In the spring of 1942 following the release of Polish prisoners and deportees in the labour camps in Siberia, the main route out of the Soviet Union was across the Caspian Sea to Persia or Iran as it is known today. A new Polish Army was being formed in the Middle East under the command of the British and on their way to the organization area, a group of Polish soldiers came across a little bear in the mountainous region of Persia. The cub was an orphan following the death of his mother at the hands of hunters and he was traded to the soldiers by a shepherd boy who kept the bear in a sack.
The animal was very small and the problem of feeding him was soon overcome by the improvised techniques employed by his new family including feeding him from on a bottle filled with condensed milk. Eventually, they all arrived in Palestine and the bear was taken to the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp where the men would become his companions for the next few years. He was given the name Wojtek, pronounced Voytek.
From the beginning he became a popular member of the Company spending most of his time with the soldiers of the 4th Platoon. Two of his closest friends were two young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz who would both be featured in many of the photos and film footage taken of Wojtek. He would often be found in the kitchen area and he ate everything he was fed and even developed a taste for beer and wine together with cigarettes which he would only accept when lit. He had a habit of drinking from a beer or wine bottle and when empty, he would peer into the bottle waiting patiently for more. He would usually take one puff of a lit cigarette and then swallow it.
Wojtek grew to become a very strong bear and was happy bathing and wrestling with his comrades. Only a few soldiers dared to take him on in a wrestling match as some times the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched or have their uniforms torn. The rest of the men were happy to watch. In Palestine, Wojtek became a hero one night by capturing a thief who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping. The Arab was shocked to find himself confronted by the animal and the commotion that ensued resulted in his arrest. Wojtek was quite satisfied with the reward of a bottle of beer.
When he was small, it was easy for Wojtek to ride in the cab of the transport vehicles but as he grew he would sit in the back with the supplies though he would often ride on one of the recovery trucks where there was more room to lie down during the long journeys and he could play by climbing up the crane. Wherever he went, Wojtek would attract attention and his antics would cause a sensation as he loved to entertain people. He made friends with a few of the other mascots including Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. Kasha died of a broken heart after her chronically sick baby lived for less than a year and Kirkuk did not survive a sting by a scorpion. Such an insect did sting Wojtek on the nose on one occasion and the men of the Company thought that he would not make it through. His close companion Henryk nursed him back to health and he did not leave his side for a couple of days. After he had recovered, he was back to his usual self.
As the Polish Army prepared to enter the war zone in Italy during 1943, the problem confronting the Polish soldiers was the question of Wojtek’s status. Animals were not permitted to accompany the army during the fighting. By giving the bear his own paybook, rank and serial number there would be no question that he was on the list of soldiers. There was a minor problem during the embarkation prior to crossing the Mediteranean Sea but with his papers in order Wojtek would be on his way. In the Italian theatre, the Polish 2nd Corp soon prepared to break through the German defenses at Monte Cassino where it successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting.
During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line where he was seen to move crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained. Henryk had been assigned to take care of the bear that day but when he was ordered forward as an artillery spotter, he had to leave Wojtek alone. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, he began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons. The sounds of gunfire did not concern him and he displayed courage in his willingness to participate in the action. After the battle, the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company became a likeness of Wojtek holding a shell. This symbol appeared on vehicles, pennants and on the uniforms of the soldiers.
The war ended in May 1945 and the Polish soldiers were eventually sent across Europe to Berwick Upon Tweed in England where they stayed at Winfield Camp. As the soldiers went through a process of demobilization, they would say goodbye to Wojtek, many knowing that they would never see him again since their journeys would take them to distant parts of the globe. Wojtek found a home at Edinburgh Zoo where he became a popular attraction with many visitors including ex-Polish servicemen who would talk to him in their language. His death in 1963 was met with sadness from those who knew him and it was reported in newspapers and radio stations. His exploits and adventures have not been forgotten with numerous written accounts, memorials and statues. In a time when Polish soldiers had lost their country to the Nazis and later to the Communists, Wojtek became a symbol which the soldiers were proud of, themselves knowing that they would not soon return to a free homeland. He became part of the history of the Polish Armed forces in the Second World War and his legacy will endure.
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