Yes, you’ve driven me to bear posting, again. This is the story of a heroic bear, Wojtek (VOY-tek), who helped beat the Axis powers in Italy. He joined a unit of Free Poles, served with them through the war, and retired with honor to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived out his days. His death in 1963 was reported on radio and in the newspapers. His likeness became part of his unit’s official badge.
Wojtek was born in what is now northern Iran, and was orphaned when another group of orphans adopted him into their den. The other group of orphans, so to speak, were Polish soldiers who were released from Soviet Russian prison camps, the Siberian gulags. These men made their way south across the Caspian Sea and down into Persia/Iran, then effectively controlled by the Soviets and British, who had invaded from the north and south on the pretext of securing the oil fields and supply lines.
The Shah had made the miscalculation of trying to be neutral when there was no German force immediately adjacent, in contrast to Spain and Portugal. The British already had a grudge against this local ruler who dared tear up their exclusive oil deal in the 1930s. Deposing and making the Shah a prisoner in South African exile until his death, the British and Russians put the man who would be the last Shah on the Peacock Throne: Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The deposed ruler’s son was realistic and took the throne, eventually outlasting the British Empire and building an alliance with the United States to counterbalance the Soviet Russian empire’s continuation of the Great Game.
The young Shah signed a treaty with Moscow and London, then became part of the Allies, ensuring his country would have a seat at the table instead of being on the table to be carved up by the victors. Because of this, Iran was the obvious collection point for Polish soldiers that Stalin did not want to hold in his prison kingdom. The British already had Polish units in England that had escaped the German-Russian pincers. Now new units could be formed, equipped, trained, and employed in the Mediterranean theater of operations.
So, Poles, far from a home they likely would never see again, took in a Syrian Brown bear cub, feeding it condensed milk. As it rapidly grew, the bear behaved as one of the men. He became a part of the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp. He sealed his place in the ranks when he foiled a theft in an ammo dump, waking and seriously objecting to an Arab would-be thief or saboteur. He fit right in, drinking beer and even puffing lit cigarettes before reportedly swallowing them. Then military bean counters and regulations intervened.
There was no authorization for pets to embark in the invasion of Italy. No problem. The bear became Private Wojtek, complete with service number, pay book, and identity papers! He shipped out with his mates and rode into battle in the back of ammunition transport trucks. Then came the battle that immortalized Wojtek as a hero.
The Polish 2nd Corps were tasked to capture key terrain, the mountain massif of Monte Cassino-Monte Cairo, in what proved the final battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek saw the other men of his unit carrying artillery rounds forward by hand to resupply the guns. Suddenly, the bear started picking up and carrying artillery shells forward, shuffling back and forth between ammo dump and gun positions throughout the battle. Oh, there is a naysayer from the unit who, long after the events, claimed the bear was just carrying empty ammunition crates, but that sounds a bit like bitterness by one of the fellows who was shaken upside down by Wojtek on the urging of soldiers messing with new unit members. What we can observe is that the story spread like wildfire and the unit quickly redesigned its official patch or badge to honor Private Wojtek. You see the badge above.
Like working dogs and passenger pidgins, the bear named Wojtek truly performed military service. It is appropriate that a Scottish illustrator would team up with a British-Polish film production team to create an animated film about Wojtek, which they plan to release in 2020, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe.
— Illuminated Films (@IFCLondon) September 11, 2018
Whatever the fortunes of this film project, people honor Wojtek every day in Britain, raising a pint as he did. Beartown Brewery, in Congleton, Cheshire, northern England, has Wojtek as one of its core, perennial
bears beers. How appropriate that a bear who always enjoyed an English pint bottle should be honored with a brew bottled by a younger generation brewery!