Wojtek – A Bear Who Became A Soldier

The most famous corporal of the Polish Armed Forces

A bear became a soldier? Yes! Polish soldiers adopted a little orphaned bear and took good care of him. He returned the favor during the war.

by Piotr Bejrowski


A Bear Joins The Polish Army

Arguably the most unusual soldier to fight in the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 was Wojtek, a bear. Adopted two years earlier in Iran by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, Wojtek became part of the Polish II Corps of General Władysław Anders.

Throughout history, animals have frequently been employed for military purposes, and Wojtek was neither the first nor the last. However, this Syrian brown bear participated in World War II on his own terms, emerging not only as a cherished companion and friend for Polish soldiers but also playing a significant role in the decisive battle of the conflict. His tragic journey – from the death of his mother to a Middle Eastern odyssey, his moment of glory alongside Polish soldiers, and ultimately the sad end of his life in a zoo – symbolizes, in many ways, the tumultuous history of Poland during this period.

Little bear Wojtek and Polish officers. Syria, 1942

Although the Polish army contributed considerably to the fight against the Germans, after 1945, it could not fully enjoy the victory. The Polish state came under the influence of Moscow. A considerable number of soldiers, comprising a significant portion of the II Corps, made the decision to remain in the West. However, they soon realized that life there was not as comfortable as they had anticipated, and they missed their homeland dearly.

How did Wojtek come into the care of Anders’ troops? He was born in late 1941 near Hamadan, Iran. A few months later, he was adopted by soldiers traveling through ancient Persia heading towards Palestine. Along their journey, the convoy encountered a barefoot boy concealing a small bear in a jute bag slung over his shoulder. The bear was barely a few months old and malnourished. His primary caretaker would become Piotr Prendysz, who served as “mother bear” for over five years. Prendysz, born in 1895, was among a group of Poles arrested by the Soviets and exiled to Siberia in the first days of the war. The adoption of the bear was sanctioned by the commander of the 22nd Company, Antoni Chełkowski, who recognized the potential for the bear to boost the unit’s morale.

What were Polish troops doing in this region of the world? In the year of the bear’s birth, key events took place that led to the formation of the Polish armed forces in the East. In 1941, the Sikorski-Mayski Treaty, concluded in London on July 30th, restored diplomatic relations between Warsaw and Moscow and facilitated the release of Polish citizens held in Soviet prisons. Subsequently, in August 1941, an

Wojtek sits in front of a soldier (photo: Imperial War Museum)

agreement was signed, laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Polish Armed Forces in the Soviet Union. Major General Anders, formerly held in an NKVD prison in Moscow, was entrusted with the command of this formation by the Commander-in-Chief. A year later, his army integrated into the Polish Army in the East, culminating in the creation of the Polish II Corps on July 21, 1943.

Wojtek was most likely an orphan found in a mountain cave by a Persian shepherd. Had he not been rescued, he might have faced the grim fate of becoming one of the dancing bears often seen at Middle Eastern fairs. This form of entertainment, though banned, persisted until relatively recent times, with Bulgaria still practicing it in the 1990s. It is not widely known, but these animals were trained by their owners in an extremely brutal way—having their claws removed, forced into unnatural behaviors, given alcohol, subjected to food restrictions, and even having their noses, lips, and palates pierced. Thus, Wojtek’s unexpected adoption by the Polish soldiers significantly altered his destiny for the better.

Little Wojtek was fed with condensed milk from a vodka bottle, but he quickly developed an omnivorous appetite and grew rapidly. Sustaining a nearly quarter-ton animal devouring the equivalent of 300 apples a day posed a considerable challenge for the company stationed in Palestine. Traveling primarily by truck, Wojtek and his caretakers journeyed through Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon. Despite his fondness for beer and cigarettes (which he did not smoke but eagerly consumed), Wojtek found companionship in a large Dalmatian belonging to an English liaison officer. The bear enjoyed a lot of freedom. He attempted to escape a few times and had numerous crimes on his record, such as stealing underwear. However, he was always forgiven. Wojtek once even apprehended an Arab spy in a bathhouse. Crucially, Wojtek possessed a far more amiable temperament compared to Michał, another bear adopted by the 16th Lwów Rifle Battalion, who eventually found a permanent home in the Tel-Aviv Zoo.

Wojtek the bear playing with a Polish soldier

A Bear That Carried Ammunition

In December 1943, the company was transferred to Egypt. On February 13, 1944, along with Chełkowski’s entire unit, the bear was embarked onto the ship MS Batory, departing from Alexandria bound for the Italian port of Tarentum. As the Italian campaign loomed, Wojtek emerged as an extraordinary soldier. Equipped with his own service number, military booklet, and cigarette allowance, he was fully integrated into the unit. Wojtek already had his service number, military booklet, and cigarette allowance. For three weeks before the decisive Polish attack at Monte Cassino (“Operation Diadem”), the supply company undertook the critical task of transporting ammunition to artillery positions. This operation was fraught with risk, as the cargo had to be delivered to frontline positions amidst German fire, exclusively under cover of darkness. Remarkably, Wojtek acclimatized to the cacophony of exploding bullets, often climbing trees to observe nearby explosions. Witnessing his Polish comrades at work, he decided to assist them. Standing upright on his hind legs, he hoisted 40-kilogram ammunition crates and ferried them to designated spots near the ammunition depots. Wojtek’s contribution was invaluable, he did not miss a single bullet and provided invaluable support for the unloading. He worked on his own terms until the last day of the battle. He also took the initiative and ordered breaks when he felt like it. Over the course of the battle, Wojtek’s company transported an impressive array of supplies, including approximately 17,000 items for Polish and British troops, 17,000 tons of ammunition, 1,200 tons of fuel and 1,100 tons of food.

Finally, on May 18, 1944, at 10:20, the Polish flag hung atop  the ruins of the Benedictine monastery on Monte Cassino. Wojtek’s actions were commemorated with a special badge featuring a marching bear holding a shell in its paws. It was certainly the most glorious element of the 22nd Company’s uniform. The tales of Wojtek’s exploits quickly became the subject of numerous anecdotes, eagerly recounted to curious Allied soldiers. John Clarke, a British soldier who had fought alongside the Polish forces in the crucial battles along the Gustav Line, fondly recalled one such story: “Suddenly, a large bear appeared, walking upright on its hind legs, emerging from the trees. It seemed as though the bear was carrying something in its paws […] The bear approached the rear of the gun carriage and carefully placed the artillery shell it was carrying on the ground. After completing this task, the bear retreated back into the forest, only to reappear moments later, bearing another shell in its paws.”

Wojtek in a Polish military car

While Wojtek’s primary interest lay in the contents of food containers, many accounts have been preserved about Wojtek’s habit of helping his friends and helping them carry sticks or wood. However, there were instances of aggression towards horses and donkeys, which his companions swiftly intervened to restrain. Although these animal instincts seldom surfaced, precautions were taken to tether Wojtek in the absence of his guardians, hence the characteristic collar evident in most contemporary photographs. In addition to helping around the camp, he also provided moments of entertainment.  On one occasion, he amused onlookers by climbing onto a self-propelled crane parked by the roadside, showcasing his acrobatic skills and momentarily halting the troops’ march towards northern Italy. However, there were instances when Wojtek’s curiosity led him into unexpected encounters, such as the time he inadvertently wandered into a camp of Indian troops. Startled by his sudden appearance, they nearly mistook him for a threat and nearly shot him.

After the last battle of the Italian campaign, Wojtek joined the victorious Poles on holiday to the Adriatic beaches. He particularly enjoyed water games, which was not necessarily to the liking of other vacationers. The 22nd Company’s favorite pastimes were invariably wrestling (several against one) or engaging in pretend hand-to-hand combat with the bear standing upright on his hind legs; the 180 cm bear towering over them. In September 1946, after the war had ended, Wojtek and his entire company were listed as official passengers aboard a ship sailing from Naples to Scotland. As noted by soldier’s biographer Aileen Orr, the presence of Wojtek and his companions “was a brighter side of everyday military life, giving people the opportunity to break away from the problems that oppressed them.”

Wojtek with one of his guardians in Scotland, post-war years

A Bitter Peace

Wojtek found his new home in the Winfield camp near Glasgow, residing in a wooden shed. Remarkably, he adapted swiftly to the harsh winter of 1946/1947, faring much better than his human companions. Swiftly endearing himself to the local populace, each of Wojtek’s appearances in the area sparked enthusiasm among Scottish children. Recognizing his significance, the local Polish-Scottish Society bestowed upon him the honor of life membership. When Polish soldiers were completely demobilized in 1947, Wojtek’s fate became the subject of intense deliberation among his comrades. Faced with two unfavorable options—placing him in a zoo or shooting him—it was ultimately decided that he would be transferred to the Edinburgh Zoo. However, it was stipulated that the facility would provide Wojtek with a permanent home. On November 15, 1947, with the assistance of Prendysz and a soldier named Jan, Wojtek was transported to the zoo. Upon the unfastening of his chain, Wojtek adhered to an old custom by tenderly licking his friend’s face. Years later, the then-director of the zoo reflected that he “never felt more sad when he saw an animal placed in a cage, who loved to play and enjoy his freedom so much.”

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Scotland became home to over 50,000 Polish residents. However, by the early 1950s, this number dwindled significantly to just 10,000 individuals. Some opted to return to their families in Poland, while others, unable to reconcile with life under communist rule, sought refuge in other countries. The largest contingent migrated to England, where employment opportunities were more readily available. Among those who departed was Prendysz, whose farewell to Wojtek was particularly poignant. Settling in London, he pursued work as a construction worker. After enduring years of separation, Prendysz’s wife was eventually permitted to leave a refugee camp in the Middle East and reunite with him. Tragically, Prendysz passed away in 1968, marking the end of an era and the enduring bond between man and bear.

Five years earlier, on December 2, 1963, at the age of twenty-two, Wojtek passed away. Afflicted by poor health, he was euthanized, and his remains were cremated. Having spent the last sixteen years in a Scottish zoo, the question arises: was it truly his second home, or was it akin to a prison? Unaccustomed to contact with other animals and constrained by limited space, despite receiving numerous visits and maintaining unwavering popularity, Wojtek never truly felt at ease in Edinburgh. As the years passed, his strength waned, and he increasingly retreated to the solitude of his cave. Only the sound of Polish voices could coax him out, and he would accept cigarettes solely from his Poles.

Unveiling of Wojtek’s statue in Sopot, 1 September 2019 (photo: 606485484; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wojtek’s legacy has been preserved from obscurity, his story resonating deeply in Poland and capturing the interest of history enthusiasts worldwide. In 2015, a monument featuring a bear alongside a Polish soldier was unveiled in Princess Street Gardens park in central Edinburgh, bearing the poignant inscription: “In memory of the Polish men and women who fought For Your Freedom and Ours.” Three years later, a monument to General Stanisław Maczek, a hero of World War II, was unveiled in the Scottish capital. His post-war fate epitomizes the sad fate of soldiers who could not or did not want to return to communist Poland. The commander of the 1st Armored Division was deprived of Polish citizenship, and as he was not entitled to benefits, he resorted to various menial jobs. For a long time he was a bartender and a gatekeeper of a sports club in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in London, General Tadeusz “Bór” Komorowski made a living as an upholsterer, and General Stanisław Sosabowski worked as a warehouseman. The heroic bear shared the struggle of his adopted compatriots – the war was over, but it did not bring the freedom they sought.


Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin