Who Brought a Bear to Battle?

Voytek, showing off his sitting skills
Photo Courtesy of the UK Government: Public Domain

Voytek, or Wojtek in Polish, is the name given to a black bear who served as a laborer of sorts for a Polish unit during World War II. He was an honorary and then official member of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.

Voytek's claim to fame was that, according to eyewitnesses, he carried ammunition for his company during the Battle of Monte Cassino -- a long, deadly confrontation in Italy between the Allied and Axis forces. There are stories that somewhere along the line he even caught a spy. This is not unheard of, as animal soldiers are notorious for catching spies.

Voytek was discovered in Iran in 1942 when he was just a cub. For a small fee, a few Polish soldiers bought him from the boy who found him. The soldiers reared the still small and helpless bear in a soldier's style. Before long, Voytek took up the habits of a soldier. When necessary, he saluted. During his off time, he wrestled with his comrades, drank beer and smoked cigarettes. If he had been able to speak, he might have known a handful of Polish swears as well. Fully grown, he was formidable at more than 400 pounds in weight and more than 6 feet in height.

During his lifetime, Voytek traveled from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Italy and lastly Scotland, where he spent the remainder of his days smoking at the Edinburgh Zoo. He went there in 1945, after the war ended and went to the zoo in 1947. Before going to Italy and then later to Edinburgh, he was made an official soldier, so he could travel with his keepers to Italy. Therefore, when he died in 1963, he was an official Polish army veteran.