Wojtek (1942–1963) usually spelled Voytek in English, was a Syrian brown bear found in Iran and adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later officially enlisted as a soldier of the company with the rank of Private and subsequently became a Corporal. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped move crates of ammunition. The name “Wojtek” is a diminutive (Hypocorism) form of “Wojciech”, an old Slavic name that is still common in Poland today and means “he who enjoys war” or “joyful warrior”.
In the spring of 1942, the newly formed Anders Army left the Soviet Union for Iran, accompanied by thousands of Polish civilians who had been deported to the gulags following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During a rest stop near the town of Hamadan while en route to Tehran on 8 April 1942, a group of Polish soldiers encountered a young Iranian boy who had found a bear cub after its mother had been shot by hunters. One of the civilian refugees in their midst, eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz, was very taken with the cub, which prompted lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to purchase the young bear, who spent the next three months in the Polish refugee camp that was established near Tehran, principally under the care of Irena. In August the bear was donated to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, and he was given the name Wojtek by the soldiers.
Wojtek initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. He was subsequently given fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup, and was often rewarded with beer, which became his favourite drink. He later also enjoyed smoking (or eating) cigarettes.
He loved wrestling with the soldiers and was taught to salute when greeted. Wojtek became quite an attraction for soldiers and civilians alike, and soon became an unofficial mascot of all units stationed nearby. With the 22nd Company, he moved to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine and Egypt.
By 1943, the Polish company had reached Egypt and was preparing to reenter the war zone in Italy. The army had strict rules denying pets passage to war zones, so the company did the only thing they could — they made Wojtek an official soldier. Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo were assigned as his caretakers.
As an enlisted soldier of the company, with his own paybook, rank, and serial number, he lived with the other men in tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts, during the Battle of Monte Cassino Wojtek helped by carrying ammunition – never dropping a single crate. In recognition of the bear’s popularity, the HQ approved a depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell as the official emblem of the 22nd Company.
Following the end of World War II in 1945, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland with the rest of the 22nd Company. They were stationed at Winfield Airfield on Sunwick Farm, near the village of Hutton, Scottish Borders. Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press, and the Polish-Scottish Association made him one of its honorary members.
Following the demobilisation on 15 November 1947, Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life, often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, some of whom would toss him cigarettes, which he proceeded to eat because there was no one there to light them for him.
Media attention contributed to Wojtek’s popularity. He was a frequent guest on BBC television’s Blue Peter programme for children. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 21. At the time of his death, he weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) and was over 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.
Among the many memorials commemorating the soldier-bear are plaques in the Imperial War Museum in London and Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as well as a sculpture by artist David Harding in the Sikorski Museum (also in London) and a carved wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby.