I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Lovable and cuddly are not words usually assigned to wild bears, but Wojtek was a special kind of animal. Adopted by Polish soldiers in 1942, he was gentle and served with distinction with his unit and was promoted to the rank of corporal.
Invasion of Poland
On August 31st 1939, German soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms launched fake attacks on posts at the border with Poland. To add a bit of authenticity, some prisoners from concentration camps were dressed in Polish uniforms, shot, and left behind by the retreating forces.
The phony action was used as the excuse for the long-planned invasion of Poland that started on the next day. A little more than two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Polish resistance collapsed quickly, and the country fell to occupying forces in little more than a month.
According to the Red Cross “A large proportion of the Polish army was captured: around 400,000 men by the German forces and over 200,000 by Soviet troops.”
Of those captured by the Soviets, the other ranks were sent to Siberian camps and subjected to forced labour. However, almost all of the officer corps was murdered in the infamous Katyn massacre; an atrocity that Russia today would prefer to see removed from the history books.
Private Wojtek Recruited
In June 1941, Hitler ratted on his ally, the dictator Joseph Stalin, and invaded the Soviet Union. Suddenly, Stalin needed friends among his former enemies and offered to release the tens of thousands of Polish prisoners to join the fight against Germany.
Getting these would-be Allied troops into the front lines was a logistical challenge; they had to be transported from Siberia, through the Middle East, to Egypt. From there, they were shipped to Europe.
So it was that in April 1942, many Polish soldiers were waiting at the railway station in Hamadan, northern Iran, for transport forward. There, the soldiers met a young boy with a sack over his shoulder, and in the sack was a brown bear cub. Its mother had been killed by hunters the boy said.
There was an exchange of coins, a can of corned beef, and a chocolate bar; with that, the men of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps adopted the bear. They called him Wojtek (pronounced VOYtek), which means “happy warrior.”
A Bear with an Agreeable Nature
Wojtek was too young to eat properly, so the soldiers adapted a vodka bottle to feed him diluted condensed milk. As he grew up, and was able to swallow food he took to eating cigarettes and his favourite drink was beer.
He became completely habituated to his human caregivers and developed a placid nature, although he did like to play-wrestle. However, such an activity did lead to torn uniforms and some nasty scratches.
Eventually, the Polish soldiers shipped out to join the British Eighth Army campaign in Italy. However, regulations forbade the carrying of mascots on troop ships. So Wojtek was enlisted with the rank of private and was given his own service number and a paybook.
He mimicked his companions by marching on his hind legs and he learned to salute at the appropriate times. Sometimes, he wore a red and white cravat; the Polish colours.
Aileen Orr is the author of the 2014 book, Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. She says “He did not know he was a bear, he thought he was a soldier.”
Wojtek Goes to War
The lovable bear’s gift for mimicry was on display during the Battle of Monte Cassino fought during the first five months of 1944. He watched his comrades moving boxes of ammunition and decided to copy them. He carried heavy single shells up to the artillery and boxes of ammo that often required more than one man to lift them.
For his contribution to the war effort Wojtek was promoted to corporal. In addition, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company was giving permission to change its emblem; henceforth it featured a bear carrying an artillery shell.
After the Italian campaign, Wojtek and his companions were moved to Scotland to prepare for demobilization as the war came to an end. There was no possibility of a return to Poland, which was now occupied by the Red Army and fully under the dominance of the Soviet Union.
That raised the question of what to do with the bear. For a while, he stayed with the soldiers in a camp near the village of Hutton, about an-hour-and-a-quarter from Edinburgh. He became something of a local celebrity, attending social gatherings and letting children ride on his back. He even led a victory parade in Glasgow.
When the soldiers were demobbed, Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo. His Polish comrades would visit him in his enclosure and toss him cigarettes. He finally succumbed to the ravages of age in 1963.
Another War, Another Bear
Wojtek’s story echoes another wartime yarn involving a bear. In August 1914, Canadian veterinarian Harry Colebourn was heading east to join up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force that was going to be deployed to the battlefields of Flanders.
While waiting for transport at the White River, Ontario train station he met a trapper who was carrying an orphaned bear cub. Colebourn bought the cub, called it Winnipeg after his hometown, and took it with him to training in England. The bear became the official mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, Colbourne’s regiment.
The vet didn’t think the front lines were a good place for a young bear, so he gave Winnipeg to the London Zoo. In about 1926, a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne went to the zoo with his father and fell in love with the bear. The father was the writer A.A. Milne and Winnipeg was the inspiration for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
- According to one story, Wojtek found living under the blazing Egyptian sun trying. When his minders were engaged elsewhere, the bear broke into the shower station, turned on the tap with his paw, and drained the regiment’s entire water supply.
- Sergeant Stubby was America’s most decorated war dog. He was a stray of uncertain parentage who was adopted by members of the 102nd Infantry Regiment while they trained in Connecticut. He was smuggled onto a troopship and served with his unit on the Wester Front. With his acute hearing he gave advance warning of incoming shell and with his nose he detected impending gas attacks. He received several medals and was introduced to a couple of U.S. presidents.
- In 2009, a ceremony was held in the Scottish Parliament to honour Wojtek and funds were set aside for a bronze statue of him to be made and erected (below).
- “ICRC in WW II: Polish Prisoners of War in Germany.” Red Cross, February 2, 2005.
- “A Bear You Can Look up to: Wojtek the WWII Soldier Bear. William Hageman, Chicago Tribune, November 10, 2014.
- “Parliament Honours ‘Soldier Bear’ ” BBC News, March 25, 2009.
- “Story of Poland’s ‘Soldier Bear’ Wojtek Turned into Film.” Martin Vennard, BBC World Service, November 16, 2011.
- “Winnie the Pooh.” Eli Yarhi, Canadian Encyclopedia, November 14, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 27, 2021:
What an interesting story, Rupert. I'll have to come back to watch the video of Wojtek in action. Can't wait to see it!
So, a military bear was the inspiration for Winnie The Pooh. I never knew that! Very cool.
I think it's sad, though, that both bears were surrendered to a zoo. That's no life for any animal.
Great topic, Rupert. I always learn something I didn't know when I read your articles.
Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on May 27, 2021:
A fascinating read. I have heard of Sgt. Stubby but I've never come across Wojtek's story. Thanks for sharing.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 27, 2021:
Rupert, what a wonderful and interesting article. The bear Wojtek seems to be a unique animal to be draft into the armed force during a war time. Otherwise, I don't think he can be promoted to a certain extend. The read is good. Many thanks.