War is hell. Few wars have been quite as hellish as World War 2. Humans have committed atrocities under the fog of war for as long as we have been a communal species. That doesn't mean that the breakdown of societal norms during war hasn't ever brought whimsy into the world.
On 8 April 1942 Polish soldiers were accompanying a group of civilians on a long march through Iran. They encountered a young Iranian boy who had a tiny bear cub with him. The cub's mother was killed by hunters. One of the civilians took pity on the cub, and convinced Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy the bear from the boy.
This is the story of the happy little warrior, Corporal Wojtek the Bear.
Baby Bear – Big World
The cub spent three months living in a refugee camp near Tehran. He cared for by the civilian who arranged for his adoption, Irena Bokiewicz. She hand-fed the cub until he was gifted to the 2nd Transport Company of the Anders' Army.
Our little hero was named Wojtek (Voytek) by the soldiers. They fed him condensed milk, fruit, honey, and the occasional beer. Wojtek loved beer. He drank coffee with the soldiers in the morning, and soon they saw him as part of the company.
The 2nd Transport Company became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. They adopted Wojtek as their unofficial mascot. Wojtek travelled with the 22nd Company through the Middle East. From Tehran, they went to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
Wojtek was taught to stand at attention and salute. He marched with the other soldiers, walking on his hind legs as he did so. The cub copied much of the soldiers' behavior, like smoking cigarettes (eating cigarettes in his case), drinking beer, and wrestling with the other soldiers.
The Polish soldiers were soon attached to the British 8th Army. They were to travel to Italy to take part in the allied offensive there. Unfortunately for Wojtek and his fellows, British regulations forbade the transport of pets or mascot animals.
Undaunted, the Polish army officially enlisted Wojtek as a serviceman. He was listed as part of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company as Private Wojtek. The British allowed the enlisted bear on board their transport ship, and he was off to Italy.
Wojtek's unit took part in the brutal battle of Monte Cassino.
The Battle of Monte Cassino
The Battle of Monte Cassino consisted of 4 engagements. 55,000 Allied soldiers, 20,000 Nazi soldiers, and 2000 civilians died during the 4-month-long offensive. Allied forces were determined to break the German entrenchment known as the Gustav Line.
The center of the Gustav Line was a historic monastery atop a hill near the town of Cassino, Italy. Fighting was fierce, and the German defense seemed impenetrable. The first three engagements saw the Allies pushed back by the German defenders. Hope for victory was slipping away rapidly. Until the Polish Corps was tasked with spearheading the fourth engagement.
Wojtek and the other Polish soldiers managed to capture the hill. The Polish Corps would raise their flag atop the hill on 18 May. Although the Germans had already begun retreating to a new position further north.
Wojtek took an active role in the battle. He carried crates of 25-pound artillery ammunition to resupply the guns. According to the stories told by his fellow soldiers, Wojtek never dropped a single crate. He could carry crates that would take 4 humans to lift.
Not everyone believes that Wojtek actually carried ammo during the battle. Some historians argue that the story is the product of wartime myth making. The story was corroborated by one English soldier who claimed to see a bear carrying ammunition.
Following the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek was promoted to the rank of Corporal. The emblem of the 22nd Artillery Supply Corps was changed to a bear carrying a shell.
The Happy Warrior, Wojtek, took part in many more battles throughout the remainder of WWII.
After the War – Retirement
Wojtek was stationed in Scotland with the other members of his regiment after the war. The village of Hutton, in Berwickshire, played host to the Poles. Wojtek soon became a local phenomenon, drawing people in from far and wide to visit the friendly soldier.
“He (Wojtek) was very much a part of the community and attended dances, concerts, local children’s parties. He was like a dog. He was almost human.”
Her grandfather was a Scottish soldier involved in training the Polish soldiers. She married the man in charge of running the farm where the Polish soldiers stayed. After the Polish servicemen left, she and her husband set up their home on that farm. Wojtek's claw marks can still be seen on the trees there.
Corporal Wojtek was sent to the Edinburgh Zoo to live out his days in peaceful retirement. Many of his former comrades would visit him there to throw cigarettes to their old friend.
Wojtek died in 1963, at 21 years of age. The city of Edinburgh erected a bronze statue of Wojtek in his honor. Several other statues have since been erected, and a street in Poznań, Poland was named after him.