When the Soviet Union finally joined the Allies in World War II, thousands of former Polish prisoners were released from Soviet hold. These men and women had been captured during the Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1939 and kept as POWs. Now, as part of the allied war effort, they banded together to form the Polish Second Army Corps. Poland was completely occupied, but its army, working as an independent part of the British Eighth, swelled. In 1945 the II Corps had over 55,000 men and 1,500 women and included the following armaments:
- 248 pieces of artillery
- 288 anti-tank guns
- 234 anti-air guns
- 264 tanks
- 1,241 APCs
- 440 armoured cars
- 12,064 cars, Bren carriers and trucks
- 1 brown bear
In 1942 a large number of the Second Corps were moving through Iran. They were travelling to the Mediterranean to participate in the Egyptian and Italian campaigns. As they were passing through the mountains near Hamadan one particular group, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, met and donated some food to a local boy. In return the boy gave the company a large sack that he had been carrying with him, which surprisingly contained a small malnourished bear cub.
The men quickly adopted the bear and nursed him back to health with condensed milk and a makeshift bottle. Dubbed Wojtek (which is pronounced Voytek in Polish; a common Slavic name), the bear grew up amongst the fighting men and became the company’s unofficial mascot. All accounts of the bear make him out to be an enthusiastic member of the Corps, sitting around campfires, wrestling with friends, and enjoying beers. The men even taught the bear how to smoke cigarettes, although Wojtek often ate them after a puff or two. Well over six feet tall at full height, Wojtek marched and rode alongside the company, sticking his head out of convoy windows and walking on two feet.
Besides serving as a permanent morale booster, Wojtek did work for a living. His first accomplishment was the capture of a Arab spy while the Corps summered in Palestine. The infiltrator had snuck into a company bathhouse, but was cornered by Wojtek (who greatly enjoyed sitting in the baths) and ultimately interrogated. Shortly thereafter the Corps met up with the British Eighth and moved towards Italy. Unfortunately no pets were allowed in the Eighth. In response the men enlisted Wojtek as a full fledged private in the company, complete with serial number.
One story stands out in particular. During the Battle of Monte Cassino (one of the most costly battles in the Western campaign, roughly 75,000 casualties were reported) the company was responsible for distributing ammunition up and down the front line, sometimes to nearly unreachable pockets of artillery men. Wojtek, without orders, took up a place in the supply line, hand-carrying heavy boxes and artillery shells to and from the trucks, not dropping a single one and never flinching from the deafening attack. As Badass of the Week points out, not only did this serve as an incredible rallying point for his company, any German who spotted the giant Polish bear must have gone nuts. Afterwards his actions were so famous that the Company officially changed it’s emblem to a bear carrying an artillery shell.
After the war ended many of the Corps ended up moving to the United Kingdom. Poland was still occupied by the USSR and an unappealing place to return home to. Wojtek and his company ended up living in Scotland near Hutton in Berwickshire, but when the company was demobilized Wojtek had to be placed in civilian living at the Edinburgh Zoo. Many different accounts of him during this time can be found, he was a famous war hero and a major attraction, after all. Some people said he looked sad and lonely. Others said that he took well to the life and enjoyed being the center of attention. Both sides agree that he became particularly excited whenever visitors would speak in Polish and that old army buddies would sometimes drop by to say hello, offering him cigarettes and occasionally jumping in to wrestle with him (the zookeepers did not take kindly this).
Wojtek eventually died in 1963 at the age of 22. He was universally beloved and several different monuments have been erected in his honor. Aileen Orr, who’s grandfather had served in WWII and met the bear, said of Wojtek: “What the bear offered all of these men was comfort. At a time when they were far from home, had nothing, and often no-one, Wojtek stood in for the wives, children, pets, family they’d left behind. He was someone to love and someone who loved them back.”
A new documentary is scheduled to air this December on the BBC.