During World War II, tens of thousands of Polish soldiers fought to defend and recover their war-ravaged homeland. Their sacrifices are still remembered in Poland, especially the contributions of one particularly hirsute soldier.
The fearless and loyal Private Wojtek traveled with the Polish Army from the mountains of Iran to the battlegrounds of Europe, helping his brothers-in-arms achieve a costly but vital Allied victory in Italy. He never set foot on Polish soil during his lifetime, yet statues honoring Wojtek stand in Poland today, despite the fact that the warrior they honor was neither Polish, nor human: Private Wojtek was a 500-pound brown bear.
In the spring of 1942, a group of weary Polish soldiers and civilians were making their way across the mountains of Persia, in what is now Iran. The previous few years had not been easy on them: First, the Soviets had invaded and annexed the eastern half of their country, while Hitler’s Germany gobbled up the west. Hundreds of thousands of Polish nationals—including entire families of men, women, and children—had been rounded up and shipped off to labor camps in Siberia. But when the tides of war turned against the USSR, the Polish government-in-exile negotiated the formation of a Polish army on Soviet soil under the command of Polish General Władysław Anders. But the Soviets could barely feed their own troops, let alone Anders’ Army and tens of thousands of Polish civilian deportees.
In the summer of 1941, the joint British and Soviet invasion of Iran provided a solution: the Polish soldiers would be transferred to Iran and placed under British command. The Polish civilians would travel with them—by boat and by rail, but mostly on foot. Many died from the cold weather or exhaustion.
By early April 1942, the Polish travelers had crossed the Caspian Sea, but were still over a hundred miles from their destination, a civilian camp near Tehran. They stopped for a much-needed rest near the ancient city of Hamadan, where a group of Persian boys caught the eye of a young Polish civilian, 18-year-old Irena Bokiewicz.
Irena noticed that the boys were playing with something in a sack—something small, brown, and furry. It was a tiny bear cub that one of the boys had rescued in the mountains after a hunter killed its mother. The animal, only a few months old, was scrawny and underfed, much like the boys themselves. A nearby Polish officer, Lieutenant Anaol Tarnowiecki, noticed Irena’s interest in the cub. Swayed perhaps by the adorable bear, or perhaps by the young woman, he offered the boys a few tins of food, a chocolate bar, and a Swiss army knife in exchange for their pet.
Irena brought the cub to the civilian camp near Tehran. The young bear was tiny and struggled to swallow or eat on his own, so Irena and her fellow travellers fed him diluted, condensed milk from an empty vodka bottle. He soon began to grow, as bear cubs tend to do, and eventually Irena realized that she and the other civilians in the camp could no longer care for him. She offered him to the soldiers of Anders’ Army, and the little bear was taken in by the army’s 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers dubbed him Wojtek, the diminutive form of the name Wojciech, a common Polish moniker meaning “joyful warrior.”
Sergeant Peter Prendys was appointed as Wojtek’s principal guardian. The quiet 46-year-old sergeant, soon dubbed “Mother Bear” by his soldiers, truly became the cub’s surrogate mother, wrapping the bear in his army coat on chilly evenings and cuddling him to sleep in their shared tent. Soon, Wojtek graduated from condensed milk to fruit, marmalade, honey, and syrup. But his favorite treat was cigarettes, which he preferred to eat rather than smoke.
As Anders’ Army headed toward Palestine to meet up with British forces, Wojtek grew up playing with Prendys and his other human friends, who taught him to wrestle and salute. He enjoyed lingering in the camp’s kitchen area, where he would happily eat or drink anything the cooks offered him. When he had been a very good bear, the men would give him a bottle of beer or wine, which he would gulp down before staring mournfully into the empty bottle until one of the soldiers took the hint and tossed him another.
Eventually, Anders’ Army reached Palestine and began preparing for a large-scale deployment while they awaited their next assignment. Wojtek was given a large wooden crate to sleep in and allowed free range of the camp, with one exception: the shower tent. The thick-furred bear, born in a temperate mountain climate, was miserable in the heat of the desert, and quickly figured out how to operate the camp’s communal showers to cool himself. All of the water in the camp had to be shipped in, so Wojtek was locked out of the shower tent to keep him from exhausting this precious commodity. One lucky day, during his early morning patrol of the camp, Wojtek discovered the shower tent unlocked and ambled in to enjoy a quick drenching. Inside, he stumbled upon an Arab spy intent on hiding out until he could break into the camp’s ammunition compound. It’s unclear who was more surprised, but in the commotion that followed, the would-be thief was arrested, and Wojtek’s position in the camp climbed from “favorite pet” to “beloved hero.”
By 1943, Anders’ Army had traveled through Iran, Iraq, and Palestine under the command of British Middle East Command. Many of these Polish soldiers, and one 2-year-old Persian brown bear, joined the newly created Polish 2nd Corps, which headed west toward Egypt and later to Italy as an independent part of the British Eighth Army. As the Polish Army continued to move across the Middle East and North Africa, Wojtek stayed with his company, first riding in the cab of a truck and later, as his size increased, in the back of one of the recovery trucks, where he could stretch out or, to entertain himself, climb around on the crane.
But in Egypt in early 1944, when it came time for the Polish 2nd Corps to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, trouble reared its head in the form of military bureaucracy. British High Command did not permit animals to accompany units into combat, and they were certainly not allowed to board troop transport ships. Wojtek’s company tackled the problem head-on and in triplicate, by enlisting Wojtek as a private in the Polish Army. Armed with a new serial number and a paybook, Private Wojciech “Wojtek” Perski (the surname referring to his Persian origins) boarded the transport ship with his company and sailed for Italy.
The Polish Army’s 22nd Artillery Supply Company, including their newest private, joined the Allied efforts in Italy to break through the Axis defenses to reach Rome. In 1944, the Allies’ push forward collided with the German defensive line in the Italian town of Cassino. The focal point of this conflict was a 1,400-year-old Benedictine abbey, Monte Cassino, situated on a hilltop near the town. While the Germans had initially avoided taking up defensive positions in the abbey in an effort to preserve the historical site, Allied leaders became convinced that the Germans were using it as an observation post, and sent in American bombers, flattening the abbey. The Germans had no qualms about occupying the rubble, which provided excellent defensive cover.
For four months, the Allies assaulted the German lines in a series of bloody attacks that ultimately left 55,000 Allied and 20,000 German soldiers dead, in addition to civilian casualties. The Polish 2nd Corps, including Wojtek’s company, arrived a few weeks before the fourth and final Allied assault. It began 11 May 1944, with a massive artillery bombardment from more than 1,600 guns.
The 22nd Artillery Supply Company was assigned to help supply this artillery with ammunition. This was no easy supply run; the men had to drive their trucks, laden with heavy munitions and supply boxes, up narrow mountain roads with numerous steep, hairpin turns. German artillery was focused on this route, so the drivers had to work at night without headlights, following a soldier who scouted the road on foot ahead of the trucks, wearing a white towel around his shoulders to be seen in the near-pitch black. At the artillery positions, the men of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company unloaded their crates as quickly as possible, then headed down the mountain to start all over again. Several drivers were killed when their trucks slipped off the treacherous path and plunged into the gorges below.
Private Wojtek was understandably nervous during his first days at Monte Cassino. Startled by the noise of the constant gunfire and artillery barrages, he hid under cover and clung to his human friends. Soon, however, his curiosity won out, and he climbed a nearby tree in the camp to get a better view of the distant flashes from the enemy lines. Observing his comrades as they moved boxes of ammunition to the trucks, he joined in, standing upright on his hind legs and holding out his front paws. Each box of shells weighed more than 300 pounds and required four men to lift, but Wojtek effortlessly hand-carried box after box to the loading area, even stacking them to make the job easier for the men lifting the boxes onto the trucks. Occasionally, the bear lost interest in this game and wandered off for a nap, but a quick snack slipped to him from one of his friends would soon have him back on his feet. Polish veterans of the Battle of Monte Cassino later proudly reported that Private Wojtek never dropped a single shell. With Wojtek’s help, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company supplied more than 17,000 tons of ammunition to the Allied guns during the battle.
For nearly a week, Allied troops threw themselves against the German defenses. At one point, Polish infantry units cut off from their supply line ran out of ammunition. Unwilling to give up the fight, they threw rocks at the Germans instead. When they reached the hilltop, they overwhelmed the Germans in brutal hand-to-hand combat until their enemy finally raised the flag of surrender. Despite suffering enormous losses, the Allied troops succeeded in capturing Monte Cassino on 18 May 1944. Soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment planted the Polish flag in the ruins, and a cemetery holding the graves of more than 1,000 Polish soldiers can still be seen from the rebuilt Monte Cassino monastery today.
After the battle, Wojtek was promoted to corporal due to his valiant service, and the 22nd Artillery Supply Company honored him by adopting a depiction of a bear holding an artillery shell as their official emblem, wearing it proudly on their uniforms, banners, and trucks. As the end of the war drew near, Wojtek- was sent with the rest of his company to Scotland to begin the process of demobilization. In October 1946, Wojtek found himself in the Winfield Camp for Displaced Persons on Sunwick Farm with other members of the Polish 2nd Corps. Once again, he made himself useful lifting logs and fencing materials for the men working the fields. Most importantly, he lifted the spirits of his fellow Polish refugees, many of whom hadn’t seen Poland since it was divided up by the Germans and the Soviets in 1939. He quickly became a celebrity among the local Scots, who would offer eggs, honey, cigarettes, and the occasional piece of candy to the new arrival. He was even made an honorary life member of the Scottish-Polish Society, an event he celebrated with a bottle of beer.
Wojtek spent just over a year in Winfield Camp with his Polish comrades, but as 1947 drew to a close, the men began to make decisions about their future. Some returned to Poland, a country ravaged by war and now controlled by the Soviet Union. Others moved elsewhere in Europe or participated in resettlement programs offered by the British government. Wojtek’s brothers-in-arms knew that postwar Poland was no place for their friend, so they arranged a British resettlement of his very own, to the Edinburgh Zoo.
Peter Prendys, Wojtek’s original guardian in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, had survived the war and lived with Wojtek in Winfield Camp for their last year together. He rode with his friend for the two-hour journey to Edinburgh in a truck loaned by a local member of the Scottish-Polish Society. Peter led the trusting bear into his new home without incident, his heart breaking at the idea of saying goodbye, but confident that it was the best choice for his surrogate cub.
Wojtek lived for 16 years in Edinburgh. He was most happy when his former comrades would visit, but he also enjoyed interacting with the Scottish crowd, who would throw him cigarettes and call to him in clumsy Polish. He died in 1963 at the age of 22, roughly the average lifespan for his species. Peter Prendys died five years later in London, having been reunited with his wife and one of their children who had survived the occupation of Poland.
Wojtek’s legacy lives on in books, films, memorials, monuments, and the hearts of the Polish and Scottish people. Private donors funded a statue of Wojtek in Krakow, Poland in 2014. A year and a half later, another statue of the war hero was unveiled in Edinburgh, this one funded by the Wojtek Memorial Trust. It features a bronze bear beside a Polish soldier, both standing atop a platform of granite excavated from Poland—a country that Wojtek never saw, but whose citizens never forgot his invaluable service to their cause.