As the tide of World War II begins to turn, a group of Polish soldiers make their way through the Middle East. Their military uniforms might be a common enough sight in the region, but there’s something quite extraordinary about their party. Accompanying them on their journey is a Syrian brown bear – and that’s not all. This creature is called Wotjek, and he loves to chug beer and smoke cigarettes with the rest of the men. And he’ll even follow them into battle, when the time comes.
Although it might sound like something from a movie, the story of Wotjek the bear is completely true. Orphaned by a violent act, the initially cute and cuddly critter soon grew into a 440-pound beast, standing eye-to-eye with his fellow soldiers at six feet tall. But despite his ferocious appearance, he proved a loyal fighter.
But how did a lonely bear cub grow up to become a hero, helping the Allies to victory on one of the most important battlefields of World War II? Well, it’s an adventure that crosses nations and oceans. And it involves the unlikely bond between an orphaned creature and a band of soldiers fighting far from home.
Away from the battlefield, Wotjek was as mischievous as the next soldier, wrestling and begging for cigarettes or beer. But when push came to shove, he proved himself a vital asset to the men of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. Years later, he’s remembered for his remarkable military career and his role in the decisive Battle of Monte Cassino.
Of course, you might find the concept of an animal fighting in a human conflict much too strange to contemplate. But Wotjek was far from the only creature to find his way into a war zone. Three decades earlier, a baboon named Jackie had taken a similarly active role on the battlefields of World War I.
Adopted by the Third South African Infantry, Jackie was initially supposed to serve as a mascot, although he turned out to be an effective lookout. So much so, in fact, that he joined his unit on the front line during the 1916 Battle of Passchendaele. And even though he lost most of his leg in a shrapnel explosion, he went on to recover. He even earned a medal in recognition of his service.
Meanwhile, a war horse by the name of Warrior was battling against the horrors of the Western Front. Accompanying his owner General Jack Seely, he survived machine gun fire and some of the most treacherous battles of World War I. He found himself trapped within a blazing building on two separate occasions, but he managed to escape both times.
Earning a reputation as “the horse the Germans couldn’t kill,” Warrior ultimately survived the war. And in 1918 he was sent home to live out his years in peace on the Isle of Wight. In 2014 the four-legged hero was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal, an accolade often dubbed the animal’s Victoria Cross.
Meanwhile, just a year before Witjek’s own antics on the battlefield, a duck named Siwash was making a name for herself in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Back then, of course, it was unusual for any females – regardless of species – to find themselves on the front line. But according to reports, the Marines who’d adopted this feathered fighter initially believed her to be a male.
At the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 Siwash is said to have fought against a rooster from the Japanese side, ultimately sustaining serious injuries as the conflict progressed. But thankfully, she survived to enjoy her retirement at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. By this point, the duck had developed a taste for beer, although this habit isn’t thought to have been connected to the liver failure that ultimately claimed her life.
Given her traumatic experience and the fact that she kept the company of soldiers, it’s perhaps not surprising that Siwash had a taste for hard living. And she wasn’t the only one. Today, Wotjek is remembered as a bear who loved nothing more than joining his fellow soldiers for beer and cigarettes. But how exactly did this ursine hero come to join the Polish military?
Wotjek’s story began in the Alborz Mountains, a range that extends from Azerbaijan to Khorasan in northern Iran. There, in his natural habitat, the Syrian brown bear had a presumably normal start in life. But the events that would follow were so incredible that even now they’re difficult to believe.
While Wotjek was still just a cub, his mother were killed by hunters, leaving him orphaned. And though bears aren’t known to make particularly good pets, a local boy decided to take the lonely animal in. At the time, he must have seemed cute and fluffy, a far cry from the lumbering beast he’d eventually become.
But the boy didn’t get a chance to regret his decision. Before Wotjek could grow up, a group of soldiers who’d go on to join the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps came passing through. By then it was 1942 – one year after the Nazis had invaded the U.S.S.R., prompting the Soviets to change sides in World War II.
Back in 1939 the Soviet Union had invaded Poland, sending the men of the 22nd Company to prison camps in the U.S.S.R. But when wartime allegiances shifted in 1941, the soldiers were then set free. They were then left to make their own way across Iran, traveling in the direction of Iraq.
By the time they reached Iran, the soldiers were no doubt exhausted after many months of travel. And when they encountered Wotjek – whose young carer was struggling to meet his growing needs – they must’ve recognized a kindred spirit. So, they bartered with the boy, eventually purchasing the animal for a handful of coins, meat, chocolate and a utility knife.
Incredibly, the soldiers initially tried to keep Wotjek hidden from their superiors. Filling a vodka bottle with milk, they managed to forge a makeshift teat from an old rag, feeding their new pet in secret. But, of course, it wasn’t long before the commanding officers of the 22nd Company discovered the truth.
In a surprising turn of events, however, the officers didn’t send Wotjek away. Instead, they decided to boost morale by allowing the men to keep the bear as a mascot. To help him adjust to military life, the creature was assigned a keeper who taught him how to act like a real soldier.
Before long, Wotjek had learned how to raise his front paw as a salute to his superiors. And that wasn’t the only way in which he’d mimic his human companions. Like his fellow soldiers, he developed a love of cigarettes, although reports differ as to whether or not he would actually take a puff before devouring them.
Wotjek also took to sipping beer alongside the other men. Given his sheer size at this point, he would’ve been terrifying if intoxicated. But thankfully his bulk prevented this from happening. Speaking to the BBC in 2011, former soldier Wojciech Narebski – who once helped care for the bear – explained, “For him one bottle was nothing, he was weighing 200kg [440 pounds]. He didn’t get drunk.”
When he wasn’t smoking or drinking, Wotjek would often wrestle his companions for fun – suggesting an impressive amount of bravery on behalf of his fellow soldiers. And on occasion, he’d be caught indulging in even more riotous behavior. While in Iraq, for example, the cheeky bear is said to have stolen a line of women’s underwear.
Another time, Wotjek allegedly raided the company’s food stores on Christmas Eve, preventing them from cooking their traditional feast. But despite the bear’s antics, it’s clear that the men were very fond of their unusual companion. And before long, he proved himself to be just as worthy as his fellow soldiers.
In 1943 the 22nd Company found themselves in what was, at the time, known as Mandatory Palestine. With his large frame and thick fur, Wotjek struggled in the desert heat of Gaza and took to cooling off in the camp’s showers. And it was there that he encountered a local man who was attempting to smuggle ammunition out of the camp.
Terrified by the sudden appearance of a bear, the man screamed, alerting the rest of the camp to his presence. And after the intruder was arrested, Wotjek was treated to two beers – not to mention as many showers as he could take. By this point, the animal had become an integral part of the team.
But while Wotjek and the 22nd Company were bonding, the horrors of World War II continued to rage on. And eventually, the men were called upon to join the fighting in Italy. At first, they assumed that the loyal bear would go with them, but British officials in Egypt attempted to derail these plans.
Wotjek was apparently refused passage on a British ship to Italy on account of being a bear. So, his friends supposedly took the unusual step of officially initiating him into the Polish military. Equipped with his own pay book and service number, the new private was finally permitted to hop on the vessel.
Narebski recalled to the BBC, “He had a pay book. He didn’t receive money, but was officially a Polish soldier.” But don’t worry – the men of the 22nd Company didn’t take Wotjek for granted. According to reports, he was compensated in food, sometimes even getting extra rations because of his great size.
For better or worse, Wotjek was now on his way to do battle in the Italian campaign. But the long journey seemed to do little to dampen the bear’s spirits. While traveling in a vehicle along the Adriatic coast, Narebski claims, the troublesome creature leapt out and paid a visit to a nearby beach.
Narebski recalled, “On the beach there were many Italian girls taking a bath. You can imagine what happened. I said, ‘Girls, don’t be afraid. This bear is good.’” But while Wotjek may have frightened the odd civilian, he also played a very important part in comforting his fellow soldiers, who’d found themselves in yet another strange land.
Narebski went on, “He was very quiet, very peaceful… For people who are far from families, far from their home country, from a psychological viewpoint, it was very important.” But Wotjek’s role within the 22nd Company was far more than that of just a gentle mascot. And during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 his mettle was well and truly tested.
According to reports, Wotjek had traveled with the company to the Winter Line. This was a string of Italian and German military barricades that stretched across the breadth of Italy. There, a battle that would alter the course of the war was in full swing, as the Allies fought to seize the defenses from the Axis powers.
Towards the end of the fighting, the 22nd Company – along with Wotjek – entered the fray. And at first, the story goes, the frightened bear attempted to hide from the piercing noise of exploding shells. Climbing a tree, he gained momentary respite from the chaos – and a clear view of the battlefield beneath him.
From his hiding place, it’s said that Wotjek spotted his human friends struggling to carry heavy crates of artillery across the battlefield. So, he made the decision to get involved. Before long, he’d hopped down from his perch and approached his companions, holding his paws out to take the cumbersome load.
Although this might seem like an unlikely development, it’s possible that Wotjek knew that mimicking humans would win him treats. Or it could have been that he simply wanted to lend a hand to his companions. Either way, at least one witness claimed to see the bear shifting vital artillery across the battlefield.
Unsurprisingly, the sight of the six-foot Wotjek hefting ammunition along the front line provoked shock and awe in onlooking soldiers. And even decades later, some were still telling the strange tale. But although he was fearsome, the bear was obviously good luck. With his help, the men of the Polish II Corps went on to capture the abbey of Monte Cassino, striking a blow against the Nazis.
Later, the emblem of the 22nd Company was changed to feature an artillery-laden bear in recognition of Wotjek’s efforts. And as his legend spread, officials in Poland hoped to install the now-famous creature in a zoo. However, the soldiers – who had no desire to return to their Soviet-controlled homeland – had grown attached to their four-legged friend.
Instead, Wotjek accompanied the men of the 22nd Company to Scotland after the war, where they stayed for a time in a temporary settlement in Berwickshire. But after a while, they all began new lives of their own, leaving the bear in need of a permanent home. Eventually, he found his way to Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived out the rest of his days in relative peace.
From time to time, some of Wotjek’s old comrades would visit him in the zoo, where it’s said that he’d still perform an impressive trick. Apparently, whenever the bear heard someone speaking in Polish, he would respond by raising his paw in a salute. Loyal to the last, he remained in captivity in Scotland until he passed away in 1963.
But Wotjek’s story didn’t end there. In 2015 a group of people from the heroic bear’s home country joined forces with Scots to raise the funds for a memorial. Today, it stands on a slab of Polish granite in West Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. Speaking to The Independent in 2018, Narebski explained, “Wotjek could not return to Poland. But he is staying on Polish soil.”
But the statue isn’t the only thing ensuring that this remarkable tale is remembered. In 2011 a documentary entitled Wotjek: The Bear That Went To War was released, featuring narration by the thespian Brian Blessed. And currently, plans are in the works to create an animated movie about the creature’s adventures. Now, a whole new audience will find out what happened when an orphaned cub was taken on a most unlikely journey.