Wojtek the bear was a real brown Syrian bear, who at the age of three months was adopted by Polish soldiers of the II Corps of Gen Anders in Hamadan, Iran in 1942. They bought him for a few coins and a tin of meat. The tiny bear orphan was fed by the solders with diluted condensed milk from a vodka bottle with a rag teat. Wojtek soon grew to enjoy his drink!
Brought up by people, Wojtek believed he was human himself and soon he was to become a soldier… He was granted the rank of a private, his own soldier book, index no. and his due pay in the form of a generous food ration and an occasional beer and a cigarette as a treat for good behaviour.
He would regularly stand guard with other soldiers and help them carry heavy weights. Truck journeys and play-fighting with soldiers were his favourite pastimes. Once he even caught an Arab spy hiding in the shower room, where Wojtek would tend to his hygiene with gusto.
Alongside the soldiers of the 22nd Transport Division, he covered the entire operational route from Iran, via Iraq, Syria and Palestine to Egypt. Here started a new chapter in his adventurous soldier life: the Polish division was boarding the ship MS Batory to sail to Italy, where soldiers were to participate in the Italian campaign alongside their Western allies. The British passed on clear instructions that no animals were allowed on board. MS Batory was almost ready to leave the port but the army records showed one private missing. “Where is Wojtek Mis?” When in front of the British officer, who was taking the register, there appeared a six-foot-tall brown bear, he was flabbergasted. “But this is not a man!” he exclaimed. -“Private Wojtek Mis (Wojtek the bear) inspires fighting spirit in Polish soldiers!” came the spontaneous reply. -"Ah, that is a different story then. Wojtek the bear is welcome.”
And so, our special bear soldier found himself at Monte Cassino, which was the scene of one of the greatest battles of WWII. First he climbed a tree, overwhelmed by the noise and sight of gunfire. From that position he could observe his mates delivering boxes of ammunition, which were subsequently carried to their designated posts. Eventually he could no longer put up with his passive role of an observer. He descended from his tree, stood by the truck and extended both his paws, offering to help. The soldiers entrusted him, first with one, then two and finally three boxes, stacked on top of each other. The bear delivered the precious cargo faultlessly, happy to be of service.
Soon the image of a bear carrying an ammunition shell became an emblem of the 22nd Transport Division. It would be painted over military trucks and displayed as a badge on soldiers’ uniforms. Following the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek also took part in the liberation of Ancona and Bologna.
The War ended in 1945 and the Polish soldiers were dreaming of returning to their motherland with their bear. It was not to be. After the demobilisation in Scotland, they parted ways. Wojtek ended up in Edinburgh zoo, where he became a celebrity. Each time he heard the Polish language, his ears perked up and he would stand on his hind legs, waving his paw.
When in December 1963, at the age of 22, Wojtek passed away, the sad news about his death was transmitted by many newspapers, radio and TV stations. London’s Sikorski Institute houses the first statue of Wojtek the bear, created by the British artist David Harding. The Institute museum has a large collection of Wojtek’s photographs amongst other documents connected with the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Wojtek the bear’s life became an unusual part of its history and glory.
Wojtek has the amazing power of promoting the Polish cause all over the world. English historian Prof Norman Davies believes the bear soldier does it better than all the badges, guns and banners.