Less than two years old, Private Wojtek of the Polish II Corps was probably the youngest soldier to serve in World War II. Born in Iran, Wojtek was sold to his Polish comrades for a few tins of food, who plied him with beer and cigarettes. All this would be child abuse if it wasn’t for the fact that Wojtek wasn’t a human at all, but a Syrian brown bear. (Which, if you think about it, still makes it animal abuse.)
Wojtek the bear became the mascot of the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company in early 1942 as they were en route from the Soviet Union to Egypt. Port officials at Alexandria refused to load the bear with the rest of the corps when it was sent to reinforce Allied troops in Italy, so the Poles gave Wojtek a name, rank, service number and paybook. By the time they arrived at the front, the 22nd had apparently taught him to carry whole crates of mortar ammunition (Wojtek weighed roughly 220 kg by then). According to Der Spiegel, “in an interview for the documentary on Wojtek, a British veteran recounted how he was taken aback when he suddenly saw a full-grown bear calmly schlepping mortar shells past him during the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, in the spring of 1944.”
When the war was over, Wojtek and the rest of the II Corps were demobilized and the bear found a new home at the Edinburgh Zoo where he lived until 1963. He wasn’t alone in finding a new home. At the end of the war thousands of Soviet citizens and Eastern Europeans were forcibly repatriated to Soviet territory. The men of the Polish II Corps had already been Soviet prisoners—the corps was formed from prisoners the Soviets captured in the partition of Poland—and many of them weren’t going back. More than 100,000 settled in Britain. Some, such as Augustyn Karolewski, visited Wojtek from time to time: “As soon as I mentioned his name, he would sit on his backside and shake his head wanting a cigarette.”
Of course, even with his remarkable story Wojtek’s not the most famous wartime bear. That honor has to go to the World War One mascot of Canada’s Fort Garry Horse, a black bear named Winnie.