Bear necessities: The big brown bear who helped Polish troops in WWII

Frontline Photography / Alamy Stock Photo / PAP

As Poland prepares to honour its heroes and remember its dead from the victorious Battle of Monte Cassino, which ended on May 18, 1944, one Polish soldier will hold a special place in veterans’ memories – a big brown bear called Wojtek.

In the spring of 1942, Polish prisoners and deportees were being released from the Siberian gulags. At the same time a new Polish military formation was being created in the Middle East – the so-called Anders Army. As soldiers and civilians alike fled the Soviet Union, the commonest route to freedom was across the Caspian Sea to what was then known as Persia, today’s Iran. It was on this route through the Persian mountains that a group of Polish soldiers came across a local shepherd boy with something special to sell – a baby Syrian brown bear in a sack. It is believed the cub’s mother had fallen prey to hunters, leaving the young bear cub orphaned and at the mercy of humans.

They bought the bear, hand reared it on condensed milk fed through a vodka bottle, and named it Wojtek (pron. – Voytek). Eventually the soldiers and their pet bear arrived in Palestine, where the animal was taken into the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division of the Polish 2nd Corp. During their time in Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek became a firm favourite of the servicemen, was taught to salute and became well known for its liking for beer and cigarettes.

When the time came for the 2nd Corp to move on to Europe, however, a problem arose. In order to get a place on the British ship sailing for Italy he had to be a member of the army, and so Wojtek was given a pay-book, a serial number and the rank of private. He was a fully-fledged member of the Polish 2nd Corp when he arrived at the Italian front. He was later promoted to corporal.

But Wojtek was no mere mascot. There are numerous eyewitness accounts of him carrying ammunition crates to help his human friends during battle. To mark his contribution, the official badge of the 22nd Transport Company became an image of Wojtek carrying a shell. He became immortalised as part and parcel of the legendary Battle of Monte Cassino.

After the war the Polish troops were demobilised to Scotland, where Wojtek eventually found his final home at Edinburgh Zoo, where he died in 1963. In 2017, a bronze statue to Wojtek the soldier bear was erected on Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens. His story has also inspired films and books.