carrying 100-pound / 45 kg ammunition boxes, each holding 4 artillery shells, and each normally requiring four human carriers. For his help, Wojtek was promoted to corporal, and the image of a bear carrying an artillery shell was adopted as the symbol of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company.

Wojtek riding a truck with the company's new symbol (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)
Wojtek riding a truck with the company's new symbol (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)

Polish soldiers fighting alongside the Western Allies could not return home safely after the war. Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union and a communist government was installed. Returning soldiers were often branded as traitors who have helped Western Imperialists, and faced harassment and imprisonment. Most of the Polish II Corps, numbering 103,000 soldiers by the time, decided to stay in exile and settle down in Britain. After the unit's demobilization in late 1947, Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he spent his remaining life as one of the zoo's star attractions. He was often visited by old comrades, who threw him cigarettes for old times' sake. He was also a frequent guest on television, appearing on Blue Peter, a children's program.

Wojtek in Britain, before moving to the Edinburgh Zoo (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Wojtek in Britain, before moving to the Edinburgh Zoo (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
 

Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 21. He weighed nearly 1,100 pounds / 500 kg at the time and was over 5.9 ft / 1.8 m tall. Numerous plaques, memorials and statues preserve his memory, most notably in Scotland, England and Krakow in Poland. Several documentaries have been made about him, and an animated movie about his life, titled A bear named Wojtek, has been in production for several years and is slated to be shown in the hopefully near future.

Wojtek as a cub with Polish soldiers (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)
Wojtek as a cub with Polish soldiers (Photo: The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum)

As mentioned earlier, armed forces have long since been using all kinds of animals in armed conflicts. In some countries, there are monuments or national days dedicated to the animals that served in their armies. In London’s Hyde Park, you can find the Animals in War Memorial that has been unveiled in 2004. Canada has its own monument of the same name in Ottawa which has been inaugurated in 2012. In the US, the National K9 Veterans Day is celebrated on March 13 honoring the service and sacrifices of American military and working dogs. Why March 13? In 1942, the K9 Corps was created that very day under the War Dog Program of the U.S. Army. The K9 Veterans Day was created by Joseph White, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a K9 trainer.

The Animals in War Memorial in London’s Hyde Park (Photo: Diana Feher)
The Animals in War Memorial in London’s Hyde Park (Photo: Diana Feher)
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