The Story of Wojtek, a Bear Who Served the Polish Army During WW II


Jun. 28 2023, Published 10:12 a.m. ET

Statue of soldier and bear.
Source: Wikicommons

During World War II, many countries came together to fight the Nazis. Soldiers from seven countries joined allied forces. And there was also a bear.

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Corporal Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear in the Polish army who helped his comrades in the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of World War II's most heavily fought battles.

Keep reading for the miraculous — and supposedly true — tale of this very special bear.

Statute of Wojtek, the soldier bear.
Source: Wikicommons
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Polish soldiers found Wojtek in Iran.

Wojtek’s story starts with a group of Polish soldiers imprisoned in the Soviet Union. Faced with the threat of a Nazi invasion, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to release the soldiers so they could fight on the front lines.

The soldiers, known as “Anders’ Army,” traveled through the Middle East as they left the Soviet Union to join the British command. While they were in a temporary refugee camp in Tehran, they came upon a boy selling a bear cub whose mother had apparently been killed, reports Expats Poland.

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One of the Polish soldiers bought the bear cub for his great-niece. But the cub only stayed with the girl for about three months before he was turned over to the 22nd Polish Artillery Supply Company. He was named Wojtek, which means “Happy Warrior” in Polish.

Solder with a bear.
Source: Wikicommons
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Wojtek grew up among the soldiers, who treated him as one of their own. They would eat together, wrestle, run maneuvers, march in formation, and even hang out smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

The bear was enlisted as a soldier so he could go with troops to the battle in Italy.

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company became part of the Polish II Corps led by British command, and, in 1944, the unit was transferred to Italy. However, the British in charge had rules against soldiers from taking pets or mascots with them on the transfer. So, Polish soldiers gave Wojtek the rank of private and enlisted him as a soldier, reports The Collector.

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In Italy, Wojtek and the rest of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company fought alongside the British Eighth Army in the Battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek was a good soldier who helped carry heavy crates of ammunition. By then, the bear was over 200 pounds, so he could easily handle the 100-pound crates of artillery shells.

Soldier and bear wrestling
Source: Wikicommons
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Wojtek was promoted to corporal for his help at the Battle of Monte Cassino.

The Polish II Corps was instrumental in securing an Allied victory at Monte Cassino. For his efforts, Wojtek was promoted to corporal, and a bear carrying an artillery shell emblem was adopted as the official emblem of the 22nd Company in his honor, as per the museum Eden Camp.

After the war, the Soviets took control of Poland, and it was unsafe for Polish soldiers, Wojtek included, to go back to their country, where they were seen as traitors for fighting with the British.

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Wojtek retired in a Scotland zoo.

Wojtek eventually ended up at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he lived for the rest of his years in retirement. His comrades who lived nearby would supposedly often visit him and sneak him some cigarettes and beer, as per Expats Poland.

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After living at the zoo for 16 years, Wojtek died on Dec. 2, 1963. He was 21 years old at the time of his death, which is about the average lifespan of bears.

Numerous statutes in Poland and other locations around the world honor Wojtek, the soldier bear. In May 2019, for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, a monument honoring Wojtek was unveiled in Cassino, Italy, at the foot of the monastery on Monte Cassino hill.

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