Weird Wednesdays: The heroic Polish artillery bear

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Troops of the Polish 22 Transport Artillery Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) watch as one of their comrades play wrestles with Wojtek (Voytek) their mascot bear during their service in the Middle East. (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

For some reason, the world has decided to turn bears into these cuddly little beasties that couldn’t harm a fly. The Care Bears, the Berenstain Bears, teddy bears… they all encompass the adorable and innocent early years of childhood.

In reality?

Bears are badass. They will mess you up, royally. Not only can they run faster than a freight train, (despite their tubby-looking figures) but they can and will try to maul you with whatever weapons they have at their disposal, whether it be their teeth, claws or a 100 pound howitzer round.

Yeah, you read that right. Because why stand around arguing about the right to bear arms when you could be arming bears? So, first, a bit of history (if you’ll bear with me a moment).

During World War II in 1939, thousands of able-bodied men were captured, imprisoned and sent off to Soviet Union mining operations during the Nazi invasion of Poland. At that point Hitler and Stalin were still world-domination buddies, and exchanged resources and prisoners in their quest to take over Europe.

However, when Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union in 1941 (which you’ll know is an absolutely terrible strategic move if you’ve ever studied the exploits of previous would-be world conquerors) all bets were off the table. The Soviets officially joined Britain and the US in the ‘We Hate the Axis Club’, and released Polish prisoners from the Soviet mines due to diplomatic pressure from Britain.

Many of the freed prisoners then decided to kick some Nazi butt and went on join the British army. These brave souls were sent down to Iran under the command of Polish commander Władysław Anders, under the official name of the Polish II Corps, and unofficially as Anders’ Army.

In April 1942, on the way to Tehran, the army encountered an Iranian boy carrying a sack. Inside the bag was a Syrian Bear cub, whose mother had apparently been shot by hunters. The soldiers were amused by the cub, and the Lt. Anatol Tarnowiecki gave the boy food in exchange for the animal.

The bear, given to the army’s 22nd Artillery Supply Company, grew quickly on a diet of condensed milk rations fed from a vodka bottle. Christened Wojtek by his fellow troops, the bear enjoyed fruit, honey, marmalade and the occasional can of beer or wine. Like a true soldier, he also subsisted on regularly dispensed cigarettes (though he wouldn’t so much smoke as eat them.)

Wojtek was 500 pounds and 6 feet tall when he reached maturity, wrestling soldiers and being taught to salute his superiors when commanded. The bear even helped capture an Arab spy who had tried sneaking into the camp in the dead of night, terrifying the man and alerting the Polish with his growls.

Wojtek traveled with his unit through Eastern Africa, until Anders’ Army was called to battle the Germans in Italy in 1943. Now if you think that the dorm restrictions on pets are bad, the army’s are even worse-- and trust me when I say that hiding a quarter-ton bear is a little more challenging than concealing a hamster cage. The 22nd Corps, however, found a way around this-- by enlisting Wojtek as a soldier.

Under the rank of ‘Private’, Wojtek was given papers, a serial number and even a payrank (which I’ll assume was in beer), earning him passage to the battle with his crew.

The 22nd, with Wojtek in tow, was promptly sent to the German-occupied monastery of Monte Cassino. The stronghold was a bitter stand to take, and the 22nd was in charge of supplying and firing the large artillery cannons that would break the enemy lines. Each artillery shell was very heavy and required great strength to transport.

During the beginning of the battle, Wojtek was chained to the artillery wagon; however, as he watched his fellow troops transport artillery crates to the cannons, he began to mimic their movements and move crates as well. Unfazed by the smoke and gunfire, the bear helped bring ammunition to the artillery line, reportedly never dropping a single crate.

After a hard battle (aided, of course, by a heroic artillery bear) Monte Cassino was won. In 1947, two years after World War II ended, Wojtek was honorably discharged from the Polish II Corps and began his integration to civilian life.

By that I mean he was sent to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he lived out the rest of his bear days as peacefully as can be, away from gunfire and the chaos of battle. His former Anders’ Army comrades would reportedly visit often, throwing him cigarettes or even jumping into his enclosure for a friendly wrestling match.

Wojtek died in 1963 at the ripe, old bear age of 22 (which is remarkable, considering his diet and drinking habits.) He is memorialized by a bronze statue in Edinburgh and within the official emblem of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company-- a bear holding an artillery shell.

So, remember, kids: Don’t mess with bears, and you can pretty much get away with anything if you have the right paperwork.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing