Wojtek the Bear Soldier Who Battled the Nazis‏

In spring 1942, a new Polish Army was being created under the British in the Middle East. Polish soldiers and civilians imprisoned by the Soviets since the 1939 were released to make the trek from Russia through Palestine, Iraq and Iran to British control. On their way through the Middle East, a group of Polish soldiers came across a bear cub being carried in a sack by a shepherd boy. The soldiers traded for the cub and named him Wojtek, giving him to a Polish refugee girl who had wanted him. Little did they know that the little cub would grow up to be one of the most unusual soldiers to battle the Nazi’s.



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The name Wojtek is the shortened form of Wojciech, which in Slavic means “he who likes war” or “happy warrior”, usually written in English as Voytek. As a cub, Wojtek was fed condensed milk from an old Vodka bottle and later fruit, marmalade and honey. As he grew bigger, the Polish family that was taking care of him gave him to the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division of the Polish II Corps. Wojtek was not the only mascot the Polish had. They had a Monkey named Kasha and a dog named Kirkuk. Kasha died soon after her baby passed away and Kirkuk was killed by a scorpion. Wojtek was also stung by a scorpion, but was nursed day and night by a soldier named Henryk Zacharewicz and survived.

Wojtek spent most of his time eating and hanging around the kitchen. He developed a soldier’s taste for alcohol, preferring beer over other drinks. When the can or bottle of beer was empty, he would look inside to see why the beer stopped coming out, then wait for more. He also began to smoke, taking one puff before consuming the cigarette. He liked wrestling with men as well, but over time, Wojtek found fewer men willing to take him on. In Palestine, Wojtek proved his worth by stopping an Arab thief who broke into an ammunition compound where he was sleeping. The screams of the man woke everyone and lead to the thief’s arrest.

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Wojtek enjoying a bottle of bear



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Insignia of the Polish 22nd Transport Company

When the 22nd Transport Company was being sent from the Middle East to join the war in Italy, problems over Wojtek’s place in the company arose. As a bear, he was not allowed on the transport ship, but men from the company solved the problem by drafting Wojtek into the Army as a Private. He received his own pay book, serial number and was put on the troop roster with two soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz assigned as his caretakers. Private Wojtek sailed with the Polish Army to Italy where he saw action in the Battle of Monte Cassino. On the artillery firing lines, Wojtek, always curious and eager to copy the men, began to carry ammunition crates to the artillery guns. Ignoring the gunfire and explosions around him, he continued to haul ammunition to the men, never dropping a round. In recognition of his bravery, the insignia of the 22nd Transport Company became a bear carrying an artillery round.

After WWII, Wojtek was transferred along with the 22nd Transport Company to Scotland where he gained much attention from the press and was made an honorary member of the Polish-Scottish Association. When the company disbanded in 1947, its members said goodbye to their beloved mascot as they went to different parts of the world. Most members of the Polish Army in Exile chose not to return to Poland since it had fallen under Soviet occupation. Most men began new lives in countries like America, Canada, Britain or South America. Wojtek lived in the Edinburgh Zoo until his death in 1963, often visited by journalists and former Polish comrades who tossed him cigarettes. Since his death, Wojtek has never been forgotten. He lives on in numerous films, plaques and statues around the world commemorating the famous bear soldier.



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