Wojtek the Bear – Polish soldier on His majesty payroll
For most people, this story will be hard to believe. Well, it is an unbelievable story indeed. The story of a bear who wrestled with his comrades, loved beer and cigarettes and played with ladies underwear. That same bear fought at the battle of Monte Cassino, and was absolutely convinced he was a Polish soldier… and in fact, he was. He travelled half the world to eventually, like many other Polish soldiers, settle in Scotland.
Wojtek was born in Syria, now Iran, in 1942 during the Second World War. His mother, a Syrian brown bear, was shot by hunters. The little orphan was taken away from his cave by local children. One day, the children happened on a group of Polish soldiers and civilians travelling from the Gulags to the newly formed Polish Army’s mobilisation points in the Middle East. For a few tins of corned beef and some change, the Syrian kids gave the little bear away to a little Polish girl in the group, called Irena Bokiewicz, who would later present him to Gen. Boruta-Spiechowcz.
Wojtek spent the next two years with Polish soldiers stationed in the Middle East and immediately became a favourite mascot among the many other animal mascots within the Polish Army.
After the extreme experience of the Gulags, the difficult time of warfare and the months of travelling to Syria through the harsh desert environment with very little food but pleanty of fleas, everyone needed someone to love. Several units adopted dogs, owls, lizards, monkeys, goats, you name it, but Wojtek was special amongst the other animals. He loved to wrestle with the soldiers. He was larger and much stronger than his human friends, and yet somehow he knew it and so was gentle, careful to never hurt anyone. Like every soldier, he loved a bottle of beer. He took the bottle into his paws and downed it as if he were an experienced ale lover. He also liked cigarettes, although he could not smoke them. He simply ate them! There are plenty of funny stories of Wojtek scaring the ladies on the beach or playing with their underwear drying in the desert sun, stealing eggs from the general’s breakfast table, or taking a shower. Compared to his animal mascot friends, he was was definitely the most personable! That’s why the soldiers loved him. He quickly became a star within the Second Regiment.
Wojtek was so much more than a mascot. His influence on the morale of soldiers was undeniable, as was his influence on the camp’s security. There were no problems with locals stealing anything from a camp where Wojtek was stationed, as you could easily imagine! Private Wojtek was officially employed by the army as a Polish soldier on His Majesty’s pay, of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of Polish II Corps within the British Army. He had his own money, his own cigarettes and his own food rations. Wojtek’s comrades were proud of him. The Company used the image of Wojtek holding the artillery shell as their Company emblem and inscribed it in the steering wheel.
In 1944 the Second Regiment was shipped to Italy to engage in a campaign against the German army. Despite the fact the transport of animals was strictly forbidden, Wojtek got on MS Batory and travelled with his Company. Later on Wojtek was involved in one of the most important battles in that part of the world – the battle of Monte Cassino. During the battle, he helped to carry and unload heavy ammunition boxes.
After the war, Britain officially recognised the pro-communist Polish government, and Polish soldiers knew that they could not go back to their country. They had been slaves in the Russian Gulags before. They knew that the Stalin’s rule was no different to Hitler’s. They knew they belonged to the ‘wrong’ army and were again the enemies. But some did return to Poland. Of those, the ones who were not executed as traitors continued to have extremely difficult lives full of oppression and fear. Polish soldiers did not win the freedom of Poland for which they had fought alongside the Allied armies. It was lost with the agreement of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt in Yalta often referred to as the Western Betrayal.
Polish Soldiers were thus allowed to resettle in Britain, and so did Wojtek. He was shipped to Glasgow in 1945 and then transported to the Winfield Camp near Berwick.
For some time he happily enjoyed the Scottish countryside and even became a local celebrity. But the soldiers knew that none of the them would be able to look after Wojtek after the demobilisation. None of them was sure of their own future in their new homeland. The best place for Wojtek was the Edinburgh Zoo and he was moved there in 1947. Lots of people visited him every day, including soldiers who sometimes jumped over the fence to wrestle a bit or give Wojtek some cigarettes. Although this was very entertaining for Zoo visitors, for Wojtek, sadly, it was a cage, and not an Iraqi desert or the open Scottish countryside.
In 1963, Wojtek died at the age of 21 in the Edinburgh Zoo.
Wojtek’s story seems to be similar to the stories of many of his fellow comrades. Orphaned when young, he traveled half the world fighting ‘for freedom, yours and ours’. Unfortunately, this freedom was never won, and Wojtek had to get used to his unthinkably different new home.
Now Wojtek is a celebrity again. His story has inspired a few books, at least two theatre plays, a number of professional and amateur movies, even t-shirts and mugs. The Beartown brewery brews a beer named after Wojtek. There is Polish basketball team called Edinburgh Soldier Bears. The Wojtek Memorial Trust is working hard to erect a life and a quarter size bronze statue and 4m length interpretation panel in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh (planned for 2014). One smaller Wojtek memorial already exists in Redbraes Community Centre in Leith, and thanks to local Policeman Simon Daley, it has become a traditional place of celebration on Polish Independence Day and Remembrance Day. New customs that have emerged, cited on www. Edinburgh.com.pl, include bringing teddy bears instead of flowers and giving them to charity organisations. And so yet again, Wojtek has become a symbol of humanity in difficult times, that has spread over the borders of countries and climate zones. He is also an icon of the 20thcentury Polish-Scottish connection, equally inspiring Poles and Scots. Wojtek the Soldier Bear continues to give much joy to all who are fascinated by his bear life.
We encourage you to support the Wojtek Memorial Trust.
Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, Aileen Orr
Story of Edinburgh zoo, Tom H Gillespie,
Soldier Bear Morgan Geoffrey, London, Collins, 1970. ISBN 0-00-211793-2
Piwko dla niedźwiedzia / Beer for a Bear link
The Bear that went to War link
PSH Soldier Bear Wojtek film link
The incredible story of Wojtek the Soldier Bear - collection of amazing photos in high resolution
Wojtek’s guardian – Piotr Prendys
Designer of the sculpture – Alan Beattie Herriot
Monuments of Wojtek in Poland: Żagań (the school and a comic book too), Szymbark and Kraków (planned)