Military History blog

The history of Wojtek, the Soldier Bear

Wojtek’s story has its beginning in 1942, when in the mountains of Hamadan in Iran, a tiny bear was found by a local boy. Shortly afterward, on the way to Kandawaru he met a squad of Polish soldiers from General Władysław Anders’ famous II Corps. The Poles helped the poor and hungry child by buying from him a mysterious package in exchange for some canned food. When soldiers saw the content of the squeaking bundle, they became very surprised, but quickly decided to adopt the teddy bear. Corporal Piotr Prendyn decided to call him by the name “Wojtek”.

Young Wojtek next to the Polish soldier
Source: Imperial War Museum, Public domain

The Polish soldiers took seriously the task of looking after their new companion. They immediately found an empty bottle of vodka, from which the bear drank condensed milk. In addition, Wojtek ate fruit, marmalade and honey, but most of all he loved to drink beer, which the members of II Corps did not fail to regale him.

The Poles very quickly liked the curious bear. Wojtek often cradled the sleeping soldiers, played with them, and when he grew up – he wrestled with them. Defeated opponents (always one of soldiers) had to wait patiently until the bear stopped licking him. Wojtek became very friendly – sometimes he was catching random people to play with him(but mostly they were too scared to do so). For Polish soldiers the bear had become a loyal friend and a war companion on the journey through the Middle East.

Wrestling with Polish II Corps soldiers 
Source: Imperial War Museum, Public domain

When Wojtek grew up so that the soldiers could no longer feed him with their rations (and because the British  did not allow animals to stay on their warships), they enlisted the bear with the rank of private. From that day Wojtek received a daily load of fruit, marmelade and sweet syrups. Thus began a military career of our heroic bear – Wojtek walked the whole combat trail of II Corps, from Iran through Egypt to Italy. He often stood guard together with the soldiers, or guarding Corps’ cars – usually while sitting inside, but he quickly became too large for that. Apparently Wojtek once even caught an Arab spy, whom he found in the bath.

22nd Artillery Supply Company’s emblem showing Wojtek carrying ammunition
Source: Cassubia1238, Wikimedia Commons

Wojtek became famous for his actions during the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, where despite of the danger he selflessly carried heavy boxes of ammunition – and apparently never dropped any of these. The image of Wojtek carrying an artillery shell was drawn on the emblem of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, where he used to serve. This badge was worn on their uniforms and painted on their trucks. Our brave bear was also involved in capturing the port of Ancona, in breaking of the Apennines fortifications and the encroachment of Bologna. For his dedicated service Wojtek was promoted to the rank of corporal.

When World War II came to an end, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company was moved to Glasgow in Scotland. The local people immediately heard about Wojtek, who quickly became the hero of many press publications across the country. The bear was even a member of the local Polish-Scottish Society, and received his favorite beer during the ceremony of adoption. It’s fair to say that the heroic bear had a celebrity status in the United Kingdom.

The statue of Wojtek in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
Photo: M J Richardson

Unfortunately for the army it was a time of demobilization and Wojtek’s unit was disbanded. His fellow companions quickly found him a refuge in Edinburgh Zoo, and its director agreed not to give Wojtek to anyone without the knowledge of the company commander Major Antoni Chełkowski. His former colleagues from the army often came there to visit him and sometimes (despite the protests of ZOO workers) skipped the fence to practice wrestling with Wojtek again.

Bear Wojtek died at the zoo in December, 1963, being 21 years old. His extraordinary life became part of the proud history of the Polish Military, and he had a big contribution to promoting Polish history in the West. In honor of the heroic teddy bear, several European cities erected his monuments, wrote a few songs, and also filmed some movies, including this one:

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